The myth of AV and the BNP

The No to AV campaign’s nonsense continues.

The BNP bogeyman is the favoured weapon of the No to AV campaign. Its latest campaign video focuses on the potential power of "unpopular fringe parties" to have undue influence over results in certain constituencies.

"The people who vote for the unpopular fringe parties could end up having the deciding vote," warns the video's voiceover, above an ominous soundtrack. "In over 30 constituencies at the last election, BNP voters could have decided which candidate won the seat. It isn't right."

The main thing that isn't right, however, is No to AV's claim that BNP voters could have decided the results in more than 30 constituencies.

The video warns that in some areas the BNP votes outnumber the majorities of the winning candidate. The accompanying press release lists the 35 seats where "BNP votes" have "the greatest change [sic] of swinging an election".

This is a statement which, as well as being misspelled, is more than a little disingenuous.

One of the constituencies listed is Hampstead and Kilburn, which was carried by Glenda Jackson with a tiny majority of 42. With a turnout of 52,822, under AV the winner would have required a total of 26,411 votes or more (provided every voter had listed a preference for every candidate). The Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem candidates got 17,332, 17,290 and 16,491 votes, respectively.

The BNP, however, got a whopping 328 votes. Even if they voted en masse for another candidate, the mainstream candidates would still be a good 8,000 votes short of the required amount. In other words, "BNP votes" will have barely any influence at all, never mind swing the election. Despite No to AV claims that AV will see parties pandering to BNP voters, Jackson will not be shoving anti-immigrant propaganda through the letter boxes of Hampstead's leafy suburbs just yet.

It's a similar story in Sheffield Central. Labour won with 165 more votes than the Lib Dems. The BNP's 903 votes are significant in such a tight election. But not nearly as significant as the 6,414 votes cast for Conservative, Green, Ukip and independent candidates. The preferences of BNP voters in Sheffield Central cannot swing the election – Tory and Green votes can.

Only in Dagenham could "BNP votes" alone push a candidate above the 50 per cent threshold – as the graphic in the video suggests would happen under AV – giving the Labour MP Jon Cruddas a larger majority. So, let's give the video a more accurate headline: "Under AV, the people who vote for the unpopular fringe parties could end up having the deciding vote – in Dagenham."

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What Donald Trump could learn from Ronald Reagan

Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement.

“No one remembers who came in second.” That wisdom, frequently dispensed by the US presidential candidate Donald Trump, came back to haunt him this week. Trump’s loss in the Iowa Republican caucuses to the Texas senator Ted Cruz, barely beating Senator Marco Rubio of Florida for second place, was the first crack in a campaign that has defied all expectations.

It has been a campaign built on Trump’s celebrity. Over the past eight months, his broad name recognition, larger-than-life personality and media savvy have produced a theatrical candidacy that has transfixed even those he repels. The question now is whether that celebrity will be enough – whether a man so obsessed with being “Number One” can bounce back from defeat.

Iowa isn’t everything, after all. It didn’t back the eventual Republican nominee in 2008 or 2012. Nor, for that matter, in 1980, when another “celebrity” candidate was in the mix. That was the year Iowa picked George H W Bush over Ronald Reagan – the former actor whom seasoned journalists dismissed as much for his right-wing views as for his “B-movie” repertoire. But Reagan regrouped, romped to victory in the New Hampshire primary and rode a wave of popular support all the way to the White House.

Trump might hope to replicate that success and has made a point of pushing the Reagan analogy more generally. Yet it is a comparison that exposes Trump’s weaknesses and his strengths.

Both men were once Democrats who came later in life to the Republican Party, projecting toughness, certainty and unabashed patriotism. Trump has even adopted Reagan’s 1980 campaign promise to “make America great again”. Like Reagan, he has shown he can appeal to evangelicals despite question marks over his religious conviction and divorces. In his ability to deflect criticism, too, Trump has shown himself as adept as Reagan – if by defiance rather than by charm – and redefined what it means to be “Teflon” in the age of Twitter.

That defiance, however, points to a huge difference in tone between Reagan’s candidacy and Trump’s. Reagan’s vision was a positive, optimistic one, even as he castigated “big government” and the perceived decline of US power. Reagan’s America was meant to be “a city upon a hill” offering a shining example of liberty to the world – in rhetoric at least. Trump’s vision is of an America closed off from the world. His rhetoric invokes fear as often as it does freedom.

On a personal level, Reagan avoided the vituperative attacks that have been the hallmark of Trump’s campaign, even as he took on the then“establishment” of the Republican Party – a moderate, urban, east coast elite. In his first run for the nomination, in 1976, Reagan even challenged an incumbent Republican president, Gerald Ford, and came close to defeating him. But he mounted the challenge on policy grounds, advocating the so-called “Eleventh Commandment”: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Trump, as the TV debates between the Republican presidential candidates made clear, does not subscribe to the same precept.

More importantly, Reagan in 1976 and 1980 was the leader of a resurgent conservative movement, with deep wells of political experience. He had been president of the Screen Actors Guild in the late 1940s, waging a campaign to root out communist infiltrators. He had gone on to work for General Electric in the 1950s as a TV pitchman and after-dinner speaker, honing a business message that resonated beyond the “rubber chicken circuit”.

In 1964 he grabbed headlines with a televised speech on behalf of the Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater – a bright spot in Goldwater’s otherwise ignominious campaign. Two years later he was elected governor of California – serving for eight years as chief executive of the nation’s most populous state. He built a conservative record on welfare reform, law and order, and business regulation that he pushed on to the federal agenda when he ran for president.

All this is to say that Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. By contrast, Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement – which enhanced his “outsider” status, perhaps, but not his ground game. So far, he has run on opportunism, tapping in to popular frustration, channelled through a media megaphone.

In Iowa, this wasn’t enough. To win the nomination he will have to do much more to build his organisation. He will be hoping that in the primaries to come, voters do remember who came in second. 

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war