Friday, 23 December 2011


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 23 December 2011

The journalist and author Christopher Hitchens, who died last week at the age of 62, was never associated with Tribune.

Indeed, in the 1970s, when he was a young journalist on the New Statesman and a member of the far-left International Socialists (the forerunner of today’s Socialist Workers Party), there was no love lost between him and this paper. He was with the competition – and his Trotskyist loathing of the compromises made by the traditional Labour left was reciprocated.

In 1978, after the New Statesman splashed a speech by Michael Foot from 10 years earlier on the front page, to contrast Foot’s critical attitude to the Wilson government of the 1960s with his supposedly shameless participation in the Callaghan government, Tribune’s parliamentary correspondent Hugh Macpherson wrote a column defending Foot’s achievements as a minister, warning against the left habit of treating any compromise as treason against socialism and attacking the Statesman for confusing the political circumstances of 1968 and 1978. In response came a blistering letter from Hitchens:
Many of us never thought of Michael Foot as a great socialist, and are therefore spared the pain of explaining his present conduct in those terms. But Macpherson's argument could be applied, without changing a word, as a defence of Denis Healey, Shirley Williams, David Owen or Roy Hattersley, all of whom deserve as much credit as Foot for the ‘achievements’ of this government.
Does Macpherson really think that the aftermath of Anthony Barber's chancellorship justifies support for, in no special order; the neutron bomb, the Shah of Iran, the Official Secrets Act, the 5 per cent pay limit, the savaging of social expenditure, the hoisting of unemployment figures, the deportation of dissidents and the burying of the Bingham Report? …
Like Foot's enthusiasm for Indira Gandhi's dictatorship, these are options, consciously and deliberately decided upon as matters of policy. Alternative strategies, to coin a phrase, were available in all cases and still are. If the mesmeric figure of Foot was not present among the ‘insiders’, this might be clearer to some people – which is why one assumes he is kept on …
Michael Foot's defenders seem entirely worthy of his political position – dishonest with an occasional whine from the left corner of the mouth.”
As far as I’m aware, this letter, published in Tribune on 24 November 1978, is the only thing Hitchens ever wrote for the paper. I remember it well – the Tribune-Statesman spat was a big talking point on the Oxford student left then  – and at the time I was on Hitchens’s side.

Hitchens remained a sworn enemy of Foot and a target for Tribune sniping until 1981, when Hitchens upped sticks and left the Statesman and Britain for the Nation and the United States. Relations warmed after Tribune ran approving reviews of Hitchens’s books in the late 1980s and early 1990s and took much the same position as him on the break-up of Yugoslavia, and I interviewed him for the paper in 1993. But we still never got a written word out of him.

Tribune and Hitchens were on opposite sides of the argument over the post 9/11 western military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq but never completely fell out. Mark Seddon invited Hitchens to put the case for military action to remove Saddam Hussein at the Tribune rally at the 2002 Labour conference, and Hitchens agreed. His speech was received in silence and politely applauded. In his memoir published last year, Hitch-22, Hitchens described the engagement as “my last appearance as a man of the left”.

I don’t think Hitchens ever completely ceased to be of the left, but that doesn’t matter. For all his faults and for everything that he got wrong (and there was plenty), his was a voice that was always worth taking seriously even when – particularly when – he was most at odds with the left consensus. He was the most accomplished literary-political journalist in the English language of the past 30 years, a brilliant stylist with an extraordinary range of interests and an unparalleled independence of spirit. He will be not be easily replaced.


With this issue Tribune celebrates its 75th birthday. The paper first appeared on 1 January 1937, and has been going ever since.

But it nearly didn’t make it. A couple of months ago it appeared to be on its death bed. Kevin McGrath, the businessman who had supported it financially since 2008, had announced that he was going to close it as a print publication and continue it as a website with an automated news feed. It was only after several weeks of negotiation that he agreed to sell it for a nominal sum to a new co-operative of staff and readers, the public launch of which will be announced in the new year.

It’s not going to be easy, but with a bit of luck and a lot of hard work I’m sure we can pull through. Here’s to the next 75 years.

Saturday, 10 December 2011


Paul Anderson, review of A Walk-On Part: Diaries 1994-1999 by Chris Mullin (Profile, £20), Tribune, 9 December 2011

The third and final volume of diaries from Chris Mullin is actually a prequel to the first two, covering his life and times as a Labour MP from 1994, when John Smith died and Tony Blair was elected Labour leader, to 1999, when he joined Blair’s government as a junior minister.

A Walk-On Part shares the qualities of the volumes covering 1999 to 2010, The View From the Foothills (2008) and Decline and Fall (2010). Mullin writes clearly and candidly, with an eye for telling detail and amusing anecdotes, some of them about the most unlikely people. He pulls no punches in his assessments of colleagues, including supposed superiors (Gordon Brown is described as ““a workaholic who is burning himself up for no apparent purpose” and every MP's complaint about Peter Mandelson's machinations is recorded) and, despite writing in his preface that “much pessimism and agonising has ended up on the cutting-room floor”, he has done little to excise from the record opinions or predictions that might now seem embarrassing or naive.

“We're going to lose. Blair knows it too. I can see it in his eyes every time he appears on the TV news,” runs an entry just a week before Labour's spectacular landslide in the 1997 general election.

The diaries are not just a political record, moreover. There is a lot about his family and friends, some of it funny and some of it poignant.

All this makes A Walk-On Part immensely enjoyable. But it has a serious purpose too – or rather several serious purposes. It is, for a start, an extended meditation on the role of the backbench MP in modern British politics. Mullin represented Sunderland South as a backbencher from 1987, and he paints a vivid picture of what the job entailed: the surgeries with constituents (some of them utterly unreasonable), the endless meetings, the constant travel back and forth from London. Some MPs might be snout-in-trough, lazy careerists, but Mullin was clearly assiduous and selfless in representing his constituents’ interests.

Throughout the period covered by this volume, Mullin had an important role in parliamentary politics as a senior member of the House of Commons Home Affairs select committee (from 1997 to 1999 as its chair), and the book deals in some depth with its work – often unsung and dreary but utterly essential in holding the executive to account. Mullin is always sceptical about the effects of his and his committee’s efforts, but A Walk-On Part is in its subtle way as convincing an argument as I’ve read for massively increasing the power and independence of the select committees in order to improve parliamentary scrutiny of government.

Mullin also has plenty that is serious to say about Labour politics. The diaries encompass the birth and electoral triumph of New Labour and the first two years of the Blair government – a quite momentous period, or at least that is how it seemed to most observers and participants at the time.

Most of the left to which Mullin belonged – he had been a strong supporter of Tony Benn as editor of Tribune in the early 1980s and in 1994 was a member of the hard-left Campaign Group along with Tony Benn, Dennis Skinner and Ken Livingstone – saw Blair as a cuckoo in the nest and opposed his every move, with ever-decreasing effectiveness. Mullin did not.

His diary entries abhor the vacuity of New Labour’s marketing and slogans, are withering about the idiotically centralised regime of party management at the core of New Labour, and are unsparing in their criticisms of much New Labour policy – particularly Gordon Brown’s timidity on just about every aspect of economic policy and the craven approach to Rupert Murdoch adopted from 1995. But Mullin recognises early on that Blair, for all his faults, is Labour’s best hope of winning and holding on to power, and he has no time for the oppositionist stance of his erstwhile comrades, choosing his rebellions against the leadership with care. It’s clear from his account that the marginalisation of the old left by New Labour was aided and abetted by the old left itself.

The events with which this book deals took place a long time ago – before 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq, before the internet became a mass phenomenon, before boom turned to bust. Many of the people who appear in its pages are dead – Michael Foot, Peter Shore, Jack Jones, Joan Maynard, Joan Lestor, Robin Cook, Mo Mowlam – or long retired.

It is nevertheless remarkable how strangely recent it all seems. In part, this is because so many of the key players in Labour politics in the 1990s were still there at the bitter end of the 1997-2010 Labour government (most notably Brown and Mandelson). But it is also because so many of the issues then central in Labour politics remain so today.

The Labour leadership spent the 1990s desperately seeking credibility on the economy and chasing the votes of affluent middle-class voters. Mullin despaired and still despairs of many of the means it used in the process – “control freakery, a soft spot for rich men, the obsession with spin” – but thought and still thinks that the broad strategy was right. In his preface, he writes of Blair: “He was surely right about the need to seize the middle ground and stay there. His decision to rewrite Clause Four of the Labour Party constitution … was in retrospect a master stroke, though it didn’t feel that way at the time. His strategy of promising little and delivering more, in contrast to the over-promising and under-delivering of previous governments, was also surely validated. Likewise his determination to tackle the huge benefit culture (ironically the new government’s most enduring legacy from the Thatcher decade) and to reform public services, education in particular.”

Whether such a strategy will work against the background of economic crisis and insecurity as well as it worked during a period of boom is, of course, the big question facing Ed Miliband right now. If he hasn’t read this book already, he could do worse than put it on his Xmas list.

Thursday, 24 November 2011


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 25 November 2011

Eurosceptics crowing about how they have been vindicated by the Eurozone crisis are beginning to drive me nuts. I don’t think they have been vindicated, but that’s for another column. What matters now is this:

1. Like it or not, a calm negotiated dissolution of the euro is not possible
It is true that currency unions have in the past been dismantled without catastrophic economic disruption. In recent years, Britain’s currency union with Ireland ended in 1979 when Ireland joined the European exchange rate mechanism; and Slovakia and the Czech Republic introduced separate currencies in 1993 after Czechoslovakia’s “velvet divorce”.

It is imaginable that at some time in the future the Eurozone could be broken up by mutual consent of its participants without precipitating disaster (whether that is a desirable outcome is another matter). This is, however, utterly implausible in the near future. The bond markets are in a state of panic and smell blood, and not even the smallest reduction in Eurozone membership – a Greek exit – could take place without triggering further panic that forced Italy, Portugal and Spain out too. The only plausible scenario for ending the euro as we know it in the foreseeable future is a chaotic collapse.

2. The collapse of the euro would be a disaster for Britain
Such a collapse would be ruinous for every country that was forced out. In the run-up to exit, they would experience catastrophic capital flight. Their banks would implode and credit would disappear. As businesses failed, unemployment would rocket – and people left in work would find their living standards and purchasing power slashed as a result of the devaluation that euro exit would inevitably bring.

The impact would be felt throughout the world. Germany and other countries still in a residual Eurozone would go into deep recession as their banks took the hit of defaults on loans to the leaver countries and as their exports to those countries slumped. Britain would take an economic hammering. The Eurozone is Britain’s biggest export market, responsible for nearly half of British export revenues, and British banks are massively exposed to Eurozone debt. The disintegration of the Eurozone, and the consequent wider economic downturn, would be a calamity for Britain.

3. The euro must be saved
It follows that it is in everyone’s interests, including Britain’s, for the euro to be rescued. The key question is how. This, of course, is what the European political class has been arguing about for months – without providing a credible answer, which in turn has exacerbated the crisis as the markets have factored in the possibility of meltdown.

The immediate priority is to end the bond market panic to allow the Eurozone debtors to borrow more at reasonable rates of interest. The problem is that this requires the Eurozone as a whole to underwrite their borrowing – which means Germany, as Europe’s biggest creditor nation, taking on responsibility for the debts of southern Europe, either directly or indirectly. Up to now, however, the Germans have refused to do so. The German economic policy establishment, horrified by the prospect of inflation above all else, considers that the priority is for the indebted countries to reduce their debts and has ruled out the European Central Bank acting as lender of last resort. German voters balk at their taxes bailing out what they see as profligate and lazy southern Europeans.

The most likely way out of this impasse is that a deal will be struck whereby the Germans relent on bankrolling the Eurozone, but only on condition that the debtor countries immediately implement draconian austerity budgets and accept tough, intrusive Eurozone-wide budget rules.

That would calm the bond markets, but at great cost:
  • Austerity would almost certainly strangle what little growth there is in southern Europe, with knock-on effects for everyone else.
  • Such a regime would place the burden of paying for the sovereign debt crisis – which, lest we forget, is the result of the global banking crisis of 2008 and the ensuing recession, not decades of state profligacy – almost entirely on the shoulders of the working class.
  • Handing over responsibility for overall economic policy to the Eurozone would mean that the key decisions on taxation and spending would no longer be taken by democratically elected governments – a dramatic erosion of national sovereignty.
So what should democratic socialists do? First, argue for a recasting of the role of the European Central Bank to include pursuit of growth as well as stability. Second, press for a fairer sharing of the pain of austerity by ensuring that the rich pay more, starting with a Tobin tax. And third, demand a massive increase in the powers of the European Parliament, the only Europe-wide democratic institution, to maximise accountability of the new economic policy regime.

It’s hardly a panacea, but it’s a lot better than crowing.

Thursday, 27 October 2011


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 28 October 2011

On the face of it, now does not seem a particularly appropriate time for Labour to reassert its pro-European credentials.

The euro zone is in the throes of a giant crisis that it is only beginning to get under control and could yet end in disaster, and the prospects of Britain joining it any time soon are close to non-existent.

Opinion polls show that a majority of Britons would definitely or probably vote to leave the European Union given the chance, and the Tory party is spectacularly split over whether there should be a referendum on Britain’s relationship with the EU. This week, 81 Tory MPs defied the whips to vote for one – the biggest backbench rebellion in any party ever over Europe, dwarving even the revolt by Labour pro-Europeans in favour of British membership of what we then called the Common Market in 1972.

It must be a temptation for Ed Miliband and Ed Balls simply to enjoy David Cameron’s discomfort while tutting at the irresponsibility of a holding a referendum at such a critical time for Europe and emphasising that it was Labour (specifically, their onetime boss Gordon Brown) that decided not to join the euro in the late 1990s.

That is a better line to take than jumping on the Tory Eurosceptic bandwagon to demand a referendum now, as 19 Labour MPs did this week – but it is not a coherent long-term Labour policy on Europe. And, like it or not, the party is going to need one before the next general election.

Of course, there are some very good reasons not to get into too many specifics just yet. The next general election is not due until 2015 – though it might come sooner if Cameron suffers many more rebellions on the scale of this week’s – and no one knows what will happen between now and then.

