Why the rise of UKIP is good for the Lib Dems

The party's surge will make it harder for the Tories to take seats off the Lib Dems and could revive the debate around electoral reform.

While there’s no point trying to pretend last week’s by-election results were anything other than awful for the Lib Dems, the silver lining comes from a surprising direction – the success of UKIP. For while the Lib Dems and UKIP are poles apart philosophically, there are some huge in-built electoral advantages to the former in the rise of the latter

Nationally, a fall in the Lib Dem share of vote is ultimately more likely to benefit Labour in the 2015 election – a fact which is well understood in No. 10, and why Nick is allowed a fair amount of Tory bashing. But from the Lib Dem end of the telescope, there are a lot of Lib Dem seats where the Tories run us a close second. Hence the Conservative target seats now being published include a high percentage of Lib Dem-held marginals – half of them in fact.

But a rise in the UKIP share of the vote throws that plan into trouble. Few core Lib Dem voters are likely to switch to UKIP in those constituencies – but a rise in the UKIP vote is likely to hit the Tories hard. Maybe not enough for UKIP to win – but certainly enough to stop the Tories getting past the Lib Dem incumbent.

Secondly, the Tories need to respond to the UKIP surge – and will want to rush to the right. And any move to the right by the Tories to counter UKIP leaves more of the centre ground open to the Lib Dems, just as the differentiation strategy needs it.

But these are just tactical advantages to the Lib Dems. There’s a greater prize. As the excellent Lib Dem blogger Mark Thompson points out, the inherent unfairness of UKIP polling at 10 per cent but gaining zero Westminster seats in a general election (thanks to first-past-the-post) is likely to reignite the debate around electoral reform. The net effect of a UKIP surge removing votes from the Tories and at the same time handing Labour a landslide election victory is likely to energise the debate about proportional representation (PR) on the right.

And every Lib Dem wants the PR debate and electoral reform at the top of the political agenda. So, rather than resulting in our demise, the surge in UKIP support could actually be the saving grace for the Lib Dems. Funny old world, politics.

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

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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Leader: Labour is failing. A hard Brexit is looming. But there is no need for fatalism

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit.

Democracy depends on competent opposition. Governments, however well intentioned, require permanent and effective scrutiny to meet the public interest. For this purpose, the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition was enshrined in law 80 years ago. However, at present, and in the week Article 50 is invoked, this constitutional duty is being fulfilled in name alone. (The Scottish National Party speaks only for the Scottish interest.)

Since re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the Labour Party has become the weakest opposition in postwar history. It lost the recent Copeland by-election to the Conservatives (a seat the Tories had not held since 1931) and trails the governing party, by up to 19 points, in opinion polls. The Tories feel no pressure from Labour. They confidently predict they will retain power until 2030 or beyond. Yet as the poll tax debacle and the Iraq War demonstrate, prolonged periods of single-party rule run the danger of calamitous results – not least, this time, the break-up of Britain.

Under Mr Corbyn, who formally lost the confidence of 80 per cent of his MPs last summer (and has not regained it), Labour has the least impressive and least qualified front bench in its history. Its enfeeblement has left a void that no party is capable of filling. “The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up,” the academic Nick Pearce, a former head of Gordon Brown’s policy unit, writes on page 36.

In these new times, the defining struggle is no longer between parties but within the Conservative Party. As a consequence, many voters have never felt more unrepresented or disempowered. Aided by an increasingly belligerent right-wing press, the Tory Brexiteers are monopolising and poisoning debate: as the novelist Ian McEwan said, “The air in my country is very foul.” Those who do not share their libertarian version of Brexit Britain are impugned as the “enemies” of democracy. Theresa May has a distinctive vision but will the libertarian right allow her the time and space to enact it?

Let us not forget that the Conservatives have a majority of just 15 or that Labour’s problems did not begin with Mr Corbyn’s leadership. However, his divisiveness and unpopularity have accelerated the party’s decline. Although the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, elected by a fraction of his union membership, loftily pronounced that the Labour leader had 15 months left to prove himself, the country cannot afford to wait that long.

Faced with the opposition’s weakness, some have advocated a “progressive alliance” to take on the Conservatives. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the nationalist parties are urged to set aside their tribalism. Yet it is fantasy to believe that such an alliance would provide stable majority government when nearly four million people voted for Ukip in 2015. There has also been chatter about the creation of a new centrist party – the Democrats, or, as Richard Dawkins writes on page 54, the European Party. Under our first-past-the-post electoral system, however, a new party would risk merely perpetuating the fragmentation of the opposition. If Labour is too weak to win, it is too strong to die.

The UK’s departure from the EU poses fundamental questions about the kind of country we wish to be. For some on the right, Brexit is a Trojan Horse to remake Britain as a low-tax, small-state utopia. Others aspire to a protectionist fortress of closed borders and closed minds. Mr Corbyn was re-elected by a landslide margin last summer. The Leave campaign’s victory was narrower yet similarly decisive. But these events are not an excuse for quietism. Labour must regain its historic role as the party of the labour interest. Labour’s purpose is not to serve the interests of a particular faction but to redress the power of capital for the common good. And it must have a leader capable of winning power.

If Labour’s best and brightest MPs are unwilling to serve in the shadow cabinet, they should use their freedom to challenge an under-scrutinised government and prove their worth. They should build cross-party alliances. They should evolve a transformative policy programme. They should think seriously about why there has been a post-liberal turn in our politics.

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit. At present, the mood on the Labour benches is one of fatalism and passivity. This cannot go on.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition