Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Friday Morning Prime Ministering (UK General Election 2015 musings)

With the typical inventiveness of the land of hucksterism and hustling the Americans have a pithy phrase for those who are wise after the event.  ‘Monday morning quarterbacks’ are the guys (and it’s generally the more loudmouthed guys) who can tell you exactly where everything went wrong and what should’ve been done so that their team won.  They’re the greatest coaches, they know more about the sport than anyone who plays it for a living.  It’s all so easy according to them, in the heat of the moment they’d have made the right decisions so why didn’t the players and coaches?
We really need an equivalent phrase for political geeks over here – perhaps Friday Morning Prime Ministers might work.  Over the past week and a half much bandwidth, airtime and many words have been devoted as to why Labour failed so catastrophically and how the Tories managed to gain a majority. All sorts of explanations have been proffered, ranging from Ed Miliband’s incompetence, why the British electorate hates socialism, through to ‘shy Tories’ and just which specific policies held most appeal. The election’s been sliced, diced and dissected, we’ve learned that really Labour weren’t that confident and the Tories always thought they’d get a majority and that this is what they did wrong and this is what should have happened. 

None of this may be total nonsense (except the bit about socialism – anyone who read the Labour manifesto and thought it socialist is either a US Republican or doesn’t remotely understand the concept of socialism).  There are probably grains of truth in many of these explanations.  But the analyses are being written and narratives formed at precisely the wrong point, in the aftermath of victory.  Narratives are fitted to outcome rather than properly examined.  Everyone’s racing to get their point of view across – as a rule, Labour’s  is self-flagellating and related to the post-election balance of power in the party, the Tories and SNP is triumphalist, UKIP’s and the Greens’ is frustrated and the LibDems is mournful and elegiac, a five year lament. We now have the narrative of an inevitable Tory victory and, history being written by the winners in the immediate aftermath, that’s how it’ll be written up with David Cameron the agent of his own destiny. Anyone saying Cameron would be back in Downing Street is now a savant, even if their analysis has largely been assertions and swivel-eyed ranting based on their party political stance (or personal dislikes).  England loves the Tories, and all is well in the southern sea of blue.  We always knew you’d vote the Right Way.

This is all very well but barely anyone expected a Tory majority until the David Dimbleby announced the exit poll at 10pm.  Labour and LibDem grandees scrambled to deal with the imminent yawning catastrophe, Paddy Ashdown’s millinery munching declaration being the night’s great Canute-like act of futility (though of course Canute’s act was deliberate), whilst the Tories didn’t deviate from the tactics of their last election night of declaring victory whatever the final numbers said. Much of this may be down to innate caution, but David Cameron’s words the next morning, that he didn’t expect to be returning to Downing Street that quickly, indicated no-one was confident enough of the majority.  Whatever the claims being bandied about, the words of William Goldman about Hollywood were perfectly repurposed about this election by David Hepworth on Twitter: no-one knows anything.

George Osborne, heading for Europe, of course claimed that he now had a strong mandate for his party’s European policy, that the result vindicated his austerity rhetoric (not always matched in policy, but that’s a different debate).  Much was made of Cameron being the first party leader in power to increase his vote share since 1900 and that uplift, even a tiny one of 0.8% is no mean feat. Both of these are true on at least a technical level – the Tories now command a majority in the House of Commons by democratic means and their vote share also went up. What both ignore (quite deliberately) is the crucial factor in the election, our ‘first past the post’ electoral system.  I’m not going to attempt to directly analyse the party politics and why voters in key areas voted the way they did (there will be elements of that, but it’s not the main point).

