What will the Conservatives do if Labour comes third in votes but first in seats?

Will they have a leg to stand on?

The top Tory blogger Iain Dale notes Labour's third place in "virtually every poll" and asks: "Isn't that a BIG STORY?"

He adds:

The even bigger story is that Labour comes third but Gordon Brown still clings to the premiership. And I'm not talking football.

If that happened I can foresee marches on Downing Street. And I'll happily be at the front!

For me, the bigger story is how Labour could indeed end up third in the share of the popular vote but still emerge top in number of seats. What, if this happens, will the Conservatives do? What will David Cameron's strategists be telling him "the line" is on the morning of 7 May?

I asked a senior Tory-supporting journalist what he would advise Cameron to say in such an event and he just shrugged his shoulders. The Tories could hardly proclaim it an outrage -- even though, to be honest, it would be -- or cry "We wuz robbed!" or organise protest marches, seeing how they have remained the only party committed to defending the current dysfunctional, disproportionate first-past-the-post voting system. They would not have a leg to stand on. And anyone who saw Liam Fox squirming on the Daily Politics last week as Andrew Neil put this point to him will be aware of how tough a spot the Tories would be in.

Might Cameron consider electoral reform in exchange for a Labour-blocking deal with the Lib Dems? The Observer seems to think so -- the headline on its interview with the Tory leader is: "David Cameron leaves door open for poll deal with Liberal Democrats". The paper's political duo, Andrew Rawnsley and Toby Helm, write:

But when pressed on whether, in the event of a hung parliament, he would be prepared to discuss the Lib Dems' central demand for electoral reform -- something he has always opposed until now -- he declines to rule it out. When it was put to him that refusal to move on the issue could mean the Lib Dems teaming up with Labour to push through electoral reform anyway, the Tory leader says: "We think this is an important issue."

Cameron's comments suggest the Tories may now be prepared to put reform of the voting system on the table in coalition talks, rather than allow the issue to be a "deal breaker". After being asked four times to rule out such discussions on electoral reform, Cameron said: "Put the question in, you know, Serbo-Croat, if you want to -- but you're going to get the same answer." Labour has promised a referendum on the alternative vote system.

There are indeed Lib Dems close to Nick Clegg who have privately suggested that Cameron might be willing to put electoral reform "on the table". But my two problems with the Observer story are: 1) Cameron tells Rawnsley and Helm in the same interview: "I want us to keep the current system that enables you to throw a government out of office. That is my view." It's a line he has taken time and again during this campaign and he would look ridiculously opportunistic and cynical if he dropped the Tories' centuries-old commitment to first-past-the-post at the first sign that Labour might be able to cling on to power in a hung parliament. And 2) his own party wouldn't agree to such a deal.

Cameron, for short-term, tactical reasons (ie, his own survival as party leader), might (might!) be willing to entertain the idea of some form of compromise on electoral reform in order to get his foot through the door of No 10 Downing Street, but his party, for long-term, strategic reasons, would remain implacably opposed to electoral reform. The Tories would argue (in agreement with Polly Toynbee) that proportional representation would deny them their "divine" right to rule alone in future and would keep the party out of power for much longer, with Labour and the Lib Dems more likely to form "progressive" coalitions in office under PR.

So here's a question for Iain Dale: if Brown "clings" on to power after 6 May, despite coming third, and you join the front of a march on Downing Street, will you be carrying a placard proclaiming, "Time for PR"? If not, why not?


Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.