Thursday, April 30, 2015

An Unusual Election - three defining characteristics

Three things mark this election as unusual. 

One is the remarkable paucity of actual policy debate.  Yes, there’s been some to and fro on housing, a modicum of difference on tax generation, but outside of the narrow-cast debate on the economy very little of substance has been thriving. 

Defence?  Michael Fallon wants us to fear the SNP’s bid to get rid of Trident, but offers little in the form of positive defence policy for himself.  Foreign Affairs?  Ed Miliband briefly attended to an area that has never been an interest of his to accuse David Cameron of responsibility for migrant deaths.  But foreign affairs spokesmen have been so low-key as to be rendered unpersons, barely able to stop the traffic in their own constituencies, never mind the rest of the globe around which they potter so un-noticed.    Education?  Once hugely controversial, with Michael Gove’s disappearance from the issue it has sunk into the backwaters of little regarded speeches and rarely referenced manifesto promises that vary imperceptibly.  What about Health?  Well, yes, it’s a big issue, and that one has received coverage, but only in the “we all want more health care but aren’t sure how to pay for it” sense.  Welfare has just hit the headlines because Danny Alexander wants to fire the smoking gun of Tory plans to cut it drastically.  Otherwise, everyone has been keen to keep their plans under wraps.

There has been some notion that this has been a much more localised election instead, although such localisation often extends little further than objections to new housing plans and a desire for more health provision (as was the case in a true blue constituency I was recently canvassing in).

Two is the impending indecisiveness of the final result.  If this election produces the second hung parliament in a row, it will have dealt a decisive blow to the idea that our favoured First Past the Post system of voting essentially secures single-party governments (misleadingly also often seen as “strong”).  Since this has long been one of the main reasons for continuing to uphold a manifestly disproportionate electoral system, it may be reasonable to question what the other virtues of FPTP might be, especially if the other consequence of it materialises – the forming of a government by the second placed party in terms of vote share and possibly seats.   Like the Scottish referendum, the AV one may also be up for re-issue sooner than we could have imagined.

Mention of Scotland brings us, of course, to the third characteristic of this election.   The role of the Scottish National Party, and the future of Scotland itself, has played  a larger part than ever before.  For the first time in over a century, a block of MPs from one part of the United Kingdom have the opportunity to significantly influence the agenda of the rest of the UK in their favour.  Like the Irish Nationalist politicians before them, no-one doubts that, whatever Nicola Sturgeon may be saying for election purposes, the aim of the SNP block in the House of Commons will be to ultimately secure independence for Scotland.  It is true that the party’s extraordinary success this time round has arisen in part from the failure of the three UK-wide parties to maintain the engagement of the Scots in the mundane routine of legislation.  It is also true that the once dominant Labour Party has neglected its fiefdom too much and finally sent it revolting – the failing of one-party systems the world over.  But it is the issue of devolution which has really spurred the SNP rise, keeping the issue of Union firmly on the Scottish agenda despite the rejection of independence last year.

Nonetheless, the eventual impact of the SNP has been exaggerated.  They may become the third largest party in the Commons, but their actual ability to sway the agenda there is far more limited than the campaign paranoia has suggested.  George Eaton makes the point well in the New Statesman.  Nicola Sturgeon’s absolute refusal to countenance a Conservative government has in reality limited her room for manoeuvre with respect to a Labour one.  She cannot act against a Labour government without incurring the significant wrath of those of her supporters who take her anti-Tory commitments at face value.  Ed Miliband has actually got a pretty free space for action without SNP interference.

For all the Scottish noise and fury though, it is still England which is at the heart and centre of the election, and it is English issues – some institutional and long-term – which have moulded its course. England remains an ultra-centralised country which does not have its own dedicated government.  It is a country where localism fails to engender any local support, but scepticism towards the centre also remains endemic.  To have a good understanding of England today requires a strong sense of the country’s history and evolution.  Robert Tombs, the author of the sort of brilliant, sympathetic and perceptive study that England is not often fortunate enough to have, has produced a wonderful distillation of some of the key aspects of England’s past that shed light on our current election.  It is an article that bears further comment, but for now I urge you to read it at the New Statesman’s site.


How the three characteristics above play out after May 7th is part of the fascination of the present contest.  We may know the allocation of seats on May 8th., but I suspect we will still be some way off knowing which party, and which leader, is going to be able to take us through the next few, constitutionally turbulent, years. 

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Union Under Threat?

