Wednesday, 14 October 2009

A Sea Change in British Politics

There seems little doubt that the next general election will herald a sea-change for the British left. The old monolithic Labour Party, which has for a century dominated left politics, seems unlikely to survive in its present form. The problem is that it is hard to see through the veils of deception and fantasy which presently surround both it and all the attendant left groups and minor parties to any clear view of what it might look like after the election.

A historical survey of why the left has come to this pass can be found at What I want to do here is muse on just what kind of formations might come about depending upon the actual outcome of the election using the UK Elect forecasting software ( which provides the kind of forecast results which accompany media surveys of public opinion.

The first scenario might be seen as the most unlikely; that Labour manages against all current odds to gain a small overall majority. Such a scenario is not as it happens totally inconceivable. Certainly it has to be worth a small bet at current odds. The reason for this is that the present electoral setup contains a substantial bias in favour of Labour whose base is a large number of small city-seats compared with the Conservative base of large suburban and rural seats. The slow workings of the Electoral Commission has yet to catch up with the de-population of these inner city seats though, presumably, it will do so in the next Parliamentary term. David Cameron’s promise to reduce the number of seats in Parliament to 500 will accelerate this process but it is bound to happen to some degree whatever the ruling party.
The result of this imbalance is that, if Labour wins, it will almost certainly do it with the smallest proportion of the popular vote ever seen. It could even do it without being the largest party in voting terms. A split of Conservative 36%, Labour 34% and LibDems 19% would probably hand it a small overall majority of about 7 ─ small but not unworkable. Improving economic performance and a snap election after a year or so, before electoral changes kick in, could see it improving on this.

Small party performance plays little part in this apart from UKIP which could seriously harm Conservative prospects if anti-European sentiment really kicks in. The SNP would chafe at this. Its own electoral prospects require almost insurmountable odds in order to erode Labour majorities in small Scottish lowland constituencies, which have become Labour’s rotten boroughs, providing that Conservative and LibDem votes hold up. The result is that this victorious (just) Labour government would rule because of a majority of Scottish seats often gained by less than 20% of the electorate.

So what Labour Party can one see emerging from this electoral miracle? First and foremost, one in which Peter Mandelson becomes Lord not just of Foy and Hartlepool but of the Labour Party itself. The nominal leader would stay as Gordon Brown but the real power would pass to Lord Peter given the acknowledged deficiency of Brown’s leadership. One probable course would be for Gordon to be shipped off to a prestigious position in such as the IMF whilst leadership would pass to David Miliband or possibly even Peter himself. The new Labour government would privatise everything possible, certainly the Royal Mail, would not dump Trident but would implement swinging cuts in local authority expenditure particularly their capital budgets. They would also implement the same cuts in welfare benefits which Cameron at least has the honesty to signal in advance.

All this will bring little comfort to the left either inside or outside Labour. The standard-bearers of the two left groups, John McDonnell and Jon Cruddas, would both keep their seats handily unless McDonnell is expelled before the election for running on a non-authorised manifesto. It is difficult to see either leaving the Party even though it will implement policies which are, in principle, against their beliefs; the overall aura of unexpected electoral victory would make this almost impossible particularly in the context of protecting a small majority. Neither would wish to be seen as the person who brought Labour down after its unexpected comeback. Instead they would have to acquiesce in the major internal change in their party ─ its transformation from a membership body, albeit one with little internal democracy, to a purely supporters party in which registered supporters provide money and some electoral activism but without any, even nominal, say in party practice. David Miliband has already signalled this shift and it would certainly have the backing of the overlord Mandelson. At a guess, Cruddas would accept a minor government post rather than spend another decade talking against the government and voting with it.

Nor would smaller left groups find much to be happy about. Caroline Lucas might scrape through in Brighton though the odds are against this; George Galloway might keep Bow. But elsewhere, and in particular in Scotland, Labour’s triumph would spell electoral disaster. Tactical voting in the sense of voting for a party likely to win rather than one almost certain to come last would significantly help Labour giving it about 1 extra seat for each percentage point of such voting.

Perhaps the most interesting unknown factor would be the public response to what would amount to a Labour ‘steal’. How would the citizens of Salford respond to ‘our lass’ once again swanning off to her London flat (is it the third or the fourth)? More importantly, how would Scotland react to a Labour victory more distorted there than in any other part of Britain? Speculatively, there would be a significant move towards Scottish independence which would be taken full advantage of by the astute Alec Salmond. A major constitutional crisis would then be sparked by a Labour government, rejected by a large majority of the Scottish people and pushing through policies unpopular by an equally large majority, but refusing to consider independence precisely to bulwark its precarious majority in the British parliament.
It is a sign of the confusion and disarray of the left that the Compass pressure group on the centre-left appears to be justifying a Labour vote on the grounds that a Conservative victory would eliminate the current electoral bias to Labour and put Scottish independence on the agenda and thus wipe out the even more biased Labour base in that country. An odd stance for a group which has recently espoused electoral reform.

So what about the other extreme of electoral spectrum; a massive Labour defeat? It is, because of Labour’s inbuilt bias, rather hard to forecast this unless the Conservative vote stays above 40% and Labour’s drops much below 30%. For example, a 40/31/19% split would still leave the Conservatives 5 seats short of an overall majority. However a 43/24/23% split would give them a majority of 216 ─ a genuine wipe-out from which Labour would take a decade at least to recover, if at all. In this scenario, the SNP would be stuck of 6 seats though Plaid would gain 2. A 43/29/19% split would still give the Conservatives a 154 majority. A 43/31/19% result would, incredibly, give the Tories only a narrow majority of 5 seats. What is at work here is the way in which FPTP voting produces a kind of cliff-edge pattern in which nothing much changes over a range of voting patterns then, wham, there is a cliff-edge over which majorities soar for one party and plummet for the other.

