Election special: updated daily

Prospect Magazine

Election special: updated daily


What will the local election and AV referendum results mean for Britain? Experts from all camps weigh in

Welcome to Prospect’s local elections and referendum blog, running before and after polling day on 5th May. Writing here will be a range of figures from all parties and none, including:

Ian Birrell, former speechwriter to David Cameron

Olly Grender, former Lib Dem director of communications

Michael Dugher, former No 10 special adviser and now Labour MP for Barnsley East

Peter Kellner, head of YouGov

David Goodhart, Prospect editor at large




Will the second shoe now drop for the SNP? Their big ambition is to hold and win a referendum on independence. This aim was thwarted during their first four years in office, because they did not have enough MSPs to get a referendum bill through the Scottish parliament. Now Alex Salmond’s party has an overall majority (that is, at least, what the BBC is projecting as I write this), the first shoe has dropped: he has the votes to make sure a referendum really happens.

But what about the second shoe—victory in such a referendum? This is far less certain. This evening we are certain to hear that we have voted to keep first-past-the-post for electing MPs. And the story of the past few weeks has been the story of most referendums round the world when there is no consensus for change: as decision day approaches, the appeal of the status quo grows stronger.

So, if Alex Salmond is to win a referendum on independence, I reckon he needs polls at the start of the campaign to show at least 60 per cent backing for breaking away from the rest of Britain, in order to have a cushion against the likelihood of a rise during the campaign in the status-quo, anti-independence vote.

No poll has ever shown such a level of enthusiasm for independence. The latest YouGov survey, last month, found a two-to-one majority against breaking away from the Union. The SNP won yesterday because of Salmond’s personal appeal, a weak Labour campaign, and the collapse in support for the Liberal Democrats—not because of a vast Scottish appetite to break up the Union.

So Salmond has a mountain to climb if he is to translate a parliamentary majority into a referendum majority for independence. As one of the UK’s canniest politicians, he knows that his challenge now is to build a consensus for change. This won’t happen quickly, and it may not happen at all. In which case, will he still hold the referendum, knowing he is likely to be defeated, or shy away?

Meanwhile, we should bear in mind that Labour will do everything in its power to ensure that Scotland remains in the UK. If we look at the results of last year’s general election without Scotland, the House of Commons would have 591 MPs. They would be: Conservative 306, Labour 217, Lib Dem 46, others 22. David Cameron would now have a majority of 21; and Labour would have a much harder task winning outright. Come to think of it, the best thing for Labour would be for Salmond to call a referendum, lose it, and kill the idea for a generation.

Peter Kellner is president of YouGov



The fortunes of the three main parties in last night’s local elections were broadly predictable, and widely predicted. But it is hard to overstate the significance of the impending SNP victory in last night’s elections to the Scottish parliament. For the first time since the parliament’s creation in 1999, there looks set to be an overall majority administration, led by a uniquely charismatic politician in Alex Salmond who has surprised his critics by boldly promising a referendum on independence during the coming term of office.

There seems to be little appreciation at Westminster of the significance of the Scottish result. Labour’s very poor showing is seen through the prism of Ed Miliband’s leadership, rather than the beginning of the end of Britain as we know it. One senior Labour figure told me this week that it will fall to Labour to save the Union. He was right. This is partly because Labour is responsible for devolution, a policy inherited by Tony Blair from John Smith. The subsequent failure of the Scottish Parliament to address the needs of ordinary people helped pave the way for the new nationalism in Scotland rather than “lancing the boil” as Blair claimed it would.  Tam Dalyell’s prophetic 1970s warnings against devolution have been proved right: devolution as a tactic used by Labour MPs to see off the SNP in their constituencies has, in fact, done nothing to halt the nationalists’ march.

But there is another, darker reason why Labour will have to become the party of the Union. The Tories at Westminster not only have little interest in a territory in which they have such little representation, but also a wider, vested, long-term interest in separation. This is because, as last night’s results underline, the Tories would almost certainly rule perpetually in England (it is worth noting that in 2005 under Michael Howard, the Tories “won” England). The editor of the Scottish Sun, which now backs the SNP as determinedly as it opposed it only months ago, may or may not have in mind the long term destruction of Labour as a party of government across Britain. But you can be sure some Tories are aware of that possibility.

To be fair to David Cameron, after some mixed messages as opposition leader, he has settled on a pro-Union message as prime minister, and some Tories would be appalled at break-up happening under their watch. But occasionally, Tory MPs will admit in private that the benefits of separation are known inside party HQ.

This sentiment rarely emerges in public. When Michael Portillo said in improvised conversation with Andrew Neil on the BBC’s This Week in 2006 that, “from the point of political advantage, the Conservatives have a better chance of being in government if Scotland is not part of the affair,” he did not mean to let the cat out of the bag. But pressed on this, he added: “You are continuing to assume the Union is sacrosanct. That is not an assumption I make any more.” When Alan Duncan said in the same year that, “I’m beginning to think it’s almost impossible now to have a Scottish prime minister,” he was ostensibly deploying the latest attack on Gordon Brown, not betraying the considerably wider Tory resentment of the Scottish presence at Westminster. And when senior Tories from Boris Johnson to David Davis talk of “English votes for English MPs,” using Dalyell’s equally prescient West Lothian Question as an excuse, the question of whether they really believe in an English parliament remains, for now, oblique.