The devolution referendum proved a hollow victory in the end for unionists.  Losing the campaign for hearts and minds, the southern party leaders came up with an extraordinary pledge that stretched the idea of union to breaking point.  It also added something into the referendum mix that wasn't actually on the ballot at all.  No-one can say whether or not the final result really was a vote for the Union, or in actuality a vote for the devo-max that English leaders were offering by the end.  Then, as soon as the vote was passed, David Cameron, the quintessentially English leader with the very Scottish name, sought immediate political advantage by demanding English Votes for English Laws.  He has also been happy to put himself forward in this election campaign as an English, rather than British, leader.

Well, the SNP advance in Scotland continues apace it seems, such that polls today suggest they could sweep the board and take all of Scotland's 59 MPs.  What has so signally failed with the Union, we should be asking here in England, that the Scots have turned so wholly towards its nationalist party.  And this despite the distinctly chequered record of that same party in the Scottish government.

Is the Union under threat?  It would certainly be foolish to imagine that it is safe and cosy.  The Spectator's Scottish editor, Alex Massie, has been writing regularly and forcefully about English and Conservative indifference to Scotland, and his piece today strikes an even harder note.  It is quite probable that while the election comes up with an ambivalent result in England and Wales, it produces a very clear result in Scotland.  A result that says the Union as we know it is over.



Election Notes 2 - Brand, Legitimacy and a Defence Fail

Brand meets Miliband....or Vice Versa

Difficult to know who was the most important of the two in yesterday's Miliband versus Brand meeting, but it's certainly caused waves and who knows, that might be what Ed Miliband really wanted.  after all, he was never going to get an intelligible political debate from Russell Brand.

Miliband has been making more, and more interesting, waves this election than David Cameron, and that should worry the Tories.  He has taken them - and his own party - by surprise with a pretty good campaign so far, and while some of his moments have been awful ("Hell, yes" springs to mind), on the whole he's trumped expectations pretty niftily.  That should at any rate be a warning to the Tories who keep insisting on employing negative campaigner Lynton Crosby - do someone down too much and you'll find they merely have to walk unaided to appear triumphant.

Inevitably, the two camps on the Brand interview are the right-wing one, broadly following David Cameron's effective line that Brand may be funny, but the election is not a joke (some might dispute the first part of that statement), and the liberal "Brand has something to say" camp, praising Miliband for reaching to young voters via the Brand network.  Interestingly, the ever wordy Hugo Rifkind of the Spectator is in the latter camp here, while the other newspaper views can be seen here.



Legitimacy

The question of whether a prime minister is legitimate if his party is only second is dealt with effectively by prominent politics academic Philip Cowley here.  He reiterates the nature of our system - its the numbers, and that means seats - in a column that should be read by anyone remotely interested in a quick road-check of how our constitution actually works when it comes to passing laws in parliament.


Defence Fail

Defence Secretary Michael Fallon has had a pretty awful election, coming up with fear stories about Trident and the SNP effect.  It didn't get any better for him last night with his Daily Politics debate, as the Spectator's Isabel Hardman comments, although she does try and suggest he is simply following someone else's line on this (Lynton Crosby, are you there?)

The Tories used to be pretty solidly the party of defence.  This election they're keeping quiet about it for the most part, knowing that they can't and won't guarantee the 2% of GDP they want other NATO countries to spend on it, and virtually conceding defence as an issue to anyone else who will take it.   It's a shambolic position, entirely in line with what has been an increasingly patched up foreign policy approach all round that is beginning to leave Britain marginalsied.  Voting Conservative for Britain's strong place in the world is not a line anyone could take without a smirk these days.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Tories' constitutional malice

The Conservative party used to be one of rectitude and respect for the constitution.  No longer, if its tactics in this election are anything to go by.  Take its approach to Scotland and the issue of parliamentary legitimacy.

Dave's SNP Card

David Cameron's attempt to corral votes by raising the spectre of SNP power at Westminster is a pretty negative tactic, and of course will do nothing to endear Scottish voters to the Tory party in Scotland one suspects, but it may be paying dividends.  Albeit on the margins.  A poll in the Independent reports that the prospect of a Labour-SNP deal is indeed off-putting to a number of voters - one in four is the number cited. This has not yet, of course, translated into actual votes, or even definite determinations to vote Tory.  The main polls still suggest the Tories are struggling to keep much of a lead, although yesterday's Ashcroft poll showed a 6-point lead for them, the largest yet.

The problem with Cameron's SNP tactic is that it threatens the very Union he believes in, by suggesting it is wrong for Scottish voters to have an impact on Westminster decision making.  It also seeks to exploit English nationalism, a dangerous approach which will be difficult, or impossible, to reverse.

It might have been more effective to try and undermine the SNP on the basis of their policies and their own rule in Scotland.  When Eddie Mair interviewed SNP MP Angus Robertson on PM last week, he had him blustering when challenging him on the failure of the SNP government to reduce A and E waiting times.

There is also a peculiarity in the steamroller impact that the SNP is having in Scotland.  This avowedly independence oriented party is winning all before it in a nation which voted against independence by a margin of 10%.  It is surprising, to say the least, that unionism has not yet managed to find a ready challenge, perhaps via tactical voting.  This is a graphic sign of the failure of the major parties in Scotland, especially the once dominant Labour party.  If the election result forces all of them to review their strategy in Scotland it will be one worthwhile result.

Legitimacy?

The issue of whether it would be legitimate for Ed Miliband to take office as PM even if he comes second in vote share or seats is still haunting the election.  Theresa May - unworthily - raised it, and a Newsnight ComRes poll suggested that it was something that voters increasingly feel is a post-election issue.  It isn't, and the poll exhibits a general non-understanding of the British constitution amongst voters, but when senior politicians are willing to play around with such nonsense it is hardly surprising that it might gain traction.

The Tories are not, in sum, doing themselves much justice when it comes to constitutional issues.  David Cameron uses scare tactics to gain English support at the expense of the Scottish support his party has recently found it so difficult to pursue.  His Home Secretary produces wilfully wrong-headed and malicious interpretations of basic constitutional assumptions.  If they do return to government, it will be as a severely reduced party in terms of its constitutional integrity, and that serves no-one well.

Belated Boris Comment!

When students in Year 10 (14 and 15 years old, for those unfamiliar with our education staging system) ask you whether you've seen the Boris interview, you know that this politician is still a cut above the others.  There aren't many who could draw the interest of teenagers, but Boris is still there, making waves.  The Tories' famous politician "who reaches the parts others can't reach", yadda, yadda, yadda.

But this most recent interview was something of a disaster for him, and a success for the relaxed and humorous Labour leader Ed Miliband.  Who'd have thought - Ed just needed to sit on a sofa with Boris in order to look good.



The virtue of Boris is that he does indeed have a wide appeal as an individual, though not one that necessarily lifts his party.  He has also suggested that his politics might actually be a little broader, One Nation based even, than the average Tory politico.  The problem of Boris is that he doesn't really do detail, or precision, or seriousness.  All of this was in evidence in the Marr interview.  Imagine if this had been a meeting of two party leaders.  There's Ed Miliband, confident of his policy detail, relaxed enough to have a few pops at Boris about his and the Tory party's strategy chief Lynton Crosby.  And there's Boris Johnson, still using bluster to get his way through an interview, looking bemused when challenged on policy detail.

Not all of the critics of Boris' interview are as clearly opposed to his politics as this pretty fair-minded piece by politics.co.uk's Adam Bienkov.  But if sympathetic critics think that Sunday's Marr interview was a bit of  a car crash, they should remember that it wasn't the first.  Boris' integrity was well and truly skewered by Eddie Mair when he stood in for Marr once.  Mair was unimpressed by Boris' joker status - something Marr consistently tries to play to - and as a result produced one of the most lethal interviews the London Mayor has done.  There's a long way to go yet before he becomes Tory leader.


Monday, April 27, 2015

Two election round-ups worthy of your attention

Even the most avid political aficionado won't have time for all of the election news and round-ups careering around the news media in all its forms, so here are just two that will give you a comprehensive daily account, coupled with a dash of wit and insight to keep you sane.

Politics Home's editor Paul Waugh offers us the "Waugh Room" memo.

The Economist gives us its daily election campaign briefing.  (Both links are to today's news - Waugh offers a preview, the Economist a round-up).

Read one, read both and feel up to date!

Cameron - not as good a phony as Blair?

David Cameron has discovered passion, ten days before the election.  It does, admittedly, come a day after a couple of big-time Tory donors criticised the Prime Minister for being lacklustre and uninspired.  As such, Mr. Cameron's passion has been treated rather cynically by the hacks, as this run-down of tweets indicates.  One of the Tory donors in question has now rather degradingly withdrawn all of his criticism and described himself as a "nobody" but Cameron's attempt to inject passion still seems redolent of what Spectator columnist Isabel Hardman calls his "essay crisis" style of leadership.

The problem is that Mr. Cameron is no great actor, and his pumped-up performance, containing such gems as the revelation that he feels "bloody lively" about the election, really doesn't convince.  He has managed to enter Ed Miliband's equally cringe-worthy "Hell, yes" territory and in straying away from his actual persona he risks the same level of ridicule.  Perhaps in such a close election, with no-one being able to identify the election grail, we should be a little forgiving of politicians under pressure, and that would include Mr. Cameron's football "brain fade" as well.

