The New Statesman endorses the Alternative Vote

Why you should vote Yes to AV on 5 May.

In this week's Easter double issue (out today in London and the rest of the country tomorrow), the New Statesman endorses the Alternative Vote (AV). We argue that AV, though not a proportional system, would represent a significant improvement on first-past-the-post. Here, for Staggers readers, is this week's leading article in full.

Were one founding a new democracy, it is unthinkable that first-past-the-post (FPTP) would be adopted as the electoral system. It penalises small parties, wastes votes and encourages politicians to concentrate their policies on swing voters in marginal seats. FPTP might have been tolerable in 1955, when Labour and the Conservatives won 96 per cent of the vote and 99 per cent of the seats. But it is unfit for a three-party era in which political loyalties are more fluid. In the last election, Labour and the Tories won just 65 per cent of the vote but ended up with 87 per cent of the MPs. It was with good reason that post-apartheid South Africa, the former eastern bloc countries and the young democracies of Latin America all chose to adopt proportional models of voting, rather than FPTP.

On 5 May, for the first time ever, the British people will have a chance to reject FPTP and replace it with the Alternative Vote (AV). AV is not the system that we would have chosen. In some circumstances, it can lead to even more disproportional outcomes than FPTP. As the Jenkins commission on electoral reform noted, had the 1997 election been held under AV, Labour's majority would have swelled from 179 to 245. A genuinely proportional system, of the kind we support, remains the more desirable option.

But AV would represent a significant improvement on FPTP. It would lead to fewer wasted votes, greatly reduce the need for tactical voting and ensure that most MPs are elected with at least 50 per cent of the vote in their constituency. By requiring candidates to win second-preference votes, it would also encourage the parties to engage with all voters. The adoption of AV would enable the creation of a more pluralistic political culture, in which parties emphasise their similarities, rather than merely their differences.

The relentlessly negative approach of the No to AV campaign has only highlighted the paucity of the arguments for FPTP. In their desperation to preserve the status quo, the opponents of reform have claimed that AV would benefit the British National Party, that it would be "too expensive" and that it would prove to be too "confusing" for the electorate. In reality, no system is better at keeping extremists out; AV would not require expensive voting machines; and a system that is already widely used by businesses, charities and trade unions would not prove too complex for the electorate.

AV is not a panacea and, taken alone, it will not repair Britain's broken democracy. Reform of the voting system must be combined with the creation of a fully elected second chamber and the introduction of a written constitution. An increase in the number of directly elected mayors, as Andrew Adonis writes on page 74, is another measure that could address the democratic deficit. But it would be careless to miss an opportunity to reject the voting system that has done so much to discredit the UK's political system.

Those such as the former Social Democratic Party leader David Owen who have argued for a No vote in the hope of securing a more proportional system in the future are playing a dangerous game. As the Chancellor, George Osborne, has said, a No vote on 5 May would close the question of electoral reform "for the foreseeable future".

Not only would FPTP be preserved but it would be strengthened by a victory for the No campaign. A Yes vote, by contrast, would increase the possibility of a subsequent transition to proportional representation (PR). The claim that there is no appetite among the public for reform will have been exposed as a myth.

If the next election results in a hung parliament, the Liberal Democrats will no doubt demand a referendum on PR as the condition of any coalition. But that is a battle for another day. For now, the priority is to deliver a death blow to the unfair, undemocratic and unrepresentative FPTP system. It is for this reason that we encourage progressives of all parties to vote Yes to AV on 5 May.

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Boris Johnson is out of control, but Theresa May is too weak to punish him

Her weary “Boris is Boris” remark after his intervention suggests she couldn’t care less.

Only younger Tory MPs asked last weekend: “Why did Boris do it?” Why did he write a 4,000-word essay on his demands for Brexit, just six days before Theresa May would make a definitive speech on the government’s plans? The older ones knew why: he hadn’t been the centre of attention for a while and wanted to remind people of his existence and that he remained in the game. A charitable fringe of pro-Brexit MPs thought he did it because he is a sincere Leaver, motivated by a desire to ensure the democratically expressed will of the British people is discharged. However, theirs was not a view widely shared.