In the 43/24/23% split, which is broadly the peak Conservative lead in recent polls, Labour is reduced essentially to a party of city centres and a few ex-mining constituencies. It would also become an even more Scottish party with 28 seats, the same as all the other parties combined. This situation is largely unaffected by the SNP votes unless they can find a way of targeting their efforts on to the small Labour seats in Glasgow and the ex-mining seats with their big Labour majorities. In large areas of England, Labour would simply cease to exist.

In such a situation, Gordon Brown would, of course, leave the stage rather quickly, perhaps even without the dignity of a plum international job. No doubt he would leave cursing Blair’s luck even more as he sees him cavorting around the world as a wealthy EU President. Jon Cruddas and John McDonnell would also have left the stage. It is difficult to see Lord Mandelson staying on for a ten or fifteen-year haul so the leadership would presumably pass to whoever of the current pack both survive the electoral carnage and see their future careers as opposition politicians. Most of the well-known faces would still be there. The young Labour advisers parachuted into safe northern seats, the Milibands, Balls, Cooper, Alexander, Benn, Johnson (just) and so on, chose their seats wisely or rather had them chosen for them. Harriett Harman is safe in Camberwell. Just which of these would choose to soldier on would depend as much upon their personal inclination as any electoral choice even when Cameron carries out his promise of reducing Parliamentary to 500. There would be little to gain by shifting party allegiance as the LibDems suffer as much as Labour as the Conservatives win back seats in the south of England whilst the Tories would have no need to accept Labour turncoats. Sean Woodward would have no chance of emulating Churchill and “re-ratting”.

The key constitutional as well as political issue in this scenario would probably again be Scotland where Labour would hold on to around half the seats on as little as a quarter of the popular vote. There would almost certainly be a big shift towards Scottish independence which, as Compass suggests, the Conservatives might concede even though they have a strongly Unionist tradition. Oddly, this might have much less impact on a possible Labour revival than might be expected. The point is that although the 27-30 seats Scottish Labour deliver provide a virtually impregnable bedrock for the party, they also have very little chance of much increase. The huge mountain which Labour would be faced with would be increased by their loss but Scotland would offer very little hope for the massive improvement in total numbers required to form a government ever again.

A more serious problem faced by Labour would be the wipe-out from local government which would accompany such a massive Conservative victory. They might hold on to Manchester where the Conservatives have no base at all but elsewhere they would hold almost nothing. In previous defeats, the existence of Labour councils has provided a political springboard to sustain local parties. This time they would not exist and local party organisation, already flimsy, would largely collapse.

So much, so gloomy. But what of a hung Parliament, the goal which seems the most realistic target for Labour. This is actually possible under a wide range of scenarios, some of which might seem quite plausible. Take 38/29/22% with UKIP polling 3% of the national vote. This would leave the Tories, 21 seats short with the Ulster Unionists only providing 11 extra even if this idiosyncratic bunch could be persuaded to stick to their natural home. An even odder result would be 37/32/19% which would make Labour the largest party in Parliament, though 21 short of a majority, despite being well behind the Tories in the popular vote. Although odd, it does illustrate the point that a hung Parliament with Labour the largest party is far from an unlikely outcome of the next election unless the LibDems can get their act together.

There has been pressure on Labour to adopt electoral reform as part of their platform particularly as most surveys suggest that this would be a popular move gaining them votes. So why has their response been so half-hearted with only the possibility of turning to the Alternative Vote system, one which tends to reinforce the current lack of fairness rather than reducing it? The answer is perhaps too obvious from the above number juggling. The party which benefits most from the current FPTP system is Labour as its seats in its old heartlands remain untouched by even massive losses whilst it can benefit from a hung Parliament even when its share of the votes is far from the largest.

The hung Parliament which may result would be very complex with several nationalist groups having 5-10 seats as well as the LibDems. There may also be a few ‘wild card’ independents adding to Galloway and Swyre, both of whom are likely to keep their seats. Caroline Lucas could well win in Brighton and there are bound to be a few seats where the voters rebel against party domination if they have a particularly noxious sitting candidate and a strong independent challenger. In such a situation, there would certainly be a frenzy of deals and, quite possibly, a certain amount of shifting of nominal party allegiance. Either of the main parties might try to form a ‘national emergency government’ rather on the model of Ramsay MacDonald in similar parlous economic circumstances. Any defection from Labour would certainly cause a final split in the monolith with at least two fragments going their own way. It is often assumed that a deal on electoral reform would have to be part of the package leading to formation of any workable alliance or coalition. Well, perhaps. But would Nick Clegg’s hunger for some taste of power override his party’s policy on this issue. And if it did would the LibDems stay united? Or could one or other of the big two form a government on the basis of defections from the other large enough to override any need to deal with the smaller groups?

The basic point of all this playing with numbers is surely this: that the 2010 election will be the final proof of the electoral bankruptcy of FPTP voting and a further stage in the crisis of political legitimacy which exists in Britain. The country hovers on the edge of a multi-party system in which regional as well as national parties will have strong allegiances which are unfairly represented, both up and down, in the UK parliament. However, neither of the main two parties have much incentive to change the system which has served them well for a century. Just how this crisis will play out following the next election is very hard to predict. Unfortunately, it may turn out to be interesting times in the very worst sense.