Monday, 11 May 2015

Election Blues

It is strange having VE day after the General Election, and watching those faces of leaders at the Cenotaph, knowing that this is the last time they will be standing here in front of their party. What thoughts were going through their minds?

There’s a curious echo of VE day there, where Churchill was on the balcony with the Royal Family at Buckingham Palace, waving to the crowds. By July, he would have been voted out of office. Unlike now, of course, he had no idea of the sudden turnaround by the electorate.

The Attlee Government came in and brought in the National Health Service. There would have been a NHS anyway, even if the Conservatives had retained power. Plans were in place. It is forgotten that the Beveridge report was not a Labour policy document, but one produced by and commissioned by the Wartime Government.

The NHS may have been different in some respects. Some kind of health insurance scheme would probably have been on the cards, but that was firmly stamped on by Aneurin Bevan.

70 years on, and the NHS is again under threat. But let us not forget the incalculable damage done to it by the previous Labour Government. The PFI – Private Finance Initiative – was to provide extra funds cheaply for the NHS, without so much government funding, but instead saddled hospitals with massive debts. That’s not the say the Conservative’s can be trusted with the NHS either, but let us be honest – neither could Labour.

American journalist PJ O'Rourke probably got it right when he commented: “The NHS was an issue. Every party agreed that the NHS is brilliant, wonderful, a national treasure. But if the NHS is brilliant, wonderful and a national treasure, why was every party promising to fix it?”

I felt no pleasure in the Conservatives gaining a majority, because that will certainly be taken as legitimising a system of voting which simply is not fair if there are more than two parties. Why did the opinion polls do so badly? Translating voting percentages into seats only works well if you have a proportional representative system, but in a system in which votes are wasted, that was not nearly so likely.

I have heard a lot of nonsense about the SNP preventing Labour from getting into Government. emembering the way the numbers stacked up, even if ALL the SNP seats were Labour seats, they would still not have had enough for a majority.

It has been said that the fear factor of an SNP – Labour alliance was why Labour did so badly. But if that was the case in England, why did they do so badly in Scotland, and the SNP do so well. By that logic, the Conservatives should have regained the highlands and lowlands.

The real trouble was that Ed Milliband’s Labour never looked like a Government ready to take over. It failed to appeal to the centre, and Ed himself lacked the gravitas that Tony Blair had back in 1997. Blair – and for the moment forget the toxic legacy of Iraq – always sounded Prime Ministerial, he had confidence. Milliband always sounded like someone pretending to be confident, a schoolboy in a school debate.

Unless it regains the centre, Labour will never become a party of government. It should start by looking at those few MPs who improved their majorities - MPs like Simon Danczuk, who I was very glad to see re-elected. As he said: "We have to reach out much further...A party that doesn’t speak the language of millions of people’s hopes and ambitions will not earn a legitimate mandate to govern the country."

The Liberals famous ”red lines” only drew attention to their failure to draw a line on tuition fees. They got a referendum on alternative vote as a price for that, but it has cost them dearly. That particular quid quo pro sold the soul of the Liberal party. It will not return for generations. 

The Conservatives had several trump cards, not least David Cameron’s steering the TV debate towards a five or six party circus. Instead of a focus on just three would be leaders, in which he failed last time, this was more like Question Time – politicians of all hues shooting at each other, while he could, for the most part, just wait for his opponents to shoot each other, or shoot themselves in the foot. And the other consideration – his announcement that he would not stand for three terms of office.

In 1996 John Major had a larger majority although still small, than David Cameron. It was wiped out by 1996. David Cameron cannot afford to just play to the Conservative agenda; he has to lean to the centre on occasions, and appease the right at other times.

Anyone who has read Giles Brandreth’s “Breaking the Code” about being inside the Whips office during the dying years of the Major government will know that government with a small majority is a delicate balancing act, and four years into his term of office, there will be the added disruption of various MPs – surely Boris Johnson in their number – angling to be elected leader in place for the general election.

And there is also a promised Referendum, on Europe – an area that is notable for tearing the Conservative government apart. That will also create disruption.

The most interesting challenge comes from Scotland. Any disinterested observer in the Referendum will have seen that Scotland voted “No” by the narrowest of margins because the Scottish people who wavered were essentially bribed by further devolution of powers for Scotland. But not entirely convinced, the Scottish people seem to have played safe by also electing maining SNP MPs to represent them.

While the Conservatives have a majority, some tactical block voting by the SNP on matters which concern England, in support of the Conservatives will raise again the question of whether Scottish MPs should vote on English matters, the so-called “West Lothian question”. Equally if the Conservatives use their majority to force laws on the Scottish peoples, even if they apply across the UK, this may stir up resentment.

In some form or another, Scotland is moving closer to some kind of associate status within the UK. It was only an accident of history that led to the King of Scotland, James VI, also becoming King of England, James I.

The union was not made formal until the time of Queen Anne, some time after the main branch of the Stuart dynasty fleeing from England. There was a lot of economic bribery involved in the deal. That it should unravel at some time in the near future now seems much more likely than even five years ago. Taking control of their own domestic taxation is one step nearer, but it may turn out that it is a poisoned chalice.

As for UKIP, it can now return to the talking shop at the village pub, back to its roots with disaffected middle England. The one UKIP MP with a seat, a former Conservative, has even said he will probably vote with the Conservatives on many issues. He is hedging his bets.

The Green Party only scored with one seat, but they held that seat, rather like a tree bending in the winds, but holding firm. Caroline Lucas is back. Of that, amidst all the election results, I am pleased. Some of the Green policies may not all be economically viable, but that Green conscience, that voice, is needed.

And finally, I was very pleased to see the Monster Raving Loony Party, while not getting elected, managed about three times as many votes as the British National Party. It is often asked: who would waste a vote by voting for the Loonies? But if you don't like the other parties on offer, there is as yet no "None of the above", so why not do so as a protest vote?

1 comment:

James said...

The most interesting challenge comes from Scotland. Any disinterested observer in the Referendum will have seen that Scotland voted “No” by the narrowest of margins because the Scottish people who wavered were essentially bribed by further devolution of powers for Scotland. But not entirely convinced, the Scottish people seem to have played safe by also electing SNP MPs to represent them.

A week, they say, is a long time in politics: in that case eight months is an eternity.

One alternative argument is that the Westminster mafia immediately broke its vow to the Scots following the referendum result. The fact that SNP membership has increased to well over 100,000 since then might be an indicator.

A second is the way the votes stacked up for the referendum. A large majority of the old voted No: a similar majority of the young voted Yes. All it needs is the combination of new voters coming in and old voters dying off and anyone can see the direction of travel (no different, incidentally to what is happening in Northern Ireland, where the Catholic community is growing while the traditional Protestant community is dying out).

To that we have to add the fact that the turnout in Scotland has risen significantly - somewhere between 5 and 10% since the last election. That the various pro-Yes organisations spent a huge amount of time and effort engaging people and showing them that politics mattered (while the Conservatives, Labour and to a lesser extent LibDems ran a campaign based on fear) means that a very large number of new voters would only have thought to vote SNP.

It is an interesting situation, and bears close watching.