Saturday, 28 March 2015

Is the ‘Westminster system’ discredited? My thousandth post!

Looking back over the posts I’ve written over the last few years it seems appropriate, that having spent a great deal of time writing about the nature of and reasons for radical change in Britain, Canada and Australia and about how women and men struggled to get their voice heard by the political establishment, my thousandth post should be on the challenge facing contemporary British politics.  Nicola Sturgeon, perhaps the most thoughtful of the party leaders—and I mean this as a compliment-- today promised that her party would reform the discredited ‘Westminster system’ to meet the demands of ‘ordinary people’ across the UK. Though her agenda remains Scottish independence, she has articulated something that is blindingly obvious to anyone beyond the ‘Westminster village’—the current Westminster system is in need of radical reform.  Since devolution was introduced in Scotland and Wales in 1998, the major political parties have failed to address this issue.  Yes, they’ve tinkered round the edges but this has been largely cosmetic rather than ‘real change’.
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There have been moves on House of Lords reform but they appear to have stuttered to a halt.  Attempts at electoral reform and changing constituency boundaries foundered with the proportional representation referendum and party politics in Parliament.  Belatedly, the Conservatives have come to the conclusion that things like the NHS and local government cannot be managed from Westminster.  But, and it was exemplified on the debate on the use of the secret ballot in relation to the Speaker, many politicians do not recognise that what they do appears petty, corrupt and out-of-touch with the lives of ordinary people.  Insulated in their ‘bubble’, they only emerge when they need your vote and even then tardily if it’s a ‘safe’ seat.  Is the system ‘discredited’ in the eyes of many voters?  Well, if voter turnout is a good indicator, and I think it is, the falling number of people who bother to vote in any elections—local, national or European—makes clear just what people think of politicians.  Now, politicians have never been the most popular of individuals but in the last decade there has been a shift from indifference to what politicians do to one of visceral dislike.  They give the impression of a disregard for the electorate, in the public imagination borne out by the expenses scandal, and complete unawareness of the needs and plight of their fellow citizens.  We increasingly have a career cadre of politicians in all of the major parties whose experience of work is limited to being research assistants or running their own business, who have been educated in high-flying public or state schools and universities and whose motivation appears less concerned with helping the public than with helping themselves. 
Although there is a crying need to reform our public institutions—and I’m not just talking about the political ones—we should be clear that institutions are not in themselves the cause of the discredited system, it’s the people who inhabit and run them and it’s this as much as anything that explains why reform has not taken place.  Those within any political system have a marked unwillingness to reform it: it might affect them.  Take the House of Lords as an example.  Getting rid of the ‘hereditaries’ or at least most of them, was not a real problem as their position was and is indefensible in a democratic system but turning it into an elected House now that’s another matter.  Labour may call for this but, it appears, with little enthusiasm to push the matter through—it had thirteen years to do so and failed.  Having the ‘gift’ of being able to appoint life peers is, whatever your party, an important tool for managing Parliament.  Am I surprised that calls for a federal UK, something discussed at length in the aftermath of the Scottish referendum, have declined from an overwhelming shout to a quiet whimper in the past months?  Not really even though it is an obvious solution to the growing crisis in the constitutional legitimacy of government.  Whether it’s further devolution, Britain’s place in the European Union, austerity politics or the NHS, the fires of discordance are being stoked by politicians who want to scare us into voting for them because, as far as they’re concerned, everything will be fine if you elect their party into power.  The point, and Nicola Sturgeon recognises this, is that it won’t and before long the public, not easily roused from its constitutional apathy, will assert its democratic voice.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

And the official campaign hasn’t started yet.

The most recent BBC Poll of Polls puts both Conservative and Labour on 34 per cent with UKIP on 14 per cent, the Liberal Democrats on 8 per cent and the Greens on 5 per cent.  The narrowness or non-existence of a Labour lead before the campaign proper gets under way is confirmed across all of the major polls with a lead not exceeding 3 per cent.  Generally it is expected that, where a government is unpopular the opposition has a good lead as it goes into the campaign and that, as the incumbent party often improves its position during the campaign, it is often a case of the opposition trying to hang on to its lead up to Election Day.  In the more volatile, less two party oriented nature of British politics today, there seems to be less interest in the election itself than on the possible variations of what all the pundits believe will be a hung parliament and on the ‘honest’ but politically inept admission by the Prime Minister that he will only serve for one more term should he be elected spawning a feeding frenzy in the ‘Westminster village’ about his successor.  This is going to be an intensely negative campaign by the coalition parties and Labour.  The basic premise appears to be…we’ve had the pain of five years of austerity and, for the Conservatives, its a plea to ‘let us finish the job’ while from Labour ‘there are more cuts to come but we’d do it more slowly’.  So little innovative political thinking here.

If the assumption of a hung parliament is correct, and it’s far from clear whether this will be the case, the question is what form government will take beyond May.  Did the coalition represent the natural 'next step' in party dealignment and the evolution of multi-party politics? Was coalition in practice a historic innovation in itself, or did the essential principles of Britain's uncodified constitution remain untroubled?  The horse-trading has already begun.  Let’s assume that Labour is the biggest party but without an overall majority—likely given its parlous position in Scotland if the polls are right—it’s already ruled out a coalition with the SNP but a week is a long time in politics and the realities of its position after May may change things.  The problem with the SNP is that its agenda is clear—independence—and Mr Salmond has already said that he could bring down the government if Labour joined in, with David Cameron ‘locked out’. The Conservatives accused him of ‘trying to sabotage the democratic will of the British people’ though in reality this means the ‘English people’.  It is part of their continuing attempt to portray Mr Miliband as a weak leader whose strings are being pulled by Mr Salmond but it could well precipitate further moves towards Scottish independence.  The question is whether English voters—a demographic majority of the UK--would be prepared to accept Scottish voters and SNP MPs gaining benefits for Scotland at the expense of England, a case of the historical boot being on the other foot. 

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The problem for the Conservatives if they form the largest party is equally fraught.  Perhaps the easiest option would be a continuation of the coalition with the Liberal Democrats.  Although it is likely that there will be fewer Lib Dem MPs—they will take the brunt of voter dissatisfaction with the coalition—the existing coalition has probably worked better than many people initially thought and the need for their support may well have blunted some of the more ideological policies of the Conservatives—well at least that’s the Lib Dem narrative.  It is also likely that the Conservative would have the support of UKIP, the only way it will get the referendum it craves, and also support from the more conservative Northern Ireland parties.  Although in the past, Irish MPs have determined whether a minority government could govern effectively, today the question is not whether this is possible—there’s no constitutional obstacle—but whether it would be acceptable to the electorate.  The issue is that without a federal constitutional structure that could legitimate this type of coalition, it appears simply as a pragmatic and somewhat crude way of achieving power.  But then this is a consequence of a multi-party state where small parties can punch above their numerical weight.