British Politics just got interesting

by George Hatjoullis

The General Election outcome surprised everyone. The pollsters, the smart money and the parties themselves, were all wrong. The Conservative Party has a small majority and can form a government. Three significant party leaders have resigned and it is all change for Labour, Lib-Dems and (maybe) UKip.The SNP has all but wiped out national parties in Scotland, which was less of a surprise. UKip has one seat less, and this is one of the Tory defectors, despite polling almost 13% of the votes cast. What does it all mean?

SNP and Scotland

The Scots ( I hope this is the correct collective noun) rejected full independence in a referendum and then voted en masse for the party that demanded an independence referendum. Does this mean a mandate to seek another referendum soon? Emphatically no, and Nicola Sturgeon has said as much. The majority of Scots do not want to be independent but they do want a bigger Scottish presence at Westminster promoting the interests of Scotland. The collective view is that in the history of the Union, Scotland has had a poor deal from Westminster and they are no longer willing to tolerate this state of affairs. A secondary consideration might have been the more unequivocal stance of the SNP in opposing continued austerity, a more pragmatic view on immigration and an openly pro-EU position. The Labour party, the main alternative in Scotland, somewhat fudged these issues in an attempt to compete with the Conservatives and UKip. Nicola Sturgeon to her credit did not fudge anything.

The outcome was almost certainly influenced by the rise of the SNP, which was expected. The prospect of a left-wing and nationalistic SNP holding the balance of power with a Labour administration did not go down well in many parts of England. This may well have swung some votes towards the Conservative Party in key marginal seats. It is also going to make politics in England much more interesting. The CP has already come up with ‘English votes for English Laws’. This glib slogan may sound appealing but a moments thought will reveal that this plays right into the hands of the SNP and accelerates the break up of the UK. Are the English electorate capable of a moments thought? A large minority clearly are not so this is a dangerous development for the Conservative and Unionist Party. Not sure what David Cameron is thinking on this issue. The slogan may have helped give him a majority but it is an unfortunate hostage to fortune.

The main complication generated by the SNP is with respect to the EU. The SNP has no interest in leaving the EU. It will oppose this at Westminster. It is already speaking of the ‘double-lock’. The SNP want a veto on the UK leaving the EU. Cameron is committed to an in/out referendum but with such a small majority he may not be able to deliver. The CP is very divided on this issue and some Conservative MPs could rebel. The Whips are going to be very busy in this parliament. The Scots may insist on the right to cede from the Union in the absence of a double-lock. One wonders how Wales and even Cornwall, a major recipient of EU funds, will respond. The potential for political chaos on the EU issue has been made much worse following developments in Scotland. If a referendum is legislated it will not be a simple in or out that is for certain.

UKip

Although Ukip was set up to withdraw the UK from the EU, it has gained momentum largely because of its anti-immigration stance. It has successfully conflated the two issues with dramatic results. Unfortunately, anti-immigration very quickly becomes anti-immigrant and this is a dangerous development. It has clearly attracted support from people who are anti-immigrant (Nick Griffin of the BNP has said as much) which detracts from its legitimate seminal objective. The immigration issue is the central component of the UKip strategy, as was illustrated by Nigel Farage in his public response to every question. It always came back to too many immigrants.

UKip will feel aggrieved because the UK first-past-the-post system means almost 4 million votes ended up with one seat. The irony should not go unremarked. The EU is often criticised by UKip for being undemocratic, yet it has allowed UKip greater representation at the European Parliament than the UK system has allowed UKip at Westminster. It is clear to anyone that bothers to look that the EU is in fact very democratic and much more so than the UK. I have clarified this issue in previous blogs and will endeavour to inform going forward as the referendum debate unfolds. However, I expect stony ground as anti-EU sentiment is not logical but emotional, rather like immigration and immigrants (and this is not in any way unique to the English I might add). As I have noted in a previous blog, the single market in Labour does not necessarily increase immigration if by this we mean people who acquire British Citizenship. People can come and go for work as economic conditions require without acquiring British Nationality. This is the whole point of the single market. Immigrants from the Commonwealth, which UKip seem to favour, will acquire British Nationality and will be permanent. Of course, the UK would control such immigration but technically the UKip plan could increase permanent immigration into the UK. More irony!

It is quite likely that UKip, having been thwarted, will turn their attention to voting reform, perhaps choosing the form of Proportional Representation that gets them elected to the ‘undemocratic’ European Parliament ( I am laughing as write). Odd they never supported this before. Moreover, the British electorate rejected a move to PR in the last parliament by a big majority. The case for revisiting this issue is not strong. It is more likely that UKip will busy themselves drumming up support for the OUT vote in a referendum. It is to be hoped that Cameron succeeds in getting a referendum act through parliament so that the issue can be settled. The longer it is left to fester the more dangerous the potential consequences. This blog will endeavour to inform the debate.

The Liberal Democrat Party

The wipe-out of seats for this party is to be regretted. It is the only party that holds civil liberties above other considerations and has been an important ameliorating influence on the inclination of the CP to erode such liberties. The Human Rights act is now in jeopardy as this government will try to get it amended if not wholly scrapped. This is a retrograde step. Once again the narrow majority may help ward off this tendency by the CP but it may not. The LIb-Dems have only got themselves to blame. Outside of the civil liberties issue they offer nothing very much and civil liberties seem not to have a great electoral punch. Voters are too easily seduced into giving up their liberties by innate xenophobia and irrational fears. Right wing parties are adept at manipulating such fears and emotions. Give us your liberty, they say, and we will give you security. In the end you get neither unless parties such as the Lib-Dems are there to protect you. It should be noted that the worst erosion of civil liberties outside of wartime occurred under Blair’s Labour government so this is not an uniquely CP characteristic. In my view Right-Wing is defined by stance on civil liberties. The CP/Lib-Dem coalition was a success because of the impact of the latter in protecting civil liberties. A stupid electorate punished them for it. What can you do.

Labour

Labour did everything wrong. They chose a poor leader. They fudged every issue trying to be all things to all people and fell between all stools available. They need to go back to the drawing board and start again not just on policies but who they are as a party. New Labour is tainted by Blair. His support, as I did Tweet, was the kiss of death. They cannot go back to old Labour run by anachronistic unions. They need to re-invent themselves ad probably will. This is going to be an interesting metamorphosis to watch.

The Greens

There is much more to the Green Party than just the climate issue though is important. On reading the manifesto I discovered many ideas that I share, notably that GDP is a daft way to measure economic well-being. The Greens are offering a genuinely alternative approach to organising society and economic life. Unfortunately it is a philosophically difficult debate and not one easy to communicate to electorates trying to make ends meet. Moreover, the more practical aspects are poorly thought through and look alarmingly like old Labour socialism. This is not going to win votes. Still, it is likely that some of the ideas that the Greens are promoting will start to enter the mainstream as larger parties such as Labour re-invent themselves.

The Conservative Party

The big issue for this party is the EU. It must now deliver a referendum on the subject. The CP is irrevocably split on this issue and the spilt could potentially destroy the CP in its present form. Indeed we could end up with a parliamentary party structure that looks entirely different in 5 years time, with the new alignment centred on the EU issue; little Englanders versus Europeans as George Orwell might have put it.

plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

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