AV and the leadership conundrum

What referendum voting tells us about Nick Griffin, Nigel Farage, Alex Salmond and Ed Miliband.

The campaign ahead of next Thursday's referendum on the Alternative Vote has produced some decidedly odd bedfellows.

The sight of Labour's Alan Johnson and the Green MP, Caroline Lucas, sharing a podium with Ukip's Nigel Farage was disconcerting enough, but it was nothing compared to the pre-Easter affair that brought together Prime Minister David Cameron and "Labour's big beast" (© all newspapers) John Reid. In a campaign characterised by bogus and lacklustre arguments on both sides, the Cameron-Reid thesis that AV threatens the fabric of British democracy was a new low.

Another oddity has been the failure of party leaders to lead. As was soon noticed when we released some "top lines" from our New Statesman/ICD poll on Thursday, British National Party voters were "defying" Nick Griffin's leadership and backing AV by 72 to 18 per cent. It was less noticed that Ukip voters were rejecting AV (64 per cent against, 35 per cent for) at exactly the time Farage was appearing on stage with the Yes camp.

 

Some supporters of the No campaign seized on the former figures as evidence that AV does indeed benefit the BNP. That's not quite the case. Once again they have conflated the party with those inclined to support it.

Another interpretation of the 72 per cent figure is that BNP-inclined voters are making their decision on AV based on self, not party, interest. Griffin is against AV because it gets him no nearer representation at Westminster; BNP supporters are in favour because it allows them to register their protest (however objectionable it is to the rest of us) but still have a say by backing a mainstream party as a second preference.

There's an inherent logic here which explains why the vast majority are unwilling to follow the BNP leadership. It is the same logic that explains why 63 per cent of Greens, too, back AV, albeit in line with their leadership. This is not about left and right.

It is only surprising that Ukip supporters aren't using the same thought process. But perhaps they consider themselves not as a fringe party but as a major force awaiting a breakthrough. In the 2010 general election, Ukip garnered 919,486 votes, giving it by far the biggest share of all the minor parties.

The Scottish National Party provides a penultimate example of leadership and support base at odds. Alex Salmond has agreed to back AV despite some misgivings (he doesn't think it goes far enough and worries that multiple votes on 5 May will take the spotlight off Holyrood elections on the same day), but 53 per cent of likely SNP voters will put a cross in the box marked "No" on Thursday, with only 30 per cent voting Yes to AV.

Which leaves us with the strange case of the Labour Party. Long since split on the merits of Nick Clegg's "miserable little compromise" – and on electoral reform more broadly – Labour is effectively unleadable on the issue. Political expediency may have prompted Gordon Brown to back an AV referendum just before last year's election, but it was hardly a full-throttled endorsement – his deathbed conversion was so close to his own political expiry that the necessary legislation failed to make it on to the statute book in time.

Long-held positions on electoral reform among MPs and the party in the country alike meant that AV was always going to be the ultimate free vote; nothing whippable here. Nevertheless, that Miliband has failed to convince his party's followers to back him – or, at the very least, his inability to move polling numbers incrementally – is a concern. Among those certain to vote, there remains a 5-point advantage for the Noes.

Perhaps he can turn all those undecided Labour supporters – a sizeable 12 per cent of those certain to vote and 18 per cent of all respondents – into pro-AVers between now and Thursday. If he can, he might just cause, six days out, a major upset and reap the political dividend.

More likely, the Labour vote will remain split, marginally favouring the status quo. While his discomfort won't be as a acute as Clegg's, Miliband will nevertheless have questions to answer.

The kind of unholy alliance that paired Cameron with Reid helps explain away some of this, but not all.

Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

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Michael Dugher interview: "A remarkable achievement" for Jeremy Corbyn to be doing so badly

In his first interview since announcing his departure, the Labour MP and former shadow cabinet minister takes aim at the left - and his own side's failings.

On the morning of 18 April, as news broke that Theresa May would make a surprise announcement, Michael Dugher was on the phone to his old friend Tom Watson. By chance, Labour’s deputy leader was “the person who had said most consistently that there would be an early election,” Dugher recalled. “I thought it was likely but once they decided not to have it at the same time as the locals I thought that ship had sailed.”

Two days after May revealed that a snap election would be held, the 42-year-old Barnsley East MP and former shadow cabinet minister announced that he would stand down. Labour allies and lobby journalists mourned the loss of one of Westminster’s characters: a pugnacious northerner full of authentic loathing of the Tories and contempt for his party’s hard-left.

When I met Dugher in his parliamentary office four days later, he told me that he longed to see more of his family (he has three children aged 11, nine and four) but also that the last two years had been “thoroughly miserable”. The former Brown spin doctor lamented: “Opposition is always really, really hard. People who like opposition and skip into the chamber every day, I kind of wonder whether all the lights are on ...  The only point of being in opposition is to try and get into government.” He would trade his seven years in parliament, he told me, for seven days on the backbenches in government.

