Andy Burnham is right to say Labour won’t campaign on AV

Ballot VoteBy Toby Perkins MP

Following Andy Burnham’s sensible announcement that Labour would not campaign in either direction in the AV debate, a number of AV supporters, led by the usually impressive Will Straw on Left Foot Forward have been attempting to pressure our leader Ed Miliband to change this view and instead to come out as a party in favour of AV. I wanted to explain why I think this would be a huge mistake.

There is much else to say about why the AV proposal is wrong for electing our House of Commons. I will write again about the other reasons why I believe that everyone regardless of their political affiliation should vote No to AV, but in this article I want to explain why I think Andy and Ed are right and Will is very wrong.

I will turn shortly to what I see as the weaknesses in Will’s arguments, but firstly, I would like to explain why regardless of which side of the fence you start from Andy Burnham’s decision is the right one.

The elections in 2011 will probably be the most important electoral test facing us in this parliament. Elections to the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly will set in place the devolved administrations that will still be in place when the 2015 general election is called, and Labour’s fightback in local government must start with the key local government elections across the shire counties of England.

The AV debate is an unwelcome distraction to these vital elections, but even more so if we are going to expect the tens of thousands of Labour Party members who will be voting No in the referendum to go out campaigning for a viewpoint they don’t share, have never been consulted on, and in many cases will mean their own political extermination.

I do also recognise that there are equally many people who believe we should be voting Yes in this referendum and, perhaps see political salvation for their local interest in the vote being successful, and so would not presume to foist my opinion onto their leaflets either.

Fundamentally, the party does not have a settled view on the subject. This is underlined by a recent Labourlist survey which showed more Labour supporters surveyed opposed to the change than in favour of it. So to undermine crucial local election campaigns would be disrespectful to the Councillors, MSP’s, AM’s and local activists whose attention should be focused on the local elections.

Some might choose to undermine the arguments of those who speak out of personal self-preservation or self advancement. But to do so would be to ignore the fact that political self interest is the elephant in the room throughout the AV debate. It was present in our original conversion to AV, to the Lib Dems support of it, and to the Tories opposition. It is also relevant to Labour people now fighting shy of it and Tory’s now considering whether it might after all not be so bad.

Will Straw makes five central points in support of his assertion.

Firstly that Labour committed to an AV referendum in the general election and that Ed Miliband said he would campaign for it during the leadership election.

I accept that the party’s inclusion of AV in the manifesto means that if this had stood alone in the bill presented to parliament we would have had to support the referendum, but it is a long distance from that acceptance to saying that we should campaign for it. Ed made it clear during the leadership campaign (as did most of the other leadership candidates) that he would campaign for it, but at no time did he say that he would commit the party to campaigning for it, many people who voted for him despite his support for AV would be left very disillusioned to find that he had now strengthened his view to commit supporters and opponents of AV to supporting it.

Will’s second point was that Labour has to prove it can work with the Lib Dems on areas of shared concern. On tuition fees, VAT, EMA and Housing benefit, the Labour Party is adopting positions that are in line with the Liberal Democrat position prior to the election. They have abandoned their principles and genuine offers to work together on all of these policies, but now we should, according to Will, race to the Lib Dems aid and introduce a policy on which the Lib Dems (and Nationalists) will be the only certain winners.

His third point about candidates being capable of fighting for their own election whilst fighting the referendum was frankly naive and insensitive. Labour candidates that want to be focused on their own elections have more than enough difficulties getting activists to work with them, without asking them to promote a measure that many of them oppose and some of them believe will mean their political extinction. Will seems to be operating from the position that the argument for AV within the party is largely won, he is very wrong on this, the opposition to it goes much deeper than he appears to realise.

His fourth contention is the most flawed. Namely that AV is in the party’s interest. At the recent general election, Labour would have lost a lot of seats to the Lib Dems on AV; Ashfield, Bristol NW, Rochdale, Edinburgh South (and yes, Chesterfield) to name a few. The argument of self-interest must accept this but contend that it would be outweighed by more victories in Labour/Tory marginals, due to Lib Dem second preferences. At the 1997 election that would have been true; in 2010 it would have been less true, but it is possible that the balance of power would still have been in Labour’s favour. However is Will really saying that after five years of watching Tory and Lib Dem policy converge that those people who were still voting Lib Dem at that point would then vote Labour with their second vote?

Surely it is obvious that those Lib Dems who are appalled by the Lib Dem sell outs in this parliament are likely to have already come to Labour, and those who have stuck with the Lib Dems because they believe that Nick Clegg is judging the situation right will agree with Nick that the Tories are the best second choice.

Will finishes by claiming that the bond between the coalition party leaderships is too tight for a defeat in the AV referendum to deliver a hammer blow to the coalition. I largely agree with this, which underlines my point above about why this could be very damaging to Labour in Lab/Tory marginals. But surely he can see that the prospect of fighting the election under AV will bolster the Lib Dems in the coalition to feel considerably more confident in their ability to withstand the unpopularity of government. Similarly a loss in the AV referendum leaves the Lib Dems exposed and places extra leftward pressures on the future policy direction of the coalition.

So, for the reasons listed above, Andy and Ed are absolutely right to say that the party will keep the elections separate. Some of us support AV, some don’t. I don’t ask Will to march round the streets arguing against AV, so I hope he won’t ask me to support it.

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