The eurozone might have as many participating countries as it has today; it might have more or fewer. It might be deep in recession; it might be in the bloom of economic health. The EU might have developed a credible redistributive fiscal regime, or it might not. There might be treaty changes in the offing to amend the EU’s economic policy institutions, or proposals for new decision-making procedures in the Council of Ministers, or plans for extra powers for the European Parliament. And there might be different governments in power – a particularly important possibility in the cases of France and Germany, which face general elections next year and in 2013 respectively.

It is also undoubtedly true that nothing Labour says in opposition is going to make the slightest bit of difference to how Europe deals with the eurozone crisis in terms either of immediate fire-fighting or institutional reform.

Nevertheless, it would be a mistake for Labour simply to watch and wait to see what happens in Europe. If it wins in 2015 – and it has to act on the assumption that it will – it is going to have to deal with the EU. And if it has ruled out British withdrawal, which it has for 25 years, it needs to work out how it will engage most constructively.

Here, it is essential that the party learns from the mistakes of the Blair and Brown governments between 1997 and 2010, which were marked firstly by zealous British enthusiasm for free markets and deregulation and secondly by foot-dragging on reforms to make the EU more accountable to its citizens.

It was Labour Britain that was the main force behind the EU’s drive for deregulation and privatisation throughout the first decade of this century. And it was Labour Britain, acting in concert with France, that ensured that the changes to the EU’s institutional arrangements that were eventually brought about by the 2007 Lisbon treaty (after the farce of the EU constitution being rejected by French and Dutch voters in 2005) did so little to enhance the powers of the EU’s only democratically elected body, the European Parliament.

Even if Labour leaves the details for later, it needs to make it clear that it has left all that behind and now stands squarely for stronger European workers’ rights, comprehensive Europe-wide financial and environmental regulation and a radical democratisation of the EU’s institutions, in particular giving the European Parliament the power to initiate legislation on certain areas of policy.

What it should not do, under any circumstances, is flirt with Euroscepticism. It might be the flavour of the moment in the press and among the Tories, but it is not a viable option for a modern internationalist social democratic party. What Europe needs to overcome its current difficulties is more integration, more powers of economic management and more democracy – and Labour should not be afraid to say so.

Friday, 30 September 2011


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 30 September 2011

When was a book last published that was a real game-changer for the left in Britain? The 2004 Liberal Democrat Orange Book, edited by David Laws and Paul Marshall, certainly signalled to anyone who was awake that the up-and-coming Lib Dem generation was ideologically at odds with the social-democratic centre-leftists who had dominated their party since its birth in 1987. But that was more an announcement of impending defection from social democracy than a contribution to its cause.

Nick Cohen’s What’s Left?, published in 2007, was seen the same way (wrongly) for its rip-roaring denunciation of the left’s failure to face up to radical Islamism and dictators in the developing world. And going back further, there was The Blair Revolution, by Phillip Gould and Peter Mandelson, first published in 1996, the nearest thing there was to a coherent statement of the New Labour case (which isn’t saying a lot), and before that Will Hutton’s The State We’re In, an improbable best-seller that caught a pro-Europe social democratic mood when it came out in 1995. It’s now available at all good Oxfam shops, a sad reminder of what Labour could have done in government but didn’t.

And, well, that’s it for the past 20 years. It’s not that there haven’t been good left-wing political books published – just that none of the vision-thing left efforts have had any lasting impact. All those collections of earnest essays put out by Demos, the IPPR, the Fabians and the rest are not even on the shelves in Oxfam, though if you’re lucky you can pick them up at the Samaritans.

But I have a feeling that the Purple Book, the collection put out by Labour’s “modernisers” last week, will not be on even the Samaritans’ shelves in 10 years’ time.

It’s not without its strengths. The opinion polling on which most of its contributors base their efforts is as almost certainly better than Mark Abrams’s after the 1959 general election, which convinced Hugh Gaitskell to try to abandon Clause Four of the Labour constitution and Mirror Group to turn the Daily Herald into the Sun. The voters, polled late last year, don’t think that the state has done them proud. After 13 years of Labour in power, the electorate is concerned about waste in public spending above all else.

Which isn't really fair on the last Labour government. It's true that it presided over some disastrous public-spending excesses – most notoriously a raft of IT projects that went way over budget and never worked properly and various ludicrous defence procurement deals. But until the banking crash of 2008, it didn't seem to most observers that it had overspent wildly. As Ed Balls said in an impressive speech on Monday, although Labour had woefully underestimated the level of risk to which the world's banks had exposed themselves, the 2008 crisis was not the product of increasing public spending, most of which had gone on new schools and hospitals that were desperately needed after years of Tory neglect.

By 2009, however, the bond markets were getting itchy about Britain's public debt, and the government decided to rein it in with a phased austerity programme. Meanwhile, the Tories, who until 2008 had backed Labour's public spending plans, changed their line to attack Labour's supposed gross profligacy, and, strongly supported by most of the press, mounted a no-holds-barred election campaign accusing Labour of criminal incompetence. In the circumstances, given the difficulty of getting non-economists to understand the principles of Keynesian demand management, it's not altogether surprising that the message struck a chord with the voters.

But this much has been obvious since at least early 2009. The question is what Labour can do to rescue the situation and re-establish its reputation for economic competence. Here, the Purple Book is for the most part deeply disappointing. Its authors' preferred solutions – a credible debt reduction strategy, a new emphasis on the non-statist, decentralist, co-operative traditions of British social democracy, a renewed appeal to “aspirational” voters in the south and east – have been widely touted before, and some are appealing. A bigger role for co-ops and mutuals in Britain would be a good thing, and everyone knows that Labour won't win another general election unless it wins seats in relatively affluent parts of the country. (This has been true, incidentally, since the 1920s, but never mind.)

The problem is that none of this really addresses the bigger questions raised by the crisis that has engulfed the world economy since 2008. Is a smaller state really the way to deal with the extraordinary power of the markets, or popular worries about insecurity of employment and about pensions, or sovereign debt in the Eurozone? I'm not convinced. Labour's going to have do a much more profound rethink of what it's about than is on display here.

Friday, 5 August 2011


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 5 August 2011

It would be difficult to create a more half-arsed political initiative than Blue Labour if you set out to fail.

The small group of academics and politicians that was touted earlier this year as the coming big thing in Labour’s intellectual firmament is now officially finished, according to Jonathan Rutherford on the New Statesman's blog,having produced no more than a (very patchy) e-book of first thoughts.

Oh, no, it's not, counters the group's prime mover and guru, Maurice Glasman, in the print edition of the Statesman, apologising for a series of ill-considered – not to say intemperate – public statements calling for an end to immigration, discussions with supporters of the English Defence League and (implicitly) British withdrawal from the European Union that had drawn the fire both of the Trots and of Peter Mandelson.

Such a pronounced schism at such an early stage does not, shall we say, bode well. But if Blue Labour is indeed all over before it properly started, I'm not crowing. And before Tribune readers reach for the computer keyboard or the green ink to denounce me, I've not been converted either to an intolerance of immigration that makes Migration Watch look liberal, or to consorting with the EDL, or to UKIP-style Euroscepticism.

