Look Left – ’AV it! Referendum campaign gets into full swing

After months of shadow boxing, the campaign proper kicked off this week as the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill finally received Royal Assent.

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• After months of shadow boxing, the campaign proper kicked off this week as the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill finally received Royal Assent, paving the way for a referendum on the alternative vote in 11 weeks’ time.

Today, the prime minister and his deputy made speeches against and for change, with David Cameron describing AV as “completely the wrong reform” and “bad for our democracy”, while Nick Clegg called the referendum a “once in a generation” change on a par with Universal Suffrage, and described AV as a “fairer” system than first past the post.

Once again, though, Mr Cameron (and Mr Hague on the Today programme this morning) repeated several false statements made by the No2AV campaign about the referendum, the AV system, and the costs involved. For a full rebuttal of their bizarre claims about voting machines and Australia’s experience of AV, see my earlier articles here and here – but don’t just take my word for it, even opponents of AV are exasperated at the tactics of the No camp.

In an article in the Telegraph headlined “NOtoAV campaign launched – with these guys in charge we’re screwed”, Toby Young wrote:

“Good grief. Looking at the website the NOtAV campaign unveiled yesterday, defenders of our first past the post voting system might as well throw in the towel… At the top of the site it says ‘AV will cost the country up to £250m’. But a little further down, when we see how his figure has been arrived at, we learn that ‘the referendum itself costs £82 million with the cost of voter education ahead of of the referendum at £9 million’.

“So does that mean NOtoAV is campaigning against the referendum itself rather than for a ‘No’ vote in the referendum? It isn’t clear. What is clear, however, is that if the total cost of the referendum is going to be £91 million and the NOtoAV campaign has taken this into account in calculating its £250 million figure then the cost of changing the voting system, once the referendum is out of the way, will only be £159 million.

“Yet, curiously, the voiceover in the YouTube video at the top of the site says, ‘An alternative voting system will cost us £250 million.’ Er, no it won’t. One final point. The last person featured in the YouTube vox pop is called Glen and is identified as a ‘playwrite’. The people who’ve produced this YouTube video mean Playwright, obviously, but, in addition to not being able to add up, the masterminds in charge of saving our historic election system cannot spell. God help us.”

Send in the clowns…

• The government unveiled its Welfare Reform Bill yesterday, which they described as the “biggest shake-up for 60 years”.

The changes include: the introduction of Universal Credit, replacing several benefits including Jobseekers’ Allowance by 2013; replacing Disability Living Allowance with the Personal Independence Payment, which will be assessed; new powers to tackle fraud, which costs the Government £5.2 billion annually; a cap, linked to average weekly earnings, which will limit the amount of benefits one household can receive; and Employment Support Allowance will be limited to 12 months’ support for those able to prepare for work.

Disability charities were fearful of the impact the changes would have. Richard Hawkes, chief executive of Scope, said:

“We are asking Iain Duncan Smith and the government to reconsider their approach and work with us to design a system of support that will really succeed in helping disabled people move off benefits and into stable employment.”

Laura Weir, head of policy and campaigns for the MS Society, said:

“New face to face tests will mean further stress and unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles and there is a great danger that those with fluctuating conditions, like MS, will lose out.”

And director of policy at Disability Alliance, Neil Coyle, said:

“Many disabled people and their families will not be able to access the kind of support they would have had previously. We don’t know how things like disabled premiums or carers’ premiums will work, so there could be a knock-on effect for the whole family.”

While on Left Foot Forward today, Nicola Smith explained how the benefits ‘simplification’ would lead to severely disabled young people’s benefits being cut. Tomorrow on Left Foot Forward, Declan Gaffney will have further analysis of the impact of the Welfare Reform Bill and the coalition’s approach to welfare in general.

• Internationally, the eyes of the world were once again on the Middle East, with the fight for freedom spreading to Bahrain, Libya, Yemen and Iran.

There were reports tonight that troops in Bahrain had fired on anti-government protesters, with witnesses saying the army had fired live rounds and tear gas, with at least 120 people thought to have been hurt. Responding to the latest news, President Obama said: “The United States condemns the use of violence by governments against peaceful protesters in those countries and wherever else it may occur.”

The US Administration, however, has not been as supportive of the Bahrain protests as it has of those in Iran, as Seph Brown reported on Left Foot Forward today:

“The United States is absolutely right to take this position on Iran – who lauded the fall of Mubarak but deny the same rights to their own people; however, [Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton should not be surprised if such unreserved comments raise eyebrows. America cannot act as a serious and reliable enforcer of human rights and democracy if it will take a more strident approach to its enemies than to its friends.

