People rarely if ever predict disasters which is why they surprise us so when they befall us. Whether we would classify the Labour Party rout in Scotland and England as a disaster is a moot point – that depends on whether you take a long view or a short view of history.
In 1992 John Major confounded all the political pundits by winning the Conservative Party its fourth consecutive national election. By 1997 the party that was embroiled in what seemed like one sleaze scandal after another, fell to an invigorated Labour party under the charismatic leadership of Tony Blair.
In 2015 David Cameron had no-one who could compete with him. Even if his demeanor is reserved, his ministers added just enough spice to the political soup to give his Conservative Party the appearance of possessing a soul. But none of that matters if the economy is flourishing (most people are not in pain) and if people feel relatively safe and comfortable (as they do).
Labour did not suffer another defeat because of the role given to its ‘Jewish born’ leader Ed Miliband but because it has no vision of what it wants to be. It chose Ed Milibands’ Michael Foot (hang the capitalists high) Old Labour outlook over his brother David’s Tony Blair New Labour looks and ideas. And even that is not why they failed. Labour failed because it had nothing new to offer the people and nothing old but credible to offer the electorate. Its message was shaped by Old Labour socialism: the NHS, inequality and living costs. But it had nothing to offer that the Conservatives hadn’t already made noises about.
The working classes are no longer the monolithic, benighted class that brings tears to the eyes of romantic visionaries in search of social justice. And yet Labour still talks about its workers as if they were impoverished and without representation. Labour needs its ideals but it desperately needs to update them for the 21st Century. Under New Labour the party secured support from skilled workers. It has lost that support.
In the 21st Century we have aspirations and I would make a distinction between them and ambitions. The difference is defined by the former being more weighted towards education and the pleasure principle than the latter. Ambition was all about Class and escaping poverty. Most of us are past that now. Labour needs to redefine its vision for our future. Too many people are still affected by poverty but the balance of those scales are weighed overwhelmingly in favor of those for whom comfort is more important than the alleviation of someone else’s suffering. It isn’t cruelty but the success of the social net that has lost Labour its electoral appeal.
All political parties must constantly reinvent themselves because people need a reason to vote and if they have none then they don’t, or not at least, for the party seeking power. We only seek change if there is something ‘in it’ for us personally. That may just mean a feel good feeling but it is still a personal choice.
In 1992 most opinion polls predicted a Labour victory. Similarly, in 2015 most polls predicted either a Labour victory or a hung parliament. So what happened?
In 1992 the Conservative Party had 26% of the Scottish vote and 11 Scottish seats in Westminster. In 1997 when Labour defeated the Tories by a landslide that proportion of the Scottish vote fell to 18% and no seats. In the four successive elections that have been held since then, its voter turnout has remained fairly static and it has held onto one seat in each election. It has done nothing to convince conservatives in Scotland that it has a vision for Scotland that is relevant to Scots. It is therefore almost unelectable “north of the English border.”
In the 2010 national elections Labour scored 42% of the overall Scottish vote and received 69% of the seats on offer. This year that share of the Scottish vote dropped to just 24% and that translated into one seat only (the same as the Conservatives).
A party cannot complain that the system works for them and then, that it doesn’t.
First past the post voting has its advantages for the established, well funded, larger parties. But then it is not enough to have a presence in the local community; it must inspire enough voters to win over a majority of voters in the seat it is contesting. The system works if only because there is nothing better out there. Proportional Representation empowers every radical (reactionary as well as ‘so called’ progressive) able to muster the thresh-hold votes to gain a seat and that is even more destabilizing to the political process; look at Israel.
The following are the final results for the 2015 British National Elections: (with thanks to the BBC and other sites)
|Votes per Seat
|Plaid Cymru (Wales)
|DUP (Northern Ireland)
Some complain that the electorate is insufficiently sophisticated to be able to use their vote wisely but it is usually the losers that make that accusation, not the winners. People voted for Conservative over Labour and Labour over Liberal Democrat (and so forth) for mainly two reasons:
Fear: that if they voted for any but the two major parties their vote would be wasted. Fear: that a vote for the Labour Party would translate into a Scottish victory via a hung parliament that would see Labour beholden to Scotland for passing any legislation.
The Liberal Democrats shared power with the Conservatives for five years between 2010 and 2015. They could offer no vision save that of an emasculated and elitist party with no influence and even less independence of action. That leaves the Scottish National Party. Scotland has 32% of the UK landmass and 8% of its population. It is marginally wealthier than the UK average and has a national identity that puts it in conflict with England, which it sees as controlling its ‘destiny’ as well as all of its ‘national’ resources.
In the 20th Century, as an imperial power the United Kingdom saw its colonial empire decimated. Nevertheless it remains one of the world’s most wealthy nations as well as one of the most attractive destinations for immigration. It has done well to hold onto remaining colonial appendages such as Ireland, Wales and Scotland for as long as it has without devolving any real authority to their citizens.
It is this contradictory nationalism that has given hope to Scottish voters. ‘Contradictory,’ because in a theoretically post-nationalism Europe, Scottish identity is particularistic and therefore radically out of step with the rest of the European Union it is so desperate to join as a separate country, independent of Great Britain.
Political scientists may well earn their salaries for years to come by endlessly re-examining the 2015 UK election results. But it seems to me that the results were, the only ones that made any sense.