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.
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The beggar used to be friendly – now he was ranting at everyone

What was I doing, dismissing him with maximal curtness – and not caring?

The first beggar was walking but still wretched. Probably in his early twenties, clearly ravaged by more than just alcohol, he made a beeline for me, as if he had an appointment. He was not to know that I was in a mood from hell, though the look on my face would have told him, if he’d been in any kind of state to register it.

“Excuse me, have you got 10p for…”

“No.” And I walked on.

Why? I am almost invariably a soft touch for this kind of thing. But as I said, I was in the foulest of tempers.

Also, this was East Finchley. For those who do not know London, East Finchley is a northern suburb, which at one end hosts the wealthiest street in the country – the Bishops Avenue, where multimillionaires tear down houses and erect new ones even uglier than those they have replaced – and at the other end a typically seedy, dull collection of terraced houses.

The main supermarket is Budgens, a name so ungainly that it could only have belonged to a real person, either too proud or unimaginative to think of something else.

But what, I asked myself, was someone this wretched doing in East Finchley? And what was I doing, dismissing him with maximal curtness – and not caring?

The second beggar, further up the street, I met the next day: much older and clearly mad, rather than chemically poisoned. He asked how I was doing.

“Not so well, as it happens,” I replied.

“Would you like me to say a prayer for you?”

“Why not?” I said, and he placed a clenched fist to my forehead and made a brief incantation, something like an exorcism, and then kissed the large white plastic crucifix hanging from his neck.

I half-expected to feel a jolt of faith, some kind of divine restructuring. This time I gave him money: a pound coin and a 50p coin. But then later I thought: why didn’t I give him more? I’d been doing some tidying earlier and had retrieved a heavy pocketful of change; I could have given him a generous handful.

The third beggar was in Shepherd’s Bush. I knew him from the days when I lived there: a skinny, middle-aged guy who would occasionally stop and rant in a friendly way at me, just sane enough not to ignore. That was ten years ago. Now he was raging at everyone, accusing the teenagers queueing in the kebab shop of being batty boys and saying “bloodclaat” a lot. (Batty boy: homosexual. Bloodclaat: tampon.)

The people he was addressing knew perfectly well what he was saying. They shrugged it off. I got on the bus; so did he, and the whole bus knew about it. There was nothing friendly in him now, and I wondered through which hole in the increasingly threadbare welfare safety net he had been allowed to slip.

That’s it, I thought. I’m getting out of London, its pampered core oblivious to the surrounding anguish. The world in a nutshell. Luckily, my great friend S— had asked if I could cat-sit for her in Brighton. I know her cat, and I know Brighton. Also, I know about a dozen people there who I keep meaning to see, so why not? London was making me ill, and possibly a bad person. So S— invited me down a couple of days before she was due to go on her holidays, and I took the first train I could.

And now I find myself sitting on a sunlounger in a tiny backyard, in a charming house just abutting the North Laine, and the mood is palpably different to the capital’s. It is like a city ought to be: compact, diverse and funky. There is no reek of High Capitalism. It is healthily decadent. It would appear to be full of people who have rejected the idea of London. It still has an enormous number of beggars, but more people were dropping money for them than I ever saw do so in W1, W12 or N2.

So this is what it’s like to fall out of love with the city of one’s birth. What most surprised me was the speed and force with which it happened. I’d made my mind up over a nice lunch that my friend N— was buying me, to cheer me up.

“Don’t you have to stay in London? You know, for book launches and things like that?”

“I don’t go to fucking book launches any more,” I said. I was taken aback by the vigour of my reply. I’m only here for ten days but I have plenty of people to see and dozens of memories, all good, to bump into. I’m already feeling better. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem