Tag Archives: SNP

Sturgeon must accept the will of the people

At 10 PM on Saturday it will be the first anniversary of that exit poll. The one that revealed that far from being the deadlocked Parliament that everyone was predicting, the 2015 UK General Election would see the Conservative Party easily defeat Labour by 316 seats to 239. As we now know the exit poll everybody mocked underestimated the Conservative performance rather than overestimated it as they got 331 seats and were able to form a (small) majority government. Labour went into turmoil, Ed Miliband resigned and to everyone’s astonishment Labour elected an obscure left wing backbencher Jeremy Corbyn as their leader.

This Thursday sees the first big electoral test for the UK parties since last year’s General Election. The main elections are for the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and the London Mayoral election. And although Labour are the main opposition party the elections will probably not go well for Labour. In Wales a YouGov poll suggested that their vote has gone down from 42% to 33% in five years. They would still be the largest party in the Assembly but would lose their majority if that poll is right (a big if after last year). In the English council elections it’s reckoned they will lose 150 councillors. This is because in 2012 – when these elections were last contested – the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition was at peak unpopularity and Labour’s performance was the high water mark in the Ed Miliband era. Even if Labour improved from last year they probably won’t reach their 2012 vote share hence the probable losses. Their best hope is London. In 2012 Conservative Mayor of London Boris Johnson won the election more on personal than party appeal. He is standing down having became an MP again last year. Labour candidate Sadiq Khan is favourite to beat Conservative Zac Goldsmith and if he does not Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership could be in deep trouble (as I wrote in previous post “Can Corbyn Become Prime Minister?”). If Khan does win the UK press is so London centric Corbyn could use the win there to bury bad results elsewhere (as Prime Minister David Cameron did with Johnson’s win in 2012).

One thing is certain. Labour won’t be getting good news from Scotland. Last year Labour went from 41 Scottish MPs to 1. They won’t suffer as much this time if only because the Scottish National Party (SNP) had already wiped out most of Labour’s Holyrood seats back in 2011. Opinion polls have the SNP at 49% to Labour’s 23% (compared to 45% SNP to 32% Labour in 2011). While the SNP vote seems to have plateaued at 49% – they got 49% of the vote in last year’s UK election – there is no sign of it falling. So the result is widely seen as a formality.

And as a result this election has been dull. Really dull. A 24 hour Bellathon would be more exciting. So would be watching the 20 most boring 0-0 draws in Premier League history. So would watching paint dry. And grass grow..

At least until last night. At the last Scottish Leaders debate the election came at least partly to life. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon had claimed in the press and on TV that if she is reelected on Thursday she expected another Scottish independence referendum in the next five years. For those who don’t know or remember the Scottish independence referendum was held as recently as September 18th 2014 and Independence was rejected by 55% to 45%. Yet with incredible arrogance she wants a second referendum!

Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie summed it up perfectly ” As soon as they don’t get the result they want, they want to do it all over again. Did they not get the message? We want to stay in the UK. I would even claim that you are anti-democratic”.

Spot on. And here is the hypocrisy. Next month the UK has a referendum on whether or not we should stay in the European Union (EU) – I’ll get to that subject in another post. The last time we voted on our European membership was in 1975 – 41 years ago. Why on earth is Sturgeon talking about an another independence referendum so soon after the last one while we had to wait over 40 years for a second vote on Europe?

There cannot be a second independence referendum without the approval of the UK government. Prime Minister David Cameron should make it quite clear that a second independence referendum is not on. He should also make it clear that if the SNP try to pull a stunt like Catalonia in Spain did and hold an illegal referendum that Sturgeon will be arrested and the Scottish Parliament will be shut down.

