Tag Archives: labour-party

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 12:  Jeremy Corbyn is announced as the new leader of the Labour Party at the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre on September 12, 2015 in London, England. Mr Corbyn was announced as the new Labour leader today following three months of campaigning against fellow candidates ministers Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham and shadow minister Liz Kendall. The leadership contest comes after Ed Miliband's resignation following the general election defeat in May. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Brexit: if you think Corbyn is the problem, you haven’t been paying attention

I don’t think I’ve ever been as appalled by UK politics as I am at this point. That the Leave campaign won the referendum on a pack of lies is a fact in this post-fact world that even its own leaders have implicitly acknowledged by their equivocations, downcast faces and vanishing acts. We are in the midst of undoubtedly the worst financial crisis since 2008, and the level of racist attacks appears to have skyrocketed, but the political and media class have locked themselves into Westminster to focus on their intrigues and petty rivalries. The journalists I follow on Twitter have never been more delighted by the Tory and Labour leadership crises, pigs in shit blithely ignoring the outside world as if it was an unwelcome distraction from the main event. Only Nicola Sturgeon and Tim Farron have shown a shred of political leadership since Friday. It has been gobsmacking to watch, and utterly repugnant.

While acknowledging that it is part of the problem, I don’t feel I have much to add in terms of analysis of the current state of the Conservative Party. A bunch of overgrown schoolboys have played around in politics as if it were nothing more than a game, and now appear to be waking up to the fact that the stakes were in fact very real. I don’t know how it will all play out for the simple fact that I have consistently underestimated Boris Johnson’s ability to survive from political crises of his own making. I don’t have any analysis of why this is; I’ve never understood his charms I’m willing to accept at this point that there are supernatural forces at play here and that only a beheading, stuffing the corpse with garlic and burying it at a crossroads has any chance of stopping him being elected and remaining Prime Minister for the next 50 years. I mean, he survived that Boris Bus debacle – how bad does it have to get?

On Labour, I have a little more to say. It has become painfully apparent over the referendum campaign that Jeremy Corbyn simply isn’t up to the job. He is incapable of commanding respect amongst the PLP, incapable of thinking strategically, incapable of making a good speech and incapable of seizing a political opportunity when it lands on his plate. The problem is, leaving aside the facts that a) there is no guarantee that they will end up with someone more capable, and b) the party has demonstrated it is incapable of any degree of unity for years now, I don’t think you can look at those results last Thursday and conclude that Corbyn is even Labour’s biggest problem. What we witnessed was a party that was incapable of reaching out to its own core communities outside of the major metropolitan areas scattered across England and Wales.

I’m grateful to John Harris’s reportage from around the country, showing the depth of alienation and utter contempt that people in the poorest and most deprived communities across the country have for Westminster politics. What we saw on Thursday, was those people flicking Westminster a massive V-sign. Yes, a minority have fallen for the Brexiteers’ lies and even turned to outright racism. But for the most part, it appears to have been as prosaic as the fact that if large swathes of the country aren’t seeing the (very real, very significant) economic benefits that the UK enjoys from immigration, free movement of people and its membership of EU, they are likely to see very little downside to voting to get rid of it all. They’re wrong, and I guarantee they will come to regret it as the economy tanks and Westminster opts to force them to bear the brunt, but I can understand the feeling all to well.

That it has come to this ought to be a wake up call. To his credit, it seems pretty clear to me that Jeremy Corbyn understands this, and understands that without a significant and meaningful redistribution of wealth the mood in those communities is only going to turn uglier. But it is equally clear that a significant number of Labour MPs don’t and see the solution lying purely in triangulation. It is plain to see that for an awful lot of Labour politicians, the solution lies now in adopting a string of anti-immigration and anti-free movement policies regardless of the bad economic case – just as long as they don’t look as punitive and nasty as UKIP. We’re in the scary situation right now where it is becoming apparent that the Tories are now busily building the case for a Norwegian-style relationship with the EU – where we accept free movement, the imposition of EU regulation and pay roughly the same as we do now but get none of the democratic rights we’ve taken for granted – while what noises we have coming from Labour is that free movement is unacceptable to them. With UKIP now a very real threat in their heartlands, the triangulators are prepared to make the Tories look like wishy-washy liberals when it comes to immigration – presumably in the full knowledge that this will only encourage UKIP and the Tories to push even further to the right.

Triangulation is not a new thing – when it comes to economic policy, it’s got us in a lot of the mess that we now find ourselves after all. But when it comes to immigration, it takes on an all new terrifying dynamic. We’ve already seen that a scary number of racist individuals and groups have seen the referendum result as a starting gun for a campaign of terror and intimidation (again, to be clear, I’m not saying all Leave voters are racist – just that all racists are Leave voters who now believe 52% of the country agrees with them). Imagine how bad that will get if we start seeing the sort of Dutch auction on immigration policy being proposed belligerently by the likes of John Mann and in more velvet tones by the likes of Tom Watson.

And of course, it almost goes without saying that it is simply not the case that this is an automatic vote winner. The SNP haven’t hoovered up Labour support in Scotland by adopting an anti-immigrant position – quite the opposite. Where people do see the economic benefits of immigration, anti-immigrant sentiment is way down. It wasn’t Jeremy Corbyn who persuaded Islington, one of the most deprived boroughs in the country, to support Remain by 75%; it was the daily experience of living in an area with high immigration.

If Jeremy Corbyn had spent the last two months going around the country calling for England’s more deprived communities to better reap the economic benefits of the EU and immigration than they do at present (which to be fair to him he did say, sotto voce), then there’s at least a chance he could have turned it around. But it wasn’t just him. It certainly wasn’t a position being championed by Labour In – dominated as it was by centrists in the party. And while Jeremy Corbyn voluntarily gave up his opportunity to share platforms with David Cameron and use it to press him on this matter, it was the position of all the candidates who stood in last year’s Labour leadership election to adopt the same self-defeating no-platform policy.

I’ve been talking about Labour, but to be frank, this is the Lib Dems’ failing as well. While they don’t have the same platform in deprived northern communities that Labour enjoys, they too should have made this case. And if Tim Farron’s welcome stance to stand in the next election on a position of remaining a member of the EU is to reach out beyond the party’s metropolitan base, he too needs to be making the case for redistribution of wealth. This policy will prove a mistake if it ultimately amounts to little more than a plea for business as usual; the City has to be made aware that there is a price that it needs to pay.

Where do we go now? I have no idea. The whole situation is a bloody mess and while I’m sceptical that the markets can wait as long as Labour and the Tories want to get their acts together, we at least have a period during which the rest of us can allow the referendum result to sink in. I don’t think the United Kingdom is going to survive this. I wouldn’t especially begrudge Scotland for leaving us, and the only thing stopping me from saying the same about Northern Ireland is the fear of what might happen if the unionist communities there feel they are being abandoned to their fate. My hope is that the political system of what country remains will be able to crawl out of the quagmire that it is in now, but I’m very scared that the situation is going to get much worse, and much more violent, before we finally turn a corner.

