Sunday, May 08, 2011

The febrile world of post election British politics

The results of last Thursday’s elections across the United Kingdom raise some quite intriguing questions about governance in these islands. The overwhelming rejection of the AV voting system suggests that there is a conservative streak in us which makes change difficult - or at the very least that we have to be rather better persuaded that change is desirable. This outcome was not unlike the result of the last General Election in which, although there was a large move away from Labour after 13 years in power, there was no ringing endorsement that change to the Conservatives was what we wanted. Votes for the smaller parties such as the Greens or UKIP were ideological. But votes for the Liberal Democrats, whose ideology was fuzzy at best, were more a “plague on both your houses message” to Labour and the Tories. Indeed this was Nick Clegg’s main positioning during the election campaign – the two big Parties were “old politics”.

So where are we now one year on? We now undoubtedly have an “Old Politics” Government – one that in its core values is little different from the ideologies of Heath or Thatcher or Major. It is more socially liberal – but that merely reflects the shifting of mainstream opinion in the country  on issues such as Gay rights. However on matters such as the economy, governance, foreign policy, education and healthcare there is little that Cameron is doing that Margaret Thatcher would not also have done – or tried to do. This shift back to the pre “New Labour” right-wing policy imperative is ironically being endorsed by the very Liberal Democrats who argued for change away from the old political norms. It is also, and crucially, supported by the Conservative (large C) press with, as ever, only “The Guardian” and the “Mirror” Groups not backing the conservative (small c) line.

It was the antipathy to progressive change that meant that the conservative media and, overwhelmingly, the Conservative Party rejected AV. They were helped by   a strange split in the Labour Party which saw a battle between a pro AV “Progressive” wing under Ed Miliband fighting an anti AV “Traditionalist” group under the likes of John Prescott and Margaret Becket. Many Labour voters, not unreasonably, looked at this and said  if they cant agree how do they expect me to vote for change? Better stick with what we’ve got!

In the local elections in England the Liberal Democrats were punished hard for their duplicity and hypocrisy since the last General Election. That the Conservative vote held up well suggests that 2010 Tory voters have not been surprised at the direction that a Conservative led Government has taken and broadly endorse it - they are getting what they voted for. The same applies in the opinion polls which have the Tories at about the same level that they were in May 2010. For LibDem voters, however, the reverse applies. A minority of LibDems prefer the Conservatives to Labour – perhaps these are the ones that give the Party its current meagre 10% in the Polls. But most LibDem voters were left of centre and gave the Party support because they saw it as a more moderate, but still progressive, choice than the  Labour Party. At the 2010 election the LibDems took 23% of the vote but well over half of this has drifted away – most of it to Labour - now the only credible home for Anti-Conservative voters.

Some commentators see last Thursday’s elections as presaging a return to two Party politics in England. And the rejection of AV has helped this in that it will continue to be impossible for a national third Party to get representation in Parliament proportional to its electoral support. A split in the Liberal Democrats could change this and the prospects for a LibDem Party purged of its most enthusiastic Coalition supporters like Clegg, Alexander and Laws could be quite good. A key player ought to be Vince Cable who, despite his problems, could attract back the lost LibDem voters if he led a breakaway movement. This looks unlikely though despite Cable’s recent criticism of his Conservative allies. Power is addictive and Cable and his fellow LibDem ministers seem to prefer being in the ring of the Government circus than outside it.

Meanwhile in Scotland the voters have rejected not just the Westminster Coalition partners but Labour as well and have voted for their own – the Scottish National Party led by the popular Alex Salmond.  It remains to be seen whether the Union is really under threat from the SNP’s hegemony north of the border – my guess is that most Scots are comfortable with being part of a United Kingdom – especially now they have their own Parliament with substantial and increasing powers. The policy route taken by an SNP government with a majority will be interesting to observe – the main issue being whether they move to the Left or to the Right and what effect this has on support for the opposition. Ultimately the voters will make a judgment based on their view of the SNP’s competence rather than their ideology. If Scotland prospers under Mr Salmond then the SNP could be in power for a long time – but this is not the same thing as saying that the Scottish people will vote for independence.

With elections now behind us, the AV issue dead and buried and with the improbability of the LibDems in Government wanting to pull the rug from under Mr Cameron’s feet the ship of State could be heading towards  calmer waters soon. The challenge for both of the two main Party leaders is to capture the support of those quite small number of voters in the grey margins between them. Ed Miliband has already stared courting disaffected LibDems and, as we have seen, this has been very successful amongst the electorate in the local elections. To give impetus to this reestablishment of the majority in the country that Labour enjoyed under Tony Blair it would help if a few national big name LibDems would defect to Labour – this seems likely sooner rather than later to avoid the charge of opportunism in the run up to a likely 2015 General Election. So under this First Past The Post election a straight fight between Left and Right, without the confusion of there being two left of centre parties with their eyes on power, seems likely.

When the history of these strange and febrile times comes to be written the Coalition Government experiment facilitated by Nick Clegg will be seen as having had two outcomes. First it will be seen as having been a clever stratagem by David Cameron to give him and the Tories power to pursue their right of centre agenda despite their failure in the 2010 election to get enough seats to go it alone. Secondly it will see the return of the Liberal Democrats to the fringes of politics from which they briefly emerged  in recent General Elections. Reputations, especially political reputations, take a long time to build up. But they can be destroyed in the blink of an eye.