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The Electoral Reform Enigma That Is Andy Burnham

April 20, 2011

Andy Burnham speaking to the media in Oldham

Andy Burnham is so far the only big hitter left in the Shadow Cabinet not to declare his hand on the AV debate. The MP for Leigh since 2001 and die hard supporter of Everton, held various positions such as; Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and Secretary of State for Health in the Brown Government. He was a candidate in the Labour Leadership Election and now is Shadow Secretary of State for Education and Election coordinator for Ed Miliband.

We can all agree that Burnham is moving on up in politics, but something we can’t agree on is whether he is against electoral reform. During the Labour Leadership election of 2010 he gave a variety of interviews on every topic imaginable and as such electoral reform cropped up.

Burnham first expressed his feelings towards electoral reform in July 2010 when he told The Guardian:

…voting reform was “a peripheral issue” and added: “It is not my party’s job to prop up the Liberal Democrats by helping them win a referendum that is important to them.”

Burnham, a long-time sceptic about voting reform, said he was leaning towards reform, but the party could not officially take sides. He said: “The party nationally couldn’t campaign for any one position – you know, it really couldn’t. Those who are calling for retention of first past the post are making an incredibly important and legitimate argument.

He added: “Let’s not get obsessed by this issue, because it really is irrelevant. It’s a kind of fringe pursuit for Guardian-reading classes.

Burnham expressed all the classic signs of a No to AV’er; the case for FPTP, ‘fringe issue’, irrelevant and that its only what the Lib Dems want. Later on in July 2010 he gave an interview to The New Statesman he was asked whether he though electoral reform was irrelevant:

…I don’t believe any of my constituents would put it in their top ten most important issues. Whereas if the world of Westminster becomes convulsed and obsessed by this debate, then it could quite easily cement an impression that many people have out there: that Labour is out of touch and talking about things that are not the everyday concerns of people.

Asked to clarify his position in Leadership hustings Burnham stated;

…I have been on the record as saying I’m tending towards a change to AV. I think it’s not sensible right now to hitch my cart to any particular bandwagon. I’m not wanting to close down that debate, but let’s keep it in perspective.

Nearly a year on Vote No To AV can find no such comments definitive comments apart from AV maintains the constituency link:

I’m a big believer in the constituency link… That sense of rootedness that British politics has is a great strength and we should never give that up. Obviously, we can keep that with AV.

In November 2010, post leadership election Burnham was made Election coordinator and declared that Labour would not campaign on AV:

The Labour party machine will not campaign in favour of the alternative vote in next May’s referendum but will instead concentrate on the Scottish, Welsh and local elections on the same day… Burnham said the party machine and activist network could not help the yes campaign.

He then went on to attack Nick Clegg for selling out electoral reform campaigners, a position he repeated on Sky News and in every further interview. In December 2010 in an interview with The Guardian, he was again asked about his support for AV:

I’m not persuaded. I’m still thinking about it. I can see a case for change. But I’m not yet persuaded.

Asked whether he would vote Yes or No he replied:

Yes, genuinely, I’m not sure.

At this point in the research Vote No To AV was convinced that Burnham was leaning towards a Yes vote, but just saw through the mist of the Westminster bubble and Yes to AV smoke screen, to see that it was irrelevant to the real Joe Blogs on the street. But then the last question turned this hypothesis on its head:

Question: So, can I infer from that that if the no camp win, you won’t be too bothered about it?

Answer:  I think there are more important issues. And with AV, I’m not yet persuaded whether or not it is better to have people in parliament on the basis of a coalition of people, some of whom think “that person is my first choice” and some of whom think “they’re not my first choice, but they’re better than that person”. I also look at a seat like Brighton Pavilion, where the Greens won, and wonder whether the Greens would ever get an MP into parliament again under AV. I’m pretty tribal in my loyalties. But actually, you do have to question, could AV just reinforce a two-party system? And is that desirable in the long term? It’s an open question.

Significantly there wasn’t an no, Burnham wasn’t closing the door for any future come back on FPTP or against electoral reform in general. Further he brings up key arguments of the No Campaign; coalitions, preferences, small parties excluded and whether it would really change politics.  Viewing his past record on Public Whip he received only 39% support for Proportional Representation, making him moderately against.  According to The Times in 2008:

…require the straightforward introduction of the proportional representation voting system that would end the dominance of the two main political parties and make every vote count at election time. Bizarrely, there is no record of Burnham speaking up for this.

His record on Proportional Representation meant he wasn’t even in the top 3 out of Labour respondents who support the introduction of PR in a LabourList survey. Further to this the Herald Scotland reports that at hustings all five candidates including Burnham in the leadership came out against PR.

The New Statesman listed Burnham on electoral reform as the following:

Burnham admits that there are severe weaknesses to first-past-the-post but argues that Labour should be wary of “rushing headlong” towards the alternative vote. Has said that Labour should only support AV if it is in the long-term interests of the party.

So what can we learn from the enigma that is Andy Burnham? He see the severe  flaws in FPTP, but also sees the strong argument made in favour of its retention. He likes AV because it maintains the constituency link yet is unsure of coalitions, the ranking of candidates, whether it would help smaller parties or Labour and whether it truly would change a two party political system. He is against proportional representation and Nick Clegg.

Overall I think Andy Burnham is representative of the electorate at large, they can see flaws in FPTP yet can’t see how AV would improve them or more to the point, AV would make them worse. Critically he is like the majority of the public who see this as irrelevant and uninspiring debate. We should also take note that Burnham is someone who should have been easily converted by the campaigns, yet the Yes camp failed to turn his moderate support into a firm vote, and the No camp has failed to build on his suspicion of AV.  Though for the record I still believe that Burnham will be out in a polling station in Leigh with a Everton scarf putting a cross down for No To AV.

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