Lordi

Labour’s headbangers: rebels without a cause

There’s a curious subset of democratic reform campaigners who maintain that the number one most significant reform we could make to our voting system would be to introduce a “none of the above” option. Apparently, at a stroke, this would solve all our problems as politicians face up to their massive unpopularity.

I am, it is fair to say, sceptical. But one thing I will give them is that this does seem to be the theme of our age. Opting out is what we do in modern society. We are all Pontius Pilate now.

This, it would appear, now extends to the significant elements of the Labour Party. After getting themselves into a mess at the start of the summer, agreeing to abstain on the welfare bill and thus expose the moral vacuum at the party’s heart which Jeremy Corbyn was more than happy to fill, 21 Labour MPs decided to do exactly the same thing in response to the government’s ridiculous Charter for Budget Responsibility.

(As an aside, John Major’s government was obsessed with “charters“; what does it say about modern politics that something that resembles a desperate gimmick during the fag end of the last Tory government is now something that Labour can tie themselves into knots over?)

None of this is to suggest that Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have exactly covered themselves in glory over the last few days. McDonnell’s u-turn over the charter is possibly the most inept act I’ve ever seen by a major party leader in British politics, and I’m including Nick Clegg, Gordon Brown and Iain Duncan Smith in that (feel free to list more inept actions in the comments below). It is perfectly understandable why the Labour Parliamentary Party was as angry as it was at the beginning of the week.

But anger doesn’t justify anything, and nor does “well Corbyn and McDonnell used to be serial rebels so I can be too,” unless you never took their rebellions seriously in the first place. Not everyone agrees with Corbynomics, but pretty much everyone understands the charter to be a gimmick and a political trap. The fact that McDonnell got caught in it is a reason to not leap into it yourself. All the Labour rebels did last night was make themselves look stupid and angry.

I hesitate to call them Blairites, but it is a better term than their apparently preferred label, “moderates”. They are anything but. The brigade within Labour that are fixated on bringing Corbyn down as quickly as possible have, for a long time, resemble the headbanger mindset, albeit a group of headbangers without a cause. At least you can quickly tick off a list of what the Tory headbangers believe in; it is hard to discern what the Labour headbangers actually want to achieve.

Perhaps that isn’t entirely fair, because at times it seems that whenever David Cameron manages to leave the house without forgetting to put his trousers on, there’s a throng of Labour right wingers who are quick to lavish praise on his latest act of political cunning and guile. Last week, Cameron made a few vaguely leftish comments in his conference speech. Completely ignoring the week in which the party defended its policies to cut the income of the working poor and make some blood curdling comments about immigration, Dan Hodges and John Rentoul could not have been more delighted.

Nor is this a new, post-Corbyn change of heart. Throughout the Ed Miliband era, Labour’s headbangers spent their time nursing perceived grievance after perceived grievance. Even after Miliband moderated his approach to appease his own right flank, the highly vocal attacks and grumblings persisted. What we never saw during that era was any kind of positive vision for what a “moderate”, “centrist” Labour might look like. All we heard was sneering.

And then there was Liz Kendall. Initially hailed as a potential game changer, Kendall’s leadership bid quickly ran out of steam. The reason? Because her vision for Labour was about as constructive and coherent as a typical Hodges or Rentoul whinge-fest. She had literally nothing to say beyond “we’re all doomed unless we sign up to all of the Tories’ most popular policies”. A more coherent Blairite might have challenged Corbyn; as it stood Kendall helped Corbyn hoover up more votes every time she opened her mouth.

I’ve yet to see an ounce of contrition by the headbangers over this. The constant anti-Corbyn refrain is that it is no good having principles if you can’t win a general election. This is true. But it is equally true that it is no good being a moderate if you can’t carry your own party with you. If you expect people to give up a serious amount of their time and income supporting your bid to win an election, not being able to offer even the most paltry vision of how you would do things different from your political opponents is a fundamental deal breaker. Yet somehow this fairly mundane idea escapes the so-called Labour moderates, and they don’t seem to be in any hurry to examine how they might to anything different any time soon.

As Zoe Williams wrote during the leadership contest, in terms of offering hope, Corbyn is more Blairite than the Blairites. What’s really odd is that with Corbyn’s leadership set to potentially end as soon as the elections next May end, you’d think that the headbangers would be more focused on finding and building up a potential replacement rather than toxifying themselves in the eyes of their colleagues. As it stands, if Corbyn does go down in a blaze of glory, what we’re likely to see is him replaced by a candidate who does at better job at bridging the divide between the parliamentary party and membership, only for the headbangers to spend all their time attempting to bring that leader down as well.

It is an odd form of political nihilism. While cast out in the political wilderness, the hard left at least had an agenda. The hard right complain about moves within the party to oust them; but shouldn’t they find a purpose before complaining about plots?

Tom Watson and the mob

Tom Watson has been mired in controversy recently, following last week’s Panorama documentary raising doubts about the Dolphin Square paedophile ring allegations. The allegation is that he abused his position using parliamentary privilege to highlight rape allegations being made against Leon Brittan. Following an intervention by David Cameron, Watson has now hit back swinging, arguing that the people who deserve an apology are the victims of abuse.

There’s a risk that the issue has now become so hopelessly politicised that we may never see any justice coming out of it. I agree with Watson, up to a point. The focus really needs to be on helping the victims of abuse, not the reputations of politicians.

Where I depart from Watson’s analysis is that I’m not convinced the victims’ interests have been best served by Exaro and Watson’s intervention. There appears to have been pressure on child abuse victims to identify Leon Brittan, Harvey Proctor et al despite a paucity of actual evidence. Getting them justice is one thing; using them to target VIPs, using fallout from the Jimmy Savile atrocity as cover is quite another. Using survivors of child abuse to advance your political agenda and career is a pretty egregious act. So excuse me if I resist the temptation to pick Watson’s side in this latest row (or any side at all for that matter).

The thing with Tom Watson is that he has form. In 2004, Watson ran Liam Byrne’s by-election campaign in Birmingham Hodge Hill. The “pro-technology” MP ran a campaign attacking the Lib Dem candidate for being too pro-phone masts. Somewhat more notoriously, his England flag-adorned, anti-immigrant leaflets managed the feat of uniting both Nick Cohen and the Socialist Worker Party in condemnation.

As a party activist at the time, one of the most striking aspects of the Tom Watson era of by-election campaigning was the practice of following rival candidates around with mobs. It reached the point where candidates had to be surrounded by an entourage at all times ready to protect the candidate. It may be Jeremy Corbyn who is identified with the sort of behaviour we saw outside the Conservative Party conference last week, but Watson has been a keen proponent of this tactic in the past – except in his case this had nothing to do with keeping an issue in the public eye but a more straightforward form of intimidation and bullying.

The thing is, if you follow his career, Watson is quite partial to the mob. Whether it is the hacking scandal or child abuse, wherever there is a large amount of righteous moral outrage, Watson unfailingly places himself at the centre of it. With his more recent campaigns, we can at least console ourselves that the targets tend to be the powerful, but his practice remains the same; stoking up anger and hyperbole rather than being the voice of reason.

