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.

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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