The Tories' UKIP problem shows why they were wrong to oppose AV

Rather than appealing for tactical votes from UKIP supporters in the Eastleigh by-election, the Tories should have supported a voting system that ends this dilemma.

Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan has sounded the bugle for UKIP to withdraw their candidate in Eastleigh. He wants them to, surprise, surprise, encourage their supporters instead to vote for Conservative candidate Maria Hutchings.

In fact, Hannan has no fewer than seven reasons why the UKIP faithful should be forced to abandon their right to vote for who they actually want to vote for and instead vote for who Daniel Hannan wants them to vote for. Among them are how "impressed" voters would be with how UKIP were putting "country before party" and how voting Tory would give poor UKIP supporters a home when the EU referendum is won and their party becomes "redundant".

I disagree with Hannan. I don't have seven or even several reasons why UKIP should not withdraw their candidate. Just one. It's perhaps an old fashioned idea: people should be able to vote for who they want to vote for.

UKIP is not a carbon copy of the Conservative Party. It is a distinct movement with a number of policies very different from the Tories'. Voters should be given the option of backing different flavours of right-wing policies not forced to choose one-size-fits-all.

Of course, Hannan does have a point, which naturally goes unacknowledged in his piece. The unspoken reason why he is even flying a kite for this anti-democratic nonsense is because under first-past-the-post there is a risk that the right-wing vote will be split. If current polls are to be believed, the UKIP vote could make the difference between Hutchings winning and losing.

Here is where Hannan needs to examine the attitude of his own party to democracy. Just under two years ago, there was a campaign and a referendum on the adoption of the Alternative Vote electoral system. This would have completely obviated the problem causing such a headache for the Tories in Eastleigh. It would have allowed UKIP supporters to vote for UKIP first and the Tories second, safe in the knowledge that their vote would not be wasted. They would still have been able to express their first preference for UKIP, whilst ensuring that if their candidate did not end up in the top two their vote would be transferred to Hutchings.

Instead of recognising the democratic legitimacy of this approach, however, Hannan's colleagues pulled out all of the stops to trash it. The bogeyman of "the BNP" was raised (even though the party did not back AV), we were told it would cost £250m (it wouldn't have) and that soldiers would go without bullet proof vests and sick babies would not get the equipment they needed. None of these things were true.

What is true, however, is that in the absence of AV our democracy is damaged when politicians call for parties to withdraw in their favour or that voters should vote "tactically". UKIP should not heed Hannan's call and the voters of Eastleigh should vote however they like. The Tories have made their bed. They now need to lie in it.

Mark Thompson is a political blogger and commentator who edits the award-winning Mark Thompson's Blog and is on Twitter @MarkReckons.

David Cameron delivers a speech against the Alternative Vote system in April 2011. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Leader: Trump and an age of disorder

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions.

The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Donald Trump is by some distance its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout his campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a braggart and a narcissist.

The naive hope that Mr Trump’s victory would herald a great moderation was dispelled by his conduct during the transition. He compared his country’s intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany and repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election. He derided Nato as “obsolete” and predicted the demise of the European Union. He reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling Obamacare and to overturning Roe v Wade. He doled out jobs to white nationalists, protectionists and family members. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. Asked whether he regretted any part of his vulgar campaign, he replied: “No, I won.”

Of all his predilections, Mr Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin is perhaps the most troubling. When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, warned that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, he was mocked by Barack Obama. Yet his remark proved prescient. Rather than regarding Mr Putin as a foe, however, Mr Trump fetes him as a friend. The Russian president aims to use the US president’s goodwill to secure the removal of American sanctions, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and respect for the murderous reign of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has a worryingly high chance of success.

Whether or not Mr Trump has personal motives for his fealty (as a lurid security dossier alleges), he and Mr Putin share a political outlook. Both men desire a world in which “strongmen” are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of external rebuke. Mr Trump’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence provides Mr Putin with every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires. The historic achievement of peace and stability in eastern Europe is in danger.

As he seeks reconciliation with Russia, Mr Trump is simultaneously pursuing conflict with China. He broke with precedent by speaking on the telephone with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and used Twitter to berate the Chinese government. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, has threatened an American blockade of the South China Sea islands.

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions. The US constitution, with its separation of powers, was designed to restrain autocrats such as the new president. Yet, in addition to the White House, the Republicans also control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority. The decline of established print titles and the growth of “fake news” weaken another source of accountability.

In these circumstances, there is a heightened responsibility on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, Mr Trump. Angela Merkel’s warning that co-operation was conditional on his respect for liberal and democratic values was a model of the former. Michael Gove’s obsequious interview with Mr Trump was a dismal example of the latter.

Theresa May has rightly rebuked the president for his treatment of women and has toughened Britain’s stance against Russian revanchism. Yet, although the UK must maintain working relations with the US, she should not allow the prospect of a future trade deal to skew her attitude towards Mr Trump. Any agreement is years away and the president’s protectionist proclivities could yet thwart British hopes of a beneficial outcome.

The diplomatic and political conventions embodied by the “special relationship” have endured for more than seven decades. However, Mr Trump’s election may necessitate their demise. It was the belief that the UK must stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US that led Tony Blair into the ruinous Iraq War. In this new age of disorder, Western leaders must avoid being willing accomplices to Mr Trump’s agenda. Intense scepticism, rather than sycophancy, should define their response.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era