Like a lot of people, I suspect Tom Watson’s affinity for moral indignation has a little bit too much to do with what he gets out of it than the issues themselves, and it is fair to say that he has done very well out of the campaigns he has tied himself to. But it is reasonable to question whether demagogues really have the people they are superficially championing at heart.

Myleene Klass and Ed Miliband

Myleene Klass and political failure

Myleene Klass may be deeply confused about how the mansion tax will work in practice, but she probably isn’t the only one. As a supporter of land value taxation, it is no surprise that I think it is a flawed policy, but what’s really problematic is the way both Labour and the Lib Dems are attempting to sell it.

In many ways, Klass’s tustle with Ed Miliband sums up the problem. She seems to think that, as a tax which will only apply to properties worth £2m and over, that in parts of London that applies to garages. She’s wrong. The £2m figure was calculated to be as painless to as many people as possible. In fact, under Vince Cable’s original proposals in 2009, the tax was to apply to properties worth £1m and over. This was quickly adjusted following an outcry from Cable’s fellow South West London MPs who feared a backlash (and even £1m is a bit steep for a garage, Myleene).

The UK – and London in particular – has a real problem with rising house prices. Home ownership has reached extremely low levels compared to recent history and the fears of another housing price bubble, despite the views of fantasists like Danny Alexander, are very real. The UK ought to be having a very serious conversation about how it tackles this.

Instead, we try to kid ourselves that this is just a problem for the very rich. Hence the mansion tax’s £2m threshold. We ought to be having a national conversation about restructuring our economy to avoid property bubbles. We ought to be talking about a property tax which kicks in at much lower levels. But we’re too busy blaming everything on immigrants and the poor.

Meanwhile, our existing domestic property tax, the council tax, has not been revalued in England since 1991. If our politicians lack the courage to even do that, what hope is there for us to have a serious conversation about what’s needed.

Ironically, the Lib Dems in particular, are in a better place than they have been in years to make the case. 10 years ago, they were transfixed with the idea of scrapping all property taxes and making taxes on employment take up even more of the strain. Now they are making the case for more taxes on property and taking people out of income tax altogether. Yet there is no narrative connective tissue between the two. They aren’t making the case for a fairer society and stronger economy in which a hard day’s work is taxed less and wealth is taxed more.

Ignore policy for a minute, which is largely irrelevant these days in a world of coalition government. What a liberal party ought to be making the case for right now is a new economy with significantly different priorities. It can’t be done overnight, but it can be done over time, piecemeal. There can be a direction of travel. It can’t however be done by stealth; the public need to buy into it or it will fall apart after the first Daily Mail headline.

The mansion tax could be step one of a new economic plan; as it is, it’s a policy cul de sac. Assuming it eventually happens, it will probably suffer the same indignity as council tax, and never be touched again. Or worse, start going up by inflation to ensure that only a tiny minority ever pay it and its true revenue potential is never realised. It’s emblematic of the political malaise; instead of dealing with the big political issues of the day, we’re reduced to soundbites.

Labour Needs A Plan B

It has been odd watching the Labour party over the last 18 months. If ever an opposition has had a golden opportunity, it has surely been this. With the economy in a mess, any government would be forced to make tough, unpopular decisions right now. Combine that with the nature of coalition, and scoring some palpable hits should be a cynch.

Somehow, however, they appear to have missed almost every target in their path. Liam Byrne’s cynical gaffe, leaving a note to his successor about there being ‘no money left’ may not have single handedly lost Labour the next election but it provided the coalition with a frame they could construct the entire economic debate around (and you can bet it will be used as an election poster in 2015). Ed Miliband’s election has been a disaster, not so much because he is a geek (I, for one, have quite a soft spot for politicians who don’t fit the oleaginous Blair-Cameron mould), but because most of his members and MPs voted against him in the leadership election. That shouldn’t have been a problem for a party which is comfortable with its union links in the way that it so often claims; but it palpably isn’t and so it has proven to be a cancer which has riddled Miliband’s leadership ever since. It was striking at the 2010 conference quite how many people expressed how they felt Miliband had ‘stolen’ the leadership.
As a result, Miliband has spent most of his time forced to disappoint his core supporters in an ultimately futile attempt to appease his detractors. It is hard to see how he can ultimately survive. With so little goodwill within the party, every mistake gets exaggerated in a way that a leader with more respect would never have to worry about.

But the simple fact of the matter is that the mistakes have not been few and far between. On public service reform they have been weak, mainly because the coalition have merely expanded upon Labour’s existing programme. Even on health, which is further from Labour’s position than, say, education, they have been shockingly absent from the debate. I’ve come to terms with the fact that I can never remember the name of Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary before Andy Burnham’s appointment; that’s his fault, not mine. What is very much Miliband’s fault is that he should have been shipped out as soon as it was clear he didn’t have a clue what he was doing. However weak Clegg may have been initially on standing up to Lansley, it was Labour’s responsibility to provide the main voice of opposition here. It has done precious little, too late.

On welfare reform, again, the government has too often merely picked up Labour’s baton and run with it. Liam Byrne’s comments (him again) earlier this week suggest that, if anything, we will now see them attempt to outflank Cameron from the right. It is frankly unbelievable that the main opposition from George Osborne’s plan to further cut benefits in the autumn statement came from David Laws, the loyallest Lib Dem MP in the Commons, not from the Labour front benches.

This should be a source of despair for Liberal Democrats, who predominantly dedicated to mitigating the worst of the Conservative’s reforms. Our ability to wring concessions from Tory ministers is extremely limited when Labour is absent or, worse, on the opposite side of the debate. And this isn’t merely an issue for welfare reform; we have seen echoes of it in terms of government policy on criminal justice and, of course, AV.

Of course, it isn’t Labour’s job to be helpful to the Lib Dems, but one has to question why they have made it their mission to go for them at the expense of targeting Cameron and Osborne. The thinking within Labour circles is that by weakening the Lib Dems they will destabilise the coalition and thus reap an electoral reward. Yet it hasn’t worked out like that.

No-one can pretend that the Lib Dems are in a strong position; Labour’s mission to portray us as pariahs has been largely successful, mainly because they have been aided and abetted by both our own so-called allies and of course our mistakes. But in focusing on this they have largely left it to the Conservatives to frame the debate on all the big issues of the day. They’ve largely stayed ahead in the polls until recently, but on the single biggest issue, the economy, they have lost ground considerably. No great surprise when that agenda has been left to Balls, an arch monetarist masquerading as a Keynesian, who can’t make his mind up whether to focus on reversing spending cuts, introducing tax cuts or pushing for a stimulus package.

Labour needs to get a grip, fast, and end its obsession with undermining the Lib Dems. The lesson of the last 18 months is that the further down in the polls the Lib Dems become, the stronger the Conservatives get. If they insist on killing off initiatives like Lords reform, it won’t be they who benefit but Cameron who will then be free to carry out his threat of appointing hundreds of new cronies. Triangulating on crime and punishment simply emboldens to Tory backbenchers, gaining Labour nothing.

