Only Labour can win majorities. Under PR Ukip's 100 MPs could prop up the Tories. Photo: Getty.
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The Tories can’t win majorities – they should back PR

Under our system, only Labour can win majorities. If the Tories want the Right in power, they should reform the system.

This post first appeared on May2015.com - our election site.

For a long time it made sense for the two major parties to oppose electoral reform.

Since 1945 our “First Past The Past” system has handed at least 85 per cent of seats to Labour and the Tories at every election, even though they now win over only around 65 per cent of voters. Changing the system may have been more representative, and appease those who clamoured for “fairness”, but it made little sense for either party.

That is no longer true. While it has long been clear that our system disadvantages smaller parties, the way it cripples the Tories has only become apparent in recent years – when the “Big Two” stopped winning anything near 40 per cent of the vote.

The way our system cripples the Tories has only become apparent in recent years.

The Tories should back electoral reform because they can no longer win majorities. They haven’t won one for 23 years.

In 2010 they added to their vote share for the third consecutive election – and were still 2.4 million voters shy of the 14.1 million John Major won over in 1992.

Major won more votes than any British political leader ever. And he still only had a majority of 21. Cameron won a million more votes than Blair did in 2005. Blair had a majority of 66. Cameron was 36 short of one.

In a six-party system, the party’s Thatcherite majorities aren’t coming back.

In 1997 and 2001, when the party was at its nadir, our system handed them just 25 per cent of seats, when they won 30-31 per cent of the vote. In a six-party system, the party’s Thatcherite majorities aren’t coming back.

Cameron won 36 per cent of the vote in 2010. For the past three years, his party have been stuck in the low 30s. They rarely poll below 30 per cent, but can’t surpass 33-34 per cent

For this to change, the party needs to win over Labour centrists who couldn’t countenance Thatcherism or absorb the Lib Dems. And Ukip needs to fade. None is likely.

After their astounding failure to reform parliament’s boundaries, the party is now in a perennial bind: to govern, it has to form coalitions with the Lib Dems. Supply and confidence agreements would only last as long as they convenience the party propping the Tories up, and a minority government would achieve little.

The party is now in a perennial bind: to govern, it has to form coalitions with the Lib Dems.

That future must hold limited appeal for the party’s 1922 Committee of backbench MPs, or the 100-plus MPs who won in 2010 in hope of government office.

So how could they reform the system? YouGov’s Peter Kellner recently suggested Cameron should have backed AV in 2011 – the second-preferences of Ukippers would hand Tories 20 seats they will otherwise lose in 2015.

Lord Ashcroft has shown nearly half of Ukippers do choose the Tories as their second preference – twice as many as would switch to Labour – but, as Ipsos MORI explained in detail in 2011, any prediction of AV’s effect relies on “heroic assumptions”.

Voters, let alone pundits, can’t know how they would vote under a voting system that doesn’t exist. And without constituency-level data national hypotheticals are fairly limited.

One party could put instantly put the Right into power – Ukip, with 100 MPs.

Admittedly, the Tories aren’t awash with options. Unless they return to their late 1990s nadir, any form of proportional representation (PR) would hand them fewer seats than First Past The Post. Coalitions would be inevitable. But sacrificing a distant, unlikely and occasional success is surely preferable to watching the Labour party form majority after majority, as they are far more likely to do.

Tory votes are clustered in safe seats, which means Tory MPs are elected by around 3,000 more votes than Labour MPs. Tories MPs are more “legitimate”, but at the cost of many wasted votes. If the parties win the same number of voters, Labour win 35-40 more seats.

Under PR Labour would never form a majority government again. Labour and the Tories would have around 220 seats, 100 short of a majority. The Lib Dems would have fewer than 50, and the Greens as many as 30.

But one party could put instantly put the Right into power. Ukip would be parliament’s new kingmakers, with 100 MPs.

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Harry Lambert was the editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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