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What A Mess

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By Emma | One comment

My God the Lib Dems have screwed this one up royally.

Let’s leave aside for the moment, the rights and wrongs of the policy, this is just stunning political ineptitude. Every step they take seems designed to make them look more ridiculous than the last.

Look first at Vacillating Vince. Will he vote for his own policy. No one – especially not Vince – seems to know. In the end though he will of course vote for it. As will enough Lib Dems to ensure it passes. They’ll be left with the worst of all worlds, having adopted the policy while trying to weasel out responsibility for it. Which of course, anyone with an ounce of political nous can tell you won’t happen if the policy passes.

The interesting thing is that the really high profile likely rebels – apart from Tim Farron – are the giants of the past. Ming Campbell and Charles Kennedy won’t be back in senior positions again, but still command a great deal of respect from the left of the party. Their high profile rebellion this early in the parliament is quite significant.

The problem Clegg and the Lib Dems have, is that they have allowed the Tories to front-load all the stuff they hate before the AV referendum. The cuts have been announced, they are going to pass the hideous housing benefit changes, Tuition fees will largely have been and gone, the changes to the NHS, Education and Policing will have Lib Dem support on the record, even if the votes haven’t occurred.

So when the AV referendum and council seats are lost, the cold comfort of the raise to the basic level of tax (more than off-set by the VAT rise) or the Pupil Premium (not new money) will not be enough to reinvigorate demoralised activists. The hardcore few will remain. These will be those who are more wedded to the coalition than those who have slipped away. They will cling ever harder, because they will rightly see that before 2015 and a change of leadership (at the least) the Lib Dems will not survive alone again.

There are a lot of people who see the splits over tuition fees as the beginning of the end of the coalition. I don’t – I think it binds the two parties tighter than ever. However, what it could easily signify is the end of what we currently know of as the Liberal Democrats as a single and separate political force. Large parts of the party could be wooed by the Tories into a more permanent political Alliance (they’ve been there before). While some others may join the Liberal Party or struggle on as a seatless wraith. The ghost at the feast of plural politics. The warning to all politicians to be careful what you wish for.

Frankly, the way they have bungled this, it remains to be seen if they will even have the nous to salvage that much.

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I was having an interesting discussion with a colleague this morning about what Lib Dem MPs who didn’t like the coalition’s actions could and would do. I said that it was highly improbably that this (or any) government would go a full term without at least one ministerial resignation and that that was probably even more likely under coalition. While ministerial resignations are dramatic and aid a narrative of splits, in the end they don’t really amount to much unless a Government is a lot closer to a knife edge than this one is. Some junior Lib Dem stepping down from being minister for paperclips will occupy Twitter, the blogs (this one included I’m sure) and the press, but won’t make an awful lot of difference to the Parliamentary mathematics.

The only thing that would really change parliamentary mathematics would be defections.

Now as is utterly clear, the Lib Dems hate Labour. Lib Dem blogs are full of this bile and since going into coalition with the Tories, it’s all spewed endlessly at us. And let’s be fair – we hate them right back. We hate them for splitting the left making it so easy for the Tories to rule without a majority and the coalition has hardly dulled that feeling. Both sets of activists are as tribal and angry as each other and this is not being made better by the ConDem coalition.

So I really can’t see a Lib Dem defecting to the Labour Party in this parliament. But I can see a Lib Dem feeling so far removed from their party that they didn’t see a place for them in it anymore. This happens – rarely but it does happen. If it did, I think that the shock of leaving their own tribe would probably be quite enough and defecting to Labour probably more than they could take. But with Caroline Lucas now firmly ensconced in Parliament, there is another alternative which would work pretty well for non-Orange Book Lib Dems.

I’m not willing to put any money on it (unlike AV failing, which following today’s story in the Independent I have now put £20 on) but I don’t think it could be dismissed out of hand that by the end of this Parliament, we could see at least two Green MPs fighting for reelection.

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Take a look at the official website for the Yes to AV Campaign: http://www.yestofairervotes.org/ it has some negative and fairly strident (but ultimately unprovable) comment about how awful MPs are. Then asks us to care about how they are elected. This website absolutely takes for granted that every and any person who lands on the website is ready to man the barricades for AV. There is absolutely nothing there for anyone interested but undecided on the issue. no arguments, no persuasion, no gradual drawing in. There is in the bottom left a very small “about” link. This takes you to a page of only 105 words. These words again are all about the campaign (who they are, who they do and don’t represent),  not the issue.

In order to get any further with the website, you have to sign up to get involved. For you, dear reader, I submitted my details in order to see what lay beyond that. First there was a page where – once you had signed up – you are asked to submit details of at least one friend. You cannot get to the next part of the website without giving another email address to them. Luckily I have two email addresses and enough curiosity to want to see it through to the bitter end. However I suspect that the Venn diagram for people interested in electoral reform and people interested in data privacy has a pretty big cross-over. So not being able (as far as I can tell) to access any information without both signing up yourself and giving the details of another is insanity.

