AV and class

Wes Streeting

Poll VoteBy Wes Streeting / @wesstreeting

Whether your Labour politics are something old, new, borrowed or blue*, there is an emerging consensus that the renewal of the Party under Ed Miliband must address the fact that we have haemorrhaged support amongst our traditional working class base. We could start by addressing the electoral system that is skewing British politics to focus on an ever smaller number of voters in middle England swing seats.

Like so many arguments I’ve read against the Alternative Vote system, Owen Jones’ recent blog makes the mistake opposing the reform on the basis of a case that applies more to the status quo. Jones opposes AV because, he believes, ‘it will institutionalise mushy centrist politics’. I don’t know where Owen has been for the past decade, but we have an electoral system in First Past the Post that does just that.

The last general election was determined by 1.6% of the electorate. Research by the Institute for Public Policy Research identified just 111 constituencies and fewer than 460,000 voters whose decisions determine the make up of the government. Huge amounts of the Labour Party’s resources are put into these few seats including most of the money raised for campaigning and much of the shoe leather of party activists. This means that huge swathes of the electorate are ignored by Labour in a way which just wasn’t the case in the 1950s and 60s.

This also has an impact on the Labour Party’s policy agenda. The recent edition of Progress magazine dedicates a great deal of coverage to Blue Labour’s appeal for the party to reconnect with its traditional working class base. But as Robert Philpot argues in his editorial: ‘Blue Labour may offer a way of appealing to many of the party’s lost working-class voters, but, as yet, it appears to have little to say to its middle-class ones; indeed, it seems unaware of some of the electoral trade-offs its choices may involve. This is no mere academic point. Labour’s support held up better among AB middle-class voters last May than it did among C2 voters. And, with a turnout some 18 points higher than skilled working-class voters, these archetypal ‘middle Britain’ dwellers are ones that Labour can ill afford to ignore or alienate.’

Philpot understands that Labour abandons the swing voters of middle England at its peril. So do the Tories. And the Liberal Democrats. Strategists of every major party spend hours pouring over focus group results and opinion polling to ensure that their policy agenda and our message appeal to these crucial voters.

Working class interests are already poorly served by a lack of adequate representation in parliament, the media and others who pull the levers of social, politicial and economic power in Britain. Amongst its many other flaws, the First Past the Post system also ensures that working class voters are poorly represented by the electoral system. There are two important ways that voters can improve the lot of ordinary working people next Thursday: one is by voting Labour, the other is by voting yes.

* I would like to assure our republican readers that this will be my only pathetic attempt to shoe horn the royal wedding into this totally unrelated post.

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