In 2014 the SNP called the independence referendum “once in a generation”. The WWE called the Rock v John Cena match at Wrestlamania 28 “once in a lifetime”. The Rock and Cena fought again at Wrestlamania 29! But the WWE is entertainment and you don’t expect promoters to tell the truth. But we still (perhaps naively) expect politicians to be honest. The SNP said that the referendum would be “once in a generation”. A generation is NOT two years. The people of Scotland rejected independence less than two years ago. Sturgeon must say there will be no referendum in the next five years. She must accept the will of the people of Scotland.

Some thoughts on the 2015 election

Well no one expected that result did they? Every poll in the UK General Election predicted a hung parliament. As it turned out we got a single party majority – albeit a small one of 11 for the Conservative Party – even more astonishing as it is only the second time the party of the incumbent Prime Minister has increased its number of seats after a full term in office since 1959 (also 1983). So what happens next? Here are some issues and questions that came out of the election.

1. Will the Conservatives behave themselves? The last two Governments with small majorities (1974-79 and 1992-97) ran into problems with rebellions from their own MPs and lost their majorities to by election defeats and defections. The 1992-97 Major government (the last majority Conservative government) was a shambles with the Tory right holding Major to ransom. Will they have learnt their lesson? The funny thing is Cameron’s majority is now smaller (10) than the one the previous coalition had (76). Will it last the full five years?

2. Labour are in a horrid dilemma. Iain MacWhirter in his book “Road to Referendum” said that “Scotland thinks likes Denmark and England thinks like the USA”. Labour lost in England because they were perceived as being too left wing whereas in Scotland they lost because they weren’t left wing enough. Whoever succeeds Ed Miliband has almost an impossible circle to square.

3. The union is in danger again. How on earth can you force Denmark (Scotland) to accept the USA (England’s) policies? You can’t. You also can’t force England to accept Scotland’s policies. I suspect it was the SNP threatening to force a Labour government on a Conservative voting England that drove enough English voters into the arms of the Conservatives to give them a majority. The only solution is either Boris Johnson’s idea of federalism or give the Scottish Parliament a veto on Conservative laws. If Cameron forces austerity on Scotland there will be a second independence referendum – and very soon.

4. Coalitions have no future in the UK. The decimation of the Liberal Democrats – down to 8 MPs compared to 57 – proves that the British people do not want coalitions. Coalitions mean broken promises and the UK people hate politicians who break their promises  but if you are in a coalition you have to break your promises. Disraeli said that “England does not love coalitions”  and what happened to the Lib Dems proves that. A consequence of the Lib Dem massacre is that no small party in the future will join a coalition because they now know they will get decimated.

5. UKIP could fade away. Nigel Farage failed to win Thanet South and promptly resigned*. The problem for UKIP is they are going to get what they want – an in/out referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union (EU). If the UK votes to pull out of the EU UKIP have got what they wanted and I suspect the party will split as that is the only issue UKIP members have in common. If the UK votes to stay in the EU they might get the membership boost the SNP got after the Scottish referendum but I doubt it. I wouldn’t be surprisesd if UKIP don’t exist in 2020 with their one MP Douglas Carswell – a maverick – standing in (and probably winning) Clacton as an independent.

6. But the Green Party won’t. The Green Party trebled their vote despite having an unimpressive leader in Natalie Bennett. if she has the sense to resign and make way for their one MP Caroline Lucas – whose Brighton Pavilion seat is now safe with a majority of over 7,000 – they could well get the anti establishment anti Tory vote. With the Lib Dems in meltdown and UKIP without the charismatic Farage the opportunity for the Greens is great as their environmental message could appeal to both fed up Conservative and Labour voters (for example current Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith used to be editor of the Ecologist magazine). I wouldn’t be surprised if during this parliament the greens go up in the polls and that Lucas might gain a colleague in parliament as they could win safe Conservative seats in by elections (as the Lib Dems used to do)

One thing is certain. The next five years will be crucial for the UK. The future of the UK in Europe – plus the future of the UK itself – could very well be decided during this period. It could be the most crucial Parliament the UK has seen since the October 1974-79 one – the last parliament  both with a European referendum and a single party majority smaller than this one (3). By 2020 the UK could out of the EU. It might even cease to exist. Once the euphoria of his win has died down David Cameron has a series of huge tasks.

