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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Theresa May’s Brexit speech is Angela Merkel’s victory – here’s why

The Germans coined the word “merkeln to describe their Chancellor’s approach to negotiations. 

It is a measure of Britain’s weak position that Theresa May accepts Angela Merkel’s ultimatum even before the Brexit negotiations have formally started

The British Prime Minister blinked first when she presented her plan for Brexit Tuesday morning. After months of repeating the tautological mantra that “Brexit means Brexit”, she finally specified her position when she essentially proposed that Britain should leave the internal market for goods, services and people, which had been so championed by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. 

By accepting that the “UK will be outside” and that there can be “no half-way house”, Theresa May has essentially caved in before the negotiations have begun.

At her meeting with May in July last year, the German Chancellor stated her ultimatum that there could be no “Rosinenpickerei” – the German equivalent of cherry picking. Merkel stated that Britain was not free to choose. That is still her position.

Back then, May was still battling for access to the internal market. It is a measure of how much her position has weakened that the Prime Minister has been forced to accept that Britain will have to leave the single market.

For those who have followed Merkel in her eleven years as German Kanzlerin there is sense of déjà vu about all this.  In negotiations over the Greek debt in 2011 and in 2015, as well as in her negotiations with German banks, in the wake of the global clash in 2008, Merkel played a waiting game; she let others reveal their hands first. The Germans even coined the word "merkeln", to describe the Chancellor’s favoured approach to negotiations.

Unlike other politicians, Frau Merkel is known for her careful analysis, behind-the-scene diplomacy and her determination to pursue German interests. All these are evident in the Brexit negotiations even before they have started.

Much has been made of US President-Elect Donald Trump’s offer to do a trade deal with Britain “very quickly” (as well as bad-mouthing Merkel). In the greater scheme of things, such a deal – should it come – will amount to very little. The UK’s exports to the EU were valued at £223.3bn in 2015 – roughly five times as much as our exports to the United States. 

But more importantly, Britain’s main export is services. It constitutes 79 per cent of the economy, according to the Office of National Statistics. Without access to the single market for services, and without free movement of skilled workers, the financial sector will have a strong incentive to move to the European mainland.

This is Germany’s gain. There is a general consensus that many banks are ready to move if Britain quits the single market, and Frankfurt is an obvious destination.

In an election year, this is welcome news for Merkel. That the British Prime Minister voluntarily gives up the access to the internal market is a boon for the German Chancellor and solves several of her problems. 

May’s acceptance that Britain will not be in the single market shows that no country is able to secure a better deal outside the EU. This will deter other countries from following the UK’s example. 

Moreover, securing a deal that will make Frankfurt the financial centre in Europe will give Merkel a political boost, and will take focus away from other issues such as immigration.

Despite the rise of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party, the largely proportional electoral system in Germany will all but guarantee that the current coalition government continues after the elections to the Bundestag in September.

Before the referendum in June last year, Brexiteers published a poster with the mildly xenophobic message "Halt ze German advance". By essentially caving in to Merkel’s demands before these have been expressly stated, Mrs May will strengthen Germany at Britain’s expense. 

Perhaps, the German word schadenfreude comes to mind?

Matthew Qvortrup is author of the book Angela Merkel: Europe’s Most Influential Leader published by Duckworth, and professor of applied political science at Coventry University.