Billy Bragg: what the next leader must do to win my vote for Labour again

I live in one of an estimated 80% of constituencies where the result is a foregone conclusion. West Dorset is a ‘safe’ Conservative seat. With Labour stuck at around 10%, a vote for the local candidate would be a somewhat futile gesture. Instead, I have voted tactically for the Lib Dems in the past three elections in the hope of unseating the Tories. Although they always win, the majority of us vote against the Tories. This tactic has brought us some success; in the neighbouring constituency of South Dorset, a Labour MP – the first for 40 years – was twice elected with the support of Lib Dem tactical voters.
Our local anti-Tory coalition has been shattered by the national Tory/Lib Dem government, making my choices at the next election very limited. No longer willing to vote tactically for the Lib Dems, I am left with the prospect of walking down to polling station in the sure knowledge that voting Labour will make no difference to the outcome. It’s a dilemma that millions of other potential Labour voters around the country will face if the next election is fought under first past the post; would you bother going to a football match if you knew that your team all had their legs broken before the game? 
It is even more frustrating when you look at the size of anti-Tory vote. Under a fairer voting system, the Tories could be defeated. Although AV is not the proportional change that I had hoped for, it does have the potential to re-engage Labour voters disenfranchised by FPTP. To get me to vote Labour again, a new leader of the party would first have to make my vote count. A strong campaign in favour of AV by the new leader of the Labour party would have my active support.
Having made my vote count, the new leader would then have to give me something to vote for. The party desperately needs to remember why it was formed; to defend ordinary people from exploitation by a financial system that refuses to accept any responsibility for the inequality that it creates.
As the coalition government go beyond the requirements of deficit reduction to make ideologically motivated cuts to public services, the new leader of the Labour party needs to make the case for the collective provision of health care, education, housing and pensions as the best way to protect the majority of citizens from the insecurity that has accompanied globalisation.
Five million Labour supporters went AWOL between 1997 and 2010. They didn’t switch to the Tories, most of them simply stopped voting for a party that they felt no longer stood up for their interests. To win them back, the party needs to make an ideological commitment to significantly narrowing the gap between rich and poor. And you can’t create a fairer society without a fairer voting system. 
The fact that neither Labour nor the Conservatives were able to win a majority at the last election suggests that our democratic discourse has become stale, the electorate jaded. A Labour party that sided with the Tories to defend the status quo in the AV referendum would only serve to undermine enthusiasm for a new leader.
Instead, the party needs to use the referendum as a shop window for radical policies that engage a new generation of activists and supporters who want to live in a society where the interests of the people come before those of the markets.

Billy Bragg

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21 Responses to “Billy Bragg: what the next leader must do to win my vote for Labour again”

  1. Simon Thompson says:

    I’m baffled Billy!

    As I understand it, the most significant impact of AV is that it would increase the representation of the LibDems in Parliament. It might also increase the representation of smaller parties such as UKIP, the Greens, and the BNP.

    Because AV makes it harder for any of the parties to achieve an outright majority, it makes the necessity for post-election deals, like the one we’ve just seen, more likely. As we’ve seen, this is a situation that can sometimes be thrown up by FPTP, but it is much rarer under that system.

    As the LibDems and Tories are demonstrating, post elections deals enable parties to ditch manifesto commitments within days of entering government. This means that electors are flying blind when they vote – they have no real clue what their chosen legislators will do after they’ve been elected with a 5 year term ahead of them. Who’d have thought, voting LibDem, that the same people who fronted a high profile anti-VAT campaign during the election would be actively promoting a VAT rise only days after the same election?

    Have you been watching LibDem media appearances since the election? The LibDems are emphatically not anti-Tory so there’s no reason to suppose that a “fairer” voting system would increase the likelihood of the Tories being defeated. The LibDems would presumably either (a) continue to side with the Tories because of their shared history and mandate or (b) side with whichever party got the highest share of the vote – which they’d do whether the system was FPTP or AV.

