Sunday, 13 December 2015
The UK is becoming a series of one-party states
As we approach the end of 2015, it's time to look back and take stock of what this year's British politics might mean in the longer term. You don't look to a historian's site on public policy for much else, do you? But we're afraid, naturally and as ever, that we can offer you little Christmas cheer - for Britain's politics look a lot more sterile, and a great deal less fluid, than they did at the beginning of the year. We are probably in for a long old haul, now, of the Conservatives winning in England (and therefore at Westminster); of the Scottish National Party (SNP) governing in Edinburgh; and of Labour administrations ruling over Wales. Change on any of those fronts appears a long, long way off. Better just to knuckle down and get on with whatever else you're doing, and wait perhaps for the Parliament of 2020-25; or to put your energies into the non-electoral politics - of the environment, devolution, Europe or whatever - that might provide some movement in the years to come.
Why? Because the forces that oppose those outcomes are still weak, and are almost certainly getting weaker. We've long noted that Britain is becoming more and more politically divided, and that whole regions have almost no Labour (or, in fewer cases, Conservative) Members of Parliament at all. Look at the whole of South-West England (above, from the great website UK-Elect), and you'll see just four Labour holdouts against the blue tide - three of them in Bristol, and one in Exeter. Everywhere else, the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote (and the failure of the United Kingdom Independence Party challenge) has left Conservative MPs sitting on some really, really hefty majorities. It's not often realised, though, on just what a scale this winnowing out has occurred. Remember the Tony Blair Labour landslide of 1997? Well, that involved a swing of about ten per cent from the Conservatives to Labour. If that happened again - even a political earthquake on the same Richter scale as New Labour - and Labour still got nowhere in Scotland, they would take 92 Conservative seats and the Labour benches would add up to 324. But that would give them a working majority of just three. So instead of the Blair landslide majority of 177, they'd be on a knife edge and having to turn to the Liberal Democrats and Northern Ireland's Social Democratic and Labour Party for help all the time.
That's the scale of Labour's challenge - the size of which far too few people in the party realise, even now, and which will only get worse after boundary reforms conducted on an Individual Voter Registration list. Right now, we reckon that Labour may not win a whole lot more than 130 or 140 seats in England on the 'reformed' boundaries, if they go on as they are. They just seem to have no idea what might be about to hit them.
And take Scotland and Wales. There is absolutely no sign whatsoever that Labour is getting anywhere at all in terms of next May's Scottish Parliamentary election, and there is some speculation (still overheated, in our view) that they may even come third, behind the Conservatives. In Wales, too, Labour may be slipping back on the last Welsh elections results in 2011. Indeed, the latest projections based on the polls would lead us to suspect that Labour will lose many of its representatives in the Scottish Parliament - perhaps all of their constituency members. That'll leave the present Scottish National Party administration in Edinburgh even more well-entrenched than ever, commanding an even more impregnable majority. There is unlikely to be any change in Cardiff Bay, either, even if Labour dives down even to 23 or 24 Members of the Assembly (still, it seems, very unlikely). That's because there is very, very little prospect at all of a deal between Plaid Cymru, the Welsh Nationalists, the Conservatives and UKIP to oust Labour (and there might be only one Liberal Democrat left sitting in Cardiff Bay, or even none at all).
Wherever you care to look, the idea of a change of government across Britain is looking more and more remote. Conservative, SNP and (in Wales) Labour governments may be with us for a long time to come.
Now we know that things can change quite quickly. Get a young, good-looking, charismatic leader with a nationally appealing message, and there's no end to what you can do. Ask Justin Trudeau in Canada. These things aren't set in stone. And who could possibly have said, at the opening of the year, that there would be such an enormous SNP landslide in May's General Election? That there would be a Conservative overall majority at Westminster? That Jeremy Corbyn would be elected Leader of the Labour Party? Not us. If pushed to it, we would have said that the SNP would return maybe between thirty and forty of Scotland's MPs, not almost all of them; that the Conservatives would be able to go on governing in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats; and that (most probably) a Soft Left figure such as Andy Burnham would be elected to lead Labour were they to be rejected at the ballot box. None of that happened. We were nearer than most, but still not right at the mark. We live in a time of unprecedented political turbulence - facing the rise of populism, the continuing long-term decline of old political loyalties and a febrile atmosphere of social media shouting-as-comment that undermines any and all alternatives in a welter of cynicism and contestation.
Even so, the scale of Labour's likely defeat in England next time (at least, after Oldham West, in all the key marginals that actually decides who governs), the scale and scope of Scottish National dominance in Scotland, bestriding the entire intellectual and moral landscape as they do, and the depth of the political challenges facing Labour's opponents in Wales, mean that we would still advise you not to look for any big upheavals any time soon.
That's bad for pluralism, bad for anyone who wants to see much change in Britain over the next ten to twenty years, but most of all (and worst of all) that's bad for good governance itself - which requires a dynamic, thriving and above all plausible alternative government-in-waiting to be on hand at all times, in case the people decide to throw their governors out. Right now, there's absolutely no sign of that in England, Scotland or Wales. All the peoples of Great Britain are the poorer for it. Think that blunders like the tax credits debacle, the Forth Bridge balls-up and the continuing scandal that is Universal Credit would happen if there was a real game on? Well, they might: but they would occur less often, and probably be less disastrous.
The ultimate irony? It may only be in Northern Ireland, forced by the logic of the peace process and the divisions of the past into compulsory power-sharing, where pluralist politics may still survive - in a land where the Ulster Unionist Party once ruled, pretty much without contest, for decade after decade. That example tells us, once more, that all this will pass. Soon, in historical terms, the warm waters of political change will melt the ice once more. History will flow again. But at the moment - and for some years to come - the efficacy and even to some extent the legitimacy of Britain's electoral party politics may now be in deep trouble, because there's absolutely no alternative to the present dispensation on any horizon at all. Back in May, we declared that Britain was entering a political ice age: but we thought that the snow and ice would fall only on the forest canopy. But now it is clear that the frost is penetrating the soil and the roots. It is threatening to kill the entire political ecosystem stone dead for years to come.