Blue Labour was and is a dreadful name for Glasman's ideas and his group, and the e-book they published a couple of months ago, The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox, is neither coherent nor comprehensive. Indeed, it reads as what it is, a string of papers by a group of people who are interested in pursuing certain themes but haven't quite worked out what they think, with the only really thought-through contribution a schematic and in many respects eccentric essay by Glasman himself that raises more questions than it answers.

Nevertheless, I think that Glasman, for all his extraordinary ability to put his foot in his mouth while dropping a bollock, has some important things to say that need to be said. Dismissing him as a clown or as some kind of far-right infiltrator into Labour's ranks is easy but a big mistake.

His most telling point is that Labour over the past two decades has abandoned any critique of capitalism as a destroyer of social solidarity and community in favour of cheer-leading for its creativity and dynamism. New Labour's unqualified enthusiasm for the “modernising” effects of globalisation, flexible labour markets and free competition has, he argues, left large swathes of the working class utterly alienated from Labour. And the first priority for anyone interested in rescuing Labour must be to reconnect it to working people's lives as they have been and are actually lived. For many of them, a lot that has happened in the past 40 years – breakdown of communities, collapse of secure employment, ever-increasing shortages of affordable housing – has been for the worse, under Labour as well as Tory governments.

Now, the way Glasman fleshes this out is intensely problematic. There are times when he appears to be romanticising a working class that never existed, others when he seems hopelessly notalgic about a world to which we cannot return. His prescriptions, both in terms of organisation and policy, are often wrong. He sees community mobilisation as a panacea, on very flimsy evidence, and seems to think that it can thrive if only the over-mighty technocratic state is cut back. And moving in one leap from the observation that working-class worries about immigration are real and will not go away to the conclusion that immigration should be stopped at once (and that we should leave the EU if it doesn't allow us to stop allowing free movement of labour) is breathtakingly simplistic.

But at least Glasman is asking what Labour is for, and his insistence that it cannot survive if it remains disengaged from the everyday lives of the people that were once its core support makes a lot of sense. An arid, abstractly liberal Labour that fetishes the new, professing that "things can only get better" and turning its back on everything rooted or old, can never inspire a movement – and as Harold Wilson famously (though cynically) put it, the Labour Party is a crusade or it is nothing. And right now? Well, it ain't a crusade.


On a different matter entirely, I was shocked to read in the Guardian this week that City of Westminster police's “counter-terrorism information desk” had issued a leaflet urging members of the public to inform on anarchists. “Any information relating to anarchists should be reported to your local police,” it read. “Anarchism is a political philosophy which considers the state undesirable, unnecessary and harmful, and instead promotes a stateless society, or anarchism."

The leaflet was hurriedly disowned by Scotland Yard, which issued a statement saying that it was a poor choice of words by a minion at a single police station (Belgravia, I kid you not) and that all the leaflet should have said was that the Met was looking for information on people who had caused criminal damage to business premises this year. “The Metropolitan police does not seek to stigmatise those people with legitimate political views,” ran the official line.

Oh yeah? I'll wager a fiver that, when the records are opened in 30 years (or whenever), we'll find that a substantial part of Special Branch's anti-terrorism budget since the end of the Cold War has been devoted to keeping track of anarchists … who in that time have been responsible for precisely zero terrorist attacks in Britain, and not a single death.

Thursday, 7 July 2011


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 8 July 2011

Last week could have been worse for Ed Miliband. Labour won a decisive victory in the Inverclyde by-election – and, after the party’s disastrous performance in May’s Scottish Parliament elections, there had been a real danger that it would lose the seat to the rampant Scottish National Party.

But winning Inverclyde was hardly cause for wild Labour celebrations – it was one of the party’s safest seats, after all – and in any case the victory was eclipsed by the Labour leader’s extraordinarily ham-fisted handling of last Thursday’s public sector strikes over pensions.

It was never realistic to expect that Miliband would come out with a ringing endorsement of the day of action: rightly or wrongly, Labour leaders have never taken sides in industrial disputes, and there was no reason to believe this time would be any different. What Miliband could easily have done, however, was the familiar flannel job honed over the years by his predecessors – express sympathy with the workers’ cause, emphasise that they had a right to strike and that it had been their decision to come out, blame the government for the mess and call for negotiations in good faith.

Maybe that was what he was trying to do. What came across, however, was very different – the line that “these strikes are wrong”. No doubt some bright-spark focus-group wallah had told the Labour leader that this would go down well with middle-class target-voters who were annoyed that the day of action meant that they’d had to take a day off work to look after the kids. But at a stroke the phrase put the backs up of a vast swathe of public sector workers who feel, with justification, that they have been forced to take a gigantic pay cut. Miliband seemed to be saying that the prospect of your losing thousands of pounds a year of pension as a result of government diktat matters less than the minor inconvenience of taking a day’s annual leave when you’d rather not.

As if to compound the insult, Miliband repeated it ad nauseam – most ridiculously in a television interview with Damon Green of ITN, in which he robotically answered a string of different questions with the same rehearsed non-answer: "These strikes are wrong... the government has acted in a reckless and provocative manner... both sides should put away the rhetoric and get around the negotiating table." The technique has been used for years by politicians who want to get a particular 10-second soundbite on to the TV news but is rarely exposed to public view because broadcasters usually acquiesce in it. This time, however, the full ludicrous exchange was posted by the BBC on its website – apparently without malice – and went viral on the internet.

The “Miliband loop” has effectively nullified more than a year of marketing Ed as somehow different from other politicians – more ordinary, more down-to-earth, someone who “speaks human” as his supporters had it during the leadership contest last year – and has made a laughing stock of Labour’s claims to have learnt the lessons of the over-spun New Labour years. Its full impact is almost certainly yet to be felt. It’s the sort of clip, like that of Neil Kinnock falling into the sea on Brighton beach in October 1983, that is destined to be repeated endlessly. Only it’s worse. Kinnock looked like a bumptious prat. Ed looks like an automaton.

In the meantime, Labour is missing the boat on pensions. The party has failed miserably to counter the popular perception – encouraged by the Tories and their supporters in the press -- that public sector pensions are ridiculously generous and unfairly subsidised by the taxpayer. It has been left to a journalists, economists, policy wonks and the trade unions to point out that the public sector pensions bill is eminently affordable and that the real scandal is that private-sector companies have largely opted out of support for decent occupational pensions. (The bill for this, in the form of means-tested top-up benefits for former private-sector workers without adequate pensions, is of course being met by the taxpayer, but that’s another story.)

Add Labour’s lacklustre response to the government’s idiotic and divisive plans for higher education, its increasingly passive line on spending cuts and its general sense of drift on just about every other area of policy, and it’s difficult to find any grounds for Labour optimism right now. But it could get worse. If Miliband’s “these strikes are wrong” mantra presages an attempt to show the unions who’s boss by introducing symbolically big (but practically inconsequential) changes to the Labour Party constitution to reduce the unions’ formal role, we can look forward to another wasted year of introspection and incoherence. Remember 1992-93 and the battle over OMOV? Oh well. At least it’s nearly time for the holidays.

