The rule of the minority

With a referendum on electoral reform announced, the spotlight turns on those MPs who did not secure

Britain will go to the polls on 5 May 2011 to decide whether we should change the way we vote.

The referendum was an important concession wrung from the Conservatives by their Liberal Democrat partners, and while it remains uncertain precisely how the two parties will align themselves for the campaign on the matter, the setting of the date is an important milestone in our electoral history.

The Labour leadership candidate David Miliband has strongly backed the reform, singling out the Alternative Vote (AV) system as his preferred option. On the Today programme this morning he said:

I think that it's important that we move to a system where every member of parliament has at least 50 per cent of the vote of their constituents.

Miliband himself received just over 52 per cent of the vote in his South Shields constituency, but a sizeable majority of his parliamentary colleagues were not so lucky. According to figures from the Electoral Reform Society, 434 MPs received less than 50 per cent of the vote -- that's 434 MPs who would be relying on redistributed preferences for a mandate under AV.

Some of the big names in this group include Ed Balls, Hazel Blears, Jon Cruddas, Ben Bradshaw, Danny Alexander, Oliver Letwin and David Davis.

The Conservatives have 179 MPs with less than 50 per cent of the vote but Labour has 181, or just over 70 per cent of the Parliamentary Labour Party. This last figure perhaps demonstrates why Labour is not whole-heartedly in favour of the referendum -- lots of previously safe seats would become very hard to predict under a new system.

Miliband's fellow leadership candidate Andy Burnham is not backing the reform, and is quoted in the Guardian as saying: "It is not my party's job to prop up the Liberal Democrats by helping them win a referendum that is important to them."

Had the most recent election been conducted using AV, the Labour Party would actually have has the smallest shift in its numbers, moving from 258 MPs to 262. But the Tories would have been even further from a majority, at 281, while the Liberal Democrats would have increased their share to 79.

A combined Lib-Lab government would thus have commanded a comfortable majority of 341 and kept the Tories out of Downing Street.

Full details of predictions under different voting systems are available from the Guardian's data blog.

But perhaps the most arresting aspect of the statistics produced by the Electoral Reform Society is the trend over time. In 1979, 32.4 per cent of MPs commanded less than 50 per cent of the vote, a number that has now more than doubled to 66.77 per cent.

With the 2010 election producing the highest ever number of MPs with less than 50 per cent of their local vote, the case has never been stronger for ditching the first-past-the-post system and restoring the link between constituency and MP.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

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

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide