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.

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.