In brief, our electoral system currently divides England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland into 650 constituencies with each one of those constituencies returning a Member of Parliament to represent them. All this is done by a simple method of which candidate polls the most votes in the constituency (so a seat such as Knowsley where George Howarth recorded 78.1% of the vote counts for the same as South Belfast where Alasdair McDonnell won with a record lowest share of the vote for an MP of 24.5%.  The former result argues that in certain circumstances the electoral system still functions well – where a party is dominant or where it’s a straight choice between two parties. By and large it’s representative of the viewpoint of the majority of the constituency.  The latter shows the weaknesses of the system – when there’s a genuine split across the constituency it’s a ‘best loser’ scenario which doesn’t reflect that the constituency’s electors haven’t overwhelmingly endorsed one candidate.  The strength of first past the post is that it’s a relatively simple system which allows every person some form of representation (even if it’s by someone they disagree with politically) and in recent decades has tended to produce a decisive majority for either Tory or Labour parties. The weakness is that it doesn’t cope at all well if any sort of third element is introduced.
This is demonstrated at several points in UK history. First the Irish Nationalists, who allowed Gladstone to govern. Then with the rise of Labour in the early part of the twentieth century.  And finally in 2010 where the Liberal Democrats achieved 23% of the vote. Lynton Crosby, who ran the Tory campaign, was quick to damn his opponents and laud his own party (naturally). I’d agree that overall the Tory strategy was superior, even if their actual campaigning tended to be lacklustre and uninspired and seemed to emphasise a disconnection from the electorate.  The essential secret of the Tory election success lay in their understanding of the electoral system and how they exploited the collapse in LibDem support.

At this point it’s necessary to go back to the last General Election.  You can often understand the most recent election by looking back at what happened at the last one.  One of the key points of the election was Clegg’s pledge to oppose an increase in tuition fees for students. In terms of the campaign it was a brilliant move which, for obvious reasons, raised their popularity amongst students.  The problem came in negotiating the coalition agreement. Given the student fees pledge was such a high profile promise it really should have been one of the ‘red lines’ in any agreement. For whatever reason, it wasn’t.  The LibDem negotiating team were persuaded to accept a policy that would allow universities to raise their fees up to £9,000, a threefold rise.  Apparently there was much shock in the LibDem ranks when universities, funnily enough looking for more money to fund themselves, raised their fees to the full amount.  I’m not here to debate the merits or otherwise of that policy but from a LibDem perspective the politics of that were appalling. They had a potential source of younger voters who they could persuade to vote for them in the long term and, almost as soon as they had a hint of power, they sold those voters out. Former LibDem supporters turned on them, culminating in the National Union of Students organising a ‘payback time’campaign  which branded the party as liars.  That’s an awful lot of students saddled with a potential £40,000 of debt who wouldn’t be voting LibDem again for a long time, if ever. Apologies don’t tend to have any value when contemplating a scale of large long term debt. Clegg may have protested in response that his party was only 8% of the House of Commons so didn’t have much power but given his bloc of seats enabled the coalition government a Commons majority he seemed to lack an understanding of how crucial that was.  His negotiators allowed electoral reform to be watered down to a referendum on a compromise system and Clegg took the post of Deputy Prime Minister instead of one of the great offices of state where he or a colleague might make an impact (seriously, has anyone actually explained what a Deputy Prime Minister’s job entails?).  The LibDems comprehensively made all the mistakes a small party going into coalition could make, compromising on a lot of policies and not appearing to achieve much in return. They gambled on being able to demonstrate their ability to rein in a Tory government and appearing noble.  Let’s not beat around the bush on this, it was idiocy.  You need concrete achievement at elections, not hypotheticals about what you stopped. It’s also as if they were unfamiliar with the notion of confidence and supply (a means whereby they will generally vote with the government but aren’t tied to them on less pleasant policies).  Result?  A party that goes from 8% of the House of Commons to 8% of the country’s vote and 8 seats.  The biggest wipeout since the Fat Boys met the Beach Boys. Clegg and his party had become toxic; even those like Simon Hughes who’d deliberately distanced themselves from the Tories. What had been a genuine nationwide third party with just under a quarter of the vote collapsed completely, destroying the years of hard work put in by David Steel, Paddy Ashdown and the former Social Democratic Party. Merely a rump left, the scale of defeat emphasised by the quirk that to be nominated for the leadership a candidate needed endorsement by 0.8 MPs. Some of us rather hope that leads to each remaining MP standing to emphasise the absurdity of the situation.