    As for the idea that proportional representation or AV is “fairer”, I don’t think that’s true in reality. Yes, the FPTP system handicaps parties who fail to come first or second, but AV and proportional representation increase the likelihood of smaller parties gaining absurdly disproportional amounts of power. The LidDems could have achieved even less than the 24% of the popular vote they got at the last election and still be holding the balance of power, giving them the ability to gain powerful cabinet jobs they have not earned and waste public time and money fringe issues (like AV for instance) that are of marginal concern to the electorate.

    I appreciate that it might be tactically wise for Labour to cosy up to the LibDems. After all, should we adopt AV or proportional representations it is possible that LibDems will hold the balance of power from now until the end of time, in which case pleasing the new gods of politics would be crucial. But that’s not is not an idealistic position – it’s an entirely pragmatic one. AV isn’t going to improve democracy. It’s going to perpetuate the sort of grubby and sad dealmaking that disempowers voters and makes kingmakers of fringe politicians.

  2. Paul says:

    In fact the new Labour leader’s ‘draft speech’ to conference already commits to meeting Billy’s demands on ‘defending ordinary people from exploitation by a financial system that refuses to accept any responsibility for the inequality that it creates’.

    Not sure why we need Billy, famous guitarist though he is, to tell us what the Labour leadership needs to do when we have plenty of paid-up Labour members telling it the same.

  3. Chris says:

    Paid up members of the Labour Party seemed happy enough to support New Labour move the party wel right of centre. I stopped voting labour this election after over forty years of supporting them with increasing unease. I don’t want a return to ‘old labour’ or some other version of the past. I want a party that is committed to closing the equality of pay gap, and one that makes na environmentally sustainable and morally unassailable future a priority.
    Like Billy , I live in a safe tory seat and joined the Green Party this year just to be able to vote for something I believed in. Like other Greens , I would suport a coalition and support others if they did not conflict with my values. Labour must do much to regain my vote. It cannot be business as usual with a bit of libertarian socialism rhetoric thrown in.

  4. Shelly Dunn says:

    @Paul Blue Labour lost so many members, myself included, by ditching their socialist values. i need hard evidence of a return to their roots before i’ll trust them with my vote again.

  5. DCFC_George says:

    The labour party had 13 years in power, during which time they have bankrupt the country, ok’d a smoking ban (which was the final nail in the coffin for most the boozers round here). Foul mouth yobs roam the streets and parks, the local city center is a no go zone at week ends. Masses of people would rather take from the state rather than go to work. Why didn’t the Labour party get these people working when they had the chance? The prime priority of the labour party and a lot of its support seems to be an obsession with pissing the tories off, if labour actually started engaging with WORKING people and people who want to work, rather than the state benefit for life brigade they might get voted in again. AV, frankly don’t care, the countrys broke…sort it