Of course, it has to be said that the Lib Dems could make it easier. Clegg’s tendency to allow the Labour backbenchers provoke him into anti-Labour tirades has not exactly helped, and during the AV referendum it was positively harmful. Tim Farron too, who sitting outside the government has the freedom to articulate things that ministers must be more discreet over, ought to be attempting to rebuild bridges instead of burning them down in interview after interview.

This isn’t a call for a return to Lib-Labbery, merely equidistance. Now we are in coalition it is more important than ever that we make it clear this is an alliance formed of necessity rather than some fundamental shift in position. Nor is it a paean to some sort of ‘progressive alliance’ – if progressive actually meant anything in practice then there’d be no reason to have two seperate parties and if the last 18 months have taught us anything it is that the ‘we’ll know it when we see it’ definition of progressive simply will not do. What we need more recognition of is that a less destructive relationship with Labour would strengthen the party’s hand in terms of both the coalition now and any coalition talks to come. With Labour and the Lib Dems outnumbering the Conservatives in the Commons, Clegg needn’t be negotiating as a junior partner with just 57 MPs under his belt quite as often as he does.

But ultimately, all Clegg and Farron can do is improve the mood music; it is Labour that needs to revisit its strategy in a more fundamental way. Labour’s approach in 2011 has palpably failed either in terms of opposition or in terms of gaining the party popularity among the electorate, and shows no sign of improving. It is time they looked at a Plan B of their own.

What part of Yes do you not understand?

A review of Don’t Take No For An Answer by Lewis Baston and Ken Ritchie (Biteback Publishing, 2011)

I’ve made several attempts at writing a review of Don’t Take No For An Answer, Lewis Baston and Ken Ritchie’s review of the 2011 referendum and the ongoing campaign for electoral reform. It is a highly readable and engaging book. For someone with less inside knowledge it will no doubt be highly informative. But it is flawed, and I’ve struggled with articulating how without just running down a pedantic list of misconceptions.

As one of the main sources cited in the book, it made slightly uncomfortable reading. I know I’m not the only source who has lamented that the authors did not come to us for a more detailed interview. In my case, aside from writing a single article which first appeared in Liberator magazine (pdf), I’ve actually written very little about the subject. This was deliberate, not out of a desire to keep things buried, but out of a need to move on from what ended up being a profoundly miserable nine months.

That one article will only give you a vague overview of my views about the campaign. I very deliberately kept discussion about my own role to a minimum and despite going over my word limit, I had to furiously cut it down to ensure that it didn’t take up the whole magazine. Reading the book however made me realise how a number of what I regard are serious misconceptions are well on their way to acquiring legendary status. So with the referendum now more than six months ago, perhaps it is time I made another attempt to give my side of the story.

The biggest problem I have with the book is its criticisms of what it calls the “movement delusion”. Much of the book’s overall thesis flows from this; in a nutshell the argument goes that Yes to Fairer Votes deliberately set itself up as an anti-political, non-partisan campaign which was inward looking, celebrity-obsessed and alienated its non-Lib Dem party political support. Furthermore, it is suggested that this is because the campaign was dominated by naive democracy campaign organisations and Liberal Democrats. There are elements of truth to all that, but the reality is more complicated.

Labour and the Yes campaign

The biggest thing which the book gets wrong, or at least fails to emphasise, is the degree to which the campaign involved Labour Party members in important positions. One of the most annoying statements for me was the claim that Lib Dem President Tim Farron’s admission the Lib Dems “were not in total control of the Yes campaign” amounted to an admission that “Yes was regarded as an arm’s length Lib Dem campaign rather than a real cross party effort.”

We can argue until the cows come home whether the campaign would have been better run if it had been by the Liberal Democrats, but the simple fact of the matter is that it was not. Leaving to one side Labour Yes itself, the following strategically key members of staff were Labour veterans:

  • Head of Communications: Paul Sinclair (former Gordon Brown Special Advisor)
  • Head of Ground Operations: Willie Sullivan (Labour councillor and Compass council member)
  • Full time consultant: Patrick Loughran (former Peter Mandelson Special Advisor)
  • Director and paid consultant: Neal Lawson

It is certainly true that the campaign was, overall, headed up by John Sharkey who chaired the 2010 Lib Dem general election campaign. However, even then the story is a bit more complicated. John Sharkey entered the scene having been anointed as the head of the Lib Dem Yes campaign by Nick Clegg. As the person in the initial cross-organisational discussions with, at least on paper, the most experience and best connections, he was seen as a strong choice to head up the campaign itself. What was to later emerge however was that his appointment was not supported by the Lib Dem Campaigns Department and that despite assuming he could be left to handle Lib Dem relations, Cowley Street often felt left out of the loop.

The party itself needs to explain how such a strategically important position came to be appointed without the fullest possible support within its own top team. Indeed, there are alarming parallels between this and the internal tug of war over tuition fees which lead to parliamentary candidates being lined up to sign the NUS anti-fees pledge despite Nick Clegg’s well known ambivalence to the policy and success in ensuring that it was not one of the party’s main headline manifesto commitments. The tuition fees debacle of course was to ultimately prove enormously damaging to the AV campaign.

Regardless of this, I can state for a fact that the Lib Dem campaigns department did not approve of the emphasis on phone banking and certainly did not approve of the decision to not do a full freepost mail shot. They made representations and were overruled. Their attempts to get campaign materials printed at the Yes campaign’s expense were frequently rejected (on some occasions, it has to be said, because the literature was actually quite weak). The only time I can remember the Lib Dem “camp” winning a decision was when they managed to persuade the campaign to include tear off slips at the bottom of a number of leaflets. This was in spite of the very vocal objections by the communications team (the objections became notably more muted when those tear off slips began to net us a quite significant amount of donations).

The emergency of the phone banking strategy was an interesting case in point. This was initially sold to us on the basis that we had experienced Labour campaigners in charge of it who were building on their success using the technique in the last few general elections. Many of us (but by no means all) initially suspended judgement on the plan precisely because it was outside of the Lib Dem comfort zone. I’m afraid to admit that I was one of those people. It was later to emerge that the experience had been vastly oversold, but by then it was too late. In this case, a bit more of an obstinate Lib Dem “not invented here” mentality would have come in quite useful.

I am not for one minute making the counter-claim that the campaign was an arms-length Labour operation. But Labour people were part of every single significant decision made by Yes and in many cases were the primary decision makers. The real questions therefore are: despite this why did we screw up our relations with the Labour Party quite so badly and how did we end up with the Labour people that we did?

I can answer the latter question a lot more easily than the former. Simply stated, the recruitment of the senior team was conducted during the summer of 2010 at the height of the Labour leadership election. With five candidates fiercely contesting the election, most Labour campaign veterans were working on one or other of those campaigns. Our options were therefore extremely limited.

In terms of why Labour relations were quite so poor, I can only give an etic account. It is my perception that the cultural and political divisions between southern middle class Labour and northern working class Labour are as profound as the divisions between most political parties and neither side has any real understanding of the other. Indeed, as a general rule, neither tribe even acknowledges the existence of the other.