But do not underestimate the grave danger now facing the Union. Cameron doesn’t want its break-up as a legacy, but there are influential figures in his party who would be happy to let it happen. It will fall to Labour, which will need a much stronger leadership in Scotland at the earliest opportunity, to prevent an end to 300 years of rich social, cultural and political Anglo-Scottish unity.

James Macintyre is Prospect’s politics editor



“If we keep doing this we won’t have anything to bloody disagree on,” Nick Clegg was infamously caught telling David Cameron after a question and answer session in Nottingham on 24th March. There can be no more of that in the wake of the predictable but nonetheless devastating Liberal Democrat meltdown in the local elections across the country today. Following the loss of more than 300 seats already, the party is set for another major blow later today with the expected “No” verdict on their glittering prize of electoral reform.

Clegg looked downhearted if a little mechanical speaking outside his home this morning. He gave a hint of his new approach when he said the party’s task was to make it clear to the country that the government of which he is a significant part is not returning to “Thatcherism.” But his task now is about so much more than perceptions. He and his cabinet colleagues will have forcefully to assert themselves on issues ranging from NHS reforms to what increasingly appear to be ideologically-driven cuts across the board.

Inevitably, there are calls from Lib Dem grassroots councillors for Clegg to resign today.This will not happen. Any leadership crisis at Westminster would spark chaos leading to a general election, one in which the Lib Dems know—especially after last night—that they would lose many seats. So the coalition will last. But with the Tories having managed to hold up reasonably well in England, the right of that party will increasingly demand for the Lib Dems to be shaken off. There is therefore a huge burden of responsibility for Clegg from today, to show the Lib Dems are not being used and abused, and have not lived out their usefulness as a political force.

James Macintyre is Prospect’s politics editor



I normally approach the act of voting with childlike excitement. But I went to vote this morning with a heavy heart—not really convinced by either side in the AV referendum campaign. I was going to vote an unenthusiastic Yes on the grounds that, as far as I can tell, AV gives slightly clearer expression to Britain’s anti-Tory majority. The burden of choice was, however, removed from me. At my normal polling station in Islington (completely empty of voters) I was told that I now had to vote at a different polling station that had been opened because of the unmanageable crush at the last general election. When I tracked down my new polling station (also completely empty of voters) I discovered that I wasn’t on their list either. In fact it turned out that I had disenfranchised myself and my family by failing to fill in an electoral registration form.

My own embarrassingly blasé approach to the franchise could not have contrasted more with the vigour and enthusiasm on display in the one local election rally I attended last Thursday at Lozells in Birmingham. This was a Labour rally in a hall belonging to the Communication Workers Union and out of about 200 people in the room there were just five white faces and two women—this was Birmingham Labour’s ethnic minority base, the overwhelming majority Kashmiri-Pakistani men many in traditional dress and chatting away in Urdu. The platform was also mainly Pakistani councillors, union officials, and local bigwigs including the local MP for Birmingham Perry Barr, Khalid Mahmood, and an ex-Birmingham Labour MP who hopes to be the party’s mayoral candidate in the city, Siôn Simon.

The rhetoric was basic—against the cuts, against post office privatisation and so on—but everyone spoke briefly and clearly. And there was a sense of a British minority breathing some new life into our old democracy, and indeed into our old Labour party. This also appeared to be politics as an integrating force—there was little on specifically minority concerns. Mahmood Ali, the master of the ceremonies, talked about how “this is our party, we formed it, the deprived workers of Scotland, Wales and Ireland [not England apparently] the ethnic minorities, the single mothers, we speak for the grassroots not for the elite.”

And yet this was also clan politics in action—and client politics. Many of the people there seemed to be attending out of a sense of duty to their fellow Pakistanis and to the elders of their community. Later on I talked to a group of political insiders and some of them turned out to be quite wealthy local businessmen—perhaps it will be a measure of progress when they vote for the Tory party, voting for their class and business interest rather than their ethnic interest.

If you have vaguely heard of Lozells it is probably because it has been the site of some serious Asian versus black racial tension over recent years. The tension has receded but you can still see it in the body language on the streets. And things had promised to get heavy over Easter because the Sikh holy day fell on Easter Sunday this year and the Sikhs wanted to process past the main Christian churches (dominated by black Africans) who were not keen on the idea—a re-routing compromise was found, but there are other uncomfortable shades of Northern Ireland to be found without looking too hard.