And this is where the means the Tories used to secure a democratic mandate come in. Let’s go back to the Tory boast, that Cameron secured a rise in his party’s vote (from 36.1% to 36.9%). If he had been leading a solely Conservative government it’d be worth remarking on. But he wasn’t.  He led a coalition government where his partners immediately toxified themselves by reneging on a high profile pledge. The Coalition itself had a good claim to being the most legitimate government in decades, claiming 59.1% of the votes cast at the election and having a clear Commons majority.  By pretty much any definition that’s a democratic mandate satisfying both a definition by the popular vote and the legislature. The last UK government with an equivalent mandate? 1931 (though MacMillan and Eden were just shy).  The LibDems may have paid the price for their decision but isn’t democratic legitimacy like that an argument for co-operative government? Fast forward five years to Osborne’s declaration of having a strong mandate.  Cameron’s government (as opposed to party) saw its vote share dip from 59.1% to 44.8% (Conservative 36.9%, LibDem 7.9%). Granted, part of this was down to the issues peculiar to the LibDems but it’s hardly a ringing endorsement for your government to lose 24 seats overall and 14.3% of their vote. That’s not a popular endorsement of your policies, despite the Telegraph, Times and Sun rushing to shore up a narrative of mass endorsement.

What it is though is the key to the Tories winning.  The First Past the Post system took a hammering at the last election as it failed to fulfil its supposed virtue, providing a strong government with a clear mandate for its policies. Much of this, as I’ve said, was due to there being a national third force with a significant share of the national vote. The vote in seats splits, becomes messy. This election there wasn’t that true third force – the LibDems have a small but significant share, the SNP likewise and the biggest party in terms of votes, UKIP, merely scrambled to 12%.  For all the share of the main parties has retreated from their respective heydays under Blair and Thatcher that’s still a very distant third. With only two parties competitive nationwide First Past the Post now has a chance of determining a winner. It’s at this point that the genius of the Tory strategy kicks in.

One of the accusations the Tories threw at Ed Miliband during his time as Labour leader was that he stabbed his brother in the back when claiming the leadership.  You can take this as true or not depending on your viewpoint and how sympathetic you are to Miliband. This fades into insignificance when compared to the Tory ruthlessness in pursuing a successful election strategy. The Tories were in government with the LibDems for five years. You can dismiss the sniping during the election between the parties as simple electioneering, part of the showbiz for grey people that comes up once every five years or so. What the Tories realised was the LibDem vote was likely to collapse, partly due to the student vote and partly as their left wing credentials were almost completely undermined by their co-operation with the Tories. So, whilst shoring up their vote in marginal constituencies the Tories campaigned hard in the LibDem seats they were the main opposition in last time. They used social media to spread their word (apparently specifically targeting Facebook as the most popular medium and disdaining the ‘elitist’ Twitter. I certainly recall seeing a lot of Tory advertising on Facebook during the election, apparently tailored toward me.  How effective was that strategy?  Of the Conservative gains on the night 27 were former LibDem seats. 27 of 28 net gain. The crucial margin that took David Cameron from coalition Prime Minister to Conservative Prime Minister was essentially stabbing their coalition partners in the back.  That’s simply the ruthlessness of British politics, the willingness to do what it takes within an imperfect system to wear the crown. The Tories simply saw that they needed to marginally increase their vote share in the right seats and otherwise pursue their core vote – as you could see from the red meat they were tossing out to their right wing base during the campaign with lower taxes, smaller state, European Union referendum and repeal of the Human Rights Act. It’s simply playing the electoral system to your advantage, something Labour were either unwilling or unable to do.  It provided access to the levers of power for another five years.  That isn’t illegal, nor immoral, it’s simply what had to be done to win.

Noticeably afterwards there were a surfeit of commentators proclaiming this a democratic decision that couldn’t be complained about (particularly Dominic Lawson who dismissed any need for electoral reform). They’re correct in it being a democratic decision under our current system but it’s one that leaves a bad taste in the mouth, much as it did when Tony Blair took his last majority on a 35.2% share of the vote. Nearly two thirds of the electorate didn’t vote for these policies and their voice is effectively denied. UKIP and Green voters are essentially almost locked out of politics with one MP each. Similarly the SNP are comparatively overrepresented by virtue of dominating one area of the UK.  In all honesty it’s something of a mess. And despite Labour upping their vote share they lost a huge chunk of seats (in truth the SNP surge wasn’t a cause of their defeat, it merely made it look worse and took Miliband’s position from shaky to untenable). However you disagree with these parties it’s unrepresentative. It’s not unreasonable for the Tories to have the largest number of seats, but it’s difficult to justify them having an absolute majority on their vote share.

