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British politics is in stalemate

The British elections last Thursday were probably the most significant electoral test this parliament, with the Scottish and Welsh parliaments, the London Mayor, and many English councils up for grabs. Everybody had the chance to vote for something. The outcome was underwhelming. Where does that leave the political scene?

The analogy is overblown, but I am reminded of the war that ravaged Europe 100 years ago. In 1916 huge efforts by the major combatants yielded little return on the ground. While the military men looked for breakthrough tactics, these yielded limited results, and in the end it was a matter of stamina and fundamentals.

The results pose uncomfortable questions for all the political parties that took part, major and minor. Most of the attention has focused on Labour. They suffered a further catastrophe in Scotland, falling behind the Conservatives to third place. In England they mainly held their ground, with an impressive victory in London’s Mayoral election. Supporters of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn hail this as vindication – but that only shows how low their expectations have sunk. There is no hint here of how the party can regain power in Westminster. The myth of a hidden bank of left wing voters waiting to be energised by Mr Corbyn has been shown to be just that. But neither is there a disaster enough to fuel Mr Corbyn’s opponents; the Scots meltdown predates his tenure and so had already been written off. The best guess is that the far left will continue to hollow the party out from within, but that the party’s outward status remains largely unchanged. Come the next general election the question is whether the party will implode or simply repeat its dismal performance last time. On this year’s evidence it will be the latter.

For the Conservatives the position looks considerably better. They drifted only gently backwards in English councils; their performance in London was reversion to type, after unexpected success under their Mayor Boris Johnson; and they achieved a remarkable breakthrough in Scotland. But to keep governing beyond 2020 they will need to deliver a killer blow to Labour, while containing any Lib Dem comeback. Can they do that when they are riven by divisions over Europe, will replace their leader with one who has much less public respect, and while their government programme keeps being derailed by backbench discontent? Meanwhile their tactics in London, where they tried to toxify Labour’s Sadiq Khan by associating him with Mr Corbyn and Muslim extremists, failed, and may have damaged the party’s brand.

The SNP maintained their grip on Scottish politics but lost their overall majority. They have completed an astonishing pivot to the left, allowing the Tories a bit more breathing space, and leaving Scots to wonder what the point of Labour is. It is hard to see how anybody is going to deliver a knockout blow, but more Scots will surely start to tire of them. The only way seems to be down.

Ukip cemented their status as a major UK party, with breakthroughs in the Welsh Parliament and London Assembly, and consolidation of their role as Labour’s main opposition in parts of the north of England. But they are a party of oddballs, and it is hard to see how they can maintain their coherence. As a party of local government in England, they won only 15% of the seats of the supposedly down and out Lib Dems; this is a weak grassroots base.

The Greens moved forwards in Scotland, and held their own in London, where they are established as the third party by popular vote. But in English council seats for every gained they lost a seat somewhere else, to end up with even fewer seats than Ukip. Their switch to the left, while downplaying their environmentalism, looks to have been a strategic error, with the wind taken out of their sails by the revival of the Labour left.

And my own Lib Dems? There were quite  a few successes; they gained more English council seats than any other party, and are approaching half the Conservative total. They comfortably retain their position as the third party of local government. There were striking constituency wins in Scotland and one in Wales. But all the Lib Dem successes boiled down to pockets of local strength, where they are deeply embedded into civic society. They have shown their ability to claw back ground from the Tories in particular, and even the SNP. But talk of a revival of fortunes belongs in the same category of optimism as the Labour left’s. The party was reduced to a single seat in both the Welsh parliament and London Assembly, and fell behind the Greens in Scotland. They struggle to reach 5% in proportionally elected contests, an irony for a party that is so in favour of this type of election. The party has not established clear political ground for itself and remains confused as to whether its coalition years were its finest hour or a terrible mistake. The party fights irrelevance in most of the land.

Plaid Cymru continued to move sideways. The politics of Wales remains quite different from that in Scotland, and the party seems quite unable to replicate the SNP’s success.

And nobody else made an impact. The Women’s Equality party was launched last year in a big media splash, and tried its luck in London, but got nowhere. The nativist Britain First is another new party, which has a big presence on social media, and it put in a performance that beat other competitors in its space (such as the British National Party), but still only managed a derisory result. For all the claimed discontent of the public with established politicians, there is not even a faint sign of an insurgency that could take off.

So British politics is in deadlock. The Conservatives have a narrow majority in the UK parliament but lack the discipline to govern decisively. There is no evidence as yet that they are going to break out of this. But neither is there any sign of a party or coalition of parties that can knock them off their perch.