There is also, for example, an informal ethnic power-sharing agreement when it comes to Labour council seats in Lozells/Handsworth—it is agreed that there will be one Kashmiri, one black African and one Afro-Caribbean. Is this an unacceptable “ethnicisation” of politics or a sensible way of making sure people are represented by people like themselves?

There were actually very few black faces at the Lozells Labour rally. Perhaps they have integrated too well into the British mainstream and are too individualistic and post-political. Or perhaps they see the Labour party as another local organisation that has become dominated by the greater organising skill and mutual support shown by the Asian community.

Anyway expect the Labour vote to go up today in Lozells/Handsworth. But behind that bigger vote lie some of the new faultlines of Britain’s inner city ethnic politics. And if the Yes vote loses by one vote in the referendum I will hang my head in shame!

David Goodhart is editor at large of Prospect



Okay let’s all agree, there’s been too much guff from both the pro and anti AV camps about a change in the voting system. A Yes vote will not mean we lose our British identity. A No vote will not guarantee the departure of Nick Clegg. As for whether AV would make politicians work harder, we simply don’t know (although we can all tell the lazy ones and the hard working ones, from all parties).

But what we do know is that AV is a small change that will ensure that more MPs are elected with 50 per cent support and that it will certainly reduce the danger of a hung parliament. In Australia with AV there have been fewer hung parliaments than in the UK with FPTP.

In the 2010 General Election I remember knocking on the door of a Labour-voter in a Lib Dem seat. With AV my conversation with her would not have been “I am sorry but your Labour vote is wasted here,” it would have been “how can I persuade you to give us your second preference.” I hate telling people on the doorstep that their vote is wasted, especially women who I often encourage to vote whichever way they are voting. But it is indeed when there is a clear two way fight. Under AV that would no longer be the case.

For me, it is the height of irony that rather than doing away with the classic Lib Dem tactical squeeze leaflets, which Labour and Tories hate in equal measure, if the “No” vote wins today they will remain a feature of political campaigning.

If you remain undecided, and anti-Clegg, then pour yourself a large coffee, read this blog from an award winning mathematician, and then pop down the polling station. We don’t get a referendum often, it is worth a 10 minute read.  If you want to kick this government or Clegg, your time will come—but this is not it.



YouGov’s prediction for today’s referendum is that No will win comfortably, with 60 per cent of the vote. All the polls show that the campaign has seen a shift in recent weeks, mainly from ‘don’t knows’ to No; as a result reformers are heading for a heavy defeat.

The impact this result will have on the coalition will unfold over the coming weeks and months. One thing that can be said for sure is that few politicians will want to reopen the issue of holding a referendum on our voting system. A narrow defeat would have left open the possibility of a new push for reform after the next election. But if the margin of defeat is 20 points or more, I suspect the issue will be dead for a generation.

Meanwhile, YouGov’s final poll for the Sun throws light on the campaign and why the Yes camp has done so badly. The clinching arguments were that the present first-past-the-post system is simple and has stood the test of time. Some switchers—people who previously said they would vote Yes, or didn’t know—were also swayed by the No campaign argument that switching to AV would cost public money (something the Yes campaign fiercely denied).

In general, the No campaign was regarded as more effective. Even among pro-AV voters only 28 per cent thought the Yes campaign had been effective. Voters felt the No campaign was less honest than the Yes campaign, but the difference was only marginal. The ‘Yes’ campaign’s assault on the No campaign’s ‘lies’ had little effect.

We also asked how interesting voters considered the campaign to be. Most, 54 per cent, thought it was very or fairly boring. The difference between voters on the two sides was vast: by 58 per cent to 37 per cent, Yes voters found the campaign interesting, while ‘No’ voters were divided: interesting 30 per cent, 66 per cent boring. If only those interested in the campaign voted today, Yes would win. And that, perhaps, holds the key to the failure of the Yes campaign: it failed to drum up enough excitement about the prospect of reforming the way we elect MPs.

This is confirmed by a battery of questions we asked about leading politicians and celebrities who campaigned on both sides. Even though the final stages of the campaign were overshadowed by the Royal wedding and, this week, the capture of Osama bin Laden, there has been plenty of media coverage of the views of the party leaders, other leading MPs and celebrity campaigners. Much of the public seems to have not noticed. As many as four out of ten adults are unaware that David Cameron wants a No victory, while Nick Clegg wants Yes.

Referendums are meant to be occasions when a whole nation comes together to debate and decide a matter of constitutional importance. Judged by that standard, and whatever the final result tonight, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this has been a less than glorious advertisement for the referendum process.

Peter Kellner is head of YouGov

A VIEW FROM THE NO CAMP, by Piotr Brzezinski

5th May 2011

The definitive feature of this referendum—Britain’s first for 36 years—might just be the public’s monumental indifference. All evidence suggests that few people outside Cowley Street consider the current voting system one of the key problems facing the country.

That’s not to say it isn’t critical for people to vote today—and vote No. Now that the choice has been foisted upon us, it’s important that the silent majority doesn’t get overwhelmed amidst low turnout.

