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AV: changing tactics & the shadow of UKIP

The Yes campaign is changing tactics. Facing the possibility of defeat, it’s trying to persuade us to be more anti-Tory than anti-Clegg.  You can’t blame them because the No campaign decided early on that putting Clegg centre stage was the way to win. Since then, it’s been a nasty and divisive campaign, on both sides. Babies and soldiers dying versus making MPs work harder. Absurd but not so surprising when emotion and self-interest drive both sides more than high principle. That and the geekery of comparative electoral systems interests the electorate not a jot.  But the argument that a No vote would harm the Tories more than Clegg is wrong. The threat to the Tories from AV is very real. And what’s worse is that it largely comes from UKIP.

At the very start, the Tory right who dominate the No campaign, made clear that “if AV is to be defeated, an anti-Clegg message probably needs to be central for the Conservatives.” It  also worked for Labour voters and the No-voting Left grabbed it too. For a long time, the Yes crowd didn’t engage with it, but now that they’re “reeling as support for voting reform collapses“, they’re trying to change the game. In the Indy, Observer and Grauniad, pro-AV commentators accept that a no would hurt Clegg, but, as the Spectator puts it:

the Yes campaign are becoming ever closer to making explicit the argument that a yes vote is the best way to keep the Tories out.”

A yes vote would indeed cause bitter recriminations within the Tory ranks — a prospect which both sides of Labour could enjoy — but Polly Toynbee also adds that:

the Tories have most to gain from a Lib Dem collapse: whether the vote is by AV or not may make a lot less difference.”

This chimes with the views of others that AV would make only a modest difference to outcomes, likely to leave the Lib Dems at the next election somewhat better off at the expense of the Tories, especially in the South-West. This line of argument is worth close examination. Leaving aside that, after all that the Lib Dems have done as part of the Coalition, we would wish to save their skins where they are threatened by the Tories, it implies the following:

  1. Ensuring an anti-Tory majority at the next election is more important than shortening the life of the Coalition, and stopping the Cuts and the attack on the NHS.
  2. The bigger threat to the Tories under AV is from the Lib Dems, not UKIP.

Much of the Left would disagree with the first. Dividing the coalition, encouraging as much division within and between each government party in order to stop what the Coalition is doing and forcing an election on the Coalition’s record is what we’re about. The idea that the Lib Dems could stay in office until 2015 and then, after an election campaign, form party of the anti-Tory majority is not the plan A of anyone I know. But if there’s a yes vote, as we’ve argued, the Lib Dems have to stay in office for at least three more years to get the benefit.

The response to the second is hampered by the lack of evidence about the longer term effects of a change in electoral system. The problem with predicted outcomes of AV based on, for example, successive YouGov polls looking at voters preferences is that they really only tell us about short term effects on the relative position of the big established parties. They fail to predict what could happen to the smaller parties in the medium term, let alone what could happen to the major parties in the event of the emergence of much stronger fringe parties.

The best indication that this is the case is the fact that, in the YouGov poll for the IPPR, for example, 96% of Tory and 97% of Labour voters are assumed to stick with their current parties as first preference. This has to be a gross underestimate of what would happen even at the first general election, let alone thereafter.

Take for example the Greens: according to a recent YouGov poll for Channel 4 whose results we set out here, 30% of Labour voters and 24% of Lib Dems have a second preference for the Greens. Small wonder that they favour Yes for AV. Their objective is clearly to turn as many of these second preferences into first preferences as possible. That will mean not only that they will they consolidate their hold on Brighton, and quickly capitalise at Westminster on their foothold in local government, but that over time they would probably become as important a minor party at Westminster as the Liberals were in the 1960s and 1970s.

UKIP, however, in spite of the failure of Nigel Farage to join Caroline Lucas, has already established itself as a serious minor party – 16% at the last Euro elections compared with the Greens’ 9% and they arguably deprived the Tories of these 21 seats (including that now held by Ed Balls). UKIP, according to the same YouGov poll for Channel 4, has the second preferences of 27% of Tory, 18% of Labour, 13% of Lib Dem and 51% of BNP voters. And they start from a higher level (though more dispersed) than the Greens. Their objectives under AV would be the same as the Greens, and, though it might take slightly longer, it is surely likely with these figures that they would do better than the Greens.

