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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It's time the SNP's terrible record in government was exposed

Do not expect the SNP to apologise for these failings anytime soon. They do not really need to, so successful have they have been in creating a new paradigm in Scottish politics.

The only suspense in Scotland’s elections lies in who comes second. So complete is the Scottish National Party’s dominance that the Scottish Conservatives’ manifesto is called ‘A Programme for Opposition’, summing up a campaign in which the Tories and Labour scrap for second while the SNP waltz to victory.

Nicola Sturgeon says it is a matter of when, not if, there is another referendum on Scottish independence; should the UK vote to leave the EU in June, the SNP is likely to push for another independence vote. But all the debates over constitutional questions miss a bigger point: Scotland already has one of the most powerful devolved administrations in the entire world. The SNP has ruled in Holyrood for nine years, and had a majority for the last five. Yet the SNP’s record, particularly for the most disadvantaged in society whom it claims to speak for, is dire.

Let’s begin with higher education. This, after all, is the area in which the SNP are proudest. Five years ago, Alex Salmond declared: “The rocks will melt with the sun before I allow tuition fees to be imposed on Scotland’s students.” He was so enamoured with the SNP’s policy of maintaining free tuition north of the River Tweed that he unveiled them on a commemorative stone at Heriot-Watt University on his last day as First Minister in 2014.

Scotland is by far the worst country in the UK to be a disadvantaged student. The richest Scottish students are 3.53 times more likely to enter university at age 18 via UCAS than the poorest ones, compared with 2.58 in Northern Ireland, 2.56 in Wales and 2.52 in England. Fewer than one in ten young people from the most disadvantaged areas begin to study towards a degree by the age of 20. And the problems are actually getting worse: just 8.4 per cent of entrants to Scotland’s elite universities came from the poorest communities in 2014/15, down from 8.8 per cent the previous year.

Rather than being beneficiaries of free university tuition, poor Scots have actually been victims of it. Protecting Scottish students from university tuition fees has resulted in a £20 million transfer from disadvantaged students to middle-class ones, according to the policy analyst Lucy Hunter Blackburn. Free tuition has been funded by cutting student grants. And, for all Sturgeon’s disingenuous rhetoric that she would not have been able to afford university with the tuition fees south of the border, protecting Scottish students from tuition fees has been funded by loading debts onto the poorest Scottish students. There is an iron law in Scottish universities: poorest kids graduate with the most debt. Students from households earning less than £34,000 typically graduate with between £4,000 to £5,000 more debt than those from families earning more.

The situation in primary and secondary schools is little better. The Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy shows standards of reading, writing and numeracy for 13-14-year-olds all declining since 2011. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the biggest decrease in both writing and numeracy attainment aged 13-14 has been among disadvantaged students.

Educational inequality cripples Scotland from an early age. At the age of five, the vocabulary of the poorest quintile of students is 13 months behind the richest quintile in Scotland. Poor children aged five perform worse than those in England; the gap in cognitive development between children from less well-off backgrounds and others is also bigger in Scotland. Disadvantaged children are the real victims of the SNP’s failure to make good on its pledge, in 2007, to reduce average class sizes in primary schools to 18; they are now 23.3. And this, in turn, can be traced back to the political choice to prioritise spending on free tuition fees over other areas that would help disadvantaged children far more. Between 2010 and 2013, school spending in Scotland fell by five per cent in real terms from 2010 to 2013 while, in England, it rose by three per cent in real terms between 2010 and 2015. Perhaps that explains why, after Easter, 17 schools in Edinburgh  remained closed because of safety concerns, leaving pupils to be taught in other schools and temporary classrooms instead.

The SNP is not only failing Scots in schools and universities. The number of working age adults living in absolute poverty (after housing costs) rose by 80,000 between 2010/11 and 2013/14; the number of children living in absolute poverty also rose by 30,000, and the number of pensioners by 20,000. Pockets of crippling intergenerational deprivation remain too frequent in Scotland: life expectancy in Glasgow is a year lower than in any other part of the UK. Indeed, life expectancy across Scotland is almost two years younger than the rest of the UK, even though Scotland has the highest health expenditure per head of any UK country.

It is a microcosm of wider problems with NHS Scotland. The SNP’s targets for waiting times for hospital admission have been repeatedly missed, including its “guarantee” of a 12-week maximum wait for planned treatment for inpatients. Patients are more likely to have to wait over 31 days for cancer treatment in Scotland than England, and the percentage waiting so long in Scotland has been rising since 2014. There are also grave health inequalities: those in most deprived areas are 2.4 times more likely to have a heart attack than those in the most affluent areas.

Yet perhaps the most shameful part of Scotland’s health record lies in mental health. Patients are 8 per cent more likely to have to wait over 18 weeks for psychological therapy based treatment than in England. Since July 2014, NHS Scotland has also repeatedly missed its targets on children’s mental health.

Do not expect the SNP to apologise for these failings anytime soon. And they do not really need to, so successful have they have been in creating a new paradigm in Scottish politics, in which the independence debate is the only game in town. But none of this should obscure the truth that the SNP have been in government, and with huge power, for nine years. They have floundered - and underprivileged Scots have been the biggest victims of all.

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.