On Saturday morning, the Today Programme brought together the Sun’s Tom Newton Dunn and the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee - a couple of journalists who don’t normally see eye-to-eye, to put UKIP’s stunning result in Thursday’s local elections into some kind of perspective.
One hare set running by presenter Evan Davis was a comparison with the SDP, which in the 1980s seemed to present as big a threat to Labour as some are now suggesting that UKIP presents to the Tories. At first glance, the similarities seem spooky. But it’s actually the differences that are most striking.
True, what Polly Toynbee called the ‘crushing effect’ of our first-past-the-post electoral system will likely see to it that UKIP burns bright but burns briefly, flaring then flickering, and finally flattering to deceive – in other words, exactly what happened to the Social Democrats.
True, too, that UKIP may end up helping to change the Conservative Party, just as the SDP helped change Labour. But there’s the rub.
Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and David Owen (who also appeared earlier on the Today Programme) were serious, heavyweight politicians who knew what it was to govern. Having tried and failed to drag their old party to its senses, they founded a new formation – not on its flank, but in the centre of the political spectrum. Nigel Farage (and this is of course part of his appeal as a populist outsider) has never been elected to parliament, let alone served in government. And the party he leads, rather than helping to drag the Tories into the ideological space occupied by most voters, risks stranding them some way from where they need to be in order to win an overall majority in a plurality system.
As the discussion went on, Davis and Newton Dunn drew a second parallel between the SDP and UKIP, this time by recalling one of British electoral folklore’s classic canards, namely that Labour lost election after election in the 1980s because the left’s vote was split between it and its Social Democratic splinter.
This common wisdom relies on the assumption that all those voting for the SDP would otherwise have voted Labour had the Gang of Four never made their move. In fact, many of those who plumped for the Social Democrats were people who may well have voted Tory but were put off by Margaret Thatcher and her policies. Had it not been for Jenkins and co setting up shop in the centre, and given that Labour had put itself beyond the pale for all but its diehard core voters, they would either have voted for the Liberals – the other half of ‘the Alliance’ and the traditional repository for dissatisfied Tory voters – or would held their nose and voted Tory despite their misgivings about Maggie. In short, had the SDP never existed, not only might Labour have taken even longer to get its act together but the Thatcher governments would have commanded even bigger Commons majorities than they did anyway.
When it comes to UKIP, however, Davis and Newton Dunn were on to something. There really is a serious risk that Nigel Farage might split the right-wing vote in this country and therefore let Labour in on just over a third of the vote. Davis was on to something, too, when he asked whether UKIP’s success should be seen as part of a wider populist phenomenon affecting many countries in Europe. Put those two points together. and it soon becomes apparent that the Tories do indeed have a serious problem.
In Austria, in Denmark, in Italy and in the Netherlands, to name the obvious examples, centre-right parties have all found themselves leaking votes to their right. However, because they operate in PR systems, those votes are translated into seats for radical right-wing populist parties (like the FPÖ and the BZÖ, the Danish People’s Party, the Northern League, the LPF and Geert Wilders’ PVV) which may then prove willing to help mainstream conservatives and Christian Democrats govern, either by joining them in coalition or supporting them as minority administrations. In the UK, this can’t happen because the vast majority of votes that go to UKIP at the next general election probably won’t be converted into parliamentary seats, meaning they are, to all intents and purposes, wasted.
The only way that this can be avoided – the only way in other words that it makes sense to do what Tom Newton Dunn did on Saturday morning when he put the Conservative and UKIP votes together and made 48 per cent – is if we do away with first past the post and replace it with a fully proportional system.
If UKIP retains even a modicum of its momentum until the next general election, then even more British voters than usual will end up casting a ballot for a party that won’t be able to boast many or even any MPs. That will only inflict further damage to a political system which is having enough trouble already convincing citizens that it is working on their behalf rather than on behalf of a privileged elite – a failure which has helped give rise to the populist critique that, in this country at least, UKIP has made its own.
We need to fix that system to take account of the fact that, for whatever reason, British voters are no longer content to stick with the two parties that first-past-the-post inherently favours. The only way we can do that is to plump for PR – not the miserable little (and non-proportional) compromise that was AV, but a fully proportional system like the Mixed Member Proportional variant chosen by New Zealand in the 1990s and which was recently re-endorsed by them in a referendum.
One of today’s grandest political paradoxes, however, is that those most determined not to fix Britain’s broken electoral system are those who would most obviously benefit from that chance – a Conservative Party that hasn’t won an overall majority for a full twenty years and (unless Labour implodes) doesn’t look set to do so again any time soon.
Admitting this, however, is tantamount to admitting defeat. Moreover, the Party has principled objections to change and knows from the AV referendum that the great British public seems to prefer the status quo. As a result, first-past-the-post, rather like the Union with Scotland, looks set to remain a sacred cow that, even though it’s in their self-interest to do so, the Tories (in many ways admirably) simply won’t countenance slaughtering.