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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Two referendums have revived the Tories and undone Labour

The Scottish vote enabled the Conservatives' rebirth as the party of the Union; the Brexit vote has gifted Theresa May a project to reunite a fragmented right.

In the final week of the Scottish independence referendum campaign, as the Union appeared in peril, David Cameron pleaded with voters to punish his party rather than Scotland. “If you are fed up with the effing Tories, give them a kick,” he said. Cameron’s language reflected a settled view: the Conservatives were irredeemably loathed by Scots. For nearly two decades, the party had no more than one MP north of the border. Changing the party’s name for devolved contests was discussed.

Since becoming Conservative leader, Theresa May has pursued a hard – she prefers “clean” – Brexit strategy that Scots voted against and the Conservatives have achieved a UK-wide poll lead of 20 points.

Yet rather than regressing, the Scottish Conservatives have resurged. On 22 April, a Panelbase poll put them on 33 per cent in Scotland (a rise of 18 points since 2015). A favoured Labour barb used to be that there were more pandas (two) in Scotland than Tory MPs (one). The poll would leave the Tories with 12 seats and Corbyn’s party with none. Tory aides confess that they were surprised by the figures but declare there are “no limits to our ambitions” in Scotland.

The roots of this recovery lie in the 2014 independence referendum. The vote, and the SNP’s subsequent landslide victory in the 2015 general election, realigned Scottish politics along unionist and nationalist lines. Led by Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservatives have ably exploited the opportunity. “We said No. We meant it,” the party’s official slogan declares of Nicola Sturgeon’s demand for a second referendum. Under Ruth Davidson, the Tories have already become the official opposition at Holyrood.

Labour is torn between retaining unionists and winning back nationalists. It has been punished for its equivocation, as it is being punished over its confused response to Brexit. In April 2016, the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, said that it was “not inconceivable” that she could back independence if the UK voted to leave the EU (and earlier suggested that MPs and MSPs could be given a free vote). Jeremy Corbyn recently stated that he was “absolutely fine” with a second referendum being held.

“For us it’s a badge of honour but there are some people in Scottish Labour who are quite queasy about that word [unionist] and I think Jeremy Corbyn would be very queasy about it,” Adam Tomkins, a Conservative MSP for Glasgow and public law professor, told me. “Don’t forget the Northern Ireland dimension; we’ve all seen the photos of him rubbing shoulders with leading republicans. The Scottish Union is very different to the Irish Union but the word migrates.”

The irony is that Corbyn allies believed his anti-austerity, anti-Trident platform would allow Labour to recover in Scotland. Yet the pre-eminence of the national question has left it in a political no-man’s land.

In contrast to the rest of the UK, Scots backed Remain by 62 per cent to 38 per cent. Far from protecting EU membership, as David Cameron had promised in the referendum campaign, the preservation of the Union now threatened it. Theresa May has since yielded no ground, denying Scotland both a second independence referendum on terms dictated by the SNP and single market membership. But polls show no rise in support for independence.

Conservative aides believe that Sturgeon miscalculated by immediately raising the prospect of a second referendum following the Leave vote last June. Families and communities were riven by the 2014 contest. Most had little desire to disrupt the uneasy peace that has prevailed since.

Nor are the politics of Brexit as uncomplicated as some assume. Thirty-six per cent of SNP supporters voted Leave and more than a third of this bloc have since turned against independence. As elsewhere, some Remainers have accepted the result and fear the instability that secession would cause. Scotland’s trade with the UK is worth four times as much as that with the EU. Davidson, who was one of the most forceful advocates for Remain, says that pursuing independence to counter the effects of Brexit would be “stubbing your toe to then amputate your foot”.

Theresa May, who spoke of the “precious” Union when she became Prime Minister, has devoted great attention to Scotland. Cabinet ministers are instructed to develop a “Scottish plan” when they formulate policy; buildings funded by the UK government now bear its insignia. Davidson’s influence was crucial to May’s decision to retain the 0.7 per cent foreign aid commitment – an emblem of compassionate conservatism.

After a decade of SNP rule, Tory aides believe that their rival’s poor domestic record, most notably on education, is “catching up with them”. More than a year has elapsed since the Scottish Parliament passed new legislation. “We’ve got a government that simply isn’t very interested in governing,” Tomkins said. “I thought that Nicola [Sturgeon] would change that. I was wrong.” What preoccupies the SNP is the constitutional question.

Shortly after the remarkable Scottish polls, a new survey showed the Tories on course to win the most seats in Wales for the first time since 1859. For some former Labour supporters, voting Ukip is proving a gateway drug to voting Conservative.

Two referendums have now realigned politics in the Tories’ favour. The Scottish vote enabled their rebirth as the party of the Union; the Brexit vote has gifted May a project to reunite a fragmented right.

Before the 2015 general election, Labour derided the Tories as a southern English force unworthy of their official name: the Conservative and Unionist Party. Partly through accident and partly through design, May and Davidson are now reclaiming it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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