But this basic fact—that most people don’t see the point of a vote about voting—has warped the AV debate. Of course, electoral reform has always excited the passions of a small minority (including those at the Independent) but most people simply aren’t clamouring for change.

In part, that’s because of the paltry choice on offer. Instead of a broad, principled debate between the merits of our current system and a proportional one, the vote is between two majoritarian systems distinguished by counting procedure, not principle.

With such a technical, limited change on offer, it was always going to be hard for the Yes campaign to convince the public that AV could magically deliver utopian outcomes like ending safe seats and cleaning up politics. But, more importantly, the inherent appeal of such messages is limited to people that already care about electoral reform, not the majority that will determine the outcome—it’s a national referendum, not an Electoral Reform Society meeting.

Only a few months ago, things looked quite different. The Yes campaign was registering double-digit leads and seemed set to win comfortably. Well-positioned to run a progressive Lib-Lab campaign, they could have taken a nakedly political line and painted a No vote as a reactionary, right-wing vote.

Instead, pro-AV campaigners spent months talking to themselves about voting reform. It was a campaign by electoral reformers, for electoral reformers, on Twitter. Their messages were admirably consistent—”make MPs work harder”—but soufflé-like: hard on the outside, mushy in the middle. They did not back up their high-minded platitudes with concrete, practical benefits. It’s telling that the Yes campaign hasn’t produced a single research report in recent weeks, instead focusing on series of celebrity launches.

Judging by their abrupt change of tone over the last three weeks, the Yes campaign seems to have recognised the error of its ways. But the succession of hysterical Lib Dem headlines—even blaming first-past-the-post for slavery—only succeeded in turning the vote into a referendum on Nick Clegg.

By contrast, in the No campaign we have focused on issues people that care about, such as cost, hung parliaments and extremist parties. These are practical arguments, not lofty promises. And we have relentlessly focused on building a cross-party campaign with visible, active Labour and Conservative spokespeople, so that a No vote isn’t associated with one particular party.

We also have benefited from the fact that AV really is a “miserable little compromise.” At the end of the day, even the Yes campaign doesn’t really want AV. The overwhelming majority of Yes supporters see it as a small step toward PR, and this inconvenient fact has hobbled their messaging from day one. Is AV a cure-all for Britain’s democracy or just a “slight change” as Nick Clegg insisted last weekend?

In short, the Yes campaign haven’t offered the convincing answer they need to cut through the public’s general indifference to electoral reform. That’s why I’m cautiously optimistic that the result of the referendum will be a resounding No.

Piotr Brzezinski is is deputy research director of the No to AV campaign


Wednesday 4th May

So it is all over bar the shouting. And what a lot of shouting there has been. In truth, the proposed change to our voting system is a pretty small one, which was why it was dismissed for so long by the likes of Nick Clegg. But the debate has been depressing, with juvenile claims made on all sides in an increasingly desperate attempt to grab the attention of a public focusing on far more important matters.

There is a painful irony in supporters of reform arguing that it will help breach the gaping chasm between politicians and voters while immersed in an imbroglio that can only have served to make people despair once again of their elected representatives. Indeed, the idea that adopting the voting system used in Hollywood for the Oscars will somehow heal the wounds of our body politic are among the most absurd of the claims flying around.

If the polls are right, Britain will have spent £80m of much-needed taxpayers money to say No to a new voting system. The Yes campaign has been inept, the No campaign brutally efficient. But the bigger issue, among talk of cabinet shouting matches and accusations between coalition colleagues of behaving like Nazi propagandists, is of the damage done to the government as the smoke from this sour campaign clears.

As I wrote in my column in last night’s London Evening Standard, the real worry is not that the coalition is killed but that it is crippled. For differing reasons, none of the three major parties want a general election right now, whatever the electoral system that is used. But clearly Chris Huhne has embarked on leadership manoeuvres, shoring up his left flank against Lib Dem chair Tim Farron in case grassroots concern with the coalition crystallises into a leadership challenge to Clegg.

This means that David Cameron, determined to hold together his coalition government, must now concentrate on shoring up his deputy prime minister within the Lib Dems, rather than shoring up the Lib Dems as a whole after its bungling of the tuition fees vote. The legacy of this may be threefold.

Firstly, it may hobble Cameron’s ambition to lead the first great reforming government of 21st century Britain, one that transforms the landscape of the nation by reshaping the state so that it serves the interests of both taxpayers and those most in need. Neither were served by the Blair-Brown bubble, with their policy of hurling money at an unreformed system in a way that benefited the middle classes but failed so many of the old, the poor and the sick.

Unlike the Orange Book liberals at the top of the party, most Lib Dem activists dislike the government’s radicalism on public services. They attacked free schools, hate the health service reforms, distrust the housing shakeup and dislike anything that smacks of “privatisation” or undermines the control of their adored local authorities. Many work in the public sector and resent handing over control to consumers of their services. And, sadly, they have allies among the more cautious Conservatives.

