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.

Ukip's Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall. Photo: Getty
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Is the general election 2017 the end of Ukip?

Ukip led the way to Brexit, but now the party is on less than 10 per cent in the polls. 

Ukip could be finished. Ukip has only ever had two MPs, but it held an outside influence on politics: without it, we’d probably never have had the EU referendum. But Brexit has turned Ukip into a single-issue party without an issue. Ukip’s sole remaining MP, Douglas Carswell, left the party in March 2017, and told Sky News’ Adam Boulton that there was “no point” to the party anymore. 

Not everyone in Ukip has given up, though: Nigel Farage told Peston on Sunday that Ukip “will survive”, and current leader Paul Nuttall will be contesting a seat this year. But Ukip is standing in fewer constituencies than last time thanks to a shortage of both money and people. Who benefits if Ukip is finished? It’s likely to be the Tories. 

Is Ukip finished? 

What are Ukip's poll ratings?

Ukip’s poll ratings peaked in June 2016 at 16 per cent. Since the leave campaign’s success, that has steadily declined so that Ukip is going into the 2017 general election on 4 per cent, according to the latest polls. If the polls can be trusted, that’s a serious collapse.

Can Ukip get anymore MPs?

In the 2015 general election Ukip contested nearly every seat and got 13 per cent of the vote, making it the third biggest party (although is only returned one MP). Now Ukip is reportedly struggling to find candidates and could stand in as few as 100 seats. Ukip leader Paul Nuttall will stand in Boston and Skegness, but both ex-leader Nigel Farage and donor Arron Banks have ruled themselves out of running this time.

How many members does Ukip have?

Ukip’s membership declined from 45,994 at the 2015 general election to 39,000 in 2016. That’s a worrying sign for any political party, which relies on grassroots memberships to put in the campaigning legwork.

What does Ukip's decline mean for Labour and the Conservatives? 

The rise of Ukip took votes from both the Conservatives and Labour, with a nationalist message that appealed to disaffected voters from both right and left. But the decline of Ukip only seems to be helping the Conservatives. Stephen Bush has written about how in Wales voting Ukip seems to have been a gateway drug for traditional Labour voters who are now backing the mainstream right; so the voters Ukip took from the Conservatives are reverting to the Conservatives, and the ones they took from Labour are transferring to the Conservatives too.

Ukip might be finished as an electoral force, but its influence on the rest of British politics will be felt for many years yet. 

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