Friday, 30 June 2000


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 30 June 2000

The word around Westminster is that Tony Blair has decided to come out against proportional representation for the House of Commons and in favour of the system known as the alternative vote. If so, he should think again. AV is the worst possible electoral system for general elections – much worse than the first-past-the-post status quo – and it would almost cer­tainly be disastrous for Labour in the medium term.

Of course, it is not difficult to see why Blair might be tempted by AV. He is in a bit of a hole. As things stand, it looks as if the leaders of the big trade unions, who are opposed to PR for the Commons – even the diluted version recommended by Lord Jenkins's independent commission on the voting system – will succeed in getting a motion to ditch Labour's promise of a refer­endum on electoral reform on to the agenda of this year's party conference in Brighton. If it is debated, it stands a good chance of being passed, largely because the union barons will put their block votes behind it.

That would be a disaster, not only for Blair but also for the Labour Party. A defeat of the leadership by the block vote is the last thing the party needs in what could be the last conference before a general election. It would wreck Labour's relations with the Liberal Democrats, whose continued co-operation is predicat­ed on the referendum being in Labour's manifesto. And this, in turn, could switch Lib Dem voters off the idea of voting Labour tactically to keep the Tories out. Result: dozens of Labour seats lost unnecessarily, possibly even a Tory victory.

In the circumstances, it would be surprising if Blair were not casting around for something - anything - that might keep the union barons at bay and the Lib Dems on board. And at first sight AV looks as if it fits the bill.

For a start, it is not a system of PR – which means that it could well be acceptable to the unions and those Labour MPs who object to PR. Under AV, single-member constituencies are retained. All that changes is that voters do not mark their ballot papers with a single "X" next to the name of their favoured can­didate but instead rank the candidates "1, 2, 3, 4 ..." in order of preference. Unlike any PR system, AV would not necessarily re­sult in a reduction of the proportion of seats won by Labour. Indeed, all the evidence suggests that Labour would have won even more seats in 1997 had AV been in place.

At the same time, AV would also almost certainly increase Lib Dem representation. Not by as much as a PR system, granted, but it might just tempt Charles Kennedy into acquiescence, par­ticularly if the prospect of further change is not ruled out.
Here it is worth remembering that the system recommended by Jenkins was "AV-plus", in which AV would be used for single-member constituencies and topped-up from lists of candidates in mini-regions to make the overall result more proportional. It must have crossed Blair's mind that AV on its own might be saleable to the Lib Dems and other supporters of PR as a first step toward introduction of a Jenkins-type system.

All of which would be fine and dandy – were it not for the fact that AV on its own is so flawed as an electoral system. Its main effect would be to ensure that results in marginal seats were determined in most instances by the second prefer­ence votes of supporters of third- or fourth-placed candidates.

In nearly all the Labour-Tory marginals that decide British general elections, that would mean Lib Dem voters deciding whether they would rather keep Labour or the Tories out.

AV would reinforce the already stifling trend in British poli­tics toward lowest-common-denominator politics. And, as Lib Dem voters' second preferences piled on the agony for whichever of the major parties they disliked more, it would also exacerbate the in-built tendency of FPTP to yield landslide election results

Although in 1997 this would have benefited Labour, through­out the 1980s, when Liberal and Social Democratic Party voters generally saw the Tories as less bad than Labour, it would have given Margaret Thatcher even more commanding majorities than she actually won. The chances that AV could deliver a Tory landslide at the election after next or the one after that should not be dismissed lightly.

In short, far from yielding a House of Commons that more ac­curately reflects the spread of party support across the country, AV would make the Commons less representative. It is not a step toward proportional representation but a step away from it – and as such deserves nothing but contempt from democrats.

Friday, 16 June 2000


Tribune column, 16 June 2000

I have always had my doubts about the journalistic value of the long "backgrounder" news features that have become a staple of the Sunday broadsheets.

More often than not, they are exercises in padding, ludicrously detailed narrative accounts of domestic political events about which we know quite enough already. Even the best of them rely a little too much on unnamed insiders as sources - and sometimes it's clear that supposedly telling detail is made up by a hack desperate to fill the space he or she has been told to fill.

Nevertheless, I am a great fan of the genre - for one simple reason. The breathless, earnest prose in which Sunday backgrounders are typically written is often unintentionally hilarious, particularly when the subject matter is, as it so often is, mundane. And last Sunday, the Observer came up with a real gem on Tony Blair's reception at the Women's Institute conference.

Under the headline "End of the affair for Tony and his women", Kamal Ahmed and Gaby Hinsliff turned the incident into a drama worthy of a television mini-series. Here's a taste:

"... At Wembley, the fleet of cars ready to whisk Blair away con¬tained a chastised set of occupants. In the first car, Blair sat with [Anji] Hunter. In the second car came Lucie McNeill, of his strategy team, and David Peel, of the press office. McNeill had spoken with the WI director of communications about setting up interviews with 'modern looking' WI members who could give their reaction to the Blair speech. All the plans had to be abandoned. Hunter said she felt personally let down by the WI. Their rudeness was inexcusable.

"At Millbank, an ashen-faced Phil Murphy, the deputy general secretary of the Labour Party, was on the phone to the BBC. . . Staff watched in silence as television screens revealed Blair's disaster. Many knew it had been a mistake. By tomorrow they would he in action. . ."

OK, I admit it, I inserted "an ashen-faced". But you get the drift, and there are another 1,500 words in the same vein. All on a story that was not only straightforward and rather less than breathtaking - "Prime Minister heckled at meeting while giving over-hyped duff speech" - but had already filled three days' worth of papers. It is not quite in the class of the two hacks who managed two years back to make three-quarters of a book out of what Charlie Whelan said in the Red Lion one evening in 1997. But it is quite a feat none the less.

Of course, the WI incident is significant even if it does not deserve quite the treatment that the Observer gave it. It is one of several recent indications that the government has run out of ideas - and that everybody, even rhinoceros-brained Tory ladies from the shires, knows it.

I must admit to being extremely disappointed by this. When Labour was elected in 1997,1 didn't expect that the new government would usher in the New Jerusalem. For nearly a decade in opposition the party had followed an ever-more cautious, pro-business line in every aspect of policy.

But I did think it possible that a "safety-first" Labour administration might acquire a taste for radicalism. Labour's commitments on constitutional reform were very much the "unfinished business" from the Kinnock and Smith years, to which Blair was not particularly committed - but I really hoped that, in power, New Labour would come sooner rather than later to see the benefits of a comprehensive overhaul of Britain's creaking constitutional machinery, including proportional representation for the Commons, regional government for England and a democratic second chamber.

Similarly, on Europe, although it was clear that Labour was badly divided on the key question of British membership of the single Euro¬pean currency, I didn't think it Utopian to expect that the Labour government would overcome its hesitations and make the necessary leap. Much the same went for the potential for shifts in policy in every area from the welfare state through workers' rights to foreign policy.

Instead, what has happened is that New Labour has, in almost every field, done the bare minimum it promised in 1997 - then taken fright. The constitutional reform programme has run out of steam and the much-vaunted constructive engagement in Europe appears increasingly chimerical in the absence of any initiative on participation in the euro.

Meanwhile, Jack Straw is engaged in a futile attempt to outdo the Tories in populist illiberalism in home affairs. New Labour today is the party that wants to build more roads, sell more arms, means-test more benefits. Any hope of a radical manifesto for a second term seems to have vanished completely.

It could all have been so different....

Friday, 2 June 2000


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 2 June 2000

I am, at the time of writing, in a very good mood — such a good mood, in fact, that I'm not bothered in the slightest by the hangover I acquired after spending last night on the razz (as they say where I come from).