It’s at this point that I’ll divert briefly to point out the sheer idiocy of defending First Past the Post on the basis it produces strong governments. That’s an absolute nonsense unless you’re fortunate enough to be a partisan of the winning side.  In theory a government can have carte blanche for five years. That’s a fair amount of time to put agendas in place or, indeed, your version of electoral reform. The Tory version of electoral reform is to make things ‘fairer’ by levelling population differences. Quite coincidentally this notionally provides 20 extra seats for the Tories and stacks the chips in the Tory favour for the next election. It *was* originally meant to streamline Parliament to 600 or so MPs but strangely, with MPs nervous about voting themselves into non-existence that’s gone by the wayside.  It’s gaming a system which is already stacked toward the Tories even further. And fairer? The system may have favoured Labour before, primarily due to the Tory vote being concentrated and Labour being strong in Scotland which requires less votes per MP to gain seats, but that rationale becomes a nonsense now – in terms of votes per seat the Tories were comfortably ahead of all but the SNP.  If this was a football game the Tories would have tilted the pitch thirty degrees or so and be playing downhill.  Whatever the merits or otherwise of the current Government First Past the Post is clearly open to being gamed by either of the major parties.  An electoral system should defend against selfishness, stupidity and madness from any of the major parties and, on current evidence it would be incapable of doing that if either were at the height of the political cycle and inclined to go on some Caligula style orgy of repressive legislation (well, theoretically there’s the House of Lords…). And, for all the fears of coalition government (something the Tories tried to exploit in the election) didn’t the actual coalition we’ve just had function perfectly well? In past decades Italy was always raised as a monster that proved proportional representation didn’t work, proven by the number of governments since World War 2 (currently: 64).  Thing is, that’s a simple selection of the worst possible example.  Germany, arguably the most successful country in Europe, has long had an element of proportional representation to its elections and only one government in recent history has had an absolute majority.  And they’re doing quite well…

In short then I think in a modern world where there’s a lot of emphasis on participation and having your say then the most important lesson of the election is that change is needed to address the deep flaws in our system.  The trouble is that our current system leaves the major parties with no real motivation to change a system that ultimately favours a rotating power structure. We’ve got a binary political debate with two loud voices shouting at each other.  That leaves fertile ground for populist dissatisfaction with modern politics, something UKIP and (to a lesser extent) the SNP have exploited.
So what does it need to change to? The Alternative Vote, a shoddy cobbled together compromise, was rejected in 2011 after the Tories campaigned against it. I’m not sure how total reform on the legislature would work – the House of Commons (or whatever replaces it) needs an Upper House with checks and balances on it.  If we retain First Past the Post then perhaps this chamber at least could be subject to PR rather than the result of an often shabby honours system.  But does that also leave that chamber vulnerable to the whims of populism?  Whilst I’ve criticised First Past the Post here it should be recalled that studies have shown there to be no perfect voting system when trying to deal with more than two parties.  Some form of proportional representation seems to be a solid basis to start with, but then we need to hammer out questions of how these representatives would be allocated to constituencies, or if the constituency system would continue.  D’Hondt? Plurality voting system? Cop out as it is I’m not going to offer answers as they’d be woefully underinformed against anyone who’s properly studied the subject. I’m merely taking the view that if we exclude a viewpoint from being represented we to store up trouble from people who feel unrepresented. Equally though, there needs to be checks and balances against extremism, corruption, selfishness and groupthink madness.  Theoretically a PR system would make it harder for any of those to affect the governance of a country than one which tends to produce absolute majorities.  But then the UK’s hardly been a hotbed of extremism in its history… 

One thing’s for sure, it’s not a decision currently best made by politicians.

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