Miliband, Cable and Johnson make the case for AV

"Special guest" Alan Johnson joins the charge against first-past-the-post.

It was the Ed, Vince and Alan show at this morning's Yes2AV event. Miliband and Cable were joined by a "special guest", Alan Johnson, who looked notably more relaxed than he did as shadow chancellor.

Johnson, one of Labour's most committed electoral reformers, made some of the most persuasive and original arguments we've heard against first-past-the-post. He pointed out that no young democracy (South Africa, the former eastern bloc, former Latin American dictatorships) had chosen to adopt the system.

He also remarked that David Cameron was content to put his name to a bill that will lead to the election of police commissioners using the Supplementary Vote, a variant of AV.

"I believe first-past-the-post should be left where it belongs on the race track," he concluded.

Vince Cable picked up the theme of hypocrisy, mischievously observing that if the Conservative Party had used FPTP for its leadership elections, "I would now be conducting my amicable, coalition-like discussions on immigration with David Davis." Elsewhere, he noted that Boris Johnson, a "vehement opponent" of the Alternative Vote, had not complained about the use of the Supplementary Vote in the London mayoral elections. The message of the No campaign is "do as we say, not as we do", he concluded.

Cable also found time to ridicule the suggestion that AV is some kind of "alien import", pointing out that it is commonly used throughout Britain by charities, businesses, trade unions and political parties. And he rejected the "bizzare" claim that AV will benefit the BNP (Nick Griffin's party even opposes the system), acidly noting that "the people who run the BNP may not be very bright, but at least they've worked out what's in their self-interest".

But while Johnson and Cable mounted an effective rebuttal operation, we heard little about the merits of AV itself. As I've noted before, one of the biggest problems for the Yes campaign is that many of its own supporters aren't keen on the system. Johnson, for instance, has previously confessed: "I'll support AV, but my heart won't be in it in the same way as if it was the proper thing."

As long-term supporters of proportional representation, Johnson and Cable are far happier making the case against first-past-the-post than they are making the case for AV.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.