After a stumbling start it looks like Ed Milliband’s tenure as leader of the Labour Party might at last be finding something close to a purpose. On Wednesday of the week just gone he added his support to the campaign to change Britain’s voting system.
He signed a letter supporting the yes campaign in the Alternative Vote (AV) referendum due to be held at the same time as next year’s local elections published in the Guardian that read ‘First past the post isn’t working. When just a few thousand people determine every election result in a few swing seats, the interests of the Labour Party and the people we represent go unheard.’ Other signatories include Hilary Benn, Tessa Jowell and Alan Johnson, the shadow chancellor and Red Ed’s main rival for the party leadership.
Supporting reform of the voting system has been a long term project for Ed Milliand, he wrote a referendum on AV into the party’s 2010 manifesto and taking up the cause again now might just save his leadership, which has been flat lining following a run of poor performances at PMQ’s. It unites some of his most vociferous rivals behind him and gives him an opportunity to take on figures from the New Labour past such as John Prescott, David Blunket and Margaret Beckett, in the process showing that with him at the helm the party is going to take a new direction.
The most important thing he has got right is to give make the vote on AV a free vote, distancing his leadership from the paranoid conformism of the Blair and Brown years. In doing so he recognises that allowing MPs to follow their consciences on important issues doesn’t automatically signify weakness on the part of the leadership; people with differing views can work towards a common aim all it takes is a little maturity.
There are, of course, some distinct political advantages to taking up the cause of voting reform. If the AV referendum is lost the Liberal Democrats will be seriously damaged, the chance to change the voting system was one of the deals struck to from the coalition and if that fails to come to pass some of the more disaffected Lib Dems might be persuaded to come over to Labour.
If the AV campaign wins the referendum the pressure will be on David Cameron in a way it hasn’t been to date. The Tory back benches aren’t exactly packed to bursting point with supporters of constitutional reform; in fact there are more than a few Tory trolls who would welcome a return to feudalism and would see a victory for AV as a perfect opportunity to rid themselves of a leader they don’t much like.
Short term political advantage can only ever though be part of the reason why Labour should support electoral reform and AV can only ever be seen as a first step in a much longer process. The current coalition is a monument to the fact that the old way of doing political business no longer works.
Our democratic system needs new people, now voices and most important of all new ideas to make it relevant to people’s concerns and aspirations, it will only find them when we embrace proportional representation. If Labour really wants to find a new direction then they must be one of the parties leading the campaign for PR.
HOW TO LOSE SUPPORT AND ALIENATE PEOPLE
For a while it looked like the defining image of the student protests was going to be that of a young woman who had drawn a cat’s whiskers on her balaclava, not so much the angry brigade as the cute corps. The came last Thursday’s riots in central London and the photograph of Charlie Gilmour, the adopted son of Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour, swinging on the flags decorating the cenotaph like a drug addled ape.
Any protest movement succeeds or fails on how well it can contain the anarchist element, so far the campaign against higher education funding cuts has failed to do so. Their case, however just, can only be made effectively as part of a wider opposition to aggressive cuts to public spending backed by a workable alternative vision of how we fund vital services.
Urinating on national monuments, disrespecting the flag and the war dead can only ever alienate the vital support base they need to build in what the rioters no doubt sneeringly think of as ‘middle England’. For supposedly clever people the leaders of the newly minted ‘student movement’ are behaving like they’re dumber than mud.
THE PLAYERS WHO WENT BACK OUT INTO THE COLD
I don’t usually feel much sympathy for Premiership footballers, but in the case of those on the payroll of Manchester United I’m willing to make an exception because manager Alex Fergusson has banned them from wearing snoods on the pitch during the cold snap. Between now and March the only thing warming them up will be the famous ‘hairdryer’ treatment he gives is teams at half time.