Based on the valuable new research by Dr Robert Ford and Dr Matthew Goodwin reported at Left Foot Forward, we now understand existing UKIP voters as falling into two categories:

“Strategic defectors” are voters who support UKIP at European elections but return to the Conservatives at general elections: they are older, financially comfortable, middle class men with Conservative sympathies, socially conservative Eurosceptics who are motivated principally by their desire to send a message to the Conservatives. They are driven principally by Euroscepticism (unsurprisingly) and, to a lesser extent, concerns about immigration.

The “core loyalists”, on the other hand, stick with UKIP at all elections and are a very different electorate. They are more working class, more economically insecure, and more likely to say they come from Labour-voting families. In all these respects, as our chart below shows, they are more similar to the BNP’s support base than the Conservatives’.

The core group, under AV, may well be enhanced from existing Labour and BNP voters and also, perhaps especially once they break through into Westminster, from non-voters. The “strategic defectors”, no doubt amongst those 27% of Tory voters whose second preferences already lie with UKIP, would presumably be easily persuaded to switch to first.

It is entirely realistic that UKIP could develop into Britain’s third party under AV. That is wherein the greatest threat to the Tories lies.  But it is a threat that is wholly without comfort for the Left.


  1. The Lib Dems are entirely a product of First Past The Post. They do not do very well for Strasbourg or for Holyrood, and do really rather badly for Cardiff and for the Greater London Assembly. When their alleged Holy Grail, multimember STV, was introduced for local government in Scotland, their number of Councillors there went down. The BNP’s vote halved between 2009 and 2010, when it lost 36 of the 38 council seats that it was contesting, including every seat in Barking & Dagenham. Under AV, BNP candidates would be eliminated in the first round, and their voters would have expressed no second preference.

    A Yes vote in next month’s referendum would greatly accelerate the secession of the already existing, and rapidly growing, right-wing party nominally still comprised of Conservative backbenchers. They would not join UKIP. Rather, they would expect UKIP to join them, as surely as the Social Democratic Alliance was expected to join the SDP. Meanwhile, the Old Labour half of UKIP’s Strasbourg vote would have been thoroughly alienated, but right at the time when a major party representative of their views across the full range of issues had been called into being by electoral reform.

    A party for those whose priorities include the Welfare State, workers’ rights, trade unionism, the co-operative movement, consumer protection, strong communities, conservation rather than environmentalism, fair taxation, full employment, public ownership, proper local government, a powerful Parliament, the monarchy, the organic Constitution, national sovereignty, civil liberties, the Union, the Commonwealth, the countryside, grammar schools, traditional moral and social values, economic patriotism, balanced migration, a realist foreign policy, and a base of real property for every household to resist both over-mighty commercial interests and an over-mighty State.

    For those who are aware of, who understand, who value and who draw on the Radical Liberal, Tory populist, trade union, co-operative, Christian Socialist, Social Catholic and Distributist, and other roots of the Labour Movement, rejecting cultural Marxism no less comprehensively than they reject economic Marxism, and vice versa. For those who, with Herbert Morrison, have never seen any conflict “between Labour and what are known as the middle classes”, and who, with Aneurin Bevan, denounce class war, calling instead for “a platform broad enough for all to stand upon” and for the making of “war upon a system, not upon a class”. For the socially and culturally conservative, strongly patriotic tendencies within the British Left’s traditional electoral base. Within the alliance of the traditional Right and the traditional Left against the neoconservative war agenda and its assaults on liberty at home, including against any new Cold War with either or both of Russia and China.

    Recognising that we cannot deliver the welfare provisions and the other public services that our people have rightly come to expect unless we know how many people there are in this country, unless we control immigration properly, and unless we insist that everyone use spoken and written English to the necessary level. Refusing to allow climate change to be used as an excuse to destroy or prevent secure employment, to drive down wages or working conditions, to arrest economic development around the world, to forbid the working classes and non-white people from having children, to inflate the fuel prices that always hit the poor hardest, or to restrict either travel opportunities or a full diet to the rich. And therefore able to co-operate as closely as possible with the forces of provincial, rural, protectionist, church-based, conservative, mind-our-own-business Toryism, forces set free by electoral reform from tendencies variously metropolitan, urban, capitalist, secular, libertarian and make-the-world-anew.

    Bring it on. Vote Yes.

  2. Matty says:

    Interesting article in The Guardian by Tom Clark on AV pointing to a recent poll that shows that Labour would lose 13 seats to the Liberals but the Tories would lose none. It hardly makes for a good case for Labour to support AV. See

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