Electoral reform has in recent years been seen as an issue of interest only to southern middle class Labour and both Labour and non-Labour electoral reformers have generally tended to exaggerate their importance because, as a rule, northern working class Labour doesn’t tend to get involved in the London-centric think tanks and ginger groups. Of course I’m oversimplifying and I’m sure Labour people can poke plenty of holes in this thesis, but for the purpose of analysing the Yes campaign’s failure it makes a lot more sense than the suggestion that Labour people were simply excluded from the campaign and ignored. In my view, the failure of Labour reformers themselves to engage Labour and trade union members not within their comfort zone is as significant a strategic failing for the ongoing campaign for electoral reform as anything else the referendum campaign has highlighted. And it isn’t really something that the rest of us can do much about.

Anti-politics

Linked to the failure to engage Labour is the tendency of the Yes campaign to indulge in anti-politics and rely on non-partisan spokespeople rather than senior politicians. It is fair that a number of the decisions were simply due to poor judgement. But at least some of it was due to the campaign making the best of a bad situation.

One of the criticisms of the campaign was that we did not make enough use of senior Labour supporters to be our spokespeople. I agree that this was a major failing. What I don’t accept however is that this is entirely due to the campaign, at least not initially. During the summer period when I was privy to the discussions being held at the top of the campaign, I know that numerous Labour politicians were being feted and we were constantly being turned down by them. The general message we were getting was that until the legislation was enacted, no senior Labour politician would publicly support the Yes campaign because they didn’t want to be seen to be somehow supporting the boundary changes by implication. This was of course not a disadvantage that the no campaign had to deal with, which is why they had no problem at all building up their internal Labour momentum.

The “people not politicians” communications strategy was thus initially due to circumstance not design. It was an attempt to obscure what was internally recognised to be a serious weakness. Jonathan Bartley became our key spokesperson because he was a non-Lib Dem who could perform well and had an interesting personal story, not because the people at the centre of the campaign really wanted to focus on non-politicians.

I can’t comment on internal discussions with Labour from October onwards and it is a moot point whether we could have made better use of people like Alan Johnson, John Denham et al once the law had been enacted. We certainly weren’t shy about using them by that stage. But we only got royal assent on 17 February, 10 weeks before polling day and by then we had had to bang the “people not politicians” drum for three months.

Further compounding the “anti-politician” perception was the decision to not use Conservative or UKIP spokespeople until the very last minute. In this case the decision was solely due to a concern that it would alienate Labour supporters. With few Labour figures prepared to publicly endorse the campaign, it would have been especially difficult to use Tories before royal assent. I can genuinely understand why using them during the campaign itself was a difficult and nuanced one, even though I personally sided with the pluralists who wanted to see us publicly embrace them.

What I don’t understand is why UKIP and Conservative relations were handled as poorly as they were. UKIP was barely cultivated at all. In the case of the Conservatives, a Conservative Yes campaign was formed predominantly out of Conservative Action on Electoral Reform, a group which has been in gradual decline since its peak in the 70s. Initially they were given tacit permission to get established and develop a campaign team. At the exact moment however when they, specifically John Strafford (http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/mar/06/alternative-voting-row-campaign-sacking), started to get attacked by the No campaign, all support and even formal communication with them was ceased. The way they were left in the lurch resembled panic and personal cowardice far more than it did strategic thinking. It was an absolutely shameful episode and sadly not the only one when people at the top of the campaign lacked basic courtesy.

Finally, one of the things that I don’t think is fully appreciated is to what degree the campaign couldn’t make its mind up whether it was to be anti-politics or not. Time and again a viscerally anti-politics billboard or film would be mocked up, only for it to be blocked at the last minute. Nor was it non-party people commissioning this advertising; the non-party people were, by and large, kept well away from any such decisions.

A movement by default

That sense that decisions were being made on the fly and without any real sense of direction became awfully familiar to me during the campaign. And this is why I take issue with the idea that we were labouring under some kind of delusion about our status as some kind of popular uprising. It wasn’t a delusion, at least not as far as most of the people I worked closely with were concerned. It was all we were left with once all our other avenues had been eliminated.

Baston and Ritchie approvingly quote Angela Harbutt’s quip about “hard core fanatics waving around big pieces of fabric around the crack of dawn.” The video this references was filmed in Trafalgar Square on the day the referendum-enabling legislation received Royal Assent. At the time it was an awfully big deal for us because we had just gone through weeks of damaging speculation that the legislation would be passed too late for the referendum to take place in May 2011. That being the case, I would entirely defend the decision of the campaign to make a short one-minute video to provide its activist base with a bit of reassurance that we weren’t about to call the whole thing off.

That video does however highlight two major problems: yes, we did spend an awful lot of time getting our activists to wave banners around and yes, if you look at the campaign’s social media output, we did indeed appear overly focused on motivating our activist base at the expense of reaching out to the wider public. I think there is a danger however that in recognising we got the balance wrong that we conclude that activist engagement was not important. The real problem was not so much that we were doing such things but that so many other more productive approaches had been explicitly vetoed early on in the campaign.

The high visibility strategy which put so much emphasis on “fabric waving” activities was, to put it politely, not the first choice of most of the core ground operations team. It was borne out necessity for two reasons. Firstly, the emphasis on phone banking meant that the campaign had a perception problem; simply put, our plan was to put most of our activists behind closed doors making phone calls not out on the street. Secondly, a similarly disastrous decision had been made that the official campaign was at no point to spend any time or effort attempting to explain the Alternative Vote system.

The “don’t show, don’t tell” policy meant that, for example, we were specifically banned from encouraging local groups from running mock ballots on topical issues. The original plan by our local groups outreach team was to go out showing people how easy the system was to use by getting them to vote on things like who should win X-Factor or the Sports Personality of the Year. The anecdotal evidence we had received from local groups was that such activities had been highly successful; as well as a good tool to engage people on the street with it also meant you could follow it up with a local newspaper-friendly press release. This was ruled out by the top team purely on the basis of instinct. Shortly before polling day, the IPPR published a poll (ironically paid for by the Yes campaign) suggesting that people who had tried using AV were significantly more likely to support it. As Pyrrhic victories go, that was a particularly empty one.

If you aren’t allowed to show how the system works, and you are certainly not allowed to explain how the system works, all you are left with is slogans and photo opportunities. To this extent the book’s authors and many of the campaign’s other critics badly miss the point. Complain about slogans like “makes your MP work harder” all you like but the simple fact is that if you are prohibited from doing anything to justify what you say beyond the odd hackneyed soundbite, no slogan in existence would have sounded particularly compelling.

Killing the movement

Talk of the campaign labouring under a “movement delusion” also misses the point that in many crucial respects the operation was more centralised and micromanaged than any party campaign. I would argue that if anything the campaign was not movement-y enough.

The plan which developed over the summer was to roll out a major training programme to skill up our local activists and empower them to run autonomous campaigns as much as possible. This was based on what I personally felt was the realistic assumption that the ground campaign would only have a marginal effect. It was better to give local groups at least some degree of autonomy, despite the (small) risks that it entailed and preserve as much good will as possible for when it was needed (the short campaign) than to burn up that good will in activity which might on paper be more efficient but which treats people like robots.

