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 Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.