Sunday, 8 May 2011

Election reflections

So, it's all over, after a lot of shouting. Politics certainly gets rough and dirty sometimes, but the UK-wide referendum campaign certainly plummeted to new depths of scaremongering, insults, half-truths and just downright lies. And that was just the Prime Minister.

For the Liberal Democrats, both the local, Scottish and Welsh elections proved that you can't just go from being a party of protest to being a party of government overnight without there being any consequences. The impact will be certainly be felt because it begins to soften the buffer between Labour and the Tories. A weaker Lib Dem party could limit Labour's options for coalition or co-operation, come the next General Election. It is a challenge for the left of British politics because Thursday's elections were undoubtedly a victory for David Cameron. The Prime Minister's authority will become stronger – as it has begun to do so already in recent months – while undermining the junior partner in the Coalition further. Nick Clegg will hang on because there is still no real appetite for decapitating yet another leader – the risks of a bloodbath are just too high in government. And it's hardly in Cameron's interest either.

As for the referendum, it was disappointing that the public took against the Alternative Vote in such numbers. I live in Lambeth, one of only eight areas which voted yes – no surprises there given the support my own MP has given to the Yes campaign and the generally progressive nature of the politics around these parts. Others too have pointed out that Oxford, Cambridge and Edinburgh were all areas that voted for change – all reasonably affluent, liberal bastions of democracy where it's probably fair to say that a higher than average number of people understand and support the alternatives to our current voting system. The dilemma now will be whether to come back with another question as Chris Huhne has mooted, or whether it becomes part of Labour or Liberal Democrat manifestos in the future – maybe the closely related AV Plus, or the Single Transferable Vote. But while the public voting overwhelmingly against change, our political institutions are still tired and dysfunctional and the issues around plurality and accessibility to smaller parties in our democracy will only become more apparent.

Nick Clegg didn't help matters, of course, but it was fundamentally a matter of timing and utter naivety on the part of the Liberal Democrat leadership that we had this referendum when we did. The idea that the Tories – and more conservative Labour stalwarts - would just play nicely and allow the referendum to pass by as a harmless sideshow. Given a year or so, and the opportunity to heal significant wounds caused by the Lib Dem u-turn on tuition fees and the outcome may have been different. It may also have influenced the thinking behind the campaign itself, which seemed to rely on stoking up anti-political feeling and gushing support from liberal celebrities such as Eddie Izzard, Stephen Fry and Helena Bonham-Carter. They're fine entertainers and personalities, but they don't do hard politics. Sometimes you need seasoned politicians to come out and fight a vigorous campaign, and not have to resort to the pathetic campaign tactics that the Yes campaign used at times. The failure of the Yes campaign made ample space for the likes of Labour big beasts John Prescott and John Reid at the No campaign, whose messages resonated with ordinary voters that were ultimately confused by the multitude of essentially academically derived arguments pushed by AV's 'supporters'. (And it might have helped if the Yes campaign had stopped saying 'it's not perfect and not what we really want, but...').

With people distracted by high unemployment, and the simultaneous destruction of public services, sticking with the status quo was just the simplest choice requiring less thinking at the ballot box. Any large-scale progressive campaign in future should remember that.

The fuss over AV might have also overshadowed the campaigns in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Suddenly, the political establishment has woken up to the reality of the Scottish National Party governing with a not insubstantial majority, and the clearest mandate yet for any party in the Scottish Parliament. Without anyone noticing, the break-up of the United Kingdom within 10-15 years has suddenly become more of a possibility. The political consequences of that can only begin to be imagined. Certainly, there is no reason to believe that Labour could ever make a comeback in Scotland without a serious reappraisal of what their role could be in a changed environment, and it's positive to hear that Ed Mililband has ordered a root-and-branch review of Scottish Labour.

On the whole, Labour didn't fare too badly but Ed Miliband was no runaway winner. The journey on the road to recovering the party's electoral fortunes has begun but negotiating the obstacles placed in front of it by the Coalition has added an extra dimension. Re-drawn boundaries, a deficit reduction plan that may or may not work and new thinking around public services will challenge Labour's strategists for months to come. Now these elections and the referendum are out of the way, it's time for some serious, credible and meaningful opposition from Ed.

1 comment:

Andy Jaeger said...

"Without anyone noticing, the break-up of the United Kingdom within 10-15 years has suddenly become more of a possibility..."

Really? I think you'll find the people of Scotland noticed!

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