The Tories' UKIP problem shows why they should have supported AV

Those now calling for a Tory-UKIP pact should consider how AV could have prevented a divided right.

Even before the votes have been counted, the idea of a Tory-UKIP pact is already gathering pace. Daniel Hannan has called for a Canada-style 'Unite The Right' initiative, while Nigel Farage himself has reminded us that he's willing to consider running joint candidates, with David Cameron the only obstacle. If Conservative losses exceed the 310 forecast by Rallings and Thrasher (the deserved subject of a leader in today's Guardian) and if UKIP perform as well as predicted, expect Tory MPs to start pushing the idea on Friday morning. 

The reason is obvious. In the 1980s, it was the formation of the SDP and the consequent split in the left-wing vote that allowed Thatcher to win successive landslide victories. In 2015, a divided right could bring Ed Miliband to power. At the last general election, there were 21 seats in which the UKIP vote exceeded the Labour majority (one shouldn't make the error of assuming that all UKIP voters would automatically defect to the Tories, but many would), a number that is likely to significantly increase next time round. 

It's worth noting, then, that the Conservatives missed a good opportunity to reduce, if not eliminate, their UKIP problem when they chose to oppose the Alternative Vote in the 2011 referendum (as Lib Dem blogger Mark Thompson has previously argued on The Staggers). The introduction of AV would aid the party by allowing it to win the second preferences of the fifth of Tory voters who have defected to UKIP since 2010 (again, one shouldn't assume that all would vote Conservative, but many would). 

When I put this point to Conservatives, they reasonably reply that they opposed AV on principle; self-interest did not enter into it. But those now advocating some form of pact or tactical voting (as Toby Young does here) are certainly making partisan calculations. 

Of course, even if the Conservatives had campaigned in favour of AV, the voters still might have backed first-past-the-post (although it's worth remembering how decisive Cameron's intervention was). But as they mourn the loss of hundreds of councillors tomorrow, the Tories should take a moment to consider how different their position would now be if Clegg and co. had won the day in 2011. 

David Cameron gives a speech opposing the Alternative Vote at the Royal United Services Institute building on February 18, 2011. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.