Others thought they could trace the motivation for Johnson’s intervention back to the events of June 2016. “The reputation of Vote Leave at the moment is a pile of shit,” one told me, referring to the campaign whose figurehead Johnson had been. The metaphor became even more pungent: “Going back to the £350m is like a dog returning to his vomit.” The figure, plastered on Vote Leave’s battle bus, was the amount Johnson and his friends claimed would be available post-Brexit to spend weekly on the NHS. It was quickly rubbished, with Nigel Farage’s Leave.EU campaign dismissing it outright. It was a gross, not a net, figure; it included the EU rebate, which ceases to exist when our contributions stop. David Norgrove, head of the UK Statistics Authority, has repudiated the assertion; and there are many other institutions, such as our tertiary education sector, that will lose EU money and expect the government to make it up. That Johnson should mention this fantasy figure in his article has bemused even some of that dwindling band of MPs who still see him as a possible future leader.

Although the piece was in Johnson’s familiar idiom, others detected in it the influence of Vote Leave’s former director, Dominic Cummings. Further evidence came in a bout of aggressive tweeting from Cummings after the pack turned on Johnson. An MP who worked with Vote Leave told me, “Cummings has returned. He is a narcissist. If he can’t get his own way, then he prefers to destroy: that was how he operated all through the campaign.”

Cummings, a former aide to Michael Gove, is like Johnson a publicity addict: both thirst to see their names in the media. He disappeared from view after Gove’s failed leadership bid, when Gove had to promise supporters that Cummings would not work in Downing Street if he won, so toxic was Cummings’s reputation after Vote Leave. Gove was quoted as supporting Johnson’s “vision”, a further sign of Cummings’s involvement. Within 24 hours, Gove’s friends denied that he supported any such thing but then, as Cummings went into action, Gove confirmed his backing for Johnson.

Johnson’s intervention did not grate with everybody. Some Brexiteer Tories, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, felt that after a party debate dominated by ministers favouring a Brexit that looks like continued membership of the EU by other means – notably Philip Hammond – it was time the Foreign Secretary spoke out for something representing a cleaner break. Some also felt that, given his office, he had a right to have a public say on the matter, after months in which May had done her best to ignore him.

Her weary “Boris is Boris” remark after his intervention suggests she couldn’t care less, and suggestions he might resign are unlikely to concern her unduly. His remarks were not against party policy, but MPs trusted by Downing Street were at pains to stress that his views would have no effect on the content of the Prime Minister’s Brexit speech, for there had “never been any chance of Theresa going off-piste”.

Johnson’s intervention was, however, unhelpful to him and to May. Colleagues saw it as the consequence of his having spent the summer steaming with frustration because he had lost ownership of the Brexit issue. He has also, according to friends, developed a thinner skin of late, and feels wounded by frequent attacks on him in the media pointing out his disengagement, his laziness, his ambition and his generally poor impression of a foreign secretary. For so long the goût du choix of many younger colleagues, he now finds they take him no more seriously than most of his older ones do. He once took for granted that in a leadership contest MPs would choose him as one of the two candidates for a plebiscite of the membership; now few think that likely.

Too many colleagues have taken the Telegraph article as further proof of his inability to be a team player, and of his unfitness for higher office – which was why Gove dropped him last year. Referring to Johnson’s time as mayor of London, a colleague says: “He was a good chairman, when he had seven or eight deputy mayors. But he can’t do what a minister is supposed to do, which is to grasp a policy and deliver it.” Another highlights his skewed sense of priorities and the lack of a deft political touch. “Isn’t it astonishing that just as he should be sorting out all consular and diplomatic help for our people in the West Indies after the hurricane, he finds time to write a 4,000-word newspaper article? As usual, it’s not about what’s good for the country. It’s what he thinks is good for him.”

Yet, as Ken Clarke swiftly pointed out, Boris Johnson has shown that however much he annoys May, she is too damaged and vulnerable to sack him. When Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, started mocking him as a “back-seat driver”, May was seen to be presiding over a cabinet whose most senior members were squabbling. Johnson’s self-indulgence also meant that the expectation surrounding May’s Florence speech, already considerable as she struggled to rebuild her credibility and that of her Brexit policy, became even harder to satisfy. 

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left