Could UKIP revive the debate over electoral reform?

If the party wins upwards of five per cent of the vote in 2015 but fails to win a single seat, our voting system will be called into question again.

It is a mark of UKIP's recent success that the party's second-place finish in the Wythenshawe and Sale East by-election has been greeted with a collective shrug by most of the political media. Back in 2010, when it was struggling under Lord Pearson, anyone who suggested that it would go on to finish second in six by-elections, from Eastleigh to South Shields, would have been laughed out of the room. Now David Cameron is deriding the party for failing to achieve "a breakthrough" on the basis that it didn't win the seat (is his new line really "it's ok if they beat us because they still can't beat Labour"?)

UKIP will still be lucky to win a seat in 2015, but it is now certain to improve significantly on the 3.1 per cent of the vote it scored in 2010. With this in mind, it's worth asking whether the rise of Farage could revive the dormant debate over electoral reform. The party supports the introduction of proportional representation and campaigned in favour of AV in the 2011 referendum. 

One can already picture the headlines should UKIP end up with nothing to show for its increased support: "Democratic outrage as UKIP wins 8% but no seats". A renewed push to change our outdated and unfair voting system could be one unlikely byproduct of the UKIP surge.

Incidentally, while neither Labour nor the Tories are likely to consent to another referendum on electoral reform in the next parliament, several Labour sources have told me that the party is considering the likely Lib Dem demand of PR for local government in any coalition negotiations. 

Nigel Farage speaks at a fringe event on the second day of the Conservative conference in Manchester Town Hall last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Why relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.