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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What Brussels can learn from the Italian referendum

Matteo Renzi's proposed reforms would have made it easier for eurosceptic forces within Italy to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

The Austrian presidential elections can justifiably be claimed as a victory for supporters of the European Union. But the Italian referendum is not the triumph for euroscepticism some have claimed.

In Austria, the victorious candidate Alexander van der Bellen ruthlessly put the EU centre stage in his campaign. “From the beginning I fought and argued for a pro-European Austria,” he said after a campaign that saw posters warning against “Öxit”.

Austrians have traditionally been eurosceptic, only joining the bloc in 1995, but Brexit changed all that.  Austrian voters saw the instability in the UK and support for EU membership soared. An overwhelming majority now back continued membership.

Van der Bellen’s opponent Norbert Hofer was at an immediate disadvantage. His far right Freedom Party has long pushed for an Öxit referendum.

The Freedom Party has claimed to have undergone a Damascene conversion but voters were not fooled.  They even blamed Nigel Farage for harming their chances with an interview he gave to Fox News claiming that the party would push to leave the EU.

The European Commission, as one would expect, hailed the result. “Europe was central in the campaign that led to the election of a new president and the final result speaks for itself,” chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas said today in Brussels.

“We think the referendum in Italy was about a change to the Italian constitution and not about Europe,” Schinas added.

Brussels has a history of sticking its head in the sand when it gets political results it doesn’t like.

When asked what lessons the Commission could learn from Brexit, Schinas had said the lessons to be learnt were for the government that called the referendum.

But in this case, the commission is right. The EU was a peripheral issue compared to domestic politics in the Italian referendum.

Alberto Alemanno is Jean Monnet Professor of EU Law and an Italian. He said the reforms would have been vital to modernise Italy but rejected any idea it would lead to an Italian Brexit.

“While anti-establishment and eurosceptic actors are likely to emerge emboldened from the vote, interpreting the outcome of the Italian referendum as the next stage of Europe’s populist, anti-establishment movement – as many mainstream journalists have done – is not only factually wrong, but also far-fetched.”

Renzi was very popular in Brussels after coming to power in a palace coup in February 2014. He was a pro-EU reformer, who seemed keen to engage in European politics.

After the Brexit vote, he was photographed with Merkel and Hollande on the Italian island of Ventotene, where a landmark manifesto by the EU’s founding fathers was written.

This staged communion with the past was swiftly forgotten as Renzi indulged in increasingly virulent Brussels-bashing over EU budget flexibility in a bid to shore up his plummeting popularity. 

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker even publicly reprimanded Renzi for demonising the EU.

Renzi’s vow to resign personalised the referendum. He gave voters a chance to give him a bloody nose when his popularity was at an all-time low.

Some of the reforms he wanted were marked “to be confirmed”.  The referendum question was astonishingly verbose and complex. He was asking for a blank cheque from the voters.

Ironically Renzi’s reforms to the constitution and senate would have made it easier for the eurosceptic Five Star Movement to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

For reasons best known to themselves, they campaigned against the changes to their own disadvantage.

Thanks to the reforms, a Five Star government would have found it far easier to push through a “Quitaly” referendum, which now seems very distant.  

As things stand, Five Star has said it would push for an advisory vote on membership of the euro but not necessarily the EU.

The Italian constitution bans the overruling of international treaties by popular vote, so Five Star would need to amend the constitution. That would require a two thirds majority in both houses of parliament and then another referendum on euro membership. Even that could be blocked by one of the country’s supreme courts.

The Italian referendum was closely watched in Brussels. It was hailed as another triumph for euroscepticism by the likes of Farage and Marine Le Pen. But Italians are far more likely to be concerned about the possibility of financial turbulence, which has so far been mildly volatile, than any prospect of leaving the EU in the near future.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv.com.