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
Show Hide image

Want to beat Theresa May? First, accept that she's popular

The difficult truth for the centre and left, and advocates of a new party, is that people don't "vote for the Tories reluctantly".

An election campaign that has been short on laughs has been livened up by a modest proposal by an immodest man: the barrister Jolyon Maugham, who used to write about tax for the New Statesman as well as advising Eds Miliband and Balls, has set out his (now mothballed) plans for a new party called Spring.

The original idea was a 28-day festival (each day would be celebrated with the national costumes, food and drink of one of the European Union’s member states) culiminating in the announcement of the candidacy of Spring’s first parliamentary candidate, one Jolyon Maugham, to stand against Theresa May in her constituency of Maidenhead. He has reluctantly abandoned the plan, because there isn’t the time between now and the election to turn it around.

There are many problems with the idea, but there is one paragraph in particular that leaps out:

“Like Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty, Labour’s left and moderates are bent on one another’s destruction. No one knows what the Lib Dems are for – other than the Lib Dems. And we vote for the Tories reluctantly, lacking an alternative.”

Even within this paragraph there are a number of problems. Say what you like about Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty but it seems hard to suggest that there is not a fairly large difference between the two – regardless of which one you think is which – that might perhaps be worth engaging with. There are fair criticisms of the Liberal Democrats’ uncertain start to this campaign but they have been pretty clear on their platform when they haven’t been playing defence on theological issues.

But the biggest problem is the last sentence: “We vote for the Tories reluctantly, lacking an alternative”. A couple of objections here: the first, I am not sure who the “we” are. Is it disgruntled former Labour members like Maugham who threw their toys out of the pram after Corbyn’s second successive leadership victory? If you are voting for the Tories reluctantly, I have invented a foolproof solution to “voting for the Tories reluctantly” that has worked in every election I’ve voted in so far: it’s to vote against the Tories.  (For what it’s worth, Maugham has said on Twitter that he will vote for the Liberal Democrats in his home constituency.)

I suspect, however, that the “we” Maugham is talking about are the voters. And actually, the difficult truth for the left and centre-left is that people are not voting for Theresa May “reluctantly”: they are doing it with great enthusiasm. They have bought the idea that she is a cautious operator and a safe pair of hands, however illusory that might be. They think that a big vote for the Tories increases the chance of a good Brexit deal, however unlikely that is.

There is not a large bloc of voters who are waiting for a barrister to turn up with a brass band playing Slovenian slow tunes in Maidenhead or anywhere in the country. At present, people are happy with Theresa May as Prime Minister. "Spring" is illustrative of a broader problem on much of the centre-left: they have a compelling diagnosis about what is wrong with Corbyn's leadership. They don't have a solution to any of Labour's problems that predate Corbyn, or have developed under him but not because of him, one of which is the emergence of a Tory leader who is popular and trusted. (David Cameron was trusted but unpopular, Boris Johnson is popular but distrusted.) 

Yes, Labour’s position would be a lot less perilous if they could either turn around Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity ratings or sub him out for a fresh, popular leader. That’s one essential ingredient of getting the Conservatives out of power. But the other, equally important element is understanding why Theresa May is popular – and how that popularity can be diminished and dissipated. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

0800 7318496