Category Archives: Westminster

Taking the whip

20100205 SDLP IMG_4715
20100205 SDLP IMG_4715 by Allan Leonard, on Flickr.
According to Wikipedia, Northern Ireland’s “SDLP is […] working to strengthen its ties with the Parliamentary Labour Party, whose whip they informally accept.” I must admit I’m not entirely sure what this means. Normally taking the whip means participating in a parliamentary group, including voting with it in important votes, but I don’t know how they do that informally — do they just vote with the Labour party without getting the influence that comes with participating in internal parliamentary party business?

Normally this wouldn’t interest me terribly, but like others I’m finding Labour’s different attitudes towards the SDLP on the one hand and the SNP on the other quite puzzling, given that both parties advocate independence from the UK through peaceful means. When you ask Scottish Labour, they reply that the difference is that the SDLP takes the Labour whip at Westminster.

In other words, it would appear that it’s not actually the SNP’s commitment to an independent Scotland that really upsets Labour, but the fact that the party won’t always vote with Labour in the UK Parliament. Of course, there’s also the fact that Labour is a major party in Scotland, so there is a lot of rivalry between the parties here, not like in Northern Ireland where Labour never contests elections (something which the local Labour members are quite upset about).

Would UK Labour be happy to disband Scottish Labour if the SNP in return promised to take the Labour whip at Westminster in perpetuity? From an SNP perspective, I think this would be disastrous, and I haven’t heard anybody advocating this ever. However, would it suit UK Labour? From their point of view, it would give them free rein to pursue their policies in the parliament that matters to them. In practice this would be very similar to the way the Scottish Unionist Party operated before 1965:

Independent from, though associated with, the Conservative Party in England and Wales, it stood for election at different periods of its history in alliance with a small number of Liberal Unionist and National Liberal candidates. Those who successfully became Members of Parliament (MPs) would then take the Conservative Whip at Westminster just as the Ulster Unionists did until 1973. At Westminster the differences between the Scottish Unionist and the English party could appear blurred or non-existent to the external casual observer, especially as many Scottish MPs were prominent in the parliamentary Conservative party, such as party leaders Andrew Bonar Law (1911-1921 & 1922-1923) and Sir Alec Douglas-Home (1963–1965), both of whom served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

This sounds rather similar to the current relationship between the CDU and the CSU in Germany. I’m not entirely sure how the Unionist/Conservative handled policy differences (it was probably easier in those days when political parties were less centralised), but it was clearly more attractive to Scottish voters than the post-1965 UK-wide Conservatives.

I can’t see the SNP would gain anything by being forced to vote in favour of austerity and Trident in return for Scottish Labour being dismantled, but it would clearly make things a lot easier for UK Labour.

To return to the SDLP, I’d love to find out whether it’s just the party whip that differentiates them from the SNP in the eyes of UK Labour. Surely Miliband should take one of the following two positions: (1) Peaceful sovereigntism is bad, so Labour will refuse to deal with the SDLP, not just with the SNP and Plaid Cymru, or (2) Taking the Labour whip is all that matters, so the SNP will be welcomed as a sister party if only they take the whip. Which one will it be?

The Ayes to the Right?

House of Commons: MPs debate 2013 Queen's Speech
House of Commons: MPs debate 2013 Queen's Speech by UK Parliament, on Flickr.
In the House of Commons, the MPs supporting the government are sitting to the right of the Speaker, while the opposition MPs are sitting on the left (TV footage is often shown from the other end of the chamber, obscuring the use of right and left here). For instance, in the 2010-15 Parliament, the Tories and their Liberal Democrat bedfellows were sitting on the right, while Labour, the SNP and all other parties were sitting on the other side.

The consequence of this seating arrangement has so far been been that the MPs on the right have been somewhat more numerous than the ones on the left, and in most cases one would expect the Ayes to the Right to win all votes (except for rare rebellions).

However, what will happen if the current opinion polls turn out to be correct, so that the Tories remain the largest party, but Labour forms a minority government with ad hoc support from SNP, the Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru, the SDLP and other parties (i.e., without any formal confidence and supply deal)?