Thursday, 9 June 2011


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 10 June 2011

When the Tories and Liberal Democrats stitched up their coalition a little more than a year ago, my immediate reaction was that it wouldn’t last. OK, the Tories and the Orange Book Lib Dems shared an ideological commitment to the free market and a smaller state – but too much divided the parties for the coalition to hold in the long run: constitutional reform, Europe, civil liberties, defence…” I’ll give it two years at most,” I confidently told a group of friends the day David Cameron and Nick Clegg staged their press conference in the Number Ten rose garden.

I started having second thoughts within a couple of weeks, and by Xmas I’d reached the conclusion that the coalition might just survive the full term. I wavered a bit in the final stages of the alternative vote referendum campaign, when Lib Dem anger at the nastiness of No To AV’s attacks on Clegg nearly boiled over. But in the past month I’ve become ever more convinced that the coalition will last until 2015.

The reason is simple: the Liberal Democrats have nowhere else to go. They were thrashed in the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and English local elections last month, and they are bumping along with 10 per cent support in the opinion polls. In a general election, they would, in the absence of an electoral pact, be reduced to a handful of MPs, and they know it. It’s possible to imagine them leaving the coalition without precipitating an immediate general election. Cameron might in certain circumstances decide to soldier on as prime minister of a minority government. But it’s much more plausible that he’d respond to a Lib Dem walk-out by going to the country. And that is something the Lib Dems will not want for as long as their support is in the doldrums.

So my money is now on the coalition surviving until 2015. Which is when it could start to get really interesting. Let’s assume that in early 2015 the opinion polls are roughly as they are today – a daft assumption in many respects, I accept, but bear with me – with Labour on 41, the Tories on 38 and the Lib Dems on 10. Even with the government’s planned reduction of the size of the House of Commons, that would translate into a small overall Labour majority. The Lib Dems, meanwhile, would be reduced to a rump. How would Cameron respond?

Well, he might just shrug his shoulders and prepare for the election in the expectation that the Tories would overhaul the slim Labour lead during the election campaign and emerge with a Commons majority. That would cause him least grief with his own party – and it would probably work. But it would not be his only option. He could offer the Lib Dems an electoral pact.

Now, there are all sorts of electoral pacts. They can be formal or informal, national or local. There hasn’t been one in Britain, at least for Commons elections, for a very long time (except in Northern Ireland), but they used to be commonplace.

In the early years of the 20th century, Labour and the Liberals agreed not to stand candidates against one another in selected seats – an informal deal that allowed Labour to emerge as a serious electoral force. In 1918, the parties of David Lloyd George’s coalition put together a formal national electoral pact. In the 1920s, the Tories and the Liberals gave each other’s candidates free runs in selected seats to keep Labour out; and in 1931 and 1935, the parties supporting the National government did not stand against one another anywhere. Between 1939 and 1945 there was the wartime agreement among all the main parties not to oppose incumbent parties in by-elections, the so-called electoral truce; and from 1945 until 1959 the Tories and Liberals reverted to their 1920s practice of allowing one another free runs in selected seats to keep Labour out. There’s a strong case for arguing that this saved the Liberals from extinction in 1951: of the six Liberal MPs returned that year, only one, Jo Grimond in Orkney and Shetland, faced a Conservative opponent.

By 1959, Grimond had replaced the ineffectual Clement Davies as Liberal leader and the Tory-Liberal non-aggression pact had dwindled to a couple of seats. It was finally consigned to history by the Orpington by-election of 1962, in which the Liberal Eric Lubbock famously won what had been one of the Tories’ safest seats.

At least, that’s the way it seemed to just about everyone for nearly half a century. But just about everyone could be wrong. Unless there is a radical change in the opinion polls, Cameron has little to lose by offering the Lib Dems a selective non-aggression pact, and the Lib Dems have everything to gain. The Tories agree not to run against Lib Dem ministers and any sitting Lib Dem MP whose main challenger is Labour; and in return the Lib Dems withdraw from selected Labour-Tory marginals. Both the Tories and the Lib Dems do much better under such an arrangement than they would have without it, and the election results either in an outright Tory victory, in which case Cameron can decide whether or not to continue with the coalition, or a majority for the coalition parties, in which case it’s business as usual.

OK, it’s just speculation – but such a scenario is anything but implausible, and it should be setting Labour’s alarm bells ringing. That no one seems to have even thought about it speaks volumes of the cluelessness that is all-pervasive in the party’s upper echelons.

Monday, 6 June 2011


Paul Anderson, Chartist, May-June 2011

'You call yourself a libertarian socialist,' said my girlfriend the other day. 'But what does it actually mean in practice?'

All right, I'd left some washing-up undone – quite a lot, actually – but I was stumped. 'Er,' I replied hesitantly. 'So I'll do the washing-up when I feel like it?' She laughed, but I was embarassed. Thirty years ago, I'd have had a comprehensive answer on the tip of my tongue.

Back in the early 1980s, I believed that the working class could and should seize power for itself in a revolution, that it didn't need a revolutionary party to guide it, and that a self-managed socialist society based on democratically controlled workers' councils was a realistic and desirable objective. It might not happen immediately, but it certainly could in the next 10 or 15 years. Over-optimistic? Not at all. Remember Paris 1968! The washing-up can wait! I wasn't exactly an anarchist and wasn't exactly a council communist, but no one outside Britain's tiny revolutionary libertarian left milieu – 'milieu' was a word we liked – could have told the difference.

I was a member of a small national group, Solidarity, that had been the British affiliate of the French revolutionary socialist journal Socialisme ou Barbarie in the 1960s, and I was a big fan of the founders of S ou B, Cornelius Castoriadis and Claude Lefort. There was space on my book shelves for plenty of others, however: the Situationists, the Italian workerists, the Frankfurt School , Gyorgy Lukacs, Anton Pannekoek, Antonio Gramsci, Karl Korsch, Henri Lefebvre. Then as now, I liked reading.

You could say that my politics were a highbrow version of the TV sit-coms Citizen Smith and The Young Ones – and many of my closest friends made just that point. There was an embarrassingly massive gap between my theory and my practice. I read a lot about revolutions and working-class self-organisation, but my everyday life in the early 1980s, though bohemian in many respects, was far from revolutionary. I did demos and squats and no end of meetings, and was involved in a couple of minor industrial disputes. But nothing came close to Paris 1968. The sex and drugs and rock'n'roll were great, but the revolution existed only in my imagination.

Slowly and unsurely, I adjusted to reality. The landslide Tory victory in the 1983 general election made it clear that the post-war social-democratic welfare state settlement was rather more fragile than I had assumed. A year later, I got a job working for European Nuclear Disarmament, the part of the 1980s movement against nuclear weapons that was least enamoured of the Soviet Union , and found myself mixing more and more with people on the soft left of the Labour Party, with whom I had surprisingly few disagreements. The debacles of the 1984-85 miners' strike and the 1986-87 Wapping dispute finally disabused me of the notion that the class struggle at the point of production was the key to socialist advance. I succumbed to Kinnockite reformism. In 1986, I was hired as reviews editor of Tribune, and soon after that joined the Labour Party. I suppose I've been a Labour reformist libertarian socialist ever since.

