“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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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.