“Vote Yes to damage Cameron”. A winning message?

Peter Mandelson and Alan Johnson urge Labour supporters to vote Yes to AV to hurt David Cameron.

With the Alternative Vote badly behind in the polls, Labour's big beasts have turned negative. In an interview in today's Independent, Peter Mandelson dispenses with high-minded arguments for reform and urges Labour supporters to vote Yes to "damage" David Cameron. He says:

Labour supporters need to use their noddle and ask themselves why Cameron is fighting so hard for a No vote. He's fighting for his party's interests but also to protect his own leadership. Labour has a chance to inflict damage on both. Cameron has been forced to intervene, to turn it into an intra-coalition partisan scrap in order to mobilise Tory support and Tory-supporting newspapers.

It's an important intervention, not least because the referendum is likely to be determined by Labour votes. As I've pointed out before, while Lib Dem voters are overwhelmingly in favour of reform (83 per cent to 17 per cent) and Conservative voters are overwhelmingly opposed (84 per cent to 16 per cent), Labour voters are split exactly down the middle (50 per cent to 50 per cent).

The Prince of Darkness may hold little sway over the electorate but his call to give Cameron a bloody nose, if taken up by the wider Yes campaign, could yet shift some votes in the final days of the campaign.

It's a message echoed today by Alan Johnson, who tells the Guardian: "What Labour voters need to ask is who wants them to vote No most. It's the Tories. They are bankrolling the No campaign because they know they have most to lose from a fairer voting system."

It won't be long before the Yes campaign is accused of diving into the gutter but there's an important distinction to be made between negative campaigning, a legitimate political tactic, and telling outright lies, as the No to AV campaign has.

In reponse to Mandelson, we can expect the 125 Labour MPs calling for a No vote to point out that they, and not the Tories, would now suffer under AV. The most recent YouGov poll on the subject showed that while Labour would win a majority of 60 under first-past-the-post, this would fall to 34 under AV. But such psephological considerations are of little importance to the Machiavellian Mandelson. As he points out, a Yes vote would lead to Cameron being branded a serial loser by his own side:

Labour people need to question why Cameron is suddenly so desperate for a No vote. Because a Yes vote would send the Tories into convulsions and greatly weaken him. Right-wing Tories have already been gravely warning it would make Cameron a "lost leader". That is something Labour supporters should bear in mind as they consider their vote.

History teaches us that the Tories rarely tolerate losers for long.

Add to this the growing fear of an early election under FPTP, which a cash-strapped and policy-free Labour Party would struggle to win, and a Yes vote starts to look like the rational choice for Labour tribalists. It remains to be seen, however, whether all of this is enough to offset the party's overpowering loathing for Nick Clegg.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.