  6. Pete says:

    I, too, am confused Billy, but for different reasons. I resigned from the labour party in 1996 as it had become clearer and clearer to me what the faces of ‘New Labour’ were doing to the party. When Hilary Armstrong toured constituencies to tell us that labour would be implimenting virtually the same economic policies as the tories for at least the first two years, should it take power, that was a final straw for me. I am now totally confused about what motivates some current members of the labour party. To explain my confusion I give one personal example from the past. Just prior to resigning I opposed a motion at ward level which sought to add our ward to those seeking to ‘propose for renomination’ our current MP, Andrew Smith (this was in Oxford East, where at one point he was the only labour MP in the South-East outside London and someone I had campaigned for and with for many years previously). I opposed the motion on the basis of him now supporting many important policies that he had strongly argued against for years. I raised several social, economic and defence policy examples at the meeting to support my case. None of the 17 of those present spoke in support of his new position. Many spoke against the policy changes he now supported and said they disagreed with him. Despite these ward members presenting no principled arguments in policy terms in favour of him, the vote to propose him for renomination was carried, with me in a minority of one!
    Fast forward to 2010 and we see that ‘New Labour’ did take power, with Andrew Smith becoming a minister, and implimented a whole series of policies entirely at odds with what the party used to stand for and with what many members I met with over these intervening years appeared to continue to believe. They frequently told me that that they disagreed with this or that policy but that we ‘didn’t want a return to Old Labour’. I’m fed up with hearing ‘Old Labour’ simply dismissed and belittled. I, too, voted Green at the last election, the first time I have ever done so. I did so for policy reasons – the Greens had no hope of success where I now live. For me to support the Labour party again I will need a new leader who bases their views and policies on the kinds of principles that you, Billy, support. Surely, whether or not they support FPTP or some form of PR, such as AV, is not the fundamental issue.
    In making this point I want to make clear my support for the principled way you have continued to campaign all these years. Paul, if you are sincere in wanting real change and not more of the same old ‘New Labour’, you couldn’t be more wrong in saying you do not need someone like Billy on the campaign trail. There would seem to me to be ‘plenty of paid up Labour members’ who have been prepared to support policies that continue to maintain privilege and inequality in our society.

  7. dave thawley says:

    av is not as good as pr but it is faier than fptp as it is slightly more representative. ive seen the propaganda about it not helping labour. ive read this from the tories and a couple of labour people who feel scared at people actually having an influence – god forbid they have to actually listen to ud. the truth is av is a whole new ball game – all as people can say truthfully is that it is fairer. how people vote will depend on policy. i am one if the 5 million and iff labour want my vote again the only way they are going to get it is if they support me/us getting more power to eject tosser mps. lsbour will do fine under av. the loosers will be tory, the winners us.

  8. Jonathan Kent says:

    When Michael Foot died there was a wonderful clip of him included in one of the TV obits. “The greatest enemy of democracy is cynicism,” he said and I have to agree.

    Compared with the excesses committed by bankers, lawyers, NHS Trust chiefs, senior BBC execs etc the parliamentary expenses scandal was in some ways small beer. But boy did it make people angry. Why? Because MPs represent us and their playing of the allowances game simply signalled that a) they didn’t have the guts to put the case for a proper pay rise to their fellow citizens and b) they they felt so cosy in elected office that they felt able to ignore the twitching of their moral antennae and play the system. The billionaire Barclay Brothers who run the Telegraph must have chortled their little heads off as they chipped away at the vestiges of respect that MPs command. Sooner or later we will surely value them and with them our democracy not one jot and then who will keep the likes of the Barclays in check.

    This is a long ways about of saying that we need PR because anything that makes politicians more accountable, anything that makes them have to fight to keep their seats, anything that makes the citizens of these islands feel that they really do have a voice and that their opinion counts, will strike a blow against the pervading cynicism that threatens our democracy.

    Yes AV is inadequate. Yes it may favour the Lib Dems. However it’s unlikely to favour the smaller parties – rather most of the modelling I’ve seen suggests it increases swings between Labour and the Tories. However it is what’s likely to be on offer under the terms of the LibDem / Tory coalition deal and anything that breaks the tenacious grasp of FPTP is a step in the right direction.

    What’s more as a Green activist I really hope that Labour can win Billy Bragg’s support back because while that might not make it a party I would vote for it might signal that it’s once again a party I can respect. Right now after 13 years in which this country has become less equitable, in which our liberties have been eroded and after we’ve been dragged into ill thought through foreign campaigns I fear I’d not know what to say when meeting a committed Labour activist. I’d like to be able to agree to disagree and wish them well on the way to the new Jerusalem. Right now I’m not sure I’d know quite where to look.