There is a broad lesson here about British politics that is not given enough weight by most commentators. Political success requires a strong grassroots infrastructure and solid organisation, built up over many years, as well as being able to chime with some part of the zeitgeist.  Labour and the Conservatives have achieved this more or less across Britain, now that the former are rebuilding themselves in Scotland. Fear of losing this vital political infrastructure stops either party from breaking apart, in spite of huge political divisions. The SNP has this in Scotland and is consolidating. That the Lib Dems are in the fight at all after failing so spectacularly to hit the zeitgeist is testament to their pockets of grassroots strength and penetration of institutions like the House of Lords; they have something to work with. Ukip and the Greens have attempted to build their own infrastructure but are finding it desperately hard going. Nobody else stands a chance. There will be no unconventional uprising like Italy’s Five Star movement. It is also very hard for a nativist insurgency, such as that of Donald Trump in the US, or the Front National in France, to get traction – though Ukip has tried.

And so we are locked in stalemate. The biggest threat to this dynamic is if one or other of the major parties breaks up under the strain. The second possibility is that the Tories get their act together sufficiently to deliver a knock-out punch to a Labour Party that does not look interested in government. As yet there is no sign of either.

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Can any of Britain’s political parties break the deadlock?

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

The rise of fringe parties takes British politics into a whole new era. and yet the outcome of the election due on 7 May 2015 seems strangely predictable. The parties seem to be stuck in a deadlock where none can win. What are the chances of one of them breaking free?

Britain’s electoral system (misleadingly referred to as “first past the post”) is capable of producing dramatic swings in the balance between the parties. But a plethora of constituency polls allows pundits to make some quite stable predictions this time. The main features are these: the Liberal Democrats will lose up to 30 seats of their current 57. The Scottish Nationalists (the SNP) will pick up a similar number, or perhaps more, giving them 30-40 seats overall. The new insurgent parties, Ukip and the Greens, will only pick up a handful of seats, and the latter maybe none at all. Overall Labour will advance, and the Conservatives will fall back. The main debate is whether Labour will be able to overhaul the Conservatives to become the largest party. Interestingly, the fortunes of both major parties will be largely determined by how well they do against the smaller parties rather than each other. But neither party will win enough seats to form a government with one of the smaller parties; they will need to do a deal with each other to form a stable government. This is the outcome nobody (except the SNP perhaps) wants.

Can any of the parties break out of this stalemate? Sudden changes of fortune can happen. Two stand out in recent history. The first was in 1992, when John Major’s Conservative government suddenly overhauled Labour in the last week of the election campaign to win a comfortable majority, under the slogan “Labour’s Tax Bombshell”. The second was Cleggmania in 2010, when the Liberal Democrats surged forward after the performance of their leader, Nick Clegg, in the first of the television leadership debates. The surge faded, but the party avoided the drubbing they were heading for, defending their record result in 2005.

Such sudden surges are entirely possible this time. No political leader dominates the scene as Margaret Thatcher  did in the elections of 1983 and 1987 or Tony Blair in 1997, 2001 and 2005. As in 1992 and 2010, political leadership is weak, and so things can be more fluid. Public frustration with politics is high.

To understand that we only have to look at Scotland, where the SNP have surged forward after last year’s referendum on independence (or, more precisely, they are consolidating their spectacular gains in the Scottish Parliament in 2011). Labour, who are defending 40-odd seats at the election are in serious trouble. That surge, however, is already built in to the forecasts. The surprise might be if the anti-SNP vote rallies and votes tactically. That’s a real possibility, though – and it would mainly benefit Labour (whose majorities are generally big), and might stem some of the Lib Dems’ anticipated losses. It would be particularly satisfying if the Lib Dem candidate Christine Jardine is able to hold off former SNP leader Alec Salmond.

What of the English insurgents, Ukip? They won the European Parliament elections as recently as last year. But their support has sunk to 15% (less than the Lib Dems achieved last time) and it is too thinly spread. Their novelty is wearing thin, and there is quite a strong anti-Ukip reaction, visible in their leader’s negative approval ratings in polls. The press, who often set the news agenda, found it convenient to boost them, but they  are now poking fun at them. Yet they are well-funded and in some regions (along the south and east coasts especially) they might yet hit the zeitgeist, and pick up a few more seats than the pundits expect. There is a more remote possibility that they do well in northern urban Labour strongholds – but this looks too high a hurdle for them this year.

