Thursday, 14 May 2015

UK politics has just been put into the deep freeze

At precisely 10pm on Thursday 7th May, Labour people looked up at the sky, like uncomprehending dinosaurs, seeing for the first time that great big light in the heavens that had been there all the time. The resulting explosion was a mighty one, casting fear and alarm all about it. But only slowly have those gathered around that watering hole begun to realise that it was an electoral meteorite that might spell their extinction.

Let us explain.

It's not really that the Conservatives moved forwards in many of their ex-marginals, leaving Labour with an enormous electoral mountain to climb just to be the largest party next time. That's bad enough: seats that were Labour just a few years ago now have enormous majorities, with Harlow, for instance, moving from a Labour majority of 97 in 2005 to a 8,350 majority for the Conservatives now. Throw in boundary reform, and an overall Labour majority would probably need an absolutely huge swing in 2020 - beyond even what Tony Blair achieved in 1997. Oh yes, that's bad all right. But what's even worse is why that happened: firstly, Labour's lack of credibility on the economy and leadership, and secondly, the Scottish National Party landslide in Scotland. The first can be addressed via a new team and some new ideas, in the usual way: but the second is probably now a semi-permanent feature of the political landscape, with implications far beyond Scotland itself.

We have to be careful here. The aftermath of the 1992 General Election, which this one so closely resembles, was characterised by all sorts of academic analyses that said that Labour could never win again. Labour's Last Chance? was one of the key titles, and the general feeling was that Labour could never appeal to such a middle-class, individualistic, ambitious, aspirational society again. The result? A Blairite landslide. Shows you what we experts know.

But the political, as opposed to social and structural, reasons for Labour's defeat are even worse this time. For Labour is now squeezed in between its two most profound enemies, in the shape of the SNP in Scotland and the Conservatives in England and Wales. It is hard to see how it can escape the vice in the near term, for the SNP's gargantuan majorities are probably going nowhere. That means no Labour overall majority in prospect for a long time to come: that also means that the 'danger' of a weak minority administration dependent on the 'rainbow' of the wider left will stay in English voters' minds for at least the next Parliament, and probably the one after that too.

Make no mistake: the fusion of 'weakness', 'minority' and 'foreign domination' was easily the most powerful one on the doorstep, far more plausible as an electoral amalgam than if Labour had been closing in on a majority. It worked. Fear, you see, can be stronger than hope. And that tactic can now be pressed into use again and again, until indeed it becomes a full-on strategy rather than a rather desperate expedient. For whenever the Conservatives face opposition or problems in England and Wales, they can wheel out a conveniently tartan-clad stage army that has the advantage of seeming alien, frightening, newsworthy... and, in reality, almost entirely fictitious. Every time the SNP (or indeed any Scots) object to, or oppose, a policy, that gurgling sound you'll hear will be Labour and Liberal Democrat votes pouring down the Conservative drain in England.

It's a stroke of electoral genius, hit upon perhaps by chance, but now absolutely clear in the pristine light of post-election day. Why do you think that the Human Rights Act is first in the Government's sights? Because the Scottish Parliament has a semi-veto over its abolition, that's why - and each and every row with Holyrood (especially became it emanates from the SNP's more-than-justified pro-Europeanism) is electoral gold in English marginals. Every time the SNP raise a question, threaten an informal referendum of their own, every time they challenge Parliamentary etiquette, every time they (rightly) fight one of this government's mad Bills, every time they post on social media, one more English voter will recoil. And the divided British Isles will slide further away from meaningful political and social change. Paradoxes of governance? We got 'em aplenty now.

No good will come of it. In the end, the general Scotophilia of the English, who generally understand their northern neighbours only through the prism of childhood holidays, may well congeal into something much, much harder. Deep and widespread anti-Scottish feeling, even overt hostility and racism directed towards those with Scots accents, cannot be ruled out. Unless this course is somehow changed, the Union will eventually break up - with incalculable consequences in Belfast and Cardiff, those oft-forgotten capitals with little voice in the poisonous drama to come. It won't happen soon. The Scottish Government is more than well aware that even its much-trumpeted policy of Full Fiscal Autonomy, well short of independence, is political suicide at this oil price - even if its complexities can be decoded at all. A second contest over independence must be some way down Edinburgh's list of desired outcomes, for it would be simply impossible to write a White Paper with £10bn of yearly cuts (nearly a sixth of all Scottish public spending) at its heart. And Prime Minister David Cameron will be in no mood to let his convenient enemies go anywhere until after 2020. The power to call a referendum having lapsed back to Westminster, the Prime Minister will just the SNP fume and rage about its inability to fix a date for a second plebiscite - knowing, all the while, that every time they make a demand, even a request, one more English voter plumps for him and his party.

After 2020 the whole exercise will have served its purpose, having already caused English voters to think that any reform at all involves 'foreign' tricks, giving them someone to resent, projecting outwards the blame for all the bruises caused by an increasingly-harsh economic environment. The Conservatives' boundary reforms, trade union funding changes, university research cuts and charity campaigning bans will all be well entrenched. The Conservatives won't need the Scots any more. They might be allowed to leave.

Until then, a kind of electoral permafrost has descended, with the usual and natural channels of change and renewal across the Kingdom frozen by two twin nationalisms - one of the apparently social democratic left, and one of the nativist English right. It will not be lifted easily or quickly. Labour will have to change fundamentally - change utterly, change today, change everything - if it is to do anything about it. That is probably the work of two Parliaments, not one: and if there's any backsliding, any association with the party's era of defeat, any complacency at all, they might as well not bother.

It is a beautifully warm and bright spring in Britain. But the consequent feeling of optimism and renewal cannot now carry across into the communal lives of the United Kingdom's peoples. For in UK politics, the changing of the seasons lies in the past: nothing lies ahead but a long, cold, dark and frigid winter.