The final page is about what you are willing to do for the campaign. It’s only after agreeing to take some form of action that you can access a screen that looks like it might be helpful and have the kind of information that someone interested in the issue might find useful. This page has the landing text “Thank you for growing our movement.  We will be in touch soon to let you know how you can get involved in the campaign. But in the meantime can you use the buttons below to spread the word via Facebook and Twitter.” It also has links to a blog and to “why vote yes”. The blog has two posts in Lorem Ipsum and the why vote yes page cannot be found. So in other words – nowhere on that site – to my untrained eye – was a simply list of arguments as to why I should vote yes to AV. It just feels like a website written by people who feel the argument has already been won, and who didn’t bother to consult with anyone who was unsure on what might be needed to convince them. I am sure the answer to this will be that the campaign website is still being constructed. But the problem is, the campaign was launched on September 11th and it’s now October 21st. The Campaign shouldn’t have been launched without fully functioning website and for the website to remain so inaccessible and uninformative over a month on is inexcusable.

This matches closely my experience of talking to campaigners – particularly those who are Lib Dems – about this. They have cared about  this issue for so long now that they simply don’t realise that most of the country doesn’t know very much about it and even fewer care. A campaigner said to me yesterday that he thought there was “simply no moral case” for voting any other way.

Now there is nothing wrong in believing that passionately in change. But to deny that the other side has a case is to deny yourself the ability to answer that case. To further deny that you might have a party political problem in spending most of your time slagging off Labour members while expecting them to then join you in fighting for a measure even the Lib Dem’s own leader described as “a miserable little compromise” is naive.

The people running the pro-AV campaign need to do some focus grouping very, very quickly. it may already be too late. This interesting article on Labour List says that to succeed a referendum should start with a 2:1 lead in the polls. A YouGov/Sun poll in early October already has the vote at 40% FPTP, 35% AV and 18% undecided.

Now have a look at the current (temporary) website for the other side: http://no2av.org/ It has easily accessible information and arguments. The stories are updated every few days. There is even a section on what AV is. It’s not patronising, but it does present the arguments clearly and openly accepts that they won’t be familiar to everyone. The website has many, many times the information that the pro-AV website has -  and it’s just temporary.

I understand that the different sides probably have very, very different funding levels. But if half the energy and passion I have seen from pro-AV campaigners had been put into devising their principle portal into actually informing the populous (as a pro-democracy campaign really ought to do) they would at least have some blog posts up and a decent basic FAQs on the positive argument for AV.

As it stands, I don’t see the commitment to democratic discussion and argument making from the pro-AV lobby that will be essential if this referendum is to have any legs at all. And that in itself is the biggest insult to democracy I can think of. It may be that the campaign is not being run as passionately as it could be because the proponents themselves believe it’s a compromise measure. But if we in the UK are going to spend £90 million on a referendum, it ill behoves us all to do so halfheartedly.

As things stand, if the yes campaign doesn’t step up, I simply cannot see how a yes vote is going to be won.

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I think anyone reading this blog will know that I’m no great fan of the Liberal Democrats and wasn’t before the coalition. I’ve had to campaign against either their right flank or their spiteful and misleading campaign tactics too often.

But they do have a few policies I agree with, and while voting reform wouldn’t be top of my priority list, on balance I think it’s probably a good thing. AV is a terrible reform, and they should have got more out of the negotiations, but it’s where we are.

One thing the Lib Dems always was good at was political calculation. The coalition seems to have rather sent them out of whack.

One of the recurring tropes from Lib Dem commentators around the coalition and it’s forming was that it was their one chance to enact some of their policies – not least to get a referendum on AV. One presumes that the Lib Dems want this referendum to actually pass.

So articles like this and this actually baffle me. Don’t get me wrong; I am very used to and of course expect articles from the Lib Dems attacking Labour. Particularly since going into coalition, their hatred of Labour has intensified and without the Tories to rail against equally, Labour is now the only political target for negative attacks – a long term component of all political blogs. But attacking Labour furiously on this issue is simply counter-productive to achieving your actual aim of a successful referendum.

Let’s break it down clearly: The Tories do not want voting reform. At all. Labour are mostly committed to it (a few backbenchers have dissented, but it was in our manifesto and all our leadership candidates are signed up to at least AV). The Lib Dems are cratering in the polls, and the referendum will be a really easy time for their disaffected voters to give them a bit of a kicking. To avoid this, they will need one of the larger parties campaigning vigorously with them, and t0 make it look really “new politics” it would be great if that were the party of the opposition. Either way it won’t be the Tories.