Already we have seen the NHS plans hijacked, and now Lib Dem peers are trying to delay the introduction of elected police commissioners. We can expect more of these assaults on the public service reform agenda, with the smaller party dragging back its larger partner. And expect far more concentration on the government’s little-noticed efforts to use mutuals and co-operatives to reshape the public sector instead of relying on private firms.

The second spin-off from the campaign, with a new style of unruly coalition, will be the Conservative need to give the Lib Dems a few liberal triumphs to brag about—and the Lib Dems’ rather tedious need to boast about them. The problem with this, of course, is that it undermines Cameron’s rebranding of the Conservatives after they lost focus on the middle ground. The painting of the team in blue as resisting change—especially when, as has happened in the past, both parties have happily agreed progressive measures—threatens to conjure up the spectre of the nasty party again.

However, it is not all bad. From the launch of the coalition I have been urging some of its leading lights to use the new landscape to reshape public debate, with a more honest approach to politics. The idea of cabinet collective responsibility seems outdated in the digital age, especially with a coalition government. The public knows politicians are mature individuals with widely differing views, policies and ideas. The parties are themselves coalitions. It would be healthy to have more internal debate in the public arena.

So it would be nice—although probably naive of me in the current media climate—to think that the final legacy of this bad-tempered campaign on such a trivial issue could be more open discussion of the ideas and policies that can shape Britain at this time of immense change in the world. Looking at what is happening from Asia to north Africa, we need it more than ever.

Ian Birrell is a journalist and former speechwriter for David Cameron


3rd May 2011

Where should Nick Clegg go after 5th May, assuming (as is probable) that the referendum vote is no, and the local election results are poor? Nothing is simply not an option. There is an internal party morale issue, and more critically there is an expression of disenchantment from the country—albeit one that was expected as soon as the Liberal Democrats signed up to the coalition.

First, he shouldn’t panic. On 6th May the party will still have more influence over public policy than they have had in a generation. A recent study by UCL suggests that the Lib Dems have achieved 75 per cent of their manifesto promises but only 60 per cent of Tory promises have been achieved.

Second, Clegg must deal swiftly with leadership nonsense—which would be greatly helped by the Westminster media understanding the party constitution and a pause for breath from the pathological briefers around Chris Huhne!

Third, he must not, on any account, get involved in any of the recriminations about the Yes campaign. Frankly it is irrelevant and for others to do; given there is unlikely to be another referendum on electoral reform for the next decade, it would be pointless to be part of the wash up and pointless whinging about the outcome.

Instead, he should focus directly on some of the issues that remain critical for the Lib Dems to deliver while in government. The NHS should be at the top of the list. Further reassurances about health reform are critical: a more practical mixed-market approach to GP consortia, greater guarantees regarding competition and the private sector, some reassurance on future funding would all be useful targets. Education should remain a high priority. There have been some strange stories about the spending of targeted funding for the poorest children in early years the pupil premium. Likewise further progress on climate change, social mobility and reducing welfare dependency are all central to why Lib Dems remain in government. And the structural deficit is, of course, the glue at the very centre of the coalition. Success in paying down the deficit and fostering private sector growth, while protecting those most in need, will be the final judge on the government in 2015.

A swift solution to the reform of the House of Lords would be a useful icing on the cake—but should in no way be seen to be top of the list, given the difficult period people are about to go through as the cuts begin to bite. While “Alarm Clock Britain” is, in my view, a pointless description, the people the Lib Dems are trying to describe—those who get up early, work hard, and pay their taxes—are exactly the people Nick Clegg should have upper most in his mind as he considers his reaction on 6th May. For them, reforming the House of Lords means little, but reforming pensions or care for older people means everything. Speaking direct to those people will be critically important.

Olly Grender is a former Liberal Democrat director of communications


Tuesday 3rd May

In a recent party political broadcast, Ed Miliband remarked that “Westminster is not the real world.” That’s why knocking on doors—hashtag “labourdoorstep” for all us Twittering types—is so good for politicians. To do so, you need comfy shoes and a thick skin.

Yesterday, I was campaigning in three wards in my Barnsley East constituency. The day began leafleting in Grimethorpe, the place where the film Brassed Off was shot
(the pit village was renamed “Grimley” for the movie). I then moved onto Ardsley in the Stairfoot ward to spend an afternoon leafleting in the brilliant sunshine with Councillor Karen Dyson and her equally brilliant Labour family. Finally, we did some “voter ID”—what we used to call canvassing or just plain “door-knocking”—in Hoyland with Jim Andrews, the deputy leader of Barnsley council, and our excellent candidate Chris Lamb.

Jim Andrews was born in Sheffield but has lived all his life in Barnsley. So strong is his accent that most people outside of Barnsley cannot understand a single word he says. In fact, most people in Barnsley cannot understand a single word he says. If you hired Jim Andrews on DVD from Blockbusters, you would watch it with the subtitles on.