*Events have overtook me. Nigel Farage is still leader of UKIP after the party turned down his resignation.

So what on earth will happen on May 7th?

As anyone who reads me will know I quite like making predictions. Some good (the 2014 World Series and the cricket World Cup for example) and some bad (too many to mention). But today I’m attempting my hardest task. To call Thursday’s UK General Election which is the most unpredictable since 1974.

I wasn’t even sure how to do it. I thought of predicting all 650 seats in the UK but most of them are safe (ie one party is a certainty to win) so it would have been boring to read – and boring to write. I thought of just predicting the marginal (the UK equivalent of “swing states” in the US) seats. Sky News has even produced a list of marginals for its “In The Margins” series but not all the 150 seats in that list are marginal. For some reason best known to Sky the list includes safe seats like Aylesbury (Conservative majority 12,648) but not Keighley (Conservative majority 2,940) a seat that has changed sides seven times since 1959. So Sky’s list is flawed.

What I decided to do is do a prediction range for each party – predicting the minimum and maximum number of seats I think each party will win. The range is actually very narrow. Since the war the conservatives have never fallen below 165 and Labour have never fallen below 209. But before I make the predictions for those who don’t know UK politics (or don’t remember) the 2010 election produced the following result:

Conservative 306 seats, Labour 258, Liberal Democrats 57, Scottish National Party (SNP) 6, Plaid Cyrmu 3, Green Party 1, Speaker 1 and Northern Ireland 18* (the UK parties don’t stand there) I should also say a party needs 326 seats** for a majority.

So here is the prediction and I’ll start with the two main parties:

Conservative: 275-295 (that means in my opinion they won’t win less than 275 or more than 295)

Labour: 280-300

As you can see that means it is not certain who will be the biggest party but I would give the edge to Labour because the UK constituency boundaries favour Labour as their seats are in cities thus smaller than the Conservatives and need less votes to win them. It is possible (like February 1974) that Labour will get more seats than the Conservatives but less votes. All the polls suggest a swing to Labour of 2-4 per cent which means Labour should gain seats from the Conservatives as most Con-Lab seats go with the swing. Only 32 Con-Lab seats went against the swing in 2010. I do think the Conservatives might gain a couple from Labour against the swing – Hampstead and Kilburn (majority 42) and Southampton Itchen (majority 192) are two possibilities. But it is clear Labour will make gains from the Conservatives.

But this election isn’t as simple as that. The result will be decided by what happens to the small parties – the Lib Dems , SNP, the Greens, Plaid Cyrmu  and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). And they are very hard to predict. But I’ll try.

Lib Dems: 20-30. It shows how ghastly the Lib Dem poll ratings are (down from 23% in 2010 to 10% if they are lucky) that some people will be amazed that I think they won’t fall below 20 and might get 30. But the Lib Dems are hard to “dig out” of a seat – especially if they have a sitting MP. They will struggle in three scenarios. Where a sitting MP is retiring (ie Berwick upon Tweed) where there is a large student population – like party leader Nick Clegg’s Sheffield Hallam seat – and in Scotland which has not forgiven them  for joining with the Conservatives in coalition after 2010. So I reckon they will hold seats they should lose like Wells (majority 800) which is not a university seat and where the MP was first elected in 2010 but lose safer seats like Bristol West (majority 11,366) which has the university in it. It will be bad for the Lib Dems – but not as bad as people fear.

SNP: 20-30: This goes against the polls that think the SNP could win 50 seats or even all 59 in Scotland but I doubt that. There are signs of a backlash against the SNP with unionists thinking of voting for the party best placed to beat them in different seats. Plus the fact that in most Scottish seats the SNP are a  long way behind (for example the closest Labour-SNP seat is Ochil and Perthshire South (majority 5,197) and it would not take much of a “switch back” to save quite a lot of seats) The SNP will make gains. But I’ll be surprised if they get more than 30 seats.

