I don’t normally blog about English politics, but the political turmoil south of the border is creating havoc up here, too, so here are a few modest observations and a possible solution.
My observations are these:
The Liberal Democrats seem to have found their mojo again, but many people will never vote for them again because of the way they sold out of their principles to enter into government with the Tories. This means that they cannot become a large party in the foreseeable future.
The Labour rebels who are planning to vote against Brexit are afraid to break away from Labour because of the failure of the SDP in the 1980s.
The few Tory rebels clearly don’t feel tempted to join either the Lib Dems or Rebel Labour.
And yet, there is a huge need for a party to represent the 48% who voted Remain in England – in the other nations of the UK, we have plenty of parties that will stand up for us.
Surely the solution is to create a new party, based on the Liberal Democrats but with enough changes to ensure that voters won’t hold them responsible for the Coalition Government. As for the name of this new party, it would be natural to resurrect the Whigs – they were known to emphasise the supremacy of Parliament (which Theresa May and her merry Brexiteers clearly aren’t too keen on), and they were of course the Tories’ old foes.
Pro-Brexit Labour can then merge with UKIP, but I expect the Conservative embrace of Brexit means they’ll struggle electorally.
The Whigs can then become England’s natural progressive party, and hopefully it could adopt a constructive attitude towards the SNP and perhaps even start supporting the right to self-determination for all the nations of the UK.
It's now abundantly clear that English politics is a mess (to some extent this applies also to Wales, but not to Scotland and Northern Ireland because they have quite separate political systems):
Labour is split between the Corbynites and the Blairites, and although the latter are losing, they don't dare start a new party because of the historical lessons from the 1980s.
The Tories are split between the Brexiteers and the "modernising" wing, but the latter have been used to being in power (like the Blairites), and they now have no idea how to regain command of the party.
The Lib Dems are down because they lost all their left-wingers due to the Coalition Government, so they're now lingering on less than 10 percent in the opinion polls, which is a disaster under FPTP.
UKIP have achieved everything they wanted, so they're collapsing.
The Greens are being held back by FPTP, and many of their natural supporters are quite happy with Corbyn's Labour.
It's quite clear to anybody who listened to the recent Brexit debate in the Westminster parliament that the Blairites, the Lib Dems and the Tory modernisers are quite similar, and they seem to agree much more with each other than the Blairites do with the Corbynites or the Tory modernisers do with the Brexiteers.
If Westminster used proportional representation, these people might feasibly form a new party together, but FPTP are keeping them in their old parties. However, even if the politicians are too feart to do anything, it seems the voters might be starting to change, by doing the only option open to them: They might start voting Lib Dem.
At least that's what I think the Witney byelection shows. There was a 23% swing from the Tories to the Lib Dems, and Labour lost votes, too.
I don't think the Lib Dems will ever regain their youthful left-wing voters, but perhaps they'll souk up those Tory and Labour voters that are horrified by the way their parties have been taken over by the old radical fringes.
However, in the absence of large number of Labour and Tory MPs crossing the floor and joining the Lib Dems, this will be a slow process. The Tories will probably still be the largest party after the 2020 General Election, and I find it unlikely they will lose power until 2025 at the earliest, by which time Brexit will be done and dusted and practically irreversible.
I therefore don't think this is anything that can possibly save Scotland from Brexit, and it's all very speculative anyway. The only safe way for us to avoid the xenophobic-economic collapse that Brexit entails is to hold a new independence referendum soon and leave the UK madhouse.
I simply hope that England and Wales will slowly regain their senses once they've experienced the hard Brexit devastation and then start voting for a pro-EU party that will make them rejoin the EU, but this time as a constructive full member that leads from the front instead of being a girning passenger that never wants to do the same as everybody else. Maybe seeing Scotland being a positive and proactive EU member state from 2019 onwards will help them to see the folly of their ways. I really hope so.
It's a well-known fact that Scottish Labour MPs played a crucial part in imposing tuition fees on English students, feeling safe in the knowledge that their own constituents wouldn't be affected directly.
Many voters did notice, however, and it surely played a part in the downfall of Scottish Labour.
So I was a bit surprised when I read the following in a long article in The Guardian called "The Clegg Catastrophe":
Many senior figures [...] warned that supporting a rise in tuition fees would be disastrous. [...] Danny Alexander, who had taken over from Laws as chief secretary to the Treasury, insisted the party should go along with the rise in tuition fees. Alexander, who participated – alongside Clegg, Cameron, and Osborne – in the “quad” meetings where coalition policy was hammered out, was less interested in the politics of the issue than the economic impact; he believed it was a necessary step to reduce the deficit. Far from being abolished over six years, as the Lib Dem manifesto had promised, fees were to treble over two years. [...]