Cameron recently implied he was a West Ham fan (perhaps a little influenced by the fact that his small business ambassador and letter-writing supporter, Karren Brady, is currently vice-chairman of the club).  This is at odds with his earlier stated support for Aston Villa, which itself was at odds with his one-time expression of utter disinterest in football at all.  The fact is, rather like his "bloody lively" attitude, Cameron's football fan pitch doesn't really convince.  In this, as in much else, he appears to be following the lead of that other public-school educated fan of the working man's game, Tony Blair.  Blair, though, was a far more accomplished phony, as this illuminating and rather contemptuous article from the Economist suggests.

Perhaps we should be pleased that Cameron is not a very good phony, but it would be even better if he just felt comfortable showing us the real him.  He's not too difficult to discover, and his interview in this week's Economist gets rather closer to understanding his essentially pragmatic approach to governing than his pumped-up stump speech.

Election Notes 1

Ten days to go, and it seems time to update this blog accordingly.  It's not that I've been disinterested in this election - on the contrary, it is fascinating, especially given the uncertain outcome - but time doesn't so far seem to have permitted.

Polls, Polls

There have been more polls than ever before in this election, and for all the slim differences between them they are all pointing to no overall majority for either main party.  Hence, of course, all the chatter about whom might deal with whom on May 8th onwards.  You can take your pick of the various conglomerate polls being issued on a daily basis.  The UK Polling Report comes from a Yougov expert; May2015, the special election site set up by the New Statesman, provides exhaustive polling commentary; and three university academics update their election forecast regularly too.  But the BBC and pretty well all of the press feature regular poll tracking.  In the end, this is a parlour game for observers like us, and once May 8th comes around all of the polls that have been keeping us entertained and fascinated in the election period are reduced to utter irrelevance.

The Forecast - Who Will be PM?

So we can probably guess either Cameron or Miliband, barring a sudden change in party leader to facilitate better coalition deals, but which one of them eventually governs from No 10 is virtually impossible to predict, and may still be a mystery several days beyond the election.  Given the likely outlay of votes for their own parties, the next PM will have to be the one who is most likely to garner a workable coalition, and it has to be said that Ed Miliband does look a more likely bet than David Cameron.  The problem for Cameron is that there is only one party he can realistically do a deal with, and that will be the much reduced Lib Dems.  Even that opiton is hardly a certainty.  For all the success of the Coalition, a large group of Tory MPs have been consistently chafing against it and might be expected to try and torpedo any future arrangement.  From the Lib Dem side, many of their activists have been similarly put off any more coalitions, especially given the look of their own reduced circumstances in parliament as a result.  Add to this the uncertainty of Nick Clegg's return to the Commons, or that of the only other feasible Lib Dem leader who would favour coalition with the Tories, Danny Alexander, and even the Lib Dem option doesn't look particularly good for Cameron. A Tim Farron leadership, for example, would be much more susceptible to Labour's wooing.  Cameron's best chance of governing is obviously to achieve a majority, but present polling evidence suggests this is well nigh impossible.

Ed Miliband, conversely, has a number of options to consider.  As well as the Lib Dems, he can rely on some acquiescence from the SNP, however much he may try and puncture the idea pre-election.  Any Green or Plaid Cymru MPs might similarly be inclined to give a Miliband government a working chance, as would Northern Ireland's SDLP MPs.  The May 2015 site considers the options in a detailed look at likely seat outcomes here.  Dan Hodges in the Telegraph takes issue with their reasoning here.

A Question of Legitimacy

British prime ministers have rarely encountered problems of legitimacy, but the tightness of this race, and the prospect of a second placed Ed Miliband taking office has certainly produced some debate about whether a leader who is placed second in both votes and seats would be legitimate.  The New Statesman's George Eaton considers the dilemma here, while the Guardian's Jonathan Freedland seeks to challenge the narrative of legitimacy here.  On the BBC site, meanwhile, James Landale offers up several scenarios on legitimacy.  The most conicse, and most robust, response, however, is probably that stated by Dan Hodges.  He says simply (and accurately):

The rules of our political system are clear. We were offered a chance to change them in 2011, and we politely declined. All that matters is the parliamentary arithmetic. If Ed Miliband has enough votes to win a confidence motion, and David Cameron does not, Ed Miliband is prime minister. No caveats. No debates. No “battles over legitimacy”. If Miliband wins, he wins.