Nigel Farage stated today (BBC Today in Politics 1 March 2013) in response to UKIP pushing the Tories into third place in the Eastleigh by-election (result):
The UKIP vote was split by the Tories
Daniel Hannan (Conservative MEP) blogging on the Daily Telegraph (The Eurosceptic Right wins more than half the vote, the Europhile Left gets in with less than a third) urged the Tories and UKIP to come to a pact.
Between them, the two Centre-Right parties secured 53 per cent; yet the Lib Dems got in with 32 per cent. This is worse than the SDP/Labour split of the early 1980s. It is more like the Conservative/Reform split in Canada in the 1990s, a split that gifted the Left vast parliamentary majorities on a minority of the vote for over a decade.
Imagine Eastleigh being replicated in 100 constituencies at the 2015 general election. Or in just 50. Yet again, the first-past-the-post system would see an essentially Eurosceptic electorate return an essentially Euro-integrationist House of Commons.
Oh dear, what to do?
Pacts are essentially undemocratic – the ultimate stitch-up in smokeless committee rooms. The SDP Liberal Alliance tried it, doing immense internal damage as they tried to rig selections to ensure the two parties were appropriately represented in target seats. In the end it had to lead to merger and a loss of political diversity – the stitch-up being entrenched for-ever.
It also denies the electorate choice.
Everyone surely knows how this choice could be restored, but the Tories said the obvious solution would do terrible damage to “British Democracy”. This is the “democracy” that “would see an essentially Eurosceptic electorate return an essentially Euro-integrationist House of Commons.”
If only the electorate had been asked to rank the candidates instead; in effect saying to the returning officer:
“This is who I would like to see win, but if they do not stand a chance, please use my vote to try to elect my second choice”
Looking at the result (reported on BBC News Website)
Mike Thornton (Lib Dem) 13,342 (32.06%, -14.48%) Diane James (UKIP) 11,571 (27.80%, +24.20%) Maria Hutchings (Con) 10,559 (25.37%, -13.96%) John O'Farrell (Lab) 4,088 ( 9.82%, +0.22%) Top Four Candidates 39,560 (95.05%) Danny Stupple (Ind) 768 ( 1.85%) Iain Maclennan (National Health Action Party) 392 ( 0.94%) Ray Hall (Beer, Baccy and Crumpet Party) 235 ( 0.56%) Kevin Milburn (Christian Party) 163 ( 0.39%) Howling Laud Hope (MRLP) 136 ( 0.33%) Jim Duggan (Peace Party) 128 ( 0.31%) David Bishop (Elvis Loves Pets) 72 ( 0.17%) Michael Walters (Eng Dems) 70 ( 0.17%) Daz Procter (TU & Socialists Against Cuts) 62 ( 0.15%) Colin Bex (Wessex Regionalist) 30 ( 0.07%) Total minor candidates (lost deposits) 2,056 ( 4.95%)
Trying to guess the second choice of the minor candidates is difficult, so for this speculation let’s assume that the redistribution has no impact – although we must note that the combined minor candidate vote is greater than either the majority or the gap between second and third.
We then have to think what would be the second choice of the supporters of the leading candidates.
In the current political environment it is difficult to assess who Labour supporters would select as their second choices. Diehards would probably not express a second preference and consequently their ballots would cease to have any effect. A few might select UKIP or the Tories (possibly on the basis of policies or stump statements on migration), but of those who express a preference, I suspect a majority would hold their nose and select the Lib Dems as the lesser of all evils.
In this case the reallocation of any Labour second preferences is unlikely to change the order of the leading three candidates – which would lead the Conservatives in third place with no candidate having 50%. It then leaves an interesting speculation as to what would happen to Maria Hutchings Conservative support. We might presume that many if not most of the Euro-septic Conservatives have already voted UKIP as their first choice, so the majority of those who voted Conservative as their first choice might well be centre-right non-Europhobic. They would be in an interesting quandary when trying to determine who to vote for as their second preference. Would they, as Daniel Hannan believes, all vote Eurosceptic thereby gifting a victory to a party (UKIP) that might do them terrible damage at the next election, or might they hold at least one nostril and vote “the coupon” as being the most likely way to put their party in a position to win the next general election?
Unfortunately we will never know because we do not have a system that allows for the expression of such preferences. Daniel Hannan’s claim that 53% of the vote was Eurosceptic is untested and unverifiable. Any pact such as he desires would also align the Conservatives on the single axis of Europhile-Europhobic and at one end of that axis. (Which leaves one wondering why not vote for the “real (Eurosceptic) thing”?)
Of course the current system is a stitch-up that denies the electorate the diversity of choice that they deserve. In this case it would be interesting to consider what would have happened (under a transferable voting system such as discussed above) if the Tories (in particular) had been able to put up two candidates. Maria Hutchings was clearly on the Eurosceptic wing of the Tories and in reselecting her the
stitch-up selection committee was hoping to head off UKIP. Might this selection have frightened off Europhile Conservatives, or even made Europhobe Conservatives think they might as well vote UKIP as there was little difference in many areas between what Maria Hutchings said and the UKIP policy.
It is easy when looking at the result to suggest that this selection strategy did not work and many Conservatives voted UKIP.
Mike Thornton (Lib Dem) 13,342 (32.06%, -14.48%) Diane James (UKIP) 11,571 (27.80%, +24.20%) Maria Hutchings (Con) 10,559 (25.37%, -13.96%) John O'Farrell (Lab) 4,088 ( 9.82%, +0.22%) Top Four Candidates 39,560 (95.05%)
But it is simplistic to assume (looking at the above percentage changes) that the UKIP support came straight from Lib Dems and Conservatives. It is equally possible that many “pale yellow” Lib Dems stayed at home put off by the party’s performance in power or the malodorous atmosphere surrounding the Liberals, whilst many who have not previously voted came out for UKIP. UKIP certainly remarked that they thought they were attracting first-time voter support. How many centre-right Conservatives stayed at home?
So what might have happened if a centralist Conservative had also stood? Remember, under a transferable preference system you cannot split a vote because supporters of Conservative A could always vote Conservative B as their second choice. A centralist conservative might have taken some Lib Dem support and may have attracted previously apathetic small “c” conservative support as well as offering a secure home for non-Eurosceptic Conservatives.
In effect we would see a Conservative “Open Primary” (which many conservative thinkers support) run as part of the actual election.
But unfortunately the Conservatives (aided by large sections of the Press) persuaded us that we did not have the sophistication to express our preferences other than by means of a single X – the mark of the illiterate. The Alternative Vote System (“This is who I would like to see win, but if they do not stand a chance, please use my vote to try to elect my second choice“) requires us to be able to mark “1” against our first choice, “2” against our second choice etc. Are we really unable to do that?
The Conservatives (who made up the core of the 2011 No to AV campaign) said that under AV the person who came second could win and this was “undemocratic”, and yet that is fundamentally what Daniel Hannan is now saying – we should have stitch-up pacts so that either UKIP or the Conservatives (who came second and third in Eastleigh) might win. Why not trust the electorate to show a little sophistication?