Why Oldham boosts the case for electoral reform

The Alternative Vote would have eliminated the need for tactical voting by Tory supporters.

For many Lib Dems, last night's by-election defeat feels like a victory. They may have finished 3,558 votes behind Labour (having been just 103 behind at the general election) but their share of the vote rose to 31.9 per cent. That is of significant comfort to a party that has been as low as 7 per cent in recent national opinion polls. The fall in the Tories' share of the vote from 26.4 per cent to 12.8 per cent suggests that it was tactical voting by Conservatives that compensated for Lib Dem defections to Labour.

David Cameron's decision to wish the Lib Dems well and the Tories' half-hearted campaign undoubtedly persuaded many Conservatives to back Nick Clegg's party. A pre-election Populus poll showed 22 per cent of 2010 Tory voters defecting to the Lib Dems and, given the collapse in the Conservative vote, the actual figure is likely to have been higher.

What few have noted is how this affair bolsters the case for electoral reform. Had the Alternative Vote been used last night, Tory supporters would have been free to vote for the Conservatives as their first preference, safe in the knowledge that their second-preference votes would be redistributed to the Lib Dems.

The conservative case for AV has been made by few outside of Phillip Blond's ResPublica, but I'd expect this to change as the referendum draws closer. Others, like Boris Johnson, who declined an invitation to join the No to AV campaign, have become agnostic about reform. Rather than any formal pact between the Tories and the Lib Dems, AV may yet offer the coalition its best chance of sticking together.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Jeremy Corbyn's Labour conference speech shows how he's grown

The leader's confident address will have impressed even his fiercest foes. 

It is not just Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate that has been improved by his re-election. The Labour leader’s conference speech was, by some distance, the best he has delivered. He spoke with far greater confidence, clarity and energy than previously. From its self-deprecating opening onwards ("Virgin Trains assure me there are 800 empty seats") we saw a leader improved in almost every respect. 

Even Corbyn’s firecest foes will have found less to take issue with than they may have anticipated. He avoided picking a fight on Trident (unlike last year), delivered his most forceful condemnation of anti-Semitism (“an evil”) and, with the exception of the Iraq war, avoided attacks on New Labour’s record. The video which preceded his arrival, and highlighted achievements from the Blair-Brown years, was another olive branch. But deselection, which Corbyn again refused to denounce, will remain a running sore (MPs alleged that Hillsborough campaigner Sheila Coleman, who introduced Corbyn, is seeking to deselect Louise Ellman and backed the rival TUSC last May).

Corbyn is frequently charged with lacking policies. But his lengthy address contained several new ones: the removal of the cap on council borrowing (allowing an extra 60,000 houses to be built), a ban on arms sales to abusive regimes and an arts pupil premium in every primary school.

On policy, Corbyn frequently resembles Ed Miliband in his more radical moments, unrestrained by Ed Balls and other shadow cabinet members. He promised £500bn of infrastructure investment (spread over a decade with £150bn from the private sector), “a real living wage”, the renationalisation of the railways, rent controls and a ban on zero-hours contracts.

Labour’s greatest divisions are not over policy but rules, strategy and culture. Corbyn’s opponents will charge him with doing far too little to appeal to the unconverted - Conservative voters most of all. But he spoke with greater conviction than before of preparing for a general election (acknowledging that Labour faced an arithmetical “mountain”) and successfully delivered the attack lines he has often shunned.

“Even Theresa May gets it, that people want change,” he said. “That’s why she stood on the steps of Downing Street and talked about the inequalities and burning injustices in today’s Britain. She promised a country: ‘that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us’. But even if she manages to talk the talk, she can’t walk the walk. This isn’t a new government, it’s David Cameron’s government repackaged with progressive slogans but with a new harsh right-wing edge, taking the country backwards and dithering before the historic challenges of Brexit.”

After a second landslide victory, Corbyn is, for now, unassailable. Many MPs, having voted no confidence in him, will never serve on the frontbench. But an increasing number, recognising Corbyn’s immovability, speak once again of seeking to “make it work”. For all the ructions of this summer, Corbyn’s speech will have helped to persuade them that they can.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.