Will Labour be sitting alone on the right (~275 seats), while the left-hand side of the chamber will have to accommodate the largest party of the Commons, as well as the SNP, the Lib Dems, PC and all other parties (~375 seats)? Or will all the parties supporting the government in confidence votes be sitting with it?

It seems likely that Westminster’s adversarial layout will suddenly be quite impractical. Is there any possibility that the seats could be moved into a more normal semicircle within the next few weeks?

The difference between Tory rule in Scotland and SNP rule in England

Lady Thatcher alongside former PMs on the Grand Staircase
Lady Thatcher alongside former PMs on the Grand Staircase by Number 10, on Flickr.
David Torrance seems to have become the latest cheerleader for the (wrong) idea that the largest party must form the government:

[T]he SNP appears to have given no thought to the perceived legitimacy of a nationalist-tinged government in swaths of England, not to forget Wales and Northern Ireland – while it also risks coming across as arrogant: promising to implement “progressive politics” in the rest of the UK, whether it likes it or not, just as Margaret Thatcher “imposed” rightwing policies on Scotland in the 1980s.

Under current SNP logic, the Iron Lady had a perfect right to do so, for she commanded an overall majority within the “Westminster system”. Funnily enough, nationalists did not defend her governments on that basis at the time. Rather, up went the cry of “no mandate”. Where, then, would the English, Welsh and Northern Irish mandate be for the policies of a party that doesn’t even field candidates outside Scotland?

This is total nonsense. The problem with Thatcher’s governments was that they had very little support in Scotland and yet ruled Scotland (in those ancient times before the recreation of the Scottish Parliament, providing the Secretary of State for Scotland was the equivalent of running the Scottish Government). However, even if all the three smaller nations in the UK ganged up together, they’d only have 117 MPs in total (59 Scottish ones, 40 Welsh ones and 18 Northern Irish ones), but a majority in the House of Commons requires 326 seats, so at least 209 English MPs would need to take part, too.

In other words, in the worst case England will be ruled by its second-largest party in a coalition in which at least half the MPs are English. I don’t think Scotland would have found such a situation intolerable at all.

What’s really happening is of course that English politicians have become so used to the fact that Scotland has almost never made a difference to who governed at Westminster that they think it’s undemocratic for the other constituent nations of the UK to exercise real influence.

They should probably have thought of that before they begged us to stay.

Could the Lib Dems and the Tories overtake Labour in Scotland?

A map of the predicted result.
A map of the predicted result.
I’ve decided to update my prediction of winnable SNP seats which I wrote two weeks after we lost the referendum. At the time it seemed incredibly optimistic, but since then it’s been overtaken by lots of polls by YouGov and other well-known SNP cheerleaders.

Apart from the much more positive opinion polls (from an SNP point of view), the past months have also seen the publication of Lord Ashcroft’s constituency polls (which found a greater-than-average swing towards the SNP in Labour-held constituencies) and more recently by tactical voting polls.

I’ve put the detailed analysis in separate pages (please click on the constituency names below), but in summary format my findings are as follows:

