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.

Getty
Show Hide image

The SNP thinks it knows how to kill hard Brexit

The Supreme Court ruled MPs must have a say in triggering Article 50. But the opposition must unite to succeed. 

For a few minutes on Tuesday morning, the crowd in the Supreme Court listened as the verdict was read out. Parliament must have the right to authorise the triggering of Article 50. The devolved nations would not get a veto. 

There was a moment of silence. And then the opponents of hard Brexit hit the phones. 

For the Scottish government, the pro-Remain members of the Welsh Assembly and Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland, the victory was bittersweet. 

The ruling prompted Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, to ask: “Is it better that we take our future into our own hands?”

Ever the pragmatist, though, Sturgeon has simultaneously released her Westminster attack dogs. 

Within minutes of the ruling, the SNP had vowed to put forward 50 amendments (see what they did there) to UK government legislation before Article 50 is enacted. 

This includes the demand for a Brexit white paper – shared by MPs from all parties – to a clause designed to prevent the UK reverting to World Trade Organisation rules if a deal is not agreed. 

But with Labour planning to approve the triggering of Article 50, can the SNP cause havoc with the government’s plans, or will it simply be a chorus of disapproval in the rest of Parliament’s ear?

The SNP can expect some support. Individual SNP MPs have already successfully worked with Labour MPs on issues such as benefit cuts. Pro-Remain Labour backbenchers opposed to Article 50 will not rule out “holding hands with the devil to cross the bridge”, as one insider put it. The sole Green MP, Caroline Lucas, will consider backing SNP amendments she agrees with as well as tabling her own. 

But meanwhile, other opposition parties are seeking their own amendments. Jeremy Corbyn said Labour will seek amendments to stop the Conservatives turning the UK “into a bargain basement tax haven” and is demanding tariff-free access to the EU. 

Separately, the Liberal Democrats are seeking three main amendments – single market membership, rights for EU nationals and a referendum on the deal, which is a “red line”.

Meanwhile, pro-Remain Tory backbenchers are watching their leadership closely to decide how far to stray from the party line. 

But if the Article 50 ruling has woken Parliament up, the initial reaction has been chaotic rather than collaborative. Despite the Lib Dems’ position as the most UK-wide anti-Brexit voice, neither the SNP nor Labour managed to co-ordinate with them. 

Indeed, the Lib Dems look set to vote against Labour’s tariff-free amendment on the grounds it is not good enough, while expecting Labour to vote against their demand of membership of the single market. 

The question for all opposition parties is whether they can find enough amendments to agree on to force the government onto the defensive. Otherwise, this defeat for the government is hardly a defeat at all. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.