The reason is simple. On Monday the football team I have supported since I was a kid, Ipswich Town, won promotion to the Premiership by beating Barnsley four-two in the First Division play-off final at Wembley. We'd reached the play-offs the three previous seasons, but each time we'd fallen at the semi-final stage. This time, after beating Bolton in the semis, magnificent goals from Tony Mowbray, Richard Naylor, Marcus Stewart and Martijn Reuser — and some equally magnificent goalkeeping from Richard Wright — sent us back where we belong.

I've still got the chants of the jubilant Town fans ringing in my ears:
Are you watching
Are you watching
Are you watching Norwich scum?
(Actually, that bit was just to wind up Tribune's ad manager. He is a secret Norwich fan, so ashamed by his team's miserable performances in recent years that he pretends to follow the Arsenal — or is it Spurs this year? I don't really condone the description of Norwich supporters as "scum". They're just fickle, that's all.)

Seriously, though, I'm not expecting the elation to last too long into next season. Ipswich play attractive football, and we've got some good players. But we are going to struggle to compete with the big boys in the Premiership.

The average gate at the Town's ground, Portman Road, is just under 20,000. That is nearly one-third of the gate at Manchester United, England's biggest club — and Portman Road's capacity is being increased by 5,000 over the summer. But Ipswich have only the tiniest fraction of Manchester United's resources.

Last year, United made a profit of more than £30 million on a turnover of more than £110 million excluding transfer dealings. Ipswich lost £1 million on a turnover of £7 million, making up the shortfall (and a bit more) by selling our best player, Kieron Dyer, to Newcastle United.

Of course, the Town will benefit from going up, to the tune of something like £12 million a year next season, and more once a new broadcasting rights deal, currently under negotiation, is finalised. To clubs still stuck in the First Division — let alone to those in the Second and Third Divisions — it looks as if we've joined English football's elite.

And in a way we have. But even among Premiership clubs there are extraordinary disparities in wealth — and they are getting bigger by the year as cash from broadcasters and commercial sponsors floods into football. In financial terms, Manchester United are now almost in a league of their own, with a turnover nearly twice that of Chelsea, the next richest club. Then there are another half-dozen clubs of roughly comparable wealth, then another half-dozen with reasonable hopes of matching them some day — and then the rest.

It is no accident, to use an old Leftist cliché, that as the richest half-dozen clubs have become ever-richer they have increasingly come to dominate the game. They can afford the best players and managers, and teams with the best players and managers are most likely to win matches. In the past five seasons, only one club outside the richest dozen, Leicester City, has won a major domestic trophy.

All of which is just the way it goes, you might think. But in the long run football with an ever-smaller number of serious contenders for honours is a real turn-off for everyone apart from supporters of the big clubs. Unless the money in the game is spread around more evenly, it will not be long before English football becomes almost as predictable as Scottish football, in which Rangers are champions nearly every year and only Celtic ever have a realistic hope of catching them.

There is a strong case, in other words, for believing that the health of football requires an urgent redistribution of wealth — something that the big clubs will never sanction. Which is where legislation could come in. It's a mark of the superficiality of "New" Labour's much trumpeted commitment to the beautiful game that it has never apparently considered any such thing.


On a different matter entirely, the most shocking thing about the elections to Labour's National Executive Committee — apart, of course, from the editor losing his seat — was the small number of people who voted.

Precisely how small is a matter for conjecture. Even members of the NEC were not told how many ballot papers were sent out and how many members returned them or phoned in their votes: all they were given was a figure for turnout, 25 per cent, along with the number of votes cast for each candidate.

Because no one could vote for more than six candidates, it is easy enough to work out that at least 60,823 people voted. (You just have to add all the votes cast for each candidate and divide by six.) But of course not everyone did voted for six candidates, so that's not the actual number.

It is difficult to explain the reticence about hard figures unless Millbank is trying to cover something up. But what? Is it just trying to play down the low turnout — which would be peculiarly stupid — or has there been a slump in total party membership over the past year? As the late John Junor used to put it, I don't know, but I think we should be told.