UKIP: 1-5. I wrote about UKIP back in October  and nothing has happened to make me change my opinion they will get votes but not many seats. Douglas Carswell their first MP will hold Clacton but that might be all they get. Their other MP Mark Reckless could lose his Rochester seat back to the Conservatives and party leader Nigel Farage is a toss up to win Thanet South. Polls say they could win Thurrock, Castle Point (their best bet) Cambourne and Redruth, Great Grimsby and maybe even Rotherham but I’ll be surprised if they win more than 3 and they won’t win more than 5.

Plaid Cymru 2-4. Could gain Ynys Mon (Anglesey in English –  majority 2,461 ) from Labour or lose Arfon (majority 1,455) to them but I reckon they will hold their three seats and gain none.

Green Party: 1-2. Fairly easy to predict. Former leader Caroline Lucas has been a good MP and should hold Brighton Pavillion. They are targeting two Lib Dem seats – Norwich South and Bristol West. They might gain the Norwich  seat which needs a 7.3% swing to go but won’t gain the Bristol one.

Respect: 1-2. Didn’t win a seat in 2010 but gained Bradford West – with George Galloway the MP – in a 2012 by election. Galloway should hold it and they have a slim chance of gaining Birmingham Hall Green (majority 3,799) from Labour.

As you can see my prediction (as almost everybody’s is) is for another hung parliament. But this time I don’t think we will get a coalition but a minority government (that is where one party rules but other party/parties agree not to bring the government down). And since most MPs outside of the big three are more pro Labour (as I wrote before) it is possible that Labour leader Ed Miliband could form a government even if Prime Minister David Cameron has the biggest single party. In that scenario I reckon (like 1974) there will be another election before this year is out (October?) as Labour try to become at least the biggest party and gain legitimacy. In that situation I think the SNP, Greens and UKIP would all lose votes and Labour might even get  a majority.

One thing is certain. it will be a tense nervous night and it could very well be a case as in 2010 of “A  long Night with no winner” (as the “British General Election of 2010” put it)

*Four seats changed hands in by elections between 2010 and 2015 so the current total is Conservative 303 seats, Labour 258, Lib Dem 57, SNP  6, Plaid Cyrmu 3, UKIP 2, Green Party 1,Respect 1, Speaker 1 and Northern Ireland 18
**But as Sinn Fein’s 5 MPs don’t turn up in practice the number of seats needed for a majority is 323.

Miliband need offer Sturgeon nothing

The SNP bandwagon shows no sign of slowing down. In fact it seems to be picking up momentum. Two new Scottish polls have the SNP at over 50 per cent of the Scottish electorate (one had them leading Labour by 50-26 the other by 54-22) . It looks like the SNP could win 54 out of 59 seats in Scotland (with Labour  down to 3, the Lib Dems 1 and the Conservatives 0). For comparison the 2010 seats in Scotland were Labour 41, Lib Dem 11 SNP 6 and Conservative 1. This would put a big prize the SNP’s way. With another hung parliament – where no one party has a majority – looking like a dead cert – and the Lib Dems reckoned to fall from 57 seats to less than 30 and perhaps nearer 20 – it looks like the SNP and their allies the Welsh Nationalists Plaid Cyrmu*  could decide who is the Prime Minister of the UK after May 7th.. While that is scary for English voters the SNP are not in as strong a position as at first glance and are in a position to demand very little.