All that changed when the phone banking strategy suddenly arrived from on high, seemingly on tablets of stone. There was always going to be a degree of phone banking in the campaign, but until late October it was assumed by many of us that it would be relatively small scale. Certainly the software we purchased to do it with was only really designed for volunteers to make 5-10 calls with in an evening from the comfort of their own homes; it was never intended to be used to run a full scale centralised phone banking operation with. Opinion differs in terms of to what degree we were missold this tool and to what degree we deluded ourselves; I was not involved in the contract negotiations so cannot comment on them. All I know is that it was made perfectly clear what the purpose and limitations of the tool were in the initial sales presentation and that if we really had intended to go down the route of organising mass-canvassing there were plenty of off-the-shelf packages available that would have done a far better job.

The initial training meeting of our regional organisers was a fairly stressful affair for all involved as it rapidly emerged that our organisers who had been recruited on the basis that they would be training and supporting local groups to work independently were actually going to be coordinating phonebanks. What could have been a productive winter in terms of capacity building ended up becoming a textbook exercise in how to kill off your own campaign’s momentum.

The web campaign

As the person nominally in charge of web and social media, I faced a similar problem to the ground operations team. When I was first given the job, I assumed that our web presence had to do two very distinct jobs. Firstly, and primarily, to motivate our activist base and give them something to do. The simple fact is that the vast majority of people who look at political websites have already made their minds up one way or another.

But the second job, of providing information and rebuttal was also important – not least of all because our activists needed it to support us. This was the aspect which the campaign top brass in its wisdom decided to not go near. If you don’t provide those tools however, and if you don’t focus your online campaigning on timely rebuttal, you don’t have much else you can do other than, what Baston and Ritchie call “whingeing”. That’s exactly what it was but once again this was the result of closing off our other options rather than making a clear strategic decision to go down that path.

It wasn’t that I disagreed with the observation that even the most simple explanations of AV risked causing confusion, merely that this was a problem we needed to solve rather than one we could afford to sidestep. I had assumed, naively, that the purpose of hiring a communications agency at great expense was to help with this. Instead the brief we gave them was effectively to become the most highly paid graffiti scrawlers in London and trash talk our opponents, only to loudly complain when they failed to come up with anything useable.

Convinced that we badly needed strong online content for the campaign, my only recourse was to beg volunteers to produce material and hope they would deliver. Even then I did it on the quiet; early on I had been officially banned from talking to any bloggers, a rule which was not rescinded until January, and I deduced that if I asked for a green light to approach independent creatives over whom we would have no control I would simply be turned down. One volunteer in particular, Barnaby Dawson, had set himself the task of building an AV Facebook app. I encouraged him to continue despite being told on numerous occasions that it would never be approved. In the end we released the app quietly under the Unlock Democracy banner.

What supporter generated content that emerged more than justified my faith. Indeed, the second official referendum broadcast was a remake of a video that Dan Snow had made with volunteers entirely off his own back. However, for the most part it arrived too late and with no advertising budget they could not be promoted adequately. The fact that the “reform cat” video ended up with more than four times the number of viewings that the most watched No campaign video, bolstered by a ceaseless advertising campaign, shows quite how much of a demand for factual information there was out there which we systematically failed to capitalise on.

We ended up in a scenario straight out of Alice in Wonderland. While our independent supporters set about producing relatively straight-laced informational videos, the official campaign spent thousands of pounds developing “edgy” so-called “virals”. Some of these short films were actually quite good but all of them failed miserably for three reasons. Firstly, top brass would repeatedly get cold feet over releasing videos despite commissioning them in the first place. Sometimes this was for good reasons, but the worry that Bob Dylan might sue us was perhaps the oddest and hard to counter argument I came across (if Bob Dylan ever decides to take on the whole of YouTube, passing up the royalty payments he receives in the process, he might well eventually come across this innocuous little film). We released most of it in the end, but a number were simply dribbled out half-heartedly weeks after they had been completed. Secondly, the official stamp of approval is the kiss of death for any genuine viral campaign. Thirdly, the campaign was not prepared to invest in internet advertising meaning that we were solely reliant on the dwindling reservoir of goodwill to give them an initial push.

In total, the campaign spent less than £5,000 on online advertising. £1,500 of that was to pay for advertising on a single website, Left Foot Forward. £3,000 was given to MessageSpace (the agency behind, erm, the no campaign’s social media operation), due to some obscure reindeer game which had something to do with winding up no supporters by putting banner ads highlighting the BNP’s support for a no vote on their favourite websites.

All other requests for advertising were turned down. In the end, by every possible metric, we still beat the no campaign in terms of social media despite the large sums they spent on advertising. I’m quite proud about that and I’m proud of the amount of money we ended up raising online, but I’m certain that if we had been given an advertising budget early enough it would have more than paid for itself and would have resulted in us gaining extra activists and supporters in the process.

Timing Redux

If anything therefore, many of the misconceptions in Don’t Take No For An Answer obscure a reality which was, if anything, even worse. Before I come across sounding too critical of the campaign however, I do feel that the very genuine dilemmas that the situation presented us with are all too frequently dismissed.

With the benefit of hindsight, the biggest single mistake of the campaign in my view was that we rushed into things when we should have taken our time. If we had relaxed over the summer and contented ourselves with not building a core team until after the Labour conference and leadership election, we could have picked from a much bigger talent pool. Campaigning could have still continued over the summer under the Take Back Parliament banner and we could have ensured that we had really explored every avenue before we committed to anything.

It’s easy to say that now however; at the time such an approach would have been highly controversial to say the least. Pretty much as soon as the referendum was announced, all the organisations involved were under daily pressure to start making real progress. Our advice from the people behind the successful 1997 Yes campaign in Scotland was that we needed a bare minimum of 12 months of coalition building and planning, time we palpably did not have.

There was also the fact that the democracy “sector” was in a bit of a state following the general election period. We had a real problem in terms of brand recognition and coordination. In addition to the Electoral Reform Society and Unlock Democracy, we had to contend with POWER2010, Take Back Parliament, Vote for a Change and Make Votes Count. Leaving aside the parties’ involvement, the “sector” desperately needed to consolidate this mess and coordinate itself and to do this under a different flag before switching again to Yes a few months later would have had questionable merit.

Finally, we were faced with a media that was quick to write us off. When the No campaign announced their core team in September, the media was falling over itself to claim that they had stolen the march on us when in fact they were operationally behind us at that stage. One thing our communications team deserve credit for is managing to convince the media that we weren’t dead in the water. Any further delay would have made that job far harder.

Despite all these factors, I still feel that key to our failure was our drive to get moving and I’m convinced that a completely different team would still have made remarkably similar mistakes given the circumstances. Of course, that being said, the real question is therefore why we ended up with a referendum on the topic that it was on, in that timescale, bundled up with those blasted boundary review proposals.

