Thursday, 28 April 2011

Cameron: I’m loving your election campaign, Labour

In the Labour Party, we’re very excited about the Alternative Vote referendum. In Westminster, of course, it’s easily crowding out debate on the (not unimportant) Scotland, Wales, Northern Irish and English local elections.

Ooh, the Yeses. The Noes. It’s all that analytical, wonkish, procedural stuff that we love to debate. We seem to have spent the last month or so monopolising the media and the Labour blogosphere with this one issue. To be fair, there are some sensible arguments on both sides, such as this one from Anthony Painter, a fine analytical piece from normblog and a lot of lowest-common-denominator ones. Also there is the delightful “meh2AV” campaign for those who, like Labour Uncut’s own Mike Dugher MP, feel that it’s been a complete waste of time.

Now, any change to the constitution is important, fair enough – and we got the referendum that we, after all, asked for (although, as various people recently observed, it is remarkable how we have gone from all supporting AV as a manifesto commitment, to split down the middle in less than a year). And – whatever – the referendum is now upon us, so we have to make up our minds, and vote or campaign according to what we decide. So far, so good.

An initial note of caution: outside political circles and the metropolitan media, this issue is hardly dominating people’s thoughts. They have more mundane concerns: getting their way through the month and paying the bills, with a sluggish economy and some nasty public service cuts.

But we Labour folk, on the other hand, are working ourselves up into a frenzy. We’re so excited about it that we’re happily knocking chunks out of each other. Every other article is making personal attacks on figures from the other campaign.

And, in all the excitement, we have forgotten something rather obvious.

Of the three parties, which party stands to be hurt most by AV in-fighting? Ours, of course. Why? The answer is history; and the make-up of our parties.

First, since the general election, while we’ve made mistakes in a number of areas, we have, happily, not fallen into the usual trap of Labour in opposition: fighting each other instead of the Tories. Robust debates have been had, and rightly so. But we haven’t been fracturing, factionalising, as is our wont.

Until now, that is.

Second, now think about this: Cameron has all Tories who count exclusively on the side of the No campaign. It might as well be a three-line whip. If you don’t agree, check out the Tory Yes campaign here. Bless them. Not a single name you’ve ever heard of.  And for the Lib Dems, of course, it is sacrilege to talk against AV, despite their pre-election dismissal of the same. But we, in contrast, are split down the middle.

Cameron must surely be smiling a Cheshire cat grin every time he sees Labour attacking each other in the media, while he quietly gets on with his own campaign. Ah, but he should be worried, we say. If the vote goes against him, he’ll be in trouble…won’t he?

Well, let’s look at the possible outcomes. If No wins, Cameron has three gold bars in a row. Ker-ching! Lib Dems all but destroyed, although they would probably hang on for a while. The jackpot: ditch the Lib Dems whenever the polls start to come back in his favour, and govern alone in 2015.

If Yes wins, he’s got a lower payout, but still a payout. He may be a bit disappointed to think that he might have to stick with his Liberal sidekick a little longer. But there’s a silver lining: the Lib Dem vote could well be decimated in spite of the lift that AV will give them, because they are Cameron’s lightning conductor for policy failure and, coupled with the various betrayals of their voter base, Clegg has become highly unpopular as a result. So Cameron might still be able to win alone. And if not, there are worse things than carrying on as is: for a start, he still has his lightning conductor. Not the best outcome, but not that bad, either.

Is he really that worried about the referendum, then? Probably not. Of course, we could win in 2015, that’s the ideal outcome and the misery scenario for Cameron. But that’s a different argument, only marginally dependent of the outcome of the referendum. It would only have mattered in the case that we were to win with a very slender majority. And how likely is that win now looking?

Labour spent the first six months since the election on the leadership election (i.e. doing nothing politically useful); and has spent the last six months providing a too-subtle – that is, a bit muddled – message on cuts and the economy, on which it has so far lost the argument (let’s hope that it’s genuinely still possible to win it, long shot though that may seem). Thanks to AV, it has also now spent, in addition, a couple of months fighting with itself, and worse, possibly opening fissures which may start the path towards a more serious fracturing, always the lurking historical danger.

So, friends and colleagues: Cameron is unlikely to be quaking in his boots over AV. And the relatively modest changes that AV might bring versus the status quo may seem very important right now: but they are really not issues worth us killing each other over. Vote Yes. Vote No. Campaign for either if you feel strongly about it. But please, in these final days, let’s keep it a robust debate on the issues. Let’s stop being personal. As the wise Paul Richards put it the other day, “After 5th May, remember Labour folk in #yestoAV and #no2AV all have to make friends. No space for recriminations and feuds.”

Because there is one person who is really benefiting from all of this, and he currently occupies 10 Downing Street. We should be wary of anything which might unintentionally help him prolong his stay.

This post first published at Labour Uncut, where it featured in The Week Uncut, the week's most popular posts. Also one of PoliticsHome's 5 at 5 must-reads on 27 April and had reached no.1 in its most-read posts by the following morning.

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