I was introduced to one friendly constituent as “our new MP.” The old chap very nicely asked me how I was settling into parliament (I am one of the newbies, elected a year ago at the general election). “Great, thanks,” I replied. He said: “You’ve had some tough jobs though before this one, eh?” I wondered if he meant working for Gordon Brown at Downing Street before the election, or perhaps even my time with John Spellar MP—both jobs were certainly challenging. “Suppose I did,” came my reply, as I began to feel a little proud of myself. “So,” the elderly gentlemen added, “are you missing army life?”

Suddenly the penny dropped. We have just had a by-election in Barnsley, in the neighbouring Barnsley Central seat, where Dan Jarvis, a former major in the parachute regiment, was elected as the MP. Dan has had an impressive military career, serving in Northern Ireland, Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan. I used to work for the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union. It’s not the same thing.

In addition to the local elections, people will also vote this week in the AV referendum. Twitter has, annoyingly, become dominated by AV campaigners—for and against—in recent weeks. It seems that there is nothing too tedious about electoral systems that cannot be tweeted in less than 140 characters. To say that the good people of Barnsley are somewhat underwhelmed by the referendum would be a serious understatement. On one doorstep, a very elderly lady who is a postal voter asked me what the second ballot paper she had received through the letterbox was for. I told her that was for the referendum on whether or not to change the voting system. She simply said: “I’m 94, love, I can’t be doing w’ that.” I’m 36 and neither can I.

Finally, if anyone thinks that public cynicism about politicians has declined in the two years since the MP’s expenses scandal broke in the Daily Telegraph, consider the impressively succinct response I had in Barnsley when I knocked on one door. “You can bugger off—you all piss in the same pot.” It would seem that we politicians have a lot more #labourdoorstep to do.

Michael Dugher is Labour MP for Barnsley East and a shadow defence minister


Monday, 2 May 2011

Have the Liberal Democrats got it all wrong? The blows being exchanged between Lib Dem and Tory Cabinet colleagues over the AV referendum are likely to cool relations between the two coalition partners for months to come, even if the coalition itself survives.

The reason for Lib Dem anger is surely obvious: the party hopes to gain from AV. Achieving a “yes” majority would be worth all the grief: the charges of breaking election policies, the party’s (and its leader’s) terrible poll ratings, and so on. But if, as now seems likely, there is a “no” majority, not least because of David Cameron’s robust, sustained and very public opposition has secured a big majority of Tory voters for the “no” camp, then the Lib Dems will complain that the prime minister has hit them unfairly below the belt.

But—to repeat my question—have the Lib Dems got it all wrong? Could it be that AV, far from giving them extra seats in the House of Commons, could actually end up costing them seats?

The theory that the Lib Dems would gain seats is based on survey work (some of it done by YouGov) which has attempted to rerun past general elections under AV. These generally show the Lib Dems picking up seats under AV where they come second under first-past-the-post.

Consider Lewisham East. Last year Heidi Alexander held this seat for Labour with a majority of 6,216 over Pete Pattison, the Lib Dem candidate. Under AV, the Tories and minor-party candidates would have been eliminated. The polling suggests that Pattison would have gained the lion’s share of the 10,474 Tory and Green votes and overtaken Alexander.

The trouble is that this polling doesn’t really tell us what would really happen had Britain adopted AV. These kind of “what if” polls are roughly analogous to looking at TV replays of a cricket or soccer match and saying this batsman would have been out had the LBW law been different, or that goal disallowed if we tweaked the offside rule. It’s interesting, if you are keen on that sort of thing, but it ignores one vital factor: if you change the rules, people change the way they play. Under a different LBW or offside regime, Kevin Pietersen, Shane Warne or Wayne Rooney will act differently.

Likewise with voting systems. If we did have AV, parties and some voters would act differently. So—and, yes, this is guesswork, though not without fragments of evidence—here’s my guess as to what would really have happened in Lewisham East a year ago.

First, the Lib Dems would have struggled to maintain second place on the first count. They very possibly benefited from some tactical voting a year ago by Tories wanting to defeat Labour locally. In addition, the Greens have done well in parts of Lewisham in local elections: under AV, they might well have gained more first-round votes at the expense of the Lib Dems. And some of these extra Greens might well have given Labour their second preference: having established their environmental credentials, they may well have indicated that they preferred a Labour to a Tory government.

So: I believe the run-off under AV would have been between Alexander and Jonathan Clamp, the Tory candidate; and Alexander would have won.

(Similar calculations apply where the Lib Dems ran second to the Tories: often Labour’s poor local showing in these seats last year was a product of tactical voting. Under AV, Labour’s vote in these places is likely to revive, condemning the Lib Dems to third place and AV disappointment.)

But suppose Pattisson had scraped through to the run-off. This brings me to my second reason for thinking AV will not be as good for the Lib Dems as many of them think. My guess is that many supporters of the eliminated candidates would have marked only their first preference. There might well be too few second preferences left to overhaul Alexander’s lead.

I said I had fragments of evidence to support this guesswork. Here they are.

