Dylan Sharpe: The Tories can’t blame the voting system, only themselves

IN the wake of Ukip’s impressive second place at the Eastleigh by-election, several commentators have begun to ponder the merits of changing the voting system to suit the new electoral landscape.

The “Tories might have won with AV (the alternative vote)” argument has been floated a few times by people who ought to know better, as well as those looking to capitalise on Conservative jitters to push their own narrow agenda.

Briefly ignoring the fact that 
the comprehensive 2011 referendum result demonstrated that the British public have absolutely no interest in seeing the voting system gerrymandered for short-term political gain, there are several other very good reasons why dredging up the recently deceased arguments for electoral reform are a red herring for the Conservative Party.

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Would the Conservatives have won Eastleigh under AV? Put simply, we can’t be sure, but a cursory glance at Lord Ashcroft’s fascinating Eastleigh exit polling suggests that the result would have been unlikely to change under the alternative vote.

I believe the reason that the Liberal Democrats won the by-election is because they were better prepared and better organised (as well as having incumbency advantage), not because the voting system is broken.

If, as most now agree, the strong Ukip performance was due to a mid-term protest “plague on all their houses” vote, as the “least worst” party on the ballot paper there’s no reason why, rather than Maria Hutchings, an AV election on Thursday could have seen Ukip’s Diane James soak up a majority of second and third preferences. One can be disappointed with the result, but a Ukip win would have been disastrous, likely prompting many “what a silly voting system” comments and sending both Nick Clegg and David Cameron into a tailspin, hastening the spectre of Prime Minister Ed Miliband.

Some say AV in 2015 would enable a “coalition vote” to keep Labour out of government. This was an argument that was put forward by some of the pro-coalition camp prior to the referendum, before the ill-fated Yes to AV campaign stuck two fingers in the face of the Conservatives and placed all their eggs in the “progressive majority” basket. The thesis is practically correct: under AV, Tories could put the Lib Dems as their second choice and vice versa, hopefully tipping some Con-Lab and Lib-Lab constituencies the way of the coalition.

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However, this assumes that there are a strong number of Conservatives willing to vote for the Lib Dems, or that Clegg isn’t subject to the sort of coup d’état that sees Vince Cable installed as leader, and ushers in the grand left-wing consensus envisaged by the Electoral Reform Society and others who continue to push for a change in the voting system.

Others argue that proportional representation in local elections would enable the Conservatives to gain more seats in the North, swelling the local campaigning machines. On the face of it, an attractive proposition.

There are two things to bear 
in mind, however. Firstly, any gains in the North would be balanced by a reduced presence elsewhere in the country where 
the Tories benefit from having a strong local vote.

Secondly, PR would open up the prospect of more local council coalitions. One only needs to look at lists of Lib and Lab councils resisting cuts and ignoring council tax freezes to know that increasing the number of weak administrations at local level would be worse for everyone.

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There is another point to be made, which also informs this whole debate. Margaret Thatcher didn’t need a new voting system to command large majorities at Westminster during the 1980s.

Similarly, David Cameron didn’t need proportional representation in 2009 when the Conservatives won control of Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Staffordshire and Lancashire councils. The voting system hasn’t got more unfair for the Tories, but since then the party has failed to put forward sufficiently attractive reasons for voters in the North to support the Conservatives.

What Eastleigh has really demonstrated is that Ukip have replaced the Lib Dems as the 
core recipients of the protest 
vote, a vote some might have presumed would by now be going to Labour.

Just as Tony Blair briefly considered introducing a commitment to electoral reform when it looked like Ashdown’s Yellows were going to squeeze Labour out in 1997 – before swiftly dropping the proposal in the wake of his thumping majority – so it is Tories may be attracted by the offer of a voting system that enables them to pick up the second preferences of the Ukip anti-vote.

But as well as being fundamentally un-Conservative, such a proposition is also the weak get-out for a party that still has the ideas and infrastructure to win big once again.