Could UKIP revive the debate over electoral reform?

If the party performs well in 2015 but fails to win a seat, our voting system will be questioned again.

This morning's papers make happy reading for Nigel Farage. A ComRes poll for the Independent on Sunday/Sunday Mirror puts UKIP in third place on 14 per cent, a rise of six points since last month and the party's highest-ever rating with that pollster. An Opinium poll for the Observer also has UKIP in third place on 14 per cent, although the regular YouGov survey for the Sunday Times puts the party's support at a more modest eight per cent.

We'll hear much this morning about how UKIP is now Britain's "third party" but the reality remains that it'll be lucky to win a single seat in 2015. Unlike the Green Party, which saw Caroline Lucas elected in 2010, it has no significant base in local government and lacks the activist power required to win a Westminster constituency.

It does, however, appear likely that UKIP will improve significantly on the 3.1 per cent of the vote it attracted at the last general election, if by far less than the polls currently suggest. The party is likely to perform strongly in the 2014 European elections and, on a low turnout, could even top the contest. But unlike in those elections, where the proportional voting system means the party stands to win as many as 20 seats (it won 13 last time round), the first-past-the-post system will almost certainly deny it a seat in parliament. With this in mind, it's worth asking whether the rise of UKIP could revive the dormant debate over electoral reform. The party supports the introduction of proportional representation and campaigned in favour of the Alternative Vote in the 2011 referendum.

One can already picture the headlines should UKIP end up with nothing to show for its increased support. "Democratic outrage as UKIP secures five per cent of the vote but wins no seats". A renewed push to change our outdated and unfair voting system could be one unlikely byproduct of the UKIP surge.

UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

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