  9. Roz Smith says:

    Billy, I have always voted in a constituency where effectively my vote doesn’t count. Its something like the 5th strongest Conservative seat. I have recently moved to the USA, but still voted by post in said constituency (as my vote should count somewhere and they won’t let me vote over here). You should always vote, otherwise you don’t have the right to complain. In the build up to the last election, it was obvious whose bed Clegg was going to lie in, so indirectly you have supported the current situation. I have voted Lib Dem in the past myself at council elections, but only when there wasn’t a Labour candidate. It would be intriguing to see what would happen in the fptp voting system if people didn’t vote tactically, as I’m sure there is as much anti-Labour vote out there as well as anti-Tory. Long term I feel though that the Tories may be hoist by their own petard as they try to dismantle the welfare state and rip apart the public sector. Putting people out of work with no real plan for the private sector to be enlivened is a dangerous game. In 97 Labour swept to power as the country was in desperate need of change, a stuffed monkey could have won that election, but Mr Grin sufficed. After a while people got fed up of the slick politics of Mr Blair, and Brown was just too dour for his own good. We need a plain speaking, honest individual who appeals without becoming irritating and doesn’t fall back on sound bites (like the term radical policies). Do any of the candidates fall into that category? I’m not sure.

    PS. I’ll be seeing you in Asheville next month.

  10. dave thawley says:

    @simon im concerned because people who don’t know much about av like yourself will sctually think you know what you are tslking about and belive what you day aas favt. thrre is too much inaccuracy to write about. please find out about av before wring such comments again. the best place for accurate factual unbiased information is the electoral reform society. please look it up in google. there you will find a lot of info whiich if you read with an open mind will allow you to see the mistakes in your thinking – fact av is fairer than fptp. fact this will force mps to do more of what we want. fact unpopular conners will get voted out by it while those that follow the peoples will wont. fact fptp works better for extreme parties than av not the other way around. fact – all this means voting reform is of most importance to us even if the honest press such as the sun have made a mistake this time. dont discount what yoi dont know about – go find out the truth. go to electoral reform society on facebook and ask questions there – or take back pariament.

  11. dave thawley says:

    sorry about typos above i thought it was importaint to respond but did so on my mobile phone

  12. David Gould says:

    Talking of ditched manifesto promises, which party was it who wrote in their 1997 manifesto “We are committed to a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons”?

    The same one who wrote in their 2010 manifesto “Referenda, held on the same day, for moving to the Alternative Vote for elections to the House of Commons and to a democratic and accountable Second Chamber.”

    They screwed us once, now they’re trying to do it again with the outrageous, deceitful claim of gerrymandering to try and justify their existing 5% inherent advantage in the polls.

  13. Jimmy Kelly says:

    Here in N. California we just had a special election with a pro-labor candidate vs. an oil man nd the EXXON man won. We have the same problem with a Democratic Party that is as much a corporatist party as the opposition Republicans. The corporatists dominate both unfortunately and we have even less to choose from as Green and Pece and Freedom have been virtully elimininated from the final ballots next year. Meanwhile the Dems continue the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Iran with bankers hauling off the treasury and immigrant and Moslem bashing prevails. Different flag but the same colours. CU in Seattle. Come to Western Workers in Jan.

  14. Johnny Too Bad says:

    Unfortunately, the ‘anti-Tory’ coalition proved to be nothing more than a convenient vehicle for enabling the Liberal Democrats to put the Conservatives back into power, as did ‘tactical voting’.

    Electoral reform will have exactly the same effect; it’s a myth that AV is ‘fairer’ than FPTP. It just shifts the bias in favour of centre parties.

    Mr Bragg is absolutely right about the direction Labour should take, but sadly if we get AV it will be irrelevant. Labour will either have to change permanently into a Blairite centre party or be marginalised as a party of the Left.