London’s Mayor is elected by the “supplementary vote,” a close cousin of AV. Voters can give their first and second choice. Under FPTP, the Lib Dems won 22 per cent in London in then general elections of both 2005 and 2010. But in 2008, Brian Paddick won only 10 per cent of first preference votes. True, he lacked the charisma of both Ken and Boris. (Nobody would know who you meant if you said just ”Brian.”) But I believe that part of Paddick’s poor performance was the result of there being no point in casting a tactical vote for the Lib Dems in order to keep out whichever of the big-beast candidates voters hated more. London’s voting system meant that the kind of tactical voting bandwagon that has helped the Lib Dems win seats from third place in by-elections was never on in the mayoral election.

London also provides the evidence to suppose that many supporters of the eliminated candidates would not have backed either of the two finalists. In 2008, almost half a million voters backed Paddick or one of the minor party mayoral candidates. But only 260,000 of them gave their second preference to Ken or Boris. The rest gave either no second preference, or plumped for another eliminated candidate (a splendidly quixotic gesture as it was blindingly obvious that the two finalists would be Ken and Boris).

Evidence from Australia supports this analysis. In national elections it is compulsory to vote—and compulsory to give a full list of preferences. But in states where there is no requirement to vote the full list in state elections, increasing numbers of voters are now giving only a first preference.

So, for those readers who are still with me (and thank you for staying the course), my conclusion is that the Lib Dems are wrong to suppose that AV would give them great advantages. I believe they would win few, if any, extra seats; and their total national first-preference vote would be substantially lower than the 20 per cent or so they have secured in recent general elections. They would be deprived of the launch pad in many seats that, over time, has given them victories under FPTP.

As there is likely to be a “no” majority on Thursday, we’ll never be able to put this to the test. But I am sure as it is possible to be in any hypothetical exercise like this that the Lib Dems are wrong to be as passionate as they have been to replace first-past-the-post with this particular reform.


Sunday 1st May 2011

At least two curious points stand out from the pro-AV Observer article co-signed by Chris Huhne today. The first is that, along with the shadow business secretary John Denham and the Green MP Caroline Lucas, the Climate Change Secretary openly admits: “Britain consistently votes as a centre-left country, and yet the Conservatives have dominated our politics for two-thirds of the time since 1900.”

This is of course correct, and the 2010 election was no exception. Resulting in a hung parliament (that’s no clear winner under the supposedly decisive First Past The Post system, incidentally), the share of the vote breakdown was as follows last May: 36.48 per cent for the Tories, 28.99 for Labour and 23.03 for the Lib Dems. In other words, there was a considerable “progressive majority” of the sort to which Huhne refers.

And yet during the coalition negotiations, Huhne was among the Lib Dems most enthusiastically pushing for an alliance with the Tories. As Andrew Adonis has repeatedly pointed out, this was a deliberate choice. That the “numbers” could not have worked is debatable, more alibi than fact. It is worth recalling that Lucas, who has today sided with Huhne, was prepared to vote with Labour, as was the independent Sylvia Hermon. The Scottish Nationalists and Plaid Cymru made it clear they would not side with the Tories, while the Democratic Unionist Party would have abstained. Advocates of a Labour-Liberal alliance were confident they would be able to get the Budget and other legislation through with a majority. So Huhne must surely take some responsibility for the fact that for the past year, to quote the piece, “the Conservatives have dominated our politics”. The Lib Dems had the chance to reunite the historically-tied Liberal and Labour movements and rejected it.

Today, it is partly because the most high profile “No to AV” campaigner is the Prime Minister David Cameron, that what Nick Clegg has called a “once in a lifetime” opportunity for electoral reform will almost certainly pass by. In turn, Britain will be left with a system in which only a tiny minority of the electorate in marginal seats will continue to determine elections for all of us.

Which brings us to the second question raised by Huhne’s intervention: what are his intentions? Some Lib Dem rebels, not to mention Labour sources, hope that Huhne — who has threatened non-specific legal action against the “No” campaign for peddling alleged untruths – will resign.

They will be disappointed. “No way – I’m enjoying being part of the argument too much,” Huhne has told a friend today, in words relayed to Prospect online. So, as expected, first will come the mini-crisis, followed by, in time, business as usual.

Ed Miliband has today claimed it is now “more likely” that the coalition will not last the full term. Yet if ever there was a moment for rupture, it was this week. Despite the drama, smart money still says the Labour leader is thinking wishfully.

WHAT’S AT STAKE? by James Macintyre

Friday 29th April 2011

On Thursday, 279 English local authorities will be contested, with elections to the Scottish Parliament, National Assembly for Wales and Northern Ireland Assembly. Thursday marks the first electoral test of the coalition Government and for Labour under Ed Miliband.

On the same day, Britain will vote “Yes” or “No” to the Alternative Vote [AV] electoral system, in the first national referendum since 1975, and the first ever on electoral reform.

