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 A renewed push to change our outdated and unfair voting system could be one unlikely byproduct of the UKIP surge.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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

0800 7318496