In December, on the eve of the Commons vote to raise fees, Martin Shapland, the chairman of Liberal Youth, went to see the chief whip Alistair Carmichael to make a final attempt to persuade the party to change course. “I told him the damage was going to be permanent and he disagreed,” Shapland said.
It would appear the Scottish Lib Dems repeated the errors made a few years earlier by Labour: They assumed they were safe because Scottish students wouldn't have to pay to attend university (thanks to the SNP), and so they were much keener to toe the party line and treble the fees than their English colleagues.
Were they really too naïve to understand that the consequent lack of trust in the Liberal Democrats would affect them, too?
It's odd how Unionist politicians often are much worse at understanding the dynamics of post-devolution politics than the Nationalists.
The SNP's huge victory in the General Election saw some truly incredible swings. It made me wonder what would have happened if the SNP had been standing in England and Wales, too.
To find out, I first calculated the changes in each party's support in Scotland between 2010 and 2015. I measured this in terms of the electorate, so because the turnout went up, the figures don't add up to zero.
I also decided to calculate the changes separately for each incumbent party, because the swings weren't exactly the same (to be honest, the swings were actually more similar than I had expected, but they differences were still significant):
In Labour-held seats:
In LD-held seats:
In SNP-held seats:
In the Tory-held seat:
I then applied these changes to the 2010 results from England and Wales (treating Plaid Cymru as the equivalent of the SNP given they're sister parties), and the results are truly astonishing: Cons 309, SNP/PC 221, LD 34, Lab 7, others 2.
When we add these figures to the actual results from Scotland, the 2015 election results would have looked as follows for Great Britain: Cons 310, SNP/PC 277, LD 35, Lab 8, others 2. This means it would probably have been possible to form a minority SNP government with support from the other non-Tory parties.
(In case anybody is interested, the seven surviving Labour MPs would have been elected in these constituencies: Bootle, Ealing Southall, East Ham, Knowsley, Liverpool Walton, Liverpool West Derby and Mitcham & Morden.)
Of course the SNP wouldn't have achieved these results simply by standing in England, but it shows the potential for an English party that tries to emulate the SNP.
Forgive me, for I have sinned: I used to be a member of the Liberal Democrats.
Looking back, it's tempting to think I must have been mad. I know there are many other people like me who were members or at least voted for them every time, who now look at them and wonder what on Earth they were thinking. However, it actually made sense at the time.
So what has happened? I believe the explanation is two-fold: I (and others) probably misunderstood them to some extent, but more importantly, they reacted to events in a way that alienated their supporters. Let's look at a few issues in more detail:
Firstly, I believed all their talk about federalism meant they were in favour of more devolution for Scotland. I would have placed the Scottish political parties on a scale like this: At one extreme, the Tories were against devolution and wanted to scale it back; Labour were quite happy with the status quo and definitely didn't want to expand it drastically; the Lib Dems wanted to expand devolution and introduce federalism and perhaps home rule; and the SNP wanted home rule and eventually independence. (I wasn't too sure where to place the Greens back then.) At the time, it looked like the SNP would never gain power on its own, so it made sense to press for further devolution by voting Lib Dem.
Secondly, I thought their support for proportional representation meant they actually would work with different parties to achieve their aims, and perhaps that they had thought through how best to wield influence in a coalition.
Thirdly, I naïvely thought their support for federalism stemmed from a lack of belief in British Unionism -- I didn't realise that it was the opposite, a way to protect the Union.
Given these assumptions, I started getting annoyed at them during the Labour-LD coalitions at Holyrood for not achieving enough, but I put it down to the lack of experience. It got worse when Sir Ming claimed that "liberalism and nationalism are the antithesis of each other", but I only got really angry when they refused to sit down with the SNP in 2007 to discuss a potential coalition unless the SNP stopped believing in independence -- I thought at the time that an SNP-LD coalition would have been a great way to advance Scottish home rule. When the Conservative-LD coalition was formed, I was dismayed that they got so few things through -- no more powers for Scotland, a horrible little compromise about a voting system referendum -- and of course their conversion to being cheerleaders for tuition fees was an unmitigated disaster.
I left the party around this time, but their vitriolic hatred of the SNP during the Scottish elections in 2011 was really off-putting for somebody like me who had considered themselves almost equidistant between the two parties. If I had still been a member when the Scottish independence referendum was being planned, I would surely have left in disgust at their refusal to campaign to put Devo Max on the ballot paper.
It could all have been so different. If they had pursued a home rule strategy, working constructively with the SNP in 2007 and again in 2011, they could effectively have become the natural political home for the third of Scots who traditionally have been in favour of this option. After the referendum campaign, all the disenchanted Labour voters would potentially have moved in great numbers to the Lib Dems instead of the SNP, and Scotland could now have been heading for home rule under Lib Dem leadership.