But what, as the girl asked, does it actually mean in practice?

Let's start with the negatives. Libertarian socialism entails taking a stand against any strand of authoritarianism anywhere in the world. Leninist mountebanks, New Labour spin-doctors, foreign dictators, Islamist bigots, Christian fundamentalists, CIA assassins, Tory racists, BNP fascists – all are enemies that must be relentlessly tracked down, exposed and never appeased or excused. Every state needs to be monitored constantly on freedom of expression, freedom of organisation and prison conditions – and any state must be denounced loudly whenever it censors its critics, imprisons its writers and trade unionists or tortures its prisoners in dingy cells. Much the same applies to capital: the line is no-holds-barred antagonism to exploitation everywhere in the world.

That, though, is the easy bit. The positives are more difficult. Yes, libertarian socialists can support all the usual liberal good causes, from proportional representation to libel reform, and they can rail against the capitalist system. But there's more to what we stand for than that.

Or there should be. Unfortunately, there's not a lot going on right now in austerity Britain that gets the libertarian socialist juices flowing. The whole political class is enthusing about self-organisation and civil society, but – UK Uncut and student protesters notwithstanding – the popular mood is more sullen and apathetic than at any time in living memory. When you're broke and worried about your job and about keeping up the rent or the payments on your house, you retreat from engagement with politics. David Cameron's 'big society' is nothing more than fraudulent ideological cover for cutting public spending to pay for the bankers' gambling debts. Working people are facing a quite extraordinary squeeze because the big players of finance capital cocked up.

This is where libertarian socialism gets problematic. In an ideal world, I'd like to see co-ops running the local buses and democratic housing associations controlling most rented living spaces – but in the absence of a revolution, which isn't on the agenda, the only context in which it could happen would be a big, generous, redistributive social-democratic state that taxed the rich and used the proceeds to forge a more equal and democratic society. I want that state, I want it now, and I want it more than I want my windows cleaned by a profit-sharing workers' collective.

So although I'm all in favour of do-it-yourself socialist initiatives, I can do without them for now. Like it or not, the priority today is the battle to prevent the destruction of state services by the coalition government, and it's backs-against-the-wall. Maybe that makes me a very unlibertarian orthodox left social democrat – but that's the way it is. Now for that washing-up...

Friday, 13 May 2011


Paul Anderson, Tribune column,  13 May 2011

Last week's defeat for the “yes” campaign in the alternative vote referendum was richly deserved.

The “yes” campaign failed miserably to put across its case for changing the electoral system for the House of Commons from first past the post to preferential voting.

Its efforts were risible from the start, when its launch was fronted by a comic and an actor, and went downhill from there.

The “yes” campaign never managed to make better arguments for AV than that it “would make MPs work harder” (though it never explained how) and that it was somehow “fairer” than the status quo (ditto). Within a couple of weeks of its launch, it had been reduced to whining that the “no” campaign were nasty rough boys – and after that it became all-but-invisible for a while.

It got a few headlines when Ed Miliband belatedly gave it lukewarm support (though only after he made it clear that he would not appear on a pro-AV platform with Nick Clegg) and a few more when increasingly desperate Liberal Democrats entered the fray to repeat the complaint that the “no” campaign were nasty rough boys.

But that was it. The Independent and to a lesser extent the Guardian filled in a few of the gaps in the “yes” campaign with coherent if hardly powerful leaders and opinion columns in favour of the principle of preferential voting, the New Statesman added its tuppence-ha'penny-worth in typically incompetent fashion – and then the great British public had their say.

Their verdict was decisive. Of those that voted (42 per cent, which in the circumstances wasn't bad), 69 per cent backed “no” and just 31 per cent “yes”. The alternative vote is now dead as an option for reform of the voting system.

It would be wrong, however, to claim that the incompetence of the “yes” campaign was the sole factor in the result. It was up against a much-better-funded “no” campaign that was brutally populist. And, Guardian and Independent apart, the media were indifferent when they were not hostile.

But the most important reason that the “yes” campaign lost was that it was trying to sell a  prospectus it didn't really believe in itself – and voters smelt a rat.

There are a handful of people who genuinely believe that AV is the best possible system for electing a legislative assembly, among them the Labour MP Peter Hain, the journalist John Rentoul and the pollster Peter Kellner. (For all I know, Ed Miliband might be another, though I have my doubts.)

For most of the “yes” camp, however, AV was not what they really wanted.

Extraordinarily, even Nick Clegg, the man who made the referendum on AV a condition of Liberal Democrat participation in coalition with the Tories, didn't really want it. He memorably dismissed AV in an April 2010 interview as a “miserable little compromise”.

No, what Clegg and the overwhelming majority of the “yes” campaigners really wanted was proportional representation. They were pushing for AV only as a step towards PR.

(As regular readers will be aware, this column argued that the notion that AV was a step to PR was twaddle, and that supporters of PR should vote “no”. Very few other pro-PR people agreed, however, and most joined the “yes” campaign.)

Of course, they couldn't say that they saw AV merely as a means to a different end during the campaign. On one hand, it would have split the pro-AV camp, because one of the things true believers in AV find attractive about it is that it is not PR. On the other hand, it would have given the “no” campaign a golden opportunity to claim that AV was a Trojan horse for PR.

So we ended up  with the grotesque spectacle of supporters of proportional representation running around the country trying to whip up enthusiasm for a change they saw not as an end in itself but as a first step towards something completely different, all the time denying that they were doing any such thing.

It's hardly surprising that voters saw through the ruse and gave the “yes” campaign the same treatment they'd give a dodgy insurance salesman.

The decision of so many supporters of PR to attach themselves to the “yes” campaign has done serious damage to the credibility of proportional representation from which it will undoubtedly take time to recover – and several prominent pro-PR people in the “yes” campaign should at very least be issuing public apologies for making a very bad call on the referendum.

At least, though, on the bright side, the lost referendum was not about PR. Although the alternative vote now has no credibility, the case for a proportional lower house remains as strong as ever – and untested with the electorate.

Friday, 15 April 2011


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 15 April 2011

There was a time, long ago, when referendums were anathema to us Brits.

Referendums were French – and we didn’t do French, at least at home. Referendums had a role in the colonies, but in Britain they had no place. We had a functioning representative democracy that had no need of vulgar plebiscites any more than it needed bidets or garlic.

That all changed in the 1970s. We discovered genital hygiene, Mediterranean cooking – and the delights of voting “yes” or “no” to a question put to us by the government.

There was a referendum in Northern Ireland in 1973 on whether the Six Counties should remain in the United Kingdom – “yes” won – and, more importantly, Labour won the 1974 general election promising a referendum on continued British membership of what was then called the Common Market. It took place in 1975, and “yes” swept the board. In 1979, there were referendums in Scotland and Wales on devolution. Scotland voted for devolution but not by a sufficient majority to have it implemented. Wales voted against.

All these 1970s referendums were the product of shameless political opportunism – those on Europe and devolution came about because Labour needed a way out of its deep divisions on both issues – and none of them solved anything.

The Northern Ireland sovereignty ballot was little more than a farce because it was boycotted by nationalists (surprise, surprise). And the main effect of the 1979 devolution referendums, held as the Labour government went through its death throes, was to spur proponents of devolution to redouble their efforts.