Born into a working class family in Erdlington, a Doncaster mining village, Dugher hails from Labour’s “old right” - a tradition antithetical to that of Jeremy Corbyn. Like other standard-bearers such as Tom Watson and John Spellar (all former trade union officials), Dugher is pro-Trident, pro-NATO and devoted to the politics of power, rather than protest.

Four months after he became shadow culture secretary under Corbyn (having served as shadow transport secretary under Ed Miliband), Dugher was sacked for “disloyalty”. Corbyn privately cited a New Statesman article in which Dugher argued against a “revenge reshuffle” targeting supporters of Syrian intervention.

Ever since, he has warned that Labour is drifting remorselessly away from power. Though he insisted that electoral defeat was not inevitable (“Politics is wild and unpredictable. Who knows what could happen?”), he added: “You’d have to have a screw loose not to think things are pretty tough. I noticed when Jeremy addressed the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] he didn’t announce the key seats we’d need to take off the Tories to form a Labour government. I thought that was ominous.”

He continued: “It is a remarkable achievement for the leadership to have taken a catastrophic situation in Scotland and made it quite a lot worse. We seem to be doing worse in Wales ... We’ve gone backwards amongst every demographic, every region of the country. Jeremy is behind Theresa May on managing the NHS! It’s quite a special achievement to put all of that together in a short period of time. Hats off to Jeremy and Seumas [Milne], Diane [Abbott] and John [McDonnell]. That’s pretty special.”

Some Corbyn allies privately suggest that the Labour leader could retain office even after a heavy defeat (as Neil Kinnock did in 1987 - though he gained 20 seats). "If Jeremy loses the general election he’s got to go," Dugher said. "The election’s started, I want Labour to do as well as possible but if Labour lost again, particularly if we did worse than last time, it would be ridiculous and an act of profound self-indulgence and vanity to consider staying on in those circumstances.

"I don’t know what his office are so defensive about. They think Jeremy’s going to win. Jeremy’s office should have a bit more faith in him to win the election and then the issue won’t arise."

He added: "The left have always been in the fortunate position of being able to blame the moderates, the centre for when we’ve lost. But whenever we’ve won, they’ve banked it, saying anyone would have won. 'Jeremy Corbyn could have in 1997' - not sure that’s the case, actually. For the first time, they are going to be put to an electoral test themselves: they’ve got the leadership, it’s Jeremy’s shadow cabinet, it will be his manifesto, the public are fairly clear about what Jeremy believes in and the direction of the party, so let’s see how it does electorally.”

Dugher ridiculed the suggestion that party disunity and a hostile media were to blame for Labour's woes. “I recognise that disunity does not help. But the reason why we are so far behind in the polls, it comes down to very simple things: it’s about leadership, leadership is the dominant issue at every general election.

“The idea that Labour might do badly because of Michael Dugher’s tweets, someone who nobody has bloody heard of, rather than Jeremy Corbyn, who is standing to be prime minister, is just for the birds, it’s the politics of excuses.”

Dugher added: “We’ve had a Tory press forever and a day ... They’re a lot less powerful than they were. The Sun will never be able to claim it won anything now, it isn’t like 1992. And yet they [Corbyn supporters] use it as an excuse, it’s just deranged.”

He derided the pro-Corbyn sites The Canary and SKWAWKBOX as "total bollocks" and recalled tweets claiming YouGov was biased towards the Tories. "It’s a member of the British Polling Council! Have these people been smoking something? They should just quit the excuses.

"When I saw a [Momentum] demonstration outside the New Statesman, and you had a beautiful look of bemusement on your face as much as anything, and I just thought 'the left are demonstrating against the New Statesman!' Is the New Statesman now part of the Tory press? What do they want, Pravda?"

But Dugher, who managed Andy Burnham’s 2015 leadership campaign, conceded that it was “no good moderates blaming Corbyn”. Labour members, he said, were “lured to Corbyn out of desperation. What we offered didn’t inspire, it wasn’t radical, it was more of the same. I am as guilty as everyone else.” He insisted that he was not pessimistic about Labour’s future, singling out Rachel Reeves (“the biggest brain in the House of Commons”), Chuka Umunna (“incredibly talented”) and Dan Jarvis (“I knew him when he was in the army and I was at the MoD, a great talent for the future”) for praise.

Dugher is not a man who will struggle to entertain himself outside of Westminster. He delights in sport, cooking (tweeting photos of his homemade curry), karaoke (unlike most, he really can sing) and sharing his Beatles obsession (his office includes an Abbey Road sign and a framed Yellow Submarine cover). “I know but I’m not going to tell you yet,” he said of his future plans.

As Dugher prepared to meet fellow MPs for leaving drinks in Strangers’ Bar, I asked whether he would ever stand again. “I’m a big believer in never say never,” he replied. “I’m very proud of the very small contribution I played in previous Labour governments.

“Unlike Jeremy and Seumas and others, who have no idea about government, who learned about socialism in expensive private schools, my politics was because of where I was from. I was born into the politics of Labour because I grew up in a pit village in the strike ... There was a lot of poverty when I was a child, I have very strong memories of that. That’s made me who I am and that’s why representing that working class constituency, ex-pit villages, I’m really proud of that.”

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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