I am genuinely pleased to see UKIP doing well in recent polls, polling at as much as 9%. That might seem like an odd thing for a Lib Dem to say given that ideologically I am quite far away from their views and also they are currently close to potentially pushing my party into fourth place.
Allow me to explain.
As I have bored people to tears with on here for years, one of my major preoccupations is with electoral reform. We lost the AV referendum last year and the consensus at the moment is that any further talk of reform is off the table for the forseeable future. The Tories are dead set against it. Labour are ambivalent but a majority of its voters seem against it. End of story. Or so you'd think.
The Lib Dems do not get a fair crack of the whip under FPTP. At the last election we got around 8% of the seats on 23% of the vote. But at least we got some seats. UKIP got 3.1% of the vote and got no seats at all. Not even close. Even their current leader, the high profile Nigel Farage came third in his attempt to unseat Speaker of the House John Bercow.
But even if UKIP got 9% of the vote they would still be unlikely to get any seats. They are a national party trying to appeal across the country. This is a big weakness for a party under FPTP. As the Fields Medal winning mathematician Tim Gowers wrote a couple of years back in a tour de force of a blogpost:
...under FPTP, if you want to maximize the number of seats you will get for a given share of the vote, then there are two things you must avoid. Most importantly, you don’t want to spread your vote about too evenly: if you get 28% of the vote in every single seat, you probably won’t win a single seat. So FPTP penalizes parties that have a uniform appeal throughout the country. This suggests that what you want is for your support to be geographically concentrated...
That sounds almost exactly like the problem with UKIP. I reckon even if they were polling well above 9% they'd struggle to win a single seat.
The same poll that put UKIP on 9% has the Lib Dems on 8% so nominally fourth. But even the worst projections suggest the party would still get 7 seats. In reality I suspect the Lib Dems would get more than that because of the incumbency factor in some seats and the fact that their support is more geographically concentrated than UKIP in places like the South West. I wouldn't be at all surprised if even on a national vote of 8% the Lib Dems got 15 or 20 seats.
But even if I'm wrong and it would be 7 seats for the Lib Dems, how on earth would that be fair? One party gets 9% and gets no seats. Another gets 8% and gets several seats (or more).
That same poll put Labour on 43% and the Conservatives on 32%. What we would actually see on those numbers as well is a Labour landslide. The UK Polling Report calculator suggests we would get:
Lib Dem: 19
Others: 24 (including 18 seats in NI)
If this happened at a general election I think we would see two effects:
1) Massive cognitive dissonance from eurosceptic and small c conservative newspapers like the Daily Mail and The Sun. They would be outraged that UKIP got no seats on such an improved vote but they are generally against electoral reform. Their editorial line would struggle to reconcile these contradictions but I suspect when the dust settled they would find themselves having to support some sort of change to the electoral system.
2) A big rethink from the Conservatives on this whole subject. It is largely forgotten now but back in the 1970s after Heath lost the first 1974 election despite getting more of the popular vote than Harold Wilson there were numerous leading conservatives and their fourth estate cheerleaders who were strong advocates of proportional representation. Moggism-Levenism as it became known had a fair bit of right-wing support which (strangely ;)) faded once Margaret Thatcher was able to leverage huge majorities during the 1980s partly due to the split on the left. Well if we end up with an insurgent UKIP causing a split on the right and a subdued Lib Dem party allowing Labour to get well over 40% leading to repeated landslides I fully expect the same thing to happen again. And the Tories can repent at leisure their visceral opposition to any change at all last year. AV of course would have allowed the majority of those UKIP voters to put Conservative as their second choice.
So thinking about this long term, it will be much better for the Lib Dems if we can get a fairer electoral system. A surging UKIP for various reasons makes that more likely. Ergo I'm intensely relaxed about the surge. Even if in the short term it pushes our party into fourth place in national polls and even elections.