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.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.