“Unsurprisingly, realpolitik is very much alive in the Obama administration, but it will inevitably lead to equal retorts of hypocrisy as those levelled at Iran. It cannot be right that the US supports the courage of protesters in some states, but only demands that they are not to be shot in others.”

Progressives of the week:

The Welsh Assembly government, which, on the same day that Imperial said it would be charging the maximum £9,000 tuition fees next year, announced that the basic rate for university tuition fees in Wales will be £2,000 less than originally anticipated.

In a statement to the Assembly, Welsh education minister Leighton Andrews said:

“Central to the Assembly Government’s policy is the principle that access to higher education should be on the basis of the individual’s potential to benefit, and not on the basis of what they can afford to pay. The decision to set the basic fee level at £4,000 reflects the importance the Assembly Government places on the contribution which higher education makes to social justice”

Regressive of the week:

Ryszard Legutko, the Polish hard right MEP who makes compatriot Michal Kaminski look like a moderate, a man who incredibly, unbelievably, may soon find himself leading the European Conservatives and Reformists grouping, of which the UK Tories are members, in the European Parliament.

Today’s Guardian has the lowdown:

“He told the Guardian that he does not see the point of Gay Pride rallies and has been particularly offended by the way that some gay and lesbian people dress up as priests and nuns. He opposes sex education in schools and supports a ban on abortion… He said there was no need for Gay Pride demonstrations and that he found some of the costumes worn offensive.

“‘The demonstrations are aggressive, anti-Christian and shocking,’ he said. ‘Dressing up as priests and nuns in sexual situations is wrong and offensive. I don’t understand why anyone should want to be proud of being a homosexual.'”

Evidence of the week:

The eurozone growth figures, published Tuesday, which showed the eurozone economy grew by a lower than expected 0.3 per cent in Q4 2010; compare the eurozone figures, and our own recent contraction, with the US, and the lessons are clear to see, as Ben Fox explained on Left Foot Forward this week:

“The US, unlike most EU countries, is still pursuing stimulus measures and the signs are that this is working. Although it still has a high budget deficit, it is widely expected to be one of the fastest growing economies in 2011, meaning that its deficit will reduce faster than most European countries where collective austerity measures will limit the possibility of an export driven recovery and consumer demand.

“Contrast this with the UK and other EU countries. Although manufacturing driven economies such as Germany and, to a lesser extent, France, have seen decent growth in 2010 and will drive European growth rates in 2011, countries that are more dependent on consumer demand and have made the most painful austerity cuts are in deep trouble.”

Ed Jacobs’s Week outside Westminster:

Scotland: There was widespread fear unemployment would continue to rise without any firm strategy for growth, with Stirling University economist David Bell warning:

“There’s no doubt that people’s living standards are dropping and this is due to a combination of things, which have their roots in the economic crisis.

“The question is whether the lower living standards are a permanent or temporary thing, but the one thing for sure is that it will be a long time before they are back to 2007 levels – the year before the economic crisis. The possibilities for growth are not that strong and I don’t see unemployment falling fast without that growth. The cuts in Scotland’s public sector will also affect unemployment and the economy.”

Meanwhile, there was puzzlement over why the Scottish secretary, Liberal Democrat Michael Moore, had missed the vote last year to increase VAT, with a Scotland Office spokeswoman explaining:

“I believe that disclosure may give rise to the potential to endanger the safety of individuals or impact on the safety and security of ministers.”

Wales: There was a broad welcome for the Welsh government’s decision to cut the basic rate for tuition fees in Wales, with education minister Leighton Andrews explaining:

“Central to the Welsh Assembly government’s policy is the principle that access to higher education should be on the basis of the individual’s potential to benefit, and not on the basis of what they can afford to pay. The decision to set the basic fee level at £4,000 reflects the importance the Welsh Assembly government places on the contribution which higher education makes to social justice.”

Meanwhile, following the completion of the passage of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, which will cut the number of Welsh seats, political analyst Lewis Baston said:

“I regret this and I think, in a multinational state like the UK, you have got to make sure the smaller elements like Wales and Northern Ireland in particular are not just dominated by the larger element, England. [The] voice of South Wales, and all that that represents, will be much quieter in the next parliament.”

Northern Ireland: Ulster Unionist Party leader Tom Elliott put the cat among the pigeons as he called for the end of mandatory coalitions in Stormont, and the creation of an official opposition.

He told business leaders:

“The problem with this iteration of the Stormont government is that you can call as many elections as you want, but you will never see a change of government, because of the mandatory coalition.”

Meanwhile, south of the border, with just a week to go until the General Election, Ireland saw the first five-way leaders’ debate. This weekend, Left Foot Forward will publish two special reports looking ahead to the election.

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