by Michael Dugher
In September 2009 I was asked to conduct the traditional pre-briefing for broadcasters of the leader’s speech to the party conference. I remember reporting back to Gordon Brown’s other advisers that I had just “had my balls fried” by journalists about a line in the speech committing Labour to hold a referendum on the alternative vote. There was much confusion. The journalists wanted to know why having a referendum on AV had anything to do with the need for political reform after the MPs expenses scandal. They also wanted to know whether Labour would be campaigning for a “yes” vote, or whether we were simply committing to giving people the choice to move to AV or not. “Oh we’re definitely in favour of AV”, said one policy wonk. “No we’re bloody not,” said a political adviser, “large parts of the PLP are against and it hasn’t gone through the NEC yet”.
18 months later, the tedious irrelevancy that is the debate about whether or not to change to the alternative vote system continues. It is striking that the only party to have had a commitment to having a referendum on AV was Labour, the party that definitely lost the election. The Tories were opposed, as were the Lib Dems, who, as longstanding supporters of proportional representation, dismissed AV as “a miserable little compromise”. And yet we are having a referendum nonetheless, whether the public wants one or not.
The truth is that a pledge to hold a referendum on electoral reform, and specifically for Labour to campaign for AV, was born out of a desperate response to the MPs expenses scandal that virtually destroyed the public’s trust and confidence in both politicians and the political system. The Labour leadership at the time rightly knew that they needed a forward offer on political reform, not least for Gordon Brown’s pre-election speech to the party conference. PR commanded little support in either the Labour party or the country – that remains the case – but the leadership thought they might just be able to persuade the party’s ruling bodies to adopt commitment to hold a referendum on AV in the manifesto. I don’t remember, as a Labour party member, getting a vote to approve such a pledge. Indeed, some cynical whips at the time even privately assured members of the PLP who were opposed to AV that they ought to go along with it anyway as “we’ll probably lose the next election and then the idea will be put in the bin”.
Recent polls show that the public’s lack of confidence has in no way returned, despite the introduction of an independent system of expenses, a new coalition government and a parliament that is almost unrecognisable in terms of its composition. In the short term, some high profile prosecutions of former MPs may go a little way to satisfy the public’s need for justice/revenge. In the longer term, a new independent and transparent system to fund MPs offices, and our accommodation and travel needs, may slowly help to heal the anger the public feel after the biggest Parliamentary scandal in a century. A referendum to change the electoral system to the alternative vote is unlikely to make a blind bit of difference.
Those in favour of a change to AV robustly defend the significance of the referendum. Paul Sinclair, from the “yes to fairer votes” campaign, was quoted recently as saying that the referendum was “about giving the people, for the first time in history, the right to decide how we elect our politicians”. He obviously believes that giving people the opportunity to move to an electoral system where people list preferences, rather than simply voting for the person they want to do the job, is both momentous and historic. I think that is probably overstating things. It is merely a technical change that makes an elected MP think that they have won the support of more than 50 per cent of their voters, when in fact they did not. The eventual winner gets the votes from the people who actually supported them, plus “bits” of other votes from the people who actually wanted someone else. It is not a system of proportional representation (PR), thankfully, but it may well produce more coalitions like the one we saw emerge after the last election. None of this sounds terribly momentous or particularly persuasive. But for those people who have fanatically campaigned for electoral reform, AV represents a step towards that ultimate objective of PR.
The debate has also revealed some particular absurdities. My favourite is the incredible sight of my great friend and Uncut regular, Tom Watson MP, campaigning for electoral reform. This is the same Watson who, in more sensible times as political organiser for the former AEEU engineering union ten years ago, was co-ordinator for the Labour campaign for first-past-the-post. It was Watson who, in response to the report on electoral systems chaired by the late Lord Roy Jenkins, arranged for delegates to the party conference to wear T-shirts with a picture of Roy and a slogan that read “No Way Woy” on them. He now believes, with all the fervour of a religious convert, that salvation lies in electoral reform. Quite ridiculous. I wonder if he still has the T-shirt.
At times, though, the debate has become more tetchy. In recent weeks, Twitter has been one of the places where over-excited individuals, from both campaigns, fight hand-to-hand combat in the new media with accusations and counter claims. One tweet from a Yes campaigner seemed to take disproportionate pleasure in announcing that the No campaign had made a significant “gaffe” by listing an MP as a supporter who subsequently made clear that he was in favour of AV. I almost tweeted “does anyone really care”, though by doing so I thought it might look as though I did.
In my opinion, the whole debate is a monumental waste of time and energy. Labour faces a hard slog back to government. The country is facing the biggest cuts in living memory. Growth has stalled. Youth unemployment is at its highest since records began. People are seeing their living standards eroded, opportunities for our young people ripped away (from sure start to EMA), and today we see the most fundamental attack on the national health service in its history. And yet large numbers of Labour activists are pre-occupied with a pointless debate about the alternative vote.
It is not just a waste of time and energy. It is also a waste of money. A report in the Sunday Telegraph last weekend suggested that the “yes to fairer votes” campaign would spend £6.1 million over ten months on their campaign, though the campaign organisation denied that the leaked document represented the group’s current accounts. Legally, each side of the referendum battle is able to spend a total of £5 million, though this financial cap period only kicks in for the last ten weeks before the referendum is held.
There are many reasons for the lack of public trust and confidence in politicians and politics. The expenses scandal is the main one. But there are others too. The perceived remoteness of what goes on in Westminster is a factor – MPs often enjoy much higher approval ratings in their constituencies, where we hold surgeries and campaign on local issues, than we do in Westminster. The perception that politicians say one thing and do another, or believe in a “do as I say, not as I do” approach to politics, is a further reason for a growing cynicism about politics. The inability to list candidates for the general election in preferential order is not.
Cameron and Clegg did understand the public’s dissatisfaction with politics after the general election. No party had endeared themselves to the electorate, hence the result. The new government was deliberately dressed up as “new politics”. Undoubtedly the idea of “new politics”, and indeed anything that is perceived to be “anti-politics”, does resonate with the public. Labour needs to show that there is nothing new about the Tory-Lib Dem government’s politics. It is simply about sustaining in power two political parties which failed to win an election. It is a political fix that is designed to give the Conservatives a chance to lead the most reactionary and damaging government we have seen for generations. The Lib Dems are there to provide a fig leaf of “progressive” respectability, to help detoxify the Tory brand, and to act as their human shield to take the rap for all the unpopular decisions. In return, the Lib Dems get “power”, or at least the trappings of office. It is also about giving the Tories a chance to change the rules of the game to make it harder for Labour to win next time.
Making Labour the “change party” once again, the party with bold ideas to reform and make Britain better in the future, is a huge task. It does mean exposing the damage being done to the country and it does mean setting out a clear and coherent alternative. It also means addressing how we restore public trust and confidence in politics and in politicians, looking at how we increase engagement in the process and how we bring people closer to those who represent them. A debate about the alternative vote won’t do that and is, I think, a colossal distraction. There is a danger that some in Labour think that in supporting AV we are addressing the big challenges we face in politics, when we are not. I don’t have the answer, but there is no easy answer to a difficult question. For these reasons, if we are to have a wretched referendum on the Alternative Vote, I will vote no.
Michael Dugher is Labour MP for Barnsley East.