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Dylan Sharpe: Eastleigh shouldn't change Tory minds about AV

Screen Shot 2013-03-03 at 20.30.15Dylan Sharpe is a political PR consultant. He was the Head of Press for the NO to AV campaign and a press officer on Boris Johnson’s 2008 Mayoral campaign. Follow Dylan on Twitter.

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 (e.g. the Electoral Reform Society).

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.

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. As we enter the 72nd hour of Eastleigh post-game analysis it doesn't need repeating, but I will anyway: the reason 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 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 Clegg and Cameron into a tailspin, hastening the spectre of Prime Minister Miliband.

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 & Lib-Lab constituencies the way of the coalition.

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 Cable installed as leader, and ushers in the grand left-wing consensus envisaged by the ERS and others who continue to push for a change in the voting system.

Proportional representation in local elections would enable the Conservatives to gain more seats in the North, swelling the local campaigning machines.

This is Nick Tyrone's argument and is, 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 Harry Phibb's and TaxPayers' Alliance 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.

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 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.


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