22 February 2011

'CORE VOTE' IS NO LABOUR PANACEA

I've only just caught this – an excellent piece from the current Tribune by Paul Hackett of the Smith Institute on Labour's electoral prospects. Read it all, but the points on class and voting patterns are particularly telling:
There has been much hand-wringing in Labour circles about the collapse of the C2 vote (skilled manual workers). The figures are horrifying. There has been an 11-percentage-point fall (a 7.5 per cent swing towards the Conservatives), with a corollary DE (semi-skilled, unskilled and unemployed) swing of 7 per cent. Clearly, Labour needs to re-engage with those who used to be regarded as its core voters in order to win again.

However, on closer inspection, the electoral map is a lot more complex and a political strategy based solely on the core vote would be an extremely risky one. The way social grades are split suggests that each grouping represents a quarter of the electorate. In fact, this is not the case. Not only do C1s out number other grades (and ABC1s outnumber C2DEs), there is also the impact of turnout. The data is unequivocal in showing that the poorest in society don’t vote. The difference between AB and DE turnout is nearly 20 percentage points. If you weight the social grades, it shows Labour cannot possibly win on the back of working-class support alone.

At the 2010 election, Labour gained more votes from ABs than from C2s and similar numbers from C1s as DEs. ABC1s contributed slightly more to Labour’s tally than C2DEs. That said, while Labour’s support among ABs looks fairly strong, there is a delicate balancing act to be managed between the social grades. Labour needs to win back more DE voters, but not at the cost of its AB vote.

Back in 1992, for example, Labour secured just 19 per cent of the AB vote (compared with 30 per cent in 1997 and 26 per cent in 2010). If Labour’s AB fell back to 19 per cent, it would require a relatively larger (9 per cent) rise among DEs to secure the same national support as it did in 2010 (this is against the backdrop of rapidly falling DE support). So there is no turning back to the idea of a working-class majority for Labour and to pretend otherwise would be counter-productive.

17 February 2011

A VERY BAD START

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.

9 February 2011

WIKILEAKS LESSONS – 1

The Guardian's instant book on the biggest news story de nos jours, WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy by David Leigh and Luke Harding, is a great piece of work, and I'll be reviewing it shortly. In the meantime, a gem from Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger's introduction to the book, which I missed the week before last when it was published in the paper: the text of an email he received on WikiLeaks from the American media lawyer Max Frankel, who defended the New York Times in the Pentagon papers case 40 years ago:
1. My view has almost always been that information which wants to get out will get out; our job is to receive it responsibly and to publish or not by our own unvarying news standards.

2. If the source or informant violates his oath of office or the law, we should leave it to the authorities to try to enforce their law or oath, without our collaboration. We reject collaboration or revelation of our sources for the larger reason that ALL our sources deserve to know that they are protected with us. It is, however, part of our obligation to reveal the biases and apparent purposes of the people who leak or otherwise disclose information.

3. If certain information seems to defy the standards proclaimed by the supreme court in the Pentagon papers case ie that publication will cause direct, immediate and irreparable damage we have an obligation to limit our publication appropriately. If in doubt, we should give appropriate authority a chance to persuade us that such direct and immediate danger exists. (See our 24-hour delay of discovery of Soviet missiles in Cuba as described in my autobiography, or our delay in reporting planes lost in combat until the pilots can perhaps be rescued.)

4. For all other information, I have always believed that no one can reliably predict the consequences of publication. The Pentagon papers, contrary to Ellsberg's wish, did not shorten the Vietnam war or stir significant additional protest. A given disclosure may embarrass government but improve a policy, or it may be a leak by the government itself and end up damaging policy. "Publish and be damned," as Scotty Reston used to say; it sounds terrible but as a journalistic motto it has served our society well through history.
Rusbridger says: "There have been many longer treatises on the ethics of journalism which have said less." And, apart from the use of "which" when it should be "that", I couldn't agree more.

4 February 2011

AV IS NOT PR BLOG LAUNCHED

I have set up a new blog AV IS NOT PR, to put the argument for voting "no" in the referendum on the voting system on the grounds that the alternative vote is not proportional representation. Please visit it!