Election reflection 2

In an earlier blog I offered an analysis of the Scottish National Party’s success in the recent U.K. general election. Because the SNP virtually wiped out the Labour Party’s previously unbreakable control of parliamentary seats in Scotland, any prospect of a Labour victory in the election was more or less doomed. But this was not the only factor in deciding the result – the first overall Conservative majority in Westminster since 1992. At least three other factors were involved.

First, the Liberal Democrats were almost annihilated: 57 seats in 2010, 8 in 2015. Most of those seats fell to the Conservatives because they were predominantly in south-west England, where many constituencies have long been contested between those two parties (Labour has scant representation in that part of the UK). Several explanations can be offered. (1) After 2010, the Lib Dems formed a coalition with the Conservatives in order to ensure stable government at a time of serious economic crisis. People who had voted Lib Dem to keep out the Conservative in their constituencies are likely to have felt betrayed. (2) Indeed, there has been a widespread feeling that the Lib Dems did no more than prop up a Conservative administration. This is not entirely fair because the Lib Dems prevented several Conservative policies from becoming law (for example, they blocked the proposed repeal of the Human Rights Act, protected the BBC, defended UK membership of the EU and refused to allow the ‘snoopers’ charter’ to be enacted) and these successes are now likely to be undone. Moreover, they pushed through policies to protect the poorest, for example by raising the income tax threshold significantly, which the Conservatives alone would not have considered. (3) In almost any coalition government in a modern democracy, the minor partner always suffers heavily at the next election, and during the 2010-15 coalition the Conservatives in parliament outnumbered the Lib Dems by more than five to one. (4) The Lib Dems were forced to abandon some cherished policies as part of the coalition agreement, most notably the abolition of university tuition fees, and this too was widely seen as a betrayal, undermining public trust in the party. (5) The Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg, was and remains an honourable and intelligent man but is commonly perceived as lacking the force of character necessary in a leader. It is likely that the party will regain at least some of its lost ground under a new leader.

Second, the Labour leader, Ed Miliband (who like Mr Clegg resigned his position immediately after the election), was seen by many as guilty of misjudgments and not potential Prime Minister material. More seriously, perhaps, neither Mr Miliband nor his senior parliamentary colleagues gave adequate answers to the challenge that they had mismanaged the economy prior to 2010 and were likely to mismanage it again. In addition, Labour is in a serious bind: it has developed a split political personality. In my previous blog I drew attention to the SNP’s cleverness in adopting “Old Labour” policies in Scotland – the policies based on the party’s traditional support of the industrial working class – as opposed to the “New Labour” (aka “Blairite”) espousal of the relatively affluent middle class, which previously won seats for Labour in the wealthier south and south-east of the country. Mr Miliband was seen as ‘leftist’ (relatively sympathetic to Old Labour), which earned mistrust in the wealthier parts of the country but failed to impress the Scots, who were more moved by Mr Miliband’s opposition to Scottish independence. Unless Labour can find a way of healing this political split and finding a new direction – for instance, taking up the cause of the new impoverished working class comprising care workers, supermarket workers, etc. – it is hard to see how they can win any future general election.

Third, the United Kingdom Independence Party gained great support, winning some 15% of the total vote and coming second in many constituencies. Contrary to many people’s expectations, UKIP took more votes from Labour than from the Conservatives, because the urban working class voters who have traditionally voted Labour turned to UKIP instead. This was not only because of Labour’s difficulties, which I outlined in the previous paragraph, but also because UKIP’s key policy – take the UK out of the EU and thereby put a stop to the flood of immigrants from the poorer parts of Europe – struck a chord with many of the electorate, not least in the traditional Labour strongholds.

The relationship between votes cast and seats gained testifies unequivocally to the inadequacy of our first-past-the-post electoral system. Of the 650 seats in the House of Commons, UKIP now has precisely one. Even those who are strongly opposed to UKIP policies, such as the present author, consider this iniquitous. It is a slap in the face to any pretence of democracy. Many of us might consider UKIP voters misguided, but most would agree that their views have a right to be heard on an equal footing with everyone else’s. By the same token, under a fair system of proportional representation, the Lib Dems would have retained 27-30 seats rather than 8, and the Greens would have won 20 rather than 1. Our parliamentary democracy is simply not democratic.

Proponents of the present electoral system, i.e. the supporters of the two main parties (Conservative and Labour), argue that proportional representation leads to weak and unstable governments and unhealthy coalitions. They need to make a stronger case if they hope to defend the status quo against rational criticism. After all, Germany hasn’t done too badly with a proportional representation system; one sees no sign there of weakness, instability or unhealthy coalition. And the same applies to Scotland, whose parliament is elected by a proportional representation system and has flourished since the introduction of Scottish devolution during Mr Blair’s 1997-2002 administration.


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