David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband stand together as Prince Charles launches a new youth campaign at Buckingham Palace. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

The 2015 election could revive the electoral reform debate

Labour could win fewer votes but more seats than the Tories and Ukip could win more votes than the Lib Dems but no seats.

One consequence of the Tories moving ahead of Labour for the first time since March 2012 is that MPs of all parties are beginning to discuss the possibility that the Conservatives could win the most votes in 2015 while Labour wins the most seats. Such an outcome is made possible by the first-past-the-post system. While the Tories pile up wasted votes in high turnout areas, Labour efficiently pockets city constituencies where fewer take part. 

On a uniform swing, Lord Ashcroft's poll (which puts the Tories on 34 per cent and Labour on 32 per cent) would leave Labour with 14 more seats (307 to 293) than the Conservatives. David Cameron requires a lead of around four points before his party moves ahead. 

Were Labour to win more seats with fewer votes (as last happened in February 1974 and in reverse in 1951), the Tories would have no grounds for complaint. They have resisted every attempt to reform the system, most recently in the case of the AV referendum. (The failed boundary changes would have reduced but far from eliminated Labour's advantage.) But the outcome would be widely seen as perverse and undemocratic. Alongside this, it is possible that Ukip (a pro-reform party) could receive more votes than the Lib Dems but win no seats. 

All of this would have the effect of reviving the debate over electoral reform, which has laid dormant since the defeat of AV in 2011. The Lib Dems and Ukip would be in a strong position to push for a referendum on proportional representation (although I'm told that PR for local government is a more likely coalition red line) and the flaws of a system designed for an era when the two main parties won 96 per cent of the vote between them will have been exposed as never before. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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.