Matthew Oakeshott: Why the Tories don't stand a chance in this election

First past the post so works against the Tories that there can be no way back to power this election
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How many more defeats does it take to teach the Conservatives our voting system is not just a disgrace to democracy? While it tries to shake itself free of the crisis over the expulsion of Howard Flight, it is still not facing up to the far more serious problem of overcoming a British electoral system that is stacked against it. It must cope with three huge disabilities:

How many more defeats does it take to teach the Conservatives our voting system is not just a disgrace to democracy? While it tries to shake itself free of the crisis over the expulsion of Howard Flight, it is still not facing up to the far more serious problem of overcoming a British electoral system that is stacked against it. It must cope with three huge disabilities:

1. The Tories are no longer a national party challenging credibly for power throughout Britain. They have over half their seats in the south-eastern quarter of England and are simply non-starters in Scotland, Wales, the North and big cities outside London.

2. Constituency boundaries, based on 1991 electorates, are now grotesquely biased in Labour's favour.

3. The Tories must gain two extra seats for every three they now hold just to draw level with Labour. For a working majority, they would need to double their current 164 seats.

You see how south-east English the Tory Party now is if you compare their seats and votes today with the October 1974 election. (I remember it only too well, having polled 26,000 votes and still lost.) The national shares of the votes then were Labour 39.2 per cent, Conservatives 35.8 per cent, Liberals 18.3 per cent. On newly revised constituency boundaries the Conservatives won 277 seats against 315 for Labour and 14 for the Liberals. The balance of votes now is not much changed but the Labour majority is out of all proportion (the Liberal Democrats now score higher through sustained targeting and limpet-like tenacity once a seat is won).

But the real contrast is in the pattern between Tory seats then and now. October 1974, fewer than one-third of Conservative seats were in East Anglia and south-east England outside London - 92 out of 277. Now it is more than half (86 out of 164). But their seats in Scotland, Wales and the northern and north-western regions have fallen from 59 (21 per cent of their 1974 total) to just 11 (less than 7 per cent today).

The Conservatives have collapsed in the cities. In October 1974 the Tories won 41 seats in London - in 2001 they were down to 13. Then they won seats in nine of the 10 biggest cities outside London. They have now lost the lot, and are an endangered species in municipal and parliamentary elections in city after city, where the Liberal Democrats will now be the only credible beneficiary of an anti-Labour swing. First past the post is a cruel system. It now works against the Tories across so much of the country that there can be no way back to power for them at this election.

Since Conservative seats are so concentrated in suburban and rural south-eastern England, where the population grows much faster than the national average, the long lag between redistributions of parliamentary seats hits them hard. In 2001, the average electorate in Conservative seats was 72,814; in Labour seats it was 67,991. At the last election it took 26,031 votes on average to elect a Labour MP, 50,347 a Tory and 92,554 a Liberal Democrat. The safer the Labour seat, the smaller the electorate and the lower the turnout - in 2001 the 10 lowest turnouts, from 34 per cent to 44 per cent, were in Labour's 21st century rotten boroughs.

On the ground, this election will be quite different to 1974, or even 1983 when the SPD/Liberal Alliance won more than a quarter of the total vote but only 23 seats. Now there will be three separate sets of constituency battles. In barely half the seats which could conceivably change hands the Conservatives will challenge Labour.

In more than 100 swing seats, the fight is between the Liberal Democrats (often well dug in as MPs) and the Conservatives. And in another 50 previously safe Labour seats, especially with large student and ethnic minority populations, the only effective way to vote against Tony Blair will be Liberal Democrat, or Nationalist in a few seats in Scotland and Wales. Too often for the Tories, they're not in it so they can't win it.

There will be so many opinion polls and such a spread of sampling errors over the next few weeks, that a poll or polls may well show the Conservatives in a narrow lead. Just remember then that the Conservatives need to be 6 per cent in front of Labour in votes to draw level with them in seats, and 10 per cent in front to win a majority. So biased is the electoral system in Labour's favour that Labour could win a majority from third place in the popular vote (if the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats got 30 per cent each, others 10 per cent and Labour 29.9 per cent, Labour would get an overall majority of eight).

There will be 646 MPs in the new House of Commons, down from 659 because Scotland's representation is cut from 72 to 59. The spread betting markets on seats - where many millions of pounds are now staked - got the last general election result spot on. This time they show the Tory total at about 200 seats, no fewer than 150 behind Labour. They would still need to gain 75 seats from Labour to draw level with them and another 124 to win a majority (ending up with 324 seats against their 164).

That is not just a mountain to climb - it's more like the Shadow Cabinet having to scale the north face of the Eiger on Christmas Day in T-shirts and sandals without a rope.

The author is a Liberal Democrat peer and former treasurer of Make Votes Count

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