So here’s my question to the Lib Dems, and I really, really don’t mean this in a negative fashion:

Do you want to win the referendum, or do you want to better cement coalition relations?

Because at the moment there seems to be a whole lot of attention on the latter, at obvious risk to jeopardising the former.

If you do want to pass AV, then I cannot advise you strongly enough to split the bill. It will free labour to vote for the referendum, which will in turn ensure a vigorous Labour presence in the campaign. And for all this week’s talk of “Toxic brand” we are considerably higher in the polls than we were at the election. You need us. Try to remember that before you continue to slag us off just to impress the big boys!

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I used to work in the democracy movement for a short time. I got very disillusioned very quickly. It was rarely if ever a real examination of how to give disenfranchised people more power, but in fact how to give more power to the people who demand it most.

So I can’t say I care an awful lot about the AV referendum. I don’t see how a voting change that is arguable less enfranchising of supporters of smaller parties is more democratic. I also don’t see how a system that ensures that the party that really loses the election – i.e. comes behind two others – is the most likely to partake in government is more democratic either. I don’t see how a system that introduces binding changes agreed to behind closed doors which weren’t in a manifesto days after the election (take rape anonymity for example) is more democratic. At the very least there should be nothing in a coalition agreement that wasn’t in one or the other manifesto.

However, I will almost certainly vote yes on the day. My preferred of the many flawed systems is AV+, which retains the constituency links but might help the Greens to be bigger players (thus giving rise to potential new partnerships if the coalition becomes a merger), and this might be a step in the right direction, but I can’t say it will be my number 1 priority. Good luck everyone, but I’ll be too busy fighting the cuts to go to the barricades on this one.

Plenty of other Labour Party members will though (and a small minority will campaign against) and good luck to them. It was one of our Manifesto commitments, and if at all possible, we should try to make it happen.

But we can only do so if we are able to do so while fighting the rushed and ill-judged measures the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill also contains. Left Foot Forward have done a brilliant analysis of the myriad problems with the bill as it stands, and it needs serious rewriting to get it into a fit shape to be supported.

If the ConDems really care enough about getting this issue out to the public in a referendum, than frankly they should present it to Parliament in a form that can be supported by all sides of the house. Otherwise it could just seem that Cameron is getting Labour to do his dirty work for him by presenting us with a bill we can’t in good conscience support, knowing that enough of his backbenchers will rebel that it might fail altogether. Unlikely, but he can at least turn to his backbenchers and show them the gerrymandered constituencies that they gain from it.

There is no need for these issues to come together, and to be honest if the coalition think they are going to last to 2015 no need to rush the referendum. We have plenty of time to register the millions of unregistered voters, and in the 2011 census, to count the millions of children who will mature to voting age before the next General Election is even held. Labour needs to ask why we’re rushing something imperfect when we could have a great and truly reforming bill and registration drive that enfranchises millions more, not millions less.

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There’s quite a lot of commentary at the moment on Twitter and the blogs bout Nick Clegg’s demands for a hung parliament. While some of the critisism is apt, I tweeted some days ago, and still feel, that at the moment, any and all criticism of Clegg – especially by anyone connected with Labour or the Tories – is simply counter-productive. It feeds his message of “same old politics” too easily, and the Tory press are blurring the lines so much already that even valid criticism seems like carping.

I also think that some of the lines don’t quite make sense. True, it’s not for Clegg to choose the Labour leader, but it may be for Labour to choose between being led by Brown or governed by Cameron. I believe even Gordon knows which is the preferable choice.

So let’s assume Clegg gets to play kingmaker – or even crown himself with a Labour cabinet. What are the conditions Labour should put on such an alliance?

In the debates, both Clegg and Cable have attacked Tax Credits and their manifesto proposes getting rid completely of the Child Trust Fund. These must be a vital line in the sand. These are essential policies to continue a fair redistribution. This is a key Labour principle, and we must fight for it.

Secondly, no anti-union laws, including increasingly draconian laws to stop people working collectively and politically. Unite and Ashcroft are not the same, and union members already jump through enough hoops donating money through their union – a signal of thier political belief in collective action. A good Labour person in the DTI and protecting this area at the Treasury will be hugely important.

Finally, agreement on a referendum on voting reform must include an AV or AV+ as well as FPtP and STV options. Each party (and individuals within the parties) must be free to campaign in the referendum as they see fit.

I think these measures would be essential to assuaging Labour concerns, but shouldn’t be too bitter a pill for the Lib Dems to swallow. If Labour are seen as giving up something as substantial as their leader, the Lib Dems will also have to show willing to be coalition players. I don’t think these measures which protect the vulnerable should be too hard to take.

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