Even the overwhelming “yes” to Europe in 1975 was less decisive than it seemed. The “yes” campaign had the support of every single national newspaper, the Tories, the Liberals and most members of the Labour cabinet, and it was lavishly funded by big business. The “no” campaign had Tribune and the Morning Star, Michael Foot and Enoch Powell, and a tiny budget. The resentment of the anti-European Tory right about the way their party was manoeuvred into the “yes” camp came to dominate Tory politics in the late 1980s and still remains poisonous.

The 1970s experience put a lot of politicians off referendums – but not Tony Blair or Gordon Brown (who first made his mark as organiser of Labour’s “yes” campaign on devolution in 1979). Under their leadership, Labour went into the 1997 election promising referendums galore – on devolution to Scotland, Wales and the English regions, on changing the electoral system for the House of Commons, on British membership of the single European currency.

Those on Scotland and Wales took place – both countries voted in favour of devolution in 1997 – and there was one (utterly farcical) ballot on creating an English region in the north-east, in 2004. Otherwise, however, Labour did not keep its referendum promises. Blair pencilled in the euro referendum several times, but Brown got out his eraser for each, and Labour did nothing serious on the electoral reform referendum until Brown desperately made it part of the party’s 2010 general election pitch.

And of course, that promise ended up as government policy – but not of a Labour government. One of the concessions Nick Clegg wrought from David Cameron last year as the price for coalition was a referendum on electoral reform. Which is what we’ve got coming up in three weeks.

I’m not going to get into the arguments about the alternative vote again here. It suffices to say that Clegg’s deal with Cameron to introduce an AV versus first past the post referendum was one of the lousiest opportunist Realpolitik sell-outs in living memory in Britain. His party stood for proportional representation, and the least he should have demanded last May was a multi-choice referendum on the electoral system in which PR was an option. I think he could have got it, but there is no evidence that he even asked.

Whatever, we’ve got AV versus FPTP next month, and who gives a toss outside the political class? The referendum campaigns are run by idiots, and both “yes” and “no” have adopted the most cretinous strategies. “The alternative vote kills babies!” “Sexy celebs want change!” None of the key arguments, for or against AV, has had any purchase. The “no” campaign has been bankrolled by hardline Tory millionaires. The “yes” mob has had liberal charitable foundations dishing out cash that could be better used elsewhere.

But this is what plebiscitary democracy is like. Referendums are always useless for anything important. Most solve nothing, and they’re demeaning. They reduce politics to the lowest common denominator, and when anything that matters is at stake they give big media the whip hand. They are OK for small local things – should you allow the pub to stay open after 11pm? – but that’s about it. Ed Miliband take note: please, no referendum promises.

Thursday, 17 March 2011


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 18 March 2011

The week before last, Tribune published a letter from Terry Ashton, one-time general secretary of the London Labour Party, arguing that my last column had not substantiated my claim that the alternative vote is worse than first past the post for parliamentary elections. I know it’s not done for columnists to abuse their privileged position to take issue with letters to the editor, but what the hell – this one needs to be thrashed out.

My starting point is that the main problem with first past the post is that it is not proportional. It is based entirely on single-member constituencies and has no mechanism to ensure that the share of parliamentary seats won by parties reflects their overall level of support.

Indeed, in most general elections of the past 80 years, FPTP has yielded spectacularly disproportionate results, the beneficiaries being the Conservative and Labour parties and the losers the Liberals (and their successors) and other smaller parties. At the last general election, the Conservative Party won 36 per cent of the vote but 47 per cent of Commons seats, Labour won 29 per cent of the vote but 40 per cent of seats and the Lib Dems won 23 per cent of the vote and only 9 per cent of seats. In five out of the last eight general elections – 1979, 1983, 1987, 1997 and 2001 – parties have won landslide Commons majorities on much less than half the vote.

Now, proportionality is not the only criterion by which electoral systems can be judged – and supporters of first past the post argue that its main strengths are precisely a function of its disproportionality, that it usually delivers clear victories for either Labour or the Tories and that it tends to prevent extremists from gaining a foothold in parliament. Post-election haggling over coalition arrangements is the exception rather than the norm under FPTP, they say, and the disproportionality of the Lib Dems’ representation excludes them from undue influence as perpetual king-makers.

As it happens, I believe that the benefits of proportionality – both in giving legitimacy to the electoral system and in allowing relatively easy development of new parties – would out-weigh the supposed disadvantages. But this is irrelevant in the context of the May 5 referendum.

The referendum gives us a straight choice between AV and FPTP; and, despite the claims of some of its proponents, AV is neither a proportional system, nor a “more” proportional system than FPTP, nor a step towards a more proportional system. AV is simply preferential voting in single-member constituencies. Voters mark their ballots “1, 2, 3, 4 …” instead of “X”; if no candidate wins more than 50 per cent of first preferences, the second preferences of the last placed candidate are distributed, and so on until one candidate reaches 50 per cent.

So what makes AV worse than FPTP? Advocates of AV say that it has the advantage of ensuring that every MP is elected with 50 per cent or more of the vote – but it also turns electioneering into a desperate battle for the second, third and fourth preferences of fringe candidates. It eliminates tactical voting in the sense that it makes it unnecessary for voters to make considered choices between voting for someone they want and voting for someone with a chance of winning – but it does so only by allowing some voters more than one bite of the cherry.

The worst problem with AV, however, is that it in the long term it would probably be even less proportional and even less conducive to pluralism than FPTP. No one can know precisely what its effects would be in Britain – and guesswork based on recent general elections has been rendered obsolete by the Lib Dems’ entry into government with the Tories.

But the 90-year experience of Australia suggests that AV has even more of a tendency than FPTP to force politics into a de facto two-party mode.

In Australia, elections for the lower house of parliament, the House of Representatives, are a stand-off between the centre-left Labor Party and a permanent conservative coalition of the Liberal and National parties (as they are now known). One reason the conservative coalition became permanent is a function of AV: each right-wing party needs the second preferences of supporters of the other to win seats – so each formally recommends that its supporters give their second preferences to the other to keep Labor out.

Parties outside these two blocs are more effectively excluded from the Australian House of Representatives than they are from the House of Commons. Partly because of this, landslide parliamentary majorities on minorities of first-preference votes are more common in Australia even than landslides for minority-supported parties under FPTP in Britain.

Of course, the disproportional effects of AV could be mitigated if it were used in conjunction with regional top-up seats, as recommended by Roy Jenkins’s Independent Commission on the Voting System in 1998. But “AV-plus” isn’t on offer on May 6 or at any time afterwards. Nor is what Australia has that Britain has not – an elected upper chamber with a quasi-proportional electoral system under which smaller parties have repeatedly won representation.

If we vote yes, we get AV pure and simple, without an elected second chamber, and we get it for keeps. And, even though it puts me in the same camp as the dreadful David Owen on an important issue for the first time in 30 years, that’s why I’m voting “No to AV, Yes to PR”.

Thursday, 17 February 2011


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 18 February 2011

Something tells me that the campaign in the run-up to the referendum on the voting system on 5 May is going to be rather less than riveting.