  15. Jon says:

    Irish presidential election, 1990
    Candidate Round 1 Round 2
    Mary Robinson 612,265 (38.9%) 817,830 (51.6%)
    Brian Lenihan 694,484 (44.1%) 731,273 (46.2%)
    Austin Currie 267,902 (17.0%) —
    Exhausted ballots 9,444 (0.6%) 34,992 (2.2%)
    Total 1,584,095 (100%) 1,584,095 (100%)

    The result of the 1990 Irish Presidential election provides a good example of how instant runoff voting i.e. AV can produce a different result than the first past the post system. The three candidates were Brian Lenihan of the traditionally dominant Fianna Fáil party, Austin Currie of the nation’s second largest party, Fine Gael, and Mary Robinson of the Labour Party and Worker’s Party. After the first round, Lenihan had the largest share of the first choice rankings (and hence would have won a first-past-the-post vote), but no candidate attained the necessary majority. Currie was eliminated and his votes reassigned to the next choice ranked on each ballot; in this process, Robinson received over 80% of Currie’s votes, thereby overtaking Lenihan.

  16. Old Hack says:

    Like Roz, I no longer live in the UK. That doesn’t mean I don’t care about British politics, but like so many others, New Labour spelt the end of my own labour vote. It was a cynical, power-hungry version of Thatcherism and did not deserve to be re-elected. My concern about reform of the voting system doesn’t concern AV – that works well here in France and could work in the UK. Under the UKs current system however, postal votes for people like me are posted three days before the election – there is thus no chance of those votes being counted. It’s a farce. We should either be officially disenfranchised or given a better system.

  17. bill major says:

    Is this the same Billy bragg who has welcomed the coalition. He welcomed the input of the Lib Dems into the government. He had recomended before the election that voters should support the Liberals.
    The coalition has taken a coach and horses through the results of the election. The Lib Dems [although they increased their vote] lost seats in parliament. The Conservatives increased their vote and number of MPs but did not gain a mandate[ a majority of seats] from the electorate to govern. Labour lost votes and seats. Clegg’s terms for supporting the discredited Brown were that a coalition would automatically push through parliament a change to the voting system [no referendum]. Fortunately Brown and his discredited new Labour crew did one of the few honourable acts of the year and rejected such a coalition.
    In the first 100 days the coalition [presumably with Liberal influence] to their credit,dumped some of Labours more disgraceful anti-libertarian moves such as ID cards,CCTVs & ASBOs. Unfortunately the Conservatives with the keen support of the Libs pretended that they had a massive Thatcher-like majority and set about proposing to dismantle the welfare state, Gove-like education reforms, attacks on the poorer half and so on. The worst is yet to come in October.
    Mean and nasty decisions such as cancelling the child saving grant, cancelling playground building and the latest proposal to sell off public land,national trust land etc.
    Was this the same Billy Bragg praising the Levellers of the 1640s while his LibCons began to take back what little land is public property?
    Change the voting system and we get more Lib Dems of the Clegg sort who will support Cameron or Brown type parties as long as they offer ministerial cars and the trappings of office?

  18. bill major says:

    “A Labour party that sided with the Tory party to defend the status quo in the AV referendum would only serve to undermine enthusiasm for a new leader” Bill Bragg says.
    What does this make of the shameful act of the Liberals getting into bed with the Tories? That was OK I suppose? Rather a Labour party that sided with Torys in a campaign to oppose AV than a Liberal Party that has got into government for five years with a Thatcherite Conservative party that is determined to reverse the 1945 Welfare state and grind the faces of the bottom half of our population.

  19. Simon Thompson says:

    @dave thawley – Thanks for your advice. I attempted to educate myself by reading your contribution to but I don’t think it contradicts any of my points. Neither did the Electoral Reform Society website.

    Which specific points of mine were just plain wrong (as opposed to subjective arguments you just disagree with)?

  20. Simon Thompson says:

    I gather Australia uses the preferential voting system, which is where the choice of prime minister is delegated to three independent MPs from the outback – is that right, or am I still not getting the hang of it?

  21. bill major says:

    Vote for AV and get a few more little Liberals who will support Tories in their crusade to make the poor pay for their recession [see Guardian 25/08/10 front page].

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