Return to Jenkins

Rightly, Baston and Ritchie begin their book with a brief overview of the history of electoral reform in the UK. It’s a fair summary but there is an omission that is all the more disappointing given the authors’ inside knowledge on the subject. Specifically, what the book does not explore at all is the fact that since the Jenkins Report was mothballed by the Blair government in 1998, an emerging consensus had been forming between electoral reformers in Whitehall around AV.

When I first started working for the New Politics Network in 2004 (NPN merged with Charter 88 to form Unlock Democracy in 2007), I was quite surprised at to what degree this was buzzing around within both Labour and Lib Dem circles. At Labour conferences, it was de rigour for reform inclined government ministers to make speeches in favour on AV on the fringe. We would receive almost monthly reports (from some admittedly eccentric circles) about how the government was going to announce its support for the policy any day now.

Inside the Lib Dems, I became aware of quite how keen some parliamentarians were about damping down party support for STV. When I sat on the party’s policy working group for democratic reform in 2006, I was once told that we couldn’t expect to introduce STV within a single parliament because the boundary changes would be so complicated, and would have to settle for AV at first. This was nonsense; even leaving aside the speed at which the current boundary changes are taking place, multi-member constituencies can be easily created simply by combining the existing single-member ones.

But perhaps the most tacit admission that the Lib Dems were geared up for compromising over AV was the party’s response to the expenses scandal in 2009. At a time when the mood for reform was at an all time high, Nick Clegg abandoned the party’s support for STV in favour of AV+ (indeed, given that this was a clear gesture of compromise, it makes Clegg’s later critical comments about AV being a “miserable little compromise” all the more inexplicable).

It was very clear that talks between Labour reformists and senior Lib Dems had been going on and that the groundwork for AV being introduced was being laid. Outside of Westminster however, the number of people privy to these talks were very limited indeed and while it appeared that ERS people and certainly the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform were involved, I’ve never personally been clear about to what extent this included the staff team.

The hush-hush nature of the talks was almost certainly a response to the fallout following the Jenkins report which ERS tore itself apart over in the late 90s and beyond. But one of the problems about this lack of frankness was that there seemed to be a lack of strategy. For example, back in 2004 there was clearly a lot of hope that Labour might introduce AV without a referendum and this continued despite a 2005 manifesto commitment not to introduce any change to the voting system without one. Yet this was almost inevitable given that the Lib Dems, ERS and Charter 88 had all been taking Labour to task for failing to hold a referendum on the Jenkins proposals. The divisions within ERS meant that while ERS appeared to be continuing to push for AV behind closed doors, the public position of the organisation became more critical of AV – which predictably became a problem once the referendum became a reality.

(If it reads as if I, as an Unlock Democracy employee, am playing organisational politics here I can assure you I’m not. I’ve been a member of ERS since 1996 – barring a brief resignation at the height of the MeadowcroftRussell wars – and have stood for council on three occasions. But the simple fact is that in terms of funding and history, ERS is the main player when it comes to electoral reform and its internal divisions have affected everything else).

By the time the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition talks began in May 2010, so much spadework had been done behind the scenes with Labour on AV that it is no surprise that it rapidly became the only real option. Those of us who had been pushing for an alternative plan such as a citizens assembly followed by a referendum were given short shrift.

In hindsight, the conditions attached to the referendum were such that it was almost certainly doomed to failure. But I would argue that if reformers had done a better job at uniting behind a single strategy before May 2010, we could have potentially got more out of the coalition talks and would have been better placed to fight the campaign when it happened.

That doesn’t necessarily mean picking a single system and running with it. Indeed, I think that has been the mistake we have made in the past as all it leads to is the sort of divisions and intrigue that we’ve seen over the past decade. For what its worth, I think that uniting around a process will have a far better chance of success.

Baston and Ritchie suggest that for a reform to have any chance of success, the Labour Party needs to feel that it owns it. I think that may well be true, but for the reasons I outlined above, I think the first step in that is for Labour reformers themselves to recognise the importance of moving outside of their comfort zones and start engaging with the side of the party which they generally tend to ignore. They need to tackle this phenomenon whereby the closer to the leadership Labour politicians become, the less inclined they are to champion electoral reform. I would certainly agree that the Lib Dems can’t be left to it but if no-one else will champion the cause we can’t be surprised or complain if they are the only ones that are seen doing it.

Ultimately though, I share Baston and Ritchie’s optimism. This year’s referendum has been an awful and painful but it has also served as a reality check we sorely lacked until this point. Meanwhile, the fundamental problems lying at the heart of the UK’s electoral system are not going anywhere. The biggest single factor that will decide when and if we get another chance at changing the voting system is how many hung parliaments we have over the next few years. Even if the Lib Dems are seriously crushed at the next election, the long term trend towards multi-party politics is likely to continue.

It is important to be ready for when the next opportunity arises, learn the lessons from this experience and ensure that cross-party and cross-organisational dialogue is kept alive and constructive.

In terms of learning the lessons, Don’t Take No For An Answer is a start but we have not yet seen the definitive account of what went wrong with the Yes campaign. Ultimately, I think that both Baston and Ritchie might have too much of an insider’s perspective to produce that account. I remain hopeful that a politics department somewhere decides to make this a special project and unleash an army of PhD students to investigate, or at the very least a journalist with a nose for a good story decides to have a go. Most of the comedy gold from the campaign has still not emerged if that is a selling point!

James Graham was the Web and Social Media Manager of Yes to Fairer Votes and is the Campaigns and Communications Manager of Unlock Democracy (and a member of the Lib Dem Federal Executive). He writes in a personal capacity.

Crawling from the wreckage

Hello? Is this thing still working? Can anyone still hear me?

Testing… testing…

Ahem.

Hi. I’m back. It’s been a long time. How are you?

Me? Well, for the past nine months I’ve been working for Yes to Fairer Votes and, by mutual consent, it was agreed that it might be better if I suspended my gobshite-related activities for the duration of the campaign.

Needless to say, those restrictions no longer apply and so I’m free to resume my blogging activities. I have to admit that it feels good to be able to express myself again, although I’m still finding my feet again.

I can’t really get away with resuming this blog without reflecting on the campaign that has dominated my life for a whole year (and it is a whole year – one year ago, I was busy working on the final preparations for the Take Back Parliament demo that took place the following day. At the time we had absolutely no idea what a success those demonstrations would be).

As you may be away, we lost, and we lost badly. Why is that? Well, yes, the No campaign was an absolute shocker. They lied and they lied and they lied. Unlike many however, I am struggling to be that angry with them. You need only look at the people behind the campaign to realise that that is simply in their nature; it’s what they do. If a mad dog mauls your child, that is of course terrible; but the real question is what you did to protect her.

I don’t want to dwell too much on what the official Yes campaign did right or wrong here; I’m still feeling bruised and I have a tremendous amount of respect for most of the people who worked so hard on the campaign – both paid and unpaid. I don’t think it would be fair to them for me to wash my dirty laundry in public this weekend. Suffice to say that I am pretty confident that I’m not the only staffer who feels that that wasn’t the campaign we signed up for. There are some serious and hard lessons to be learned and I hope we face up to them in a constructive, honest and ultimately conciliatory manner.