Constituency 2010 MP 2010 2015 pred. Pred. maj.
Orkney and Shetland Alistair Carmichael LIB LIB 3349
Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale David Mundell CON CON 2066
Ross, Skye and Lochaber Charles Kennedy LIB LIB 1575
North East Fife Sir Menzies Campbell LIB LIB 853
Glasgow North East Willie Bain LAB LAB 695
Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk Michael Moore LIB CON 392
Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath Gordon Brown LAB SNP 119
Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill Tom Clarke LAB SNP 479
East Dunbartonshire Jo Swinson LIB SNP 540
East Renfrewshire Jim Murphy LAB SNP 718
Glasgow South West Ian Davidson LAB SNP 1674
Rutherglen and Hamilton West Tom Greatrex LAB SNP 2664
Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross John Thurso LIB SNP 2689
Motherwell and Wishaw Frank Roy LAB SNP 2943
Paisley and Renfrewshire South Douglas Alexander LAB SNP 3495
Glasgow North Ann McKechin LAB SNP 3628
Dunfermline and West Fife Thomas Docherty LAB SNP 3850
Glasgow North West John Robertson LAB SNP 3962
West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine Sir Robert Smith LIB SNP 4164
West Dunbartonshire Gemma Doyle LAB SNP 4169
Inverclyde David Cairns LAB SNP 4181
Glenrothes Lindsay Roy LAB SNP 4290
Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey Danny Alexander LIB SNP 4549
Glasgow East Margaret Curran LAB SNP 4924
Glasgow Central Anas Sarwar LAB SNP 4947
Airdrie and Shotts Pamela Nash LAB SNP 5762
Paisley and Renfrewshire North James Sheridan LAB SNP 6002
Edinburgh South West Alistair Darling LAB SNP 6149
Edinburgh North and Leith Mark Lazarowicz LAB SNP 6338
Edinburgh West Michael Crockart LIB SNP 6402
Dumfries and Galloway Russell Brown LAB SNP 6509
Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East Gregg McClymont LAB SNP 7167
Na h-Eileanan an Iar Angus MacNeil SNP SNP 7207
Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock Sandra Osborne LAB SNP 7285
Glasgow South Tom Harris LAB SNP 7294
Gordon Malcolm Bruce LIB SNP 7508
Edinburgh South Ian Murray LAB SNP 7831
Central Ayrshire Brian Donohoe LAB SNP 7937
Argyll and Bute Alan Reid LIB SNP 8461
East Lothian Fiona O’Donnell LAB SNP 8682
Midlothian David Hamilton LAB SNP 8786
Lanark and Hamilton East Jimmy Hood LAB SNP 9128
Aberdeen North Frank Doran LAB SNP 9742
Aberdeen South Anne Begg LAB SNP 9873
Edinburgh East Sheila Gilmore LAB SNP 10022
Kilmarnock and Loudoun Cathy Jamieson LAB SNP 10360
East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow Michael McCann LAB SNP 10586
Dundee West James McGovern LAB SNP 11466
Stirling Anne McGuire LAB SNP 11732
Angus Michael Weir SNP SNP 12301
North Ayrshire and Arran Katy Clark LAB SNP 12397
Linlithgow and East Falkirk Michael Connarty LAB SNP 12964
Livingston Graeme Morrice LAB SNP 13160
Banff and Buchan Eilidh Whiteford SNP SNP 13178
Moray Angus Robertson SNP SNP 15332
Perth and North Perthshire Peter Wishart SNP SNP 15850
Dundee East Stewart Hosie SNP SNP 17278
Falkirk Eric Joyce LAB SNP 17465
Ochil and South Perthshire Gordon Banks LAB SNP 19651

Shockingly, it looks like the LibDems and the Tories might fare slightly better than expected due to the inverse Ashcroft effect (if the swing towards the SNP is greater in Labour-held seats, it must be smaller in other seats) and tactical voting.

If this prediction is correct, the Lib Dems will hold onto three of their seats, the Tories will go from one to two (by winning a Lib Dem seat), Labour will be reduced to one, and the SNP will win the remaining 53 Westminster seats.

UK democracy: A three-headed monster

Cerberus by Joe Dykes, on Flickr.
The UK democracy is a disaster, it’s like a monster destroying democracy with its three heads: FPTP, over-centralised political parties and the House of Lords.

First Past The Post (FPTP) is a decent way to elect one person, especially when there are only two serious contenders. For instance, in France the second round of the presidential elections is a FPTP election between the two leading candidates. However, as the number of candidates grows, FPTP starts producing increasingly absurd outcomes.

In some seats, there’ll be five parties that are more or less equally popular, so they’ll all get around 20% and the winning party might be the one that gets 25%. That’s hardly very democratic. In other seats, random demographic variations will mean that only one party can realistically win, which isn’t very democratic either.

In single-member constituencies with many candidates, it’s generally better to use the Alternative Vote system, which allows the voters to rank the candidates (e.g., a Green-leaning Yes voter might want to rank the candidates as follows: Green, SSP, SNP, Labour, LD, Tory, UKIP); however, the AV system was comprehensively defeated in the 2011 referendum, and it’s unlikely it’ll be resurrected any time soon, and the AV defeat seems to have made most Westminster politicians conclude that any electoral reform would be unpopular with the British public.

