26 May 2007

I'm backing Alan Johnson for deputy.

John Cruddas has the backing of Ken Livingstone and has made all the right noises on housing, immigration, inequality and party democracy - so you would think that a lefty like me would be falling over himself to back Mr Cruddas for the deputy leadership but you would be wrong.

Cruddas calls electoral reform a 'second order issue' and remains to be convinced of its relevance. Unfortunately, as this excellent speech by John Denham shows (hat-tip Labour Home / Make Votes Count), Cruddas fails to understand how much damage our electoral system is doing to political debate and to Labour's chances of winning future elections. As Labour electoral deserts grow and resources have to be targeted on the marginals rather than rebuilding widespread support, Labour's reach in the South of England and rural areas generally becomes even more destroyed and this matters a lot not just to our overall working majority but to our moral justification for running the country.

Much as grammar schools entrench social advantage, first-past-the-post entrenches political advantage, it exacerbates difference where it is in fact minor. What you believe becomes more about where you live and your social class rather than political philosophy as you become more and more isolated in a sea of either right-wing or left-wing consensus depending where you live. (Overall of course, the 75% Tory press will continue to push the right-wing agenda at the national level - this has always been the case but even with this media help and an electoral system where you can govern with just 22% of the electorate's support, the Tories are so right-wing and tainted they are struggling to win even this pitiful share of support).

Lefties have debated 'false consciousness' among the poor for a long time - those poor who seemingly vote against their own interests - but in fact the numbers of poor who do this are small. Among social classes D and E, Labour have always had 20-30% leads over the Tories. What is more interesting is the big support Labour have in social classes A and B - where the Tory lead is only 5% to 10%. Why do so many middle class people vote for Labour - a party painted by the media as very much in favour of higher taxes? Clearly self interest is more complicated than just one's own tax bill.

But under first-past-the-post these upper middle class Labour voters are unlikely to have an impact on the result - they are forever disenfranchised (just as Tory voters are in urban areas and the North). And Labour's huge lead among social class D and E is being heavily eroded (the lead fell to 17% in 2005) as people realise that no matter how many turn out in safe seats it does not increase Labour representation and as Labour turns away from this core support to concentrate on the 'special voters' in the marginals this disenchantment will only get worse.

The lack of Tory representation in Scotland and Wales rightly led to constitutional change. The lack of Tory representation in the North and urban areas is now dangerously entrenched and so is Labour's lack of representation in the South. But both parties still command significant support in these areas but because it is not a plurality - it does not get them anywhere near the level of representation that it should. Even minor differences in vote share can make a huge difference in representation even when the winning party only has support in the 20% to 30% range (as the recent local elections showed).

These electoral deserts for both of the main parties are a death knell for democracy as the Tories in government increasingly ignored the North of England and the Celtic fringes, Labour in government is losing touch with the voters of the South East.

Our current electoral system came about as a result of the middle classes rebelling against the rotten boroughs of upper class rule, we have yet to have a true working class rebellion to truly enfranchise the poor against the rotten boroughs of 75% safe seats under FPTP that encourage MP's and government arrogance of and complacency about the people's views. The middle class chose FPTP well - because it firmly discriminates against the poor.

Most of the benefits of the welfare state for the poorest have come about in the political battle between the 'do-gooder' middle class and the 'short term selfish' middle class. Neither of these groups are going to truly represent the poor, although the 'do-gooders' certainly are closer to doing this.

Cruddas could certainly push some good policies onto the agenda, but for truly long term investment in public services and economic growth we need proportional representation. The strongest economic growth, the best funded public services, the best environmental protection and political engagement, the lowest inequality and the highest taxes - this is what PR has delivered in the countries that have had it the longest.

Of the deputy leadership candidates only Alan Johnson is a true supporter of PR (although he seems reluctant to push the issue), he also has widespread support amongst Labour MPs - getting the most nominations that will give him a bigger influence on policy. He is going to be a useful English counterweight to Brown. Alan has shown his heart is in the right place - he has pushed against faith schools and shown real interest in addressing educational inequality, backs more council housing and has the political nouse to get the media onside (well, less overwhelmingly hostile anyway). Alan's media savvy approach is going to be needed as a useful complement to Brown's rigidity and uncomfortable media performances.

The deputy leadership election was always going to be the booby prize in both the public's mind and maybe in terms of influence. But if it is going to be useful for anything - it might help to have the PR issue right at the top of government and hopefully the Labour leadership will wake up to its significance before it is too late and a gerrymandering Tory government is in place for a generation destroying all the good work Labour has done in this last ten years.


  1. I'm sorry, Neal, but Alan Johnson backing PR is irrelevant here - and I say that as a life long PR supporter. Unless he is actually going to campaign on it and propose doing something about it if he became Deputy Leader this has no bearing on how people should vote. Peter Hain appears to have been much more vocal than Johnson on this one.

  2. Peter Hain is an opponent of PR (he even wrote a book called proportional disrepresentation). Hain only backs AV (and it seems that argument has been won among the leadership). I am confident we could get AV before the election as both Straw and Brown see the electoral advantages.

    I am reluctant to back Alan Johnson, as you are right he is not putting forward this issue as he should - BUT reading between the lines of his comments on quite a few issues informs me he is onside with a lot of stuff I agree with.

    The unfortunate thing is ALL of the other candidates have explicitly ruled out PR. Alan is close to John Cruddas on issues like housing, inequality etc but crucially is a confirmed supporter of PR (even if he is not currently vocal about it). If you believe as I do that PR is THE most important issue then I don't see there is any other choice but to back Alan.

  3. Neil, John Denham is backing Jon Cruddas too and is a big supporter. So in fact if you want Jon to consider this idea, it may be better to vote him in so John Denham can persuade him of its benefits.

  4. How do you know that, Sunny? I've just had a look at the Labour party site. Denham appears to have nominated Brown for leader and no one at all for deputy....

  5. Neil, I agree with your analysis, but I don't think that PR is the prime issue for the election.

    If it were, I would back Hain. I like AV.

    I prefer it with a '+', of course...

  6. I had a chat with John Denham a few weeks ago at a Compass debate on a 'new progressive consensus on immigration'. He said quite clearly that he was backing Jon Cruddas in this deputy leadership bid.

    I would bet the Fabians back Jon too.

  7. Thanks for that Sunny, I must admit maybe you are right. Ken Livingstone has backed Cruddas and hopefully you are right about Denham being able to persuade him. I may change to Cruddas, I will have a think about it, cheers.

  8. Stuart Bruce28/5/07 7:41 am

    Alan is adament that the deputy leader needs to be in the Cabinet, as it is the only way the deputy will be fully able to articulate the views of members on policy. Not only has he taken clear positions on policy issues (such as council housings, where he was the first to speak out), but also on social mobility which cuts right acrosss nearly every policy area.

    (Disclaimer: I am Alan Johnson's Communications Director for the Deputy Leadership campaign).

  9. Stuart: I am now undecided between Alan and John - my inclinations are still with Alan - a little mention of the importance of PR by Alan would tip the balance. I agree that it is important that the deputy has cabinet level influence and of those in the cabinet only Johnson and Hain are palatable. Blears is truly awful and Benn is as nutty as his dad and far too close to Brown to temper his bad judgement, as for Harman - just don't know what difference she would make and she has a smell of corruption surrounding her.