The referendum—a condition of Liberal Democrat agreement to a coalition with the Conservatives last May—will have considerable implications for all three parties, especially the Lib Dems. If, as expected, the UK votes “No”, the coalition is likely to enter into a temporary crisis, with heightened doubts among Lib Dem rebels over what their party is gaining from its association with the Tory-led Government. The Labour leadership, too, will have found itself on the wrong side of the result, having taken a risk by defying the large section of its party opposed to AV.

In the less likely event of a “Yes” vote, David Cameron, who failed to win an overall majority at the general election, will face increasing unrest in his own party. Overall, Prospect expects it to be business as usual in time, whatever the result. On the turkeys-don’t-vote-for-Christmas principle, the Lib Dems are unlikely to break from the coalition, precipitating a general election in which many of their MPs would lose their seats.

Nonetheless, as attention switches from Westminster Abbey to the Palace of Westminster, it’s sure to be an interesting week in British politics.

  1. May 3, 2011



    James Macintyre makes some very crude assumptions in order to construct his “centre-left majority” that simply don’t stack up.

    There are plenty of people, like me, who voted Lib Dem in 2010, but not from a left-leaning standpoint.

    I voted Lib Dem in 2010 partly because it was my best chance to defeat a sitting Labour MP. But it wasn’t just a protest vote. I heard Nick Clegg when he talked about the need for “savage cuts”. I heard him say – before the election – that in the event of a hung parliament, it was only fair that the largest party (which was always going to be the Tories) should have the first opportunity to form a government.

    If I’d thought there was the vaguest chance of the Lib Dems propping up a Gordon Brown / Labour government, I would have withdrawn my support.

    As a genuine liberal, I don’t think there was very much at all progressive about Gordon Brown or his Labour government (10p tax, anyone? British jobs for British workers? 90 days detention without charge? And what exactly is progressive about saddling our children with more debt during 13 years in office than every previous government for the past 300 years combined?!) Nick Clegg’s call for “savage cuts” came in his 2009 party conference speech. He was right then and it was absolutely consistent that he should form a government with the Tories to implement a sensible, sustainable fiscal policy.

    Look at the Lib Dems poll rating right now. Around half of us who voted Lib Dem in 2010 would still vote Lib Dem now. Add us 11 or 12% to the Tories score in the high thirties and you’ve got 50% (or very nearly) straight away who support the so-called rabidly right wing coalition parties right now. Doesn’t say much for this left majority.

    Even if we accept James Macintyre’s assumption that the combined voters of Labour and LD represent some left-wing majority, at 52%, it’s hardly the “considerable” majority he claims in the article at a time when the centre right parties are implementing incredibly difficuly and unpopular decisions.

  2. May 6, 2011

    Michael Riordan

    James MacIntyre should read some history, and the polls. Most Scots have never, ever, ever been in favour of indoendence. The SNP’s victory, as Peter Kellner writes, has nothing to do with Scots being pro-independence. That is one thing they are not.

    (comment via facebook)

  3. May 12, 2011

    Gordon Logan

    In fact, in Scotland for some years there has been no majority for any constitutional option. On the ‘binary’ question (independence vs the status quo) a typical poll result is 40% status quo; 35% to 40% independence; 20% to 25% don’t know. See assorted back copies of the (Glasgow) Herald newspaper for details.

    So it will take a surprisingly modest swing to win an independence referendum. No doubt that is why the three Unionist parties refused to allow such a referendum to be held during the last Scottish parliament. Be in no doubt, a vote for independence is entirely possible.

    I nearly had a tear in my eye when I read James Macintyre’s comment about “an end to 300 years of rich social, cultural and political Anglo-Scottish unity”. But then I remembered how Scotland had recorded lower than UK and European average growth for the whole of the 20the century, and as a result how it has haemorrhaged population compared with England, Sweden, Norway, Holland and almost all other comparable European nations. And I thought of the ruined urban wastelands of central Scotland, where life expectancy is lower than it is in the Gaza strip; and I thought of Norway, with its position at the top of the UN human development index. And I observed that these facts tell a very different story.

    And for reference this is how YouGov called the Scottish parliament election that ended in an SNP landslide:

    “In Scotland, we show the SNP narrowly ahead, by seven points in the constituency section and just three points in the regional top-up section. Allowing for margins of error and the nature of the electoral system, we would expect a close race with the SNP probably, but not certainly, ahead. However, they are likely to remain well short of an overall majority”

    Just thought I would mention that.

Leave a comment

Share this

Most Read

Prospect Buzz

  • Prospect's masterful crossword setter Didymus gets a shout-out in the Guardian
  • The Telegraph reports on Nigel Farage's article on Lords reform
  • Prospect writer Mark Kitto is profiled in the New York Times

Prospect Reads

  • Do China’s youth care about politics? asks Alec Ash
  • Joanna Biggs on Facebook and feminism
  • Boris Berezosky was a brilliant man, says Keith Gessen—but he nearly destroyed Russia