Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Our less and less perfect Union

President Obama speaks often about the making of a more perfect Union. Well, recent events have shown both the possiblilities and the limits of such an approach. The racially-motivated Charleston shootings showed the ugly, dark, impossibilist, hateful side of the USA; the generally favourable and sedate reaction to the Supreme Court's decision on gay marriage the way in which even a written Constitution can change and bend with the times (the Court's evocation of the history of marriage itself demonstrated that this was the majority view there, too).

Britain is a strange comparator here, for it is both extremely united (for instance in social attitudes, very similar for instance in Scotland to England) and increasingly politically fragmented. The two trends can coexist, of course, and they do across the UK. But the extent of our political divides are now trending towards the worrying.

David Cameron won his majority by scaring some Liberal Democrats and Labour voters enough to come over to his side, fearful of the 'economic chaos' of a Labour government, and of the Scottish National Party. He also prevented enough United Kingdom Independence Party defections to hold on to most of his own vote. So far, so obvious.

But look geographically and the story is much, more more complex. The UK is shattering into five or six different political spaces. Not only did the Four Nations elect four leading parties (the SNP in Scotland, the Conservatives in England, Labour in Wales and the Democratic Unionists in Northern Ireland), but the clustering and conglomerations in each country are themselves now very advanced.

This wasn't the main shock on election night. We'd been expecting that. The real shock was the results in England, where Labour moved forward strongly in seats they held with big majorities, University towns, London, the North generally and in cities where they could see off the Liberal Democrats. Elsewhere, and especially in working class areas in the South (areas, often, with large UKIP votes), they went backwards - think of Plymouth Moor View and Southampton Itchen, both lost to the Conservatives on not-insubstantial swings. That's not the end of it, either. The whole process goes down to the sub-regional level. The Conservatives now enjoy enormous majorities in seats that used to be pretty marginal, or indeed were held by their opponents. Think about a city like Bristol. Labour increased their majorities in Bristol South and Bristol East, and took Bristol West from the Lib Dems, but trod water or went backwards in surrounding suburbs, whether they were well-to-do (Bristol North West) or much further down the income scale (Kingswood).

Put that together with the near-annihilation of the Liberal Democrats, and what you get is large blobs of red on the map next to huge swathes of blue (especially in the South East of England) (above: the map comes from ukelect.co.uk). Look at Oxford: in middle class Oxford West and Abingdon, held by the Lib Dems until 2010, there's now just a great big pile of Conservative votes. While in studenty Oxford East, Labour increased its majority. It's the emergence of two political nations. And never the twain shall meet.

None of this looks good for Labour as it approaches the next and inevitable boundary review, for the existence of such huge contiguous blocs of support means that they won't be able to chop bits off neighbouring Conservative seats as their seats shrink in size - a trick they pulled off, to some effect, in 1992-97. This time, Labour MPs are going to shrink in number (especially if the House of Commons is reduced to 600 seats) because they're going to have to fight each other to hold on to their constituencies. The more widespread apparent outliers occupied by Conservative MPs - Cardiff North, say, or Stockton South - have got more chance of retaining their present identity, and either absorbing nearby Labour voters while still returning a Conservative MP or taking in Conservative-leaning chunks of their hinterlands.

But what it says about the country is even more worrying. The SNP's huge majorities are going nowhere. Labour might be able to win a handful of Scottish seats back in 2020 - Renfrewshire East, say, Edinburgh North and Leith, Paisley, Aberdeen South, or Edinburgh South West - but anything above that requires a probably-unrealistic swing of over eight per cent at a time when first-time incumbent SNP MPs will be enjoying a boost enjoyed by many newish MPs. And the majorities in the SNP's new Glasgow fortress are so enormous that Labour might as well not bother campaigning there. Scotland's electoral politics are now irrelevant in the battle for power at Westminster. They're going to return about 50 SNP MPs, and that's the end of it. That'll only be important in a Hung Parliament where Labour can get to the finish line with the SNP's help. Otherwise, the UK parties will just ignore Scotland.

In Wales, the main challenge to Labour is undoubtedly UKIP, hollowing out the traditional ruling party's vote stage by stage, and step by step, in exactly the same way that the SNP once did in Scotland. UKIP's apparent implosion since the election may give Labour a breathing space in the Principality: if they don't use it, it might be Plaid Cymru, the Welsh Nationalists, and the Conservatives who pick up all the pieces. Even so, Labour's Westminster electoral dominance in terms of Welsh seats looks secure for a while yet.

So there we have it - a country divided into nations, between the cities and their suburbs and far ex-urbs, between North and South, and on the basis of sociological and ethnic population trends that those schisms in part reflect. The cities, increasingly cosmopolitan, socially relaxed, relatively young, trending towards liberal views of the world, using Twitter, enjoying what you might call a 4G lifestyle; the suburbs, reading the Daily Mail and building old peoples' sheltered housing. England, booming in its South East corner; unhappily segmented and conflicted elsewhere; Wales and especially Scotland increasingly going their own way. The interwoven patchwork quilt of a more mixed up, coalition-era politics ripped up and thrown away, replaced by an overwhelmingly geographical, national and spatial politics that will be nothing like so multi-hued or complex. And remember: the SNP will hope to take the remaining three seats in Scotland next time, while the Conservatives will hope to mop up the four or five remaining Lib Dems that survive boundary changes. The big battalions are on their way.

It's not a recipe for success in terms of a more deliberative, more considered public policy, a fixed politics of settled electoral gulfs and seat-by-seat trench warfare that is increasingly hemming in the British parties' imaginations and ability to reach out to new voters. We are, in short, becoming a less-and-less perfect Union.