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.
Getty
Show Hide image

Trident is dangerous – and not for the reasons you think

Fixating on Trident is like replacing the guest bathroom while your own toilet flush doesn't work. 

Backing Trident is supposed to make a politician look hard, realistic and committed to Britain’s long history of military defence.That’s why the Tories delighted in holding a debate on renewing the nuclear weapons system in June 2016.

But it was the Tory Prime Minister who floundered this weekend, after it emerged that three weeks before that debate, an unarmed Trident missile misfired - and veered off towards the United States instead of Africa. Downing Street confirmed May knew about the error before the parliamentary debate. 

Trident critics have mobilised. Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, called the revelation “serious”. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, a longstanding opponent of nuclear weapons, said the error was “pretty catastrophic”. 

The idea of a rogue nuclear missile heading for the White House may have fuelled the disarmament movement. But even if you enjoy the game of nuclear poker, fixating on Trident is dangerous. Because while MPs rehearse the same old Cold War arguments, the rest of the world has moved on. 

Every hour debating Trident is an hour not spent debating cyber warfare. As Peter Pomerantsev prophetically wrote in April 2015, Russian military theory has in recent years assumed that it would not be possible to match the West militarily, but wars can be won in the “psychosphere”, through misinformation.

Since the Russian cyber attacks during the US election, few can doubt this strategy is paying off - and that our defence systems have a long way to catch up. As shadow Defence secretary, Emily Thornberry described this as “the crucial test” of the 21st century. The government has pledged £1.9bn in cyber security defences over the next five years, but will that be enough? Nerds in a back room are not as thrilling as nuclear submarines, but how they are deployed matters too.

Secondly, there is the cost. Even if you back the idea of a nuclear deterrent, renewing Trident is a bit like replacing the guest bathroom when the regular loo is hardly flushing. A 2015 Centreforum paper described it as “gold-plated” - if your idea of gold-plated is the ability to blow up “a minimum of eight cities”. There is a gory but necessary debate to be had about alternatives which could free up more money to be spent on conventional forces. 

Finally, a nuclear deterrent is only credible if you intend to use it. For this reason, the British government needs to focus on protecting the infrastructure of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, now under threat from a US President who declared it “obsolete”. Eastern Europe has been nervous about the bear on its borders for some time - the number of Poles joining the country’s 120 paramilitary organisations has tripled in two years.  

Simply attacking Trident on safety grounds will only get you so far - after all, the argument behind renewing Trident is that the status quo will not do. Furthermore, for all the furore over a misfired Trident missile, it’s hard to imagine that should the hour come, the biggest worry for the crew of a nuclear submarine will be the small chance of a missile going in the wrong direction. That would be missing the rather higher chance of global nuclear apocalypse.

Anti-Trident MPs will make the most of May's current embarrassment. But if they can build bridges with the more hawkish members of the opposition, and criticise the government's defence policy on its own terms, they will find plenty more ammunition. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.