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.

OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Harriet Harman: “Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister”

The former deputy leader of the Labour Party urged women to unite across the divided party.

The day-long women's conference is usually the friendliest place at Labour party conference. Not only does it have a creche and a very clear emphasis on accessibility, but everybody who attends starts from a place of fundamental agreement before the sessions have even begun. For that reason, it's often ignored by political hacks in search of a juicy splits story (especially since it takes place on Saturday, before the "real" conference action really gets underway). But with the party divided and the abuse of women on and off social media a big concern, there was a lot to say.

This year, kick off was delayed because of the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn's victory in the leadership election. The cheer for the renewed leader in the packed women's conference hall was far bigger than that in the main hall, although not everybody was clapping. After a sombre tribute to the murdered Labour MP and former chair of the Labour Women's Network Jo Cox, Harriet Harman took to the stage.

As a long-time campaigner for women's rights, veteran MP and former deputy leader of the Labour Party, Harman is always popular with women's conference - even if her position on the current leadership and her status as a former Blairite minister places her out of sync with some of the audience. Rather than merely introducing the first speaker as the agenda suggested, Harman took the opportunity to make a coded dig at Corbyn by doing a little opposition of her own.

"Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister," she declared, going on to describe the way that May, as shadow spokesperson for women and equalities under William Hague, had been a "drag anchor" on Harman's own efforts to enact pro-women reforms while Labour were in government. The Thatcher comparison for May is ubiquitous already, but Harman made it specific, saying that like Thatcher, Theresa May is a woman prime minister who is no friend to women.

Harman then turned her attention to internal Labour party affairs, reassuring the assembled women that a divided party didn't have to mean that no advances could be made. She gestured towards the turmoil in Labour in the 1980s, saying that "no matter what positions women were taking elsewhere in the party, we worked together for progress". Her intervention chimes with the recent moves by high profile former frontbenchers like Chuka Umunna and Yvette Cooper to seek select committee positions, and Andy Burnham's campaign to become mayor of Greater Manchester.

Harman's message to women's conference was clear: the time for opposition to Corbyn is over now - we have to live with this leadership, but we can't let the equalities legacy of the Blair years be subsumed in the meantime. She ended by saying that "we have many leaders in the Labour party," pointing to Jess Phillips, the chair of the women's PLP, and Angela Rayner, shadow minister for education, women and equalities. Like Burnham, Cooper et al, Harman has clearly decided that Corbyn can't be unseated, so ways must be found to work around him.

Rayner followed Harman onto the stage. As one of Corbyn's shadow ministerial team, Rayner is far from in agreement with Harman on everything, and rather than speak about any specific policy aims, she addressed women's conference on the subject of her personal journey to the front bench. She described how her mother was "born on the largest council estate in Europe and was one of twelve children" and "never felt loved and didn’t know how to love, because hugs, cuddles and any signs of affection just wasn’t the norm". She went on to say "mum won't mind me saying this - to this day she cannot read and write". Her mother was in the audience, attending her first Labour conference.

As a former care worker who became a mother herself when she was just 16, Rayner is a rarity at the top of Labour politics. She told the Guardian in 2012 that she is used to being underestimated because of her youth, her gender and her northern accent: "I'm a pretty young woman, lots of red hair, and everyone expects me to be stupid when I walk into a meeting for the first time. I'm not stupid and most people know that now, but I still like to be underestimated because it gives me an edge. It gives me a bit of stealth."

The mass shadow cabinet resignations in June propelled Rayner to the top sooner than an MP only elected in 2015 might have expected, and she has yet to really prove her mettle on the grind of parliamentary opposition and policy detail. But if Labour is ever to win back the seats in the north where Ukip and Brexit are now strong, it's the likes of Rayner that will do it. As Harriet Harman herself shows, the women and equalities brief is a good place to start - for even in turbulent, divided times for Labour, women's conference is still a place where people can find common ground.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.