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.

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Jeremy Corbyn's Labour conference speech shows how he's grown

The leader's confident address will have impressed even his fiercest foes. 

It is not just Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate that has been improved by his re-election. The Labour leader’s conference speech was, by some distance, the best he has delivered. He spoke with far greater confidence, clarity and energy than previously. From its self-deprecating opening onwards ("Virgin Trains assure me there are 800 empty seats") we saw a leader improved in almost every respect. 

Even Corbyn’s firecest foes will have found less to take issue with than they may have anticipated. He avoided picking a fight on Trident (unlike last year), delivered his most forceful condemnation of anti-Semitism (“an evil”) and, with the exception of the Iraq war, avoided attacks on New Labour’s record. The video which preceded his arrival, and highlighted achievements from the Blair-Brown years, was another olive branch. But deselection, which Corbyn again refused to denounce, will remain a running sore (MPs alleged that Hillsborough campaigner Sheila Coleman, who introduced Corbyn, is seeking to deselect Louise Ellman and backed the rival TUSC last May).

Corbyn is frequently charged with lacking policies. But his lengthy address contained several new ones: the removal of the cap on council borrowing (allowing an extra 60,000 houses to be built), a ban on arms sales to abusive regimes and an arts pupil premium in every primary school.

On policy, Corbyn frequently resembles Ed Miliband in his more radical moments, unrestrained by Ed Balls and other shadow cabinet members. He promised £500bn of infrastructure investment (spread over a decade with £150bn from the private sector), “a real living wage”, the renationalisation of the railways, rent controls and a ban on zero-hours contracts.

Labour’s greatest divisions are not over policy but rules, strategy and culture. Corbyn’s opponents will charge him with doing far too little to appeal to the unconverted - Conservative voters most of all. But he spoke with greater conviction than before of preparing for a general election (acknowledging that Labour faced an arithmetical “mountain”) and successfully delivered the attack lines he has often shunned.

“Even Theresa May gets it, that people want change,” he said. “That’s why she stood on the steps of Downing Street and talked about the inequalities and burning injustices in today’s Britain. She promised a country: ‘that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us’. But even if she manages to talk the talk, she can’t walk the walk. This isn’t a new government, it’s David Cameron’s government repackaged with progressive slogans but with a new harsh right-wing edge, taking the country backwards and dithering before the historic challenges of Brexit.”

After a second landslide victory, Corbyn is, for now, unassailable. Many MPs, having voted no confidence in him, will never serve on the frontbench. But an increasing number, recognising Corbyn’s immovability, speak once again of seeking to “make it work”. For all the ructions of this summer, Corbyn’s speech will have helped to persuade them that they can.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.