It’s not just that the issue itself – whether or not to drop the first past the post system for Westminster elections and replace it with the alternative vote – is technical and not at the front of most voters’ minds. Even campaigners for the “yes” and “no” camps appear to lack all conviction.

Last week, the “yes” camp plumbed the depths of desperation when one of its official spokespeople tried to appropriate the forthcoming royal wedding for the AV cause. “We will put all the arguments, but around the wedding it will be a coming-into-summer, more optimistic, more of a yes mood,” a “campaign source” told the Guardian (which for some reason thought this risible banality warranted a front-page story).

This week, the “no” camp sank even deeper, with an official launch at which its key argument (picked up by the Sun) seemed to be that AV would cost a shocking £250 million, mainly because councils would have to buy expensive vote-counting machines. The press conference subsequently degenerated into a catty exchange about whether “yes” or “no” had the hotter celebrity endorsements.

The real problem is that very few people even among the campaigners for “yes” and “no” are for or against the alternative vote as a matter of principle.

There are a few in the “yes” camp, among them the journalist John Rentoul and the Labour MP Peter Hain, who think that AV is a good thing in itself because it would ensure that every MP received more than 50 per cent of the vote. (AV retains single-member constituencies from first past the post but voters mark their ballot papers "1, 2, 3, 4 ..." in order of preference instead of placing an “X” next to the name of their favoured candidate. If no candidate wins more than 50 per cent of first preferences, the second preferences of supporters of the last-placed candidate are distributed, and so on until one candidate has more than 50 per cent of votes.)

But most supporters of the “yes” campaign are there either for reasons of political self-interest – most analysts believe that the Liberal Democrats would win more seats under AV than under FPTP – or because they see AV as a step towards a more proportional system of representation.

AV itself is not PR. Indeed, it could, and probably would, yield results even more disproportionate than first past the post – and no serious supporter of PR argues otherwise. But AV can be used, in conjunction with regional top-up seats, in a PR system, which is what the late Lord Jenkins advocated – he called it “AV-plus”— in the report of his Independent Commission on the Voting System in 1998. Many in the “yes” campaign, among them the constitutional campaigner Anthony Barnett and the Guardian newspaper, think that a vote to change to AV would open the door to further changes.

I really don’t buy this argument: I can’t see any reason whatsoever to expect that we won’t be stuck with AV for the long term if we vote for it in the referendum – and so, as a supporter of PR who thinks that AV is in many respects even worse than first past the post, I’m going to be voting “no” on 5 May.

Not that I’m happy with my bedfellows. The “no” camp is dominated by self-interested Tory and Labour big-wigs who back first past the post on the grounds that they believe AV would damage their parties’ prospects and that a “no” vote on 5 May will damage Nick Clegg. Hardly anyone in the official No to AV campaign is prepared to make the best principled argument against AV – that it is not proportional – for the simple reason that hardly anyone in No to AV supports PR.

Hence the hogwash at the No to AV launch about how expensive AV would be – which will no doubt be followed by groaning about how complicated AV is, how it would spoil the fun of election night and sundry other irrelevancies.

All of which is a crying shame, because how we vote in elections actually matters – and the referendum will determine whether we are saddled with a system even worse than the one we’ve got now. I'm hoping that the cretinous exchanges of the past week will prove an aberration. But I'm not putting money on it.

Friday, 21 January 2011


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 21 January 2011

It’s an old adage of political journalism that it’s a mistake to read too much into a single by-election result, and Oldham East and Saddleworth last week is no exception.

Indeed, you could argue that it’s not very significant at all. Oldham East and Saddleworth is a very unusual constituency, one of a handful of Labour-Liberal Democrat marginals, and the circumstances of the by-election were odd in the extreme – the nullification of the general election victory won only eight months ago by Labour’s Phil Woolas, and Woolas’s disqualification from parliament on the grounds that he had untruthfully claimed that his Lib Dem opponent, Elwyn Watkins, had sought the support of Islamist extremists in his campaign. Unless there is a spate of by-elections following convictions of sitting Labour MPs for fiddling expenses, Labour isn’t going to have to fight many fights in conditions remotely similar.

Add the likelihood that nearly all constituency boundaries will be redrawn as a consequence of the coalition’s plans to reduce the size of the House of Commons and the possibility that the next general election will take place under a different electoral system, and Debbie Abrahams’s victory for Labour last week looks in certain lights to be very small potatoes.

But it’s not completely insignificant. It is, most importantly, a win for Labour under Ed Miliband at a time when – how to put it politely? – he has yet to establish a commanding presence on the political stage. If Labour had lost, his leadership would now be being lampooned widely, and not just by the usual suspects in Labour’s ranks who still haven’t got over his beating his brother last September. As it is, he has a little more breathing space.

Oldham East and Saddleworth also provides a fascinating snapshot of how voters’ allegiances have shifted in the eight months since the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government was formed. Labour won essentially because it attracted thousands of votes from people who had voted Lib Dem at the general election. The Lib Dem share of the vote held up, but only because thousands who had voted Tory in May 2010 switched tactically to the Lib Dem to keep Labour out.

This pattern of Lib Dems defecting to Labour and of Tories tactically voting Lib Dem was good news for Labour last week – but it need not always be so. If anti-Labour tactical voting becomes the norm in other Labour-Lib Dem marginals, it’s quite possible that Tories tactically voting Lib Dem will outweigh Lib Dems defecting to Labour, with very bad results for Labour. It would be even worse if Lib Dem supporters opt to vote tactically for Tories to keep Labour out in Labour-Tory marginals.

And that’s on the assumption that the electoral system remains the same. If it is changed to the alternative vote, as will happen if voters vote yes in the forthcoming referendum on the electoral system … well, the message for Labour from Oldham East and Saddleworth is not at all reassuring.

Under AV, single-member constituencies are retained, but voters mark their preferences on their ballot papers by ranking the candidates (“1, 2, 3, 4 …”) rather than choosing one (“X”). If no candidate wins more than 50 per cent of first preferences, the second preferences of the last placed candidate are redistributed, and so on until one candidate has more than 50 per cent.

Now, no one can do more than guess how preferences would have stacked up under AV in Oldham East and Saddleworth. But the scale of Tory tactical voting for the Lib Dem suggests that he would have picked up many, many more second preferences than the Labour candidate from the 13 per cent of voters who voted Tory last week. And it’s by no means an outrageous conjecture that the Lib Dem would also have picked up an overwhelming majority of second (or third or fourth) preferences from the 11 per cent who voted UKIP or the BNP. I know it’s only a parlour game, but on this scenario I think that Labour would have lost narrowly last week.

Party self-interest is not of course what should count in choosing an electoral system – but in reality it will count a great deal come the AV referendum. Oldham East and Saddleworth is a warning to those Labour supporters of AV who have blithely assumed, on the basis of the experience of anti-Tory tactical voting in the four general elections before 2010, that Labour would benefit from a switch to AV. If anti-Labour feeling is widespread among voters, it could lose even more comprehensively under AV than under first-past-the-post.

That’s not my principal, principled reason for voting “no” in the referendum. But it’s a reason all the same, and it’s related to the principal, principled reason – of which more anon.