If the electoral system was functioning well, it would automatically limit the control exercised by political party headquarters, because only an excellent candidate with strong local credentials would have any chance of getting elected. In the current FPTP mess, your best chance is to be parachuted into a safe seat and not to rock the boat too much once you’re in parliament, so more and more MPs have given up independent thinking and instead always toe the party line.

Finally, the existence of the appointed House of Lords gives the party leaders yet another way to reward the loyal MPs. Whenever they run into trouble, they can normally be persuaded to step down with the promise of a subsequent elevation of the Lords.

The three problems are therefore connected. A broken electoral system and an appointed House of Lords gives far too much power to political party leaders, who as a result have absolutely no reason to change the system, because it works for them.

If it wasn’t for this fact, it would be easy enough to sort out the mess. The solution to the first two problems identified above is clearly proportional representation, ideally in a variant without party lists. Not only would every vote count, but it would also be much harder for the political parties to control the selection of specific individuals. And if the House of Lords was abolished (or replaced with a democratic chamber), it would be much harder for the party leaders to reward “good” behaviour.

However, I don’t think there’s any reason to be optimistic. In the UK, opposition parties routinely promise reforms but always forget about them as soon as the gain power. If Labour can only get into power with the SNP’s votes, then perhaps there’s a chance we’ll get some sort of reform, but left to their own devices the big Westminster parties will just waffle for decades. The system works for them, after all.

One of the reasons I’m so strongly in favour of Scottish independence is because I believe Westminster is fundamentally unreformable. Scotland already has a functioning parliament elected through proportional representation, and there is no appointed chamber here, so independence will solve the problem for us.

In the meantime, I hope the SNP will use its MPs after the Westminster election to force the other parties to introduce proportional representation and/or abolish the House of Lords. It would be rather ironic if the SNP fixed the Union for the Unionist parties, though.

Move the UK Parliament away from London!

York Viking March 2014
York Viking March 2014 by Peter Roberts, on Flickr.
As part of the ongoing “cash for access” scandal, Malcolm Rifkind said the following about the salary paid to MPs:

I think also if you’re trying to attract people of a business or professional background to serve in the House of Commons and if they’re not ministers it is quite unrealistic to believe they will go through their parliamentary career being able to simply accept a salary of £60,000.

That sounds a lot to a lot of people earning less than that but […] the vast majority of people of a business or professional background earn far, far more than that.

I’m sorry, but although that might very well be the case in the City of London, in Scotland and other non-metropolitan parts of the UK, only the select few earn in excess of £60k. I think the problem is that the MPs are living in a London bubble full of the über-rich and famous, and they almost feel like the poor relative in comparison.

However, there’s absolutely no law that a country’s parliament must be placed in the largest city. Washington DC didn’t even exist when it was made capital of the US (the capital was moved from Philadelphia to an area outwith the territory of the states), and Germany thrived when the capital was Bonn (by no means a big city).

If living and working in London is too dear and overwhelming for UK parliamentarians, perhaps the best solution would be to move the UK parliament up north somewhere. (Westminster is falling to pieces anyway.)

I don’t really care where it gets moved to, so long as it’s not in commuting distance from London. Ideally I believe it should be close to the population-weighted centre of the UK, and not too far from any of the four nations of the Union. My own suggestion would be York (just because I like it, and perhaps due to a bit of Viking nostalgia), but when I mentioned this idea on Twitter, I received many suggestions, such as St. Kilda, Clatt, Stornoway, Liverpool, Inverness, Perth, Dundee, Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh. Some of these might have been made tongue-in-cheek, but Liverpool is actually an excellent suggestion.

Once the new political capital of the UK has been chosen, Halls of Residence for MPs can be built next to the new parliament so that there won’t be any need for second home allowances and all that.

Who could possibly be against this plan?

Between Scylla and Charybdis

Scylla and CharybdisLord 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?