Lord Ashcroft's 16 constituency polls today confirmed that the national opinion polls are correct (if anything, the swing is larger in traditional Labour seats), and Labour and the LibDems are likely to join the Tories in panda territory soon.
Labour (and to some extent the other Unionist parties) are finding themselves in a horrible situation. The problem is basically that the party until recently had a large minority of independence-leaning supporters, who were happy to stay loyal to the party because independence wasn't on the agenda; however, during the indyref campaign the parties made clear that Unionism was an important part of their identity, and these supporters departed for pastures new (mainly the SNP).
The way I see it, Labour must choose between Scylla and Charybdis. (Scylla and Charybdis were mythical sea monsters noted by Homer. They were regarded as a sea hazard located close enough to each other that they posed an inescapable threat to passing sailors; avoiding Charybdis meant passing too close to Scylla and vice versa. According to Homer, Odysseus was forced to choose which monster to confront while passing through the strait; he opted to pass by Scylla and lose only a few sailors rather than risk the loss of his entire ship in the whirlpool.)
Scylla: Labour could try to return to the status quo ante bellum by becoming a party that is agnostic with regard to Scottish independence. Basically, they would need to apologise for being part of Better Together and promote several big Yes campaigners to important positions within the party. Personally, I think it's impossible now. It's what they should have done two years ago instead of jumping into bed with the Tories, but it will look very hypocritical today.
Charybdis: Alternatively, the Unionist parties could all disband in Scotland and form one new party, the Better Together Party. This party would have the potential to compete successfully with the SNP if all the three main Unionist parties' current voters decided to support it. However, would they really do this? Also, what would the Better Together MPs do at Westminster? Would they support Labour, the LibDems or the Tories? Would their long-term supporters really put up with this merger?
I really cannot see a good way forward for Scottish Labour. They can hope that the SNP for some bizarre reasons disintegrates, or that the Scottish Greens starts taking support away from the SNP, or that voters suddenly forget about the independence question, but I don't see why any of this should happen quickly enough to save Labour. If they had a time machine, they could save themselves by going back in time and staying out of the independence campaign, but then Scotland would almost certainly have voted Yes to independence.
Before the referendum, I was speculating that the SNP wouldn't prosper after a Yes vote, and that Labour might have been the big winner. We'll never know, of course, but it's definitely clear now that the No result wasn't good news for Labour. I wonder whether Scottish Labour's strategists are starting to regret they didn't campaign for a Yes vote?
Before the fall of the Iron Curtain, left-wing parties in Europe typically had left-wing policies, such as being in favour of universal benefits, free education (incl. university tuition), generous unemployment benefits and free healthcare.
However, the collapse of communism seems to have made many formerly left-wing politicians believe that neoliberalism was the only game in town, and they gradually started enacting almost exactly the same policies as their right-wing opponents, just presented in a slightly left-wing fashion.
Most of the politicians from both formerly left-wing and right-wing political parties have studied politics, economics and/or law at university and have learnt to treat neoliberal textbooks as gospel.
To a large extent, one cannot tell these former opponents apart. I've suggested in the past that the Tories, Labour and the LibDems should merge into one Better Together party in Scotland, but in an international context, I'd suggest the merger should be called the Party of Necessity, because its politicians always claim their unpopular policies are "necessary" according to their textbooks.
So when the banks started collapsing in 2008, the reaction of the Party of Necessity governments was the same in all countries, namely to bail out the banks and introduce a version of austerity protecting the ultra-rich and sending the bill to the poorest citizens.
However, the beautiful thing about democracy is that if all the existing parties get something completely and utterly wrong, new parties will emerge from nowhere and replace them, or existing small parties will suddenly become huge. This is what we saw in Greece yesterday, and very similar things are happening all over Europe and beyond. (The Scottish Yes campaign, which nearly achieved Scottish independence last year, was of course also part of this international trend.)
Here are a few examples of the decline of the Party of Necessity:
It's clear that different countries aren't at the same stage -- as a rule of thumb it seems to be linked to how well they have coped with the recession. However, it seems likely that many European countries soon won't be governed by the Party of Necessity. It's already the case in Scotland and Greece, but the figures above makes me think it's simply a question of time before a majority of European governments are anti-Necessity.
I've said it before, but we truly do live in interesting times.
Addendum (27/01/14): Aditya Chakrabortty has written a very interesting article about how Labour risks ending up like PASOK. His name for what I have called the Party of Necessity above is TINA (“there is no alternative”), which is a very accurate description, too.