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Nick Tyrone: After Eastleigh, do Tories regret opposing AV?

Directors_HeadshotNick has worked for the Electoral Reform Society for eighteen months, working across all political parties handling public affairs, parliamentary liaison and press for the ERS. Follow Nick on Twitter.

UKIP are not just taking votes off the Tories – there is a large former Labour contingent now voting for Nigel Farage’s party

Canvassing on the estates of Eastleigh, I was amazed to see so many UKIP posters in the windows. Surprised as well to hear on the doorstep so many people who were down as Labour leaning or said they had been solid Labour voters in the past who said they were voting UKIP in the by-election. One old guy told me he had voted Labour all his life but was going to vote UKIP now as he didn’t think that Labour “stands up for the working man anymore. They only care about people on welfare these days” (I should for clarity sake mention at this point that I was canvassing for the Lib Dems. You may enjoy the old guy’s quote regarding this: “You Liberals are scum. Nothing personal, mind you”).

There has been some glee from the left that UKIP came in second. I would warn them that UKIP’s rise might not necessarily be a completely good thing for Labour. Swinging this back to the Tories though, I would say that the threat from UKIP is widely misunderstood at present. There seems to be confusion as to why the Cameron offer of a referendum didn’t kill off UKIP as an electoral threat. That’s because although Europe is an issue with those who vote UKIP it is by no means the decisive one. UKIP seem able to get working class voters to plump for them in a way that the Conservatives cannot. And this is because these UKIP voters, while having essentially Conservative values, will not vote for the Tories as they see Conservative party as a party of the well-off only.

UKIP could easily have won in Eastleigh had they had better data and a better machine

It was through no lack of trying that UKIP came second as opposed to first in Eastleigh. Their activists were everywhere yesterday. It was, in fact, startling how many more UKIP people one saw knocking on doors compared with Tories doing the same. However, the Lib Dems had a huge advantage in that they knew exactly where their voters were because they have almost all the local seats and have held the Westminster constituency for almost twenty years. It’s the power of incumbency, both at Westminster and local level that was decisive. This fed into the much ballyhooed postal vote that swung the Lib Dems way. UKIP simply couldn’t compete.

If we had proportional representation at local level, the playing field would have been much more level

A large part of the reason the Lib Dems won in Eastleigh was down to strength in numbers on the Council, where they hold 40 out of 44 seats. This added greatly to the ability of their “get out the vote” unit to operate effectively as well as targeting postal voters, both decisive on the result. Now I understand more than most that putting the Conservative party and proportional representation together is like mixing the proverbial oil and water, but I’d like to put the case to you why under a PR system at local level constituencies such as Eastleigh could again become Tory seats.

An article about Eastleigh recently appeared on ConservativeHome bewailing the state of affairs on the Lib Dem dominated Council.  At the last set of local elections in 2012, the voting across the 15 seats up for grabs was LIB 52%, CON 34%, LAB 9%, UKIP 5%.  Under a proportional voting system, instead of the seat distribution being the LIB 40, CON 4 we have now, it would look like this: LIB 23, CON 15, LAB 4, UKIP 2. Yes, the Lib Dems still have a majority, but it is a majority of 1 as opposed to 40. More importantly, imagine how much easier it would have been for the Tories to have staged an effective field ops campaign with fifteen councillors as opposed to four - their data would have been effectively almost four times stronger. This would have given the party a much better head start on the by-election campaign in terms of people on the ground who knew where their voters were.

And Eastleigh is by far the most Lib Dem favourable council in terms of vote share. If you extrapolate what I’ve done and redistribute vote shares proportionally across all CON-LIB marginals, suddenly PR at local level looks less like the enemy of the Conservative party. Bear in mind that in parts of the country where the Conservatives have almost no seats at local level, as a for instance in the north of England, First Past the Post actually shuts Tories out of whole areas where proportionally they should have seats. Like in Wigan, where 19.6% of the votes gets the Conservative party 5 seats out of 75. Under PR that becomes 15. In Sheffield, the Tories get 12% of the vote and get a sum total of zero out of eight-four seats. That becomes ten seats under PR – enough to start gathering data and building a local party.

Bear in mind I am only arguing for the moment that PR at local level might help the Tories. I understand the Tory aversion to PR for Westminster because of its tendency to produce coalitions. But coalitions are the norm at local level anyway – the seats may as well be proportionally distributed.

Better under AV?

I’ll close here on a slightly cheeky, facetious note: had the Eastleigh by-election been fought under AV (and I know, even if the Yes campaign had won the referendum it still wouldn’t have been the voting system of choice just yet), the Lib Dems very possibly would not have won. As I stated above, UKIP does not solely take votes from the Conservatives – but they still do so in fairly large numbers. One only needs to look at the figures UKIP polled in Eastleigh, figure out that given that no one got 50% of the vote UKIP second preferences would have mostly gone to the Tories while there’s no way Labour second preferences could be assumed to all go the Lib Dems way (and even if they had, it still wouldn’t have been enough to get the Lib Dems over the finish line), and you can see that the Conservatives would have stood a better chance of winning the seat.

AV would have helped the Lib Dems during the 2010 general election. But for 2015, when incumbency will be such a factor for them, AV would have created any number of headaches for the third party.


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