Calamity Clegg Closes Down Electoral Reform

Labour Party

I’ve left commenting on the result of the AV referendum so late because, to be honest, I haven’t had the heart to put pen to paper, or should I say fingers to keyboard.

As regular readers of this blog will know, electoral reform is a cause I have campaigned for over many years. It now looks to have been stopped for in its tracks for many more years to come. I take no joy in pointing out how appalling Nick Clegg’s judgment has been on this matter.

I wrote a post here in September 2009 which is a little prescient looking back now. Gordon Brown had just committed the Labour Party to AV and this became part of Labour’s subsequent manifesto. I argued then that the way to secure electoral reform would be for the Liberal Democrats to work with another party which had the same objective. Quite why Nick Clegg and others thought the Conservatives would not fight a hard campaign against AV is beyond me. There is a touching naivety in their complaints about lies and negative campaigning. Can these Lib-Dem politicians be the very ones who used to put flakey bar charts on their election leaflets inflating Liberal Democrat chances of winning, not to mention their penchant for dirty campaigns when necessary? I have experienced negative Liberal and Liberal Democrat campaigns for 30 years.  Now they’re on the receiving end of criticism they seem quite unable to take it on board.

I remember saying in 2009 that almost every seat the Liberal Democrats won in 2005 from Labour had a substantial student population who voted for them as a result of the cocktail of Iraq and university tuition fees, which, of course, no longer exists. How true this proved.  In the 2010 General Election Liberal Democrats gained two seats from Labour – Redcar and Burnley. Both of these gains were based on local issues and campaigns.

What is more, the shattering Scottish and Welsh results last week show that any Liberal Democrat in a seat with a large student population should immediately start looking for alternative career prospects. Now with first past the post re-established the only question surely is whether the Liberal Democrats lose a half, two-thirds or maybe even more of their current seats. Nick Clegg in the 12 months before the 2010 General Election fantasised that the Liberal Democrats would make considerable gains from Labour. In the end Labour gained one seat overall from the Liberal Democrats.

Nick Clegg’s strategic mistake was of monumental proportions. He could have seized an opportunity to work with Labour to secure AV. Labour made a manifesto commitment that would have seen Liberal Democrats at the next election hold perhaps 80 seats, now it is likely to be 20. That’s a massive blow to any party. I am unconcerned about Liberal Democrat prospects but I did want to secure a fairer voting system. So like many Liberal Democrat activists I am very disappointed at how badly Nick Clegg misjudged matters.

Electoral Reform – A Feminist Issue

Labour Party

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I have had a flurry of emails from fellow electoral reformers debating how to respond to Gordon Brown’s proposal to have a referendum on the Alternative Vote system. As Nancy Platts and I said on Wednesday evening  electoral reform is a feminist issue as it will result in better representation for women. Regular attenders of Labour Party events will have seen Cath Arakelian (pictured). Cath is Labour’s candidate in Chingford and Woodford Green, and she regularly wears a sash, suffragette style. This is her take on the current situation:

“Each year before conference I ask myself what would the Pankhursts be fighting for? For the first three days of conference I wore my suffragette sash with Vote for a Change written on them. I am certainly happy to go as far as chaining myself to railings, hiding in a House of Commons broom cupboard, although I don’t think I would throw myself under a horse! Electoral Reform and Proportional Representation are for me feminist issues. Fair voting, fair representation and fair chances for women go together.  

“I’m a woman PPC in a so-called “unwinnable”.  Women candidates are even given advice to stand in unwinnables, or as I call them, “zombie” seats “for the practice” or to build their confidence as novice candidates.  Unlike me perhaps, many women who come to the idea of standing for Parliament are already ready and often hugely experienced. They do not need the practice.

Standing as a woman in an “unwinnable” is a way of fobbing women off with lesser opportunities. Rather than building confidence, the experience of having only minimum campaigning support from the Party, and all local activists including the candidate, having to work off their own patch, can seriously undermine self-esteem and lead to burn out or disillusion.

 I believe a Proportiwaltham_forest_016onal Representation system – where every candidate will count and quality will be essential to the Party,  will enable more women candidates of quality to emerge and be successful.

 I think we should enlist political women of note to head up a campaign and women’s organisations – Fawcett, Labour Women’s Network,  etc. Together we should campaign for the referendum to be on the same day as the General Election. 

And that this should be a referendum asking the question 

 Do you want a system of Proportional Representation which will 

(a) mean you will still know who your MP is, and

 (b) will give each party a share of MPs equal to the share of the total votes cast across the country? Yes or No

 I think this means Alternative Vote Plus. We need to campaign openly for Proportional Representation versus First Past The Post.”

Nick Clegg needs to find a Reverse Gear

Labour Party
Richard Howitt & Ben Bradshaw

Richard Howitt & Ben Bradshaw

One of the things Gordon Brown got right in his excellent speech yesterday was his promise on the alternative vote system for Westminster elections. As many of you will know, I am a supporter of Electoral Reform and spoke this evening at the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform’s fringe meeting at Party Conference, along with fellow MEP Richard Howitt and Ben Bradshaw MP Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. As a long standing campaigner for electoral reform I have always viewed Liberal Democrats as allies in this endeavour, if not anything else. I have, therefore, been frankly surprised by what appears to be the Lib Dems white flag to the Conservatives in direct contrast to Labour’s fight back. They have positioned themselves to try and take Labour seats, but clearly hope at best to just limit losses to the Conservatives. Where, you may ask, are they running hard campaigns to win seats from the Conservatives?

Strategically the holy grail for Liberals and now Liberal Democrats has been a hung Parliament. Now they have a potential double whammy. A Labour government or a hung parliament offer prospects of real electoral reform. A Conservative majority slams fair voting prospects shut for a generation. Nick Clegg has a chance that Thorpe, Ashdown, or Kennedy would have given their right arm for. Will he reach out and seize it? Tactically and strategically the tantalising prospect of real electoral reform only comes about by Labour winning or staying the largest party. The Lib Dems seem to think they can build on successes often based on protest votes in cities to win Labour seats in the coming general election.

Yet their calculations are muddled tactically, and crass strategically. Almost every seat they won last time from Labour had a substantial student population. The cocktail of Iraq and university tuiLCER09 030tion fees is no longer available. So tactically what is it they think they can work on? ID cards? Gordon ruled that out too. Millionaire properties? Those are far more in Conservative and Liberal seats. There aren’t many millionaire properties in Kilmarnock, Keighley and Caerphilly. Let’s just consider the fleeting and highly unlikely possibility of the Conservatives with an overall majority.

Will a Labour Opposition put electoral reform at the top of its list when it gets back into government? Much as I think electoral reform is important, the first task will be to repair the schools, hospitals and other public services that will have been damaged by the Conservatives. So Nick Clegg, who had a dire conference, now has to put his hand up and fess up to another error.

He should, of course, divert resources from Labour target seats and put them into taking Conservative seats. He should instruct no hope candidates to tell their supporters that only a Labour win can help the Liberal Democrats.

I have got a slogan for them……. Liberal Democrats you can’t win here!

The Conservatives need to win 131 seats for an overall majority. They expect to win 30 seats or so from the Liberal Democrats.

Nick Clegg needs to come out and welcome Gordon’s announcement.

He needs to commit to supporting electoral reform.

Most importantly Clegg needs to divert all possible Liberal Democrat resources to achieving a result at the next election that allows electoral reform to be delivered. In short he needs a reverse gear/U-turn/mea culpa.

Make your mind up Nick, I am committed to campaigning for electoral reform, are you?