But the fact is that we’d have struggled to win a Yes vote even if we had run the best campaign we could. There are at least three factors which seriously hindered us:

Firstly, let’s face it, Nick Clegg and the Lib Dem brand more generally hung around our necks like the proverbial albatross. We anticipated this as long ago as June last year, but the party’s Gerald Ratner moment over tuition fees took even the most cynical among us back.

It can’t however all be pinned on Clegg. The simple fact is if Labour had a stronger leader we would have been in a much stronger position. I like Ed Miliband personally and sincerely hope he can turn it around. But it is clear that he commands very little authority or respect within both his parliamentary party and the Labour Party at large.

There is no escaping the fact that if David Miliband had won in September, the Labour No campaign would have been a rump compared to what it ended up being and that if David Cameron had wanted to find a convenient Labour figleaf to share a platform with, he’d have had to settle for a no-mark like Tom Harris rather than Lord Reid.

(Why this is, to a certain extent, mystifies me. Ed Miliband won the Labour leadership fair and square by winning the union vote. How Labour members can be both precious about their “historic Labour-union links” and so disparaging when the union members do something they don’t like is beyond me.)

Labour really needs to learn the lessons of this week. A lot of Labour politicians are hellbent on a strategy that is about destroying the Lib Dems, even if it means effectively letting Cameron off the hook. There’s no getting away from the fact that the Lib Dems are now seriously weakened, but what has that gained Labour? There is no sign of us returning to a two-party system; look at Scotland. Labour let the Tories win the popular vote in England, which is an absolutely extraordinary failure. Even at the Lib Dems’ nadir, one in four people just voted for a third-party candidate. And there are signs that it is other third parties that are filling the vacuum, with the Greens now the largest party in Brighton. The combined failure of Labour and the Lib Dems to ensure that the cold light of scrutiny falls on the Conservatives is nothing short of tragic.

But finally, the process leading to the referendum itself was highly problematic. If there is one thing the No campaign argued that has merit, it is that it was a political stitch up.

Unlike some, I am not of the view that AV was the wrong system to fight the referendum on; it may well have been our best option. The fact is that the British don’t like radical change and AV was a quintessentially modest reform. With the country unused to coalition government, it is entirely plausible to believe that the public would have turned against any system which would have all but guaranteed future hung parliaments.

But that said, the way in which AV became the preferred system was not ideal. Making a specific voting system a precondition of a coalition agreement is problematic because it will inevitably look as if the only reason that particular system is being pushed is that it suits one of the coalition parties. That’s why it was so hard to separate the Lib Dems from AV itself, even though it isn’t even our preferred system.

What should have happened? Well, holding out for PR would have been a pipedream and we would have found Labour formally backing the No campaign. In my view what we should have done was to establish a Citizen’s Assembly and guarantee that any system agreed by that body would be subject to a referendum. Would the Tories have agreed to an independent process which could potentially have lead to a PR system being proposed? It is for better informed coalition watchers than I to decide that question.

Where now for electoral and political reform? Well, there is no question that we have our work cut out, but I’m feeling oddly optimistic. A lot of people around the country have worked hard on this campaign but the rout and infighting that I had feared does not appear to have emerged. By contrast, what I’m seeing is a lot of people steeling themselves, learning from the experience, and determined to move onto the next fight (after perhaps a bit of a breather), as soon as possible.

If history tells us anything it is that the road to political reform is littered with failed campaigns which indirectly helped lead to reform within just a few years. This experience has galvanised a whole generation of campaigners. Because the No campaign felt they could only win by talking complete horseshit, there is little sense that the matter has been settled (even if it does look exceedingly unlikely that AV itself will ever be presented as a compromise option). If I were a reactionary supporter of the status quo, I wouldn’t underestimate the ability of people to bounce back and learn from this experience.

The Lib Dems will be nobodies’ patsies

With Labour activists and Guardianistas wobbling over the startling revelation that if they don’t win the election, the Lib Dems won’t win it for them, I’ve written a short article on Comment is Free explaining why that doesn’t mean the Lib Dems are about to jump in bed with the Tories and that Labour needs to get real:

If Labour is slowly waking up to the fact that the Lib Dems will be nobody’s patsies, that’s great. I like to think that Labour can bring itself back from the brink over the next 10 days and will stop arguing itself into political oblivion. As their newly exhumed supporter Elvis says, it’s now or never. What they have to wake up to, however, is the fact that there are a lot more possible scenarios out there than either a Cameron or a Brown-led government. Every time they oversimplify and insist that a Lib Dem vote is a vote for Cameron, they merely discredit themselves by mirroring the Tories who are insisting that the Lib Dems are a proxy for Brown.

Read the full article here.

Meanwhile, as if on cue, the Tories have decided to make this whole election a referendum on hung parliaments. Their new PEB, is unique outside of BNP broadcasts in that pretty much every sentence in it is the opposite of the truth. It could have come straight from Bizarro World or (if you have more literary pretensions) Airstrip One. New Tories, Newspeak!

I’m not sure they are necessarily wise to do this, since not only are hung parliaments popular but their arguments against them are patronising in the extreme. But while people are showing no signs of submitting to such scare tactics yet, we need to redouble our efforts to reassure them.

One thing is for sure: the Tories can no longer claim to be about change in this election, as if that argument ever had any resonance in the first place.

Comment is Free: Gordon Brown and the Alternative Vote

Wondering what I think of Labour’s plans for a referendum on electoral reform? Well wonder no longer!

The alternative vote is a small but significant step forward in the ongoing campaign for a fair electoral system fit for the 21st century. On a good day. Maybe.

If Brown’s system of choice bores campaigners, what hope is there of inspiring the public?

Everything in the middle can be found here.

More BBC pro-Labour propaganda

John Rentoul is outraged that the BBC have chosen to cover the publication of the government’s new report on equality with the headline “Rich-poor divide ‘wider than 40 years ago’.” He is of course correct to point out that the main increase in inequality over the past 40 years took place during the Thatcher years.

But the Harriet Harman approved wording that he picks out of the report’s executive summary is equally misleading:

The large inequality growth between the late 1970s and early 1990s has not been reversed.

It certainly hasn’t been reversed, but that suggests that it has at leasted been reversing. The reality is somewhat different.

I would refer you, dear reader, to page 9 of the report which has a handy graph showing both the Gini coefficient and the 90/10 factor from 1961 to 2007. What this graph shows is that both measures of inequality peaked in 1991, dropped a bit as we came out of recession and then hovered around the same level in the years following. Indeed, while the 90/10 scale shows a slight dip in inequality since 1991 (to 1989’s levels), the Gini coefficient was at an all time high in 2007.

Since 2007 of course, we have had a major recession. Inequality spiked in 1991 for this reason and so we have every reason to believe it will have spiked again between 2007 and 2010. It is quite possible that both scales will exceed the 1991 levels.

So not only have Labour failed to reverse Thatcher’s increase in inequality, they’ve failed to make any impact on it at all.

The BBC should indeed change their headline. I would suggest that it reads “Rich-poor divide ‘wider than 1997′”. John Rentoul won’t like it but it would accurately reflect the real failings of this Labour government.