Would AV now hurt Labour and help the Tories?

Most Lib Dem second preferences would now go to the Tories, not Labour.

In the past, it was often assumed that the Alternative Vote (AV) would benefit Labour, as the party could bank on large numbers of second-preference votes from Lib Dem supporters.

One simulation by the Electoral Reform Society suggests that, had the last election been held under AV, Labour would have gained four seats, the Tories would have lost 25 and the Lib Dems would have gained 22. In 1997, thanks to anti-Tory tactical voting, Labour's majority would have swelled from 179 to 245. In 2005, it would have been 88 rather than 66.

But a new Channel 4/YouGov poll suggests that it's now the Tories, not Labour, who would gain most (or lose least) from AV.

As the table below shows, before the election Lib Dems voters would have split their second preferences in favour of Labour rather than the Tories (42 per cent to 27 per cent). Returning the compliment, 64 per cent of Labour voters would have put the Lib Dems as their second preference.

YouGov's estimate based on those splits is that this would have cost the Conservatives roughly 30 seats, with Labour gaining 11 and the Lib Dems 19.

AV Table

But in this era of "new politics" that's all changed. By a slight majority (see table below), Lib Dem voters now split in favour of the Tories (38 per cent) rather than Labour (33 per cent), while only 33 per cent of Labour supporters would back the Lib Dems.

The upshot of all this is that vote transfers from AV would now benefit the Tories more than Labour. If repeated at a general election, the transfers would have cost Labour 15 seats but the Tories would have lost just two. The Lib Dems would have gained 15 seats.

AV table 2

I'd expect these figures to strengthen the cause of those on the right (such as Philip Blond) who argue that the Tories have nothing to fear from AV. They should also increase the likelihood of a Tory-Lib Dem pact at the next election.

Meanwhile, in Labour, diehard tribalists such as John Prescott and Andy Burnham (electoral reform is of interest to "Guardian readers" only, apparently) will seize on the figures as evidence that the party should avoid the Alternative Vote at all costs.

But the lesson they should draw from this survey is quite a different one. If Labour wants to enter government after the next election, it will need Lib Dem support, be it from tactical voting or second-preference votes.

Figures like Prescott (a man who represents all that is wrong with Labourism) should drop the hectoring, condescending tone they use towards the Lib Dems and make a more constructive and sophisticated appeal to the party's supporters. As the data shows, hurling abuse at the Lib Dems isn't going to win Labour any votes.

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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