How about the other insurgents, the Greens? They have done well in the polls this year, catching up with the poor old Lib Dems quite often. They have picked up the “none of the above” vote that dislikes Ukip. They have the possibility of repeating Cleggmania and advancing into teens of %age of votes, if not better. But they could suffer if they come under scrutiny. They have a rather mad collection of policies and their leader, Natalie Bennett, struggles to break out of fringe appeal. There is a challenge for the party. If they could dump Ms Bennett as their figurehead and replace her with their only MP, the impressive Caroline Lucas, and if they ditch most of their silly policies as “aspirations”, with a more mainstream manifesto – then they might be in business. It would be a big moment of growing up – but, my sense is that they can’t. Too many activists would see such a move as a betrayal. A further difficulty is translating an advance in the polls into seats, as their vote is thinly based. They seem to do well where Labour are already strong – and they lack the time and organisation to marshal a stronger vote in particular seats.

Could the Conservatives repeat their feat of 1992, and break through to an overall majority? They have an impressively disciplined campaign. They could even repeat the tax bombshell line of 1992 line with some justice (Labour’s instincts are free-spending); and Labour’s leadership is seen as not up to it, again as in 1992. Their leader, David Cameron, may not as impressive as Mr Blair or Mrs Thatcher, but he is more convincing than John Major was. But. But. I just think that the Conservatives are on the wrong side of history and will find it impossible to extend their appeal enough. Back in the 1980s they were the party that broke the unions (which most people saw as a good thing) and made the country self-confident again. Mass affluence broke out – even if a lot of it was through the false wealth of rising property values.  Now we seem stuck; the rich do well, but few others. Even increasing property values are seen as double-edged, forcing youngsters from even affluent families back onto “the bank of Mum and Dad”. In the 2000s the Tory brand became toxic; they haven’t done enough to reverse that.  Tactically they are in a bind too. They need to win back Ukippers with sour policies on Britain’s international role and immigrants – while at the same time as appealing to more optimistic, liberal voters. I just can’t see a breakout. Their only hope of a breakthrough comes from the collective weakness of everybody else – which remains possible.

How about Labour? They have the opposite problem. They are much more in tune with the popular zeitgeist. They understand a lot of what people feel is wrong about society. But their narrative is chaotic. They look like a coalition of grumpy protest groups rather than a coherent government in waiting. I am reminded a little of Labour under Jim Callaghan in 1979: when they try to make a clear stand on a policy, one of their number undermines it. Tough on immigration? Protests from London MPs. Stop any serious reform of the NHS (which they call “saving” it) – yes one moment, no the next. The current awkwardness is on a promise to reduce university tuition fees. They want a headline policy to whack the coalition with (especially to consolidate former Lib Dem voters) – but how to do so without damaging universities or giving a gift just to the richer students? It seems as if the party has lost the discipline of the New Labour era. But the party does have some strengths – in particular an army of younger canvassers, especially in London, and probably the strongest central organisation of any UK political party.

Like the Tories, the main hope for Labour seems to be the weakness of others: the Lib Dems, the Greens, Ukip and the SNP. On the other hand, it is easier to foresee some sort of implosion by Labour than it is for the Tories. A public rift on economic policy could be the cause: the tension between their trade union backers and the more realistic parliamentarians is palpable. There is rather strange paradox here. Ed Miliband has kept the party together much better than expected over the last four years. But this has been achieved by placating rather than resolving the tensions within it. Which makes the unity and discipline less easy to achieve when it is most needed.

Which leaves the Lib Dems, in my review. Their fall has been dramatic. They commonly show up with a poll rating of just 7%, compared with the 23% they achieved in 2010. In many places they would do well to get 2-3%. But they have strongholds, and a strongly focused constituency-led campaign strategy is helping to limit the damage. They are helped by Ukip undermining the Conservative vote, though they seem to have fewer defences in the minority of seats where Labour is their main opponent. In terms of popular vote it is difficult to see the party falling much further – but there is a risk that their constituency-led strategy falls apart, and they are left with very few seats indeed. But they do have upside potential. Their hope is to be seen as a sensible, liberal party, with none of the extremist politics of Ukip or the Greens. The more Labour and the Conservatives move to the extremes to face the threat of Ukip in particular, the more appealing the Lib Dems might look. There is reason for them to hope that their poll ratings will rise – though this may make surprisingly little difference in terms of the number of seats that they lose. Indeed a surge in the polls might undermine the party discipline needed to make the constituency strategy work.

All of which leaves British politics in a predicament. An electoral system that used to practically guarantee a succession of stable single party governments, is now moving towards one that simultaneously disenfranchises most voters (by stranding them in seats where their vote makes no difference), while delivering a result from which it is hard to form a governing majority. And yet such is the conservatism of Britain’s politicians and public, that it is difficult to see any successful move to change it.

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