This is because party leader Nicola Sturgeon has made it quite clear that she would only support Labour leader Ed Miliband as Prime Minister and under no circumstances the Conservatives even if current PM David Cameron offered her a another referendum on Scottish independence – which he wouldn’t anyway. History shows that unless a minor party is prepared to back either party they don’t get much out of the big party in deal negotiations

The first example is from the 1970s. As I mentioned before the Labour party had won the October 1974 election with a majority of 3 seats. By 1977 by election defeats and defections had wiped out that tiny majority and Labour were in a minority. In March 1977 Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher tabled a no confidence motion in the government. If she won it meant a General Election would be held – and as Thatcher was 13 per cent ahead in the polls it would have been a disaster for Labour. The 11 SNP MPs would not back Labour nor the 10 Ulster Unionists. Labour looked doomed.

But luckily for Labour another party was in trouble. The previous summer Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe had resigned over allegations of a homosexual affair** and the party had not recovered. Prime Minister James Callaghan’s policy advisor Bernard Donoughue called the 13 Liberal MPs “hysterical” and polls suggested that an election would mean only 5 held their seats (Dominic Sandbrook “Seasons in the Sun : The Battle for Britain 1974-79” page 647). So as neither Labour or the Liberals wanted an election in 1977 the two parties got talking and agreed the “Lib-Lab Pact” where the Liberals would agree to support Callaghan’s government thus thwarting Thatcher’s no confidence motion as the 13 Liberal MPs gave Callaghan a majority.

And what did the Liberals gain in return? Not much. Labour “accepted a limited number of Liberal party proposals” and…that is it. They didn’t even get proportional representation (PR) for the 1979 European Parliament elections. Labour offered them a “free vote”  on the issue (where MPs are allowed to make their own minds up rather than have to do what the party tells them to). But as most Labour MPs in the 1970s were against PR  anyway it made no difference and PR was defeated.

The reason the Liberals couldn’t demand more is that they could only support Labour. The alternative was a General Election  that they did not want. So they had little bargaining power over Labour in negotiations. The similarity with the SNP today is striking.

In contrast in 2010 when the Lib Dems held the balance of power after that election  they made it quite clear that they were prepared to deal with Labour or the Conservatives. So when Labour offered them a referendum on electoral reform the Conservatives had to follow suit otherwise the Lib Dems could have formed a coalition with Labour instead. They formed a coalition with the Conservatives and in 2011 the referendum on electoral reform was lost. But had before the election they said they were only prepared to work with one party the referendum would not have happened in the first place.

Another analogy is from the Simpsons of all things. In the episode “Burns Verkaufen der Kraftwerk” (8F09) Mr Burns sells the nuclear power plant to a couple of Germans but then changes his mind and wants to buy it back. He goes on his knees and says “Please sell me my plant back. I’ll pay anything”. But the Germans – who want to sell the plant – make the mistake of telling Burns they are desperate to sell. Burns then gets off his knees and says “Desperate eh? Advantage: Burns” and proceeds to make them an offer of half what they paid for it.The Germans are not happy but as they are desperate to sell and that is his final offer – and no one else has bid for the plant – they have no choice to accept (a consequence of this is that Homer – who the Germans fired – got his job back).

So on May 8th if the SNP hold the balance Ed Miliband has to act like Mr Burns. Yes he is desperate to get to 10 Downing Street –  but the SNP are desperate to get David Cameron out so it is “advantage Miliband.” He need offer the SNP nothing since they will want neither Cameron to stay PM or a second election which they would get the odium for causing and could put their newly elected MPs at risk. So Miliband needs to do nothing . Just sit back and wait for the SNP to take him to Downing Street. For they have no other choice.

*Plaid Cyrmu had 3 MPs in the last Parliament. Polls suggest they will have 3 MPs again after this election.

**Homosexuality was far less tolerated in 1970s Britain than it is now.

 

If Clegg goes Cameron could go with him

One interesting feature of UK General Elections is that even the most famous politicians in the UK have to get re elected in their own constituencies. David Cameron for example is not the Prime Minister – he is the humble Conservative candidate for Witney. Likewise the man who wants to replace him as Prime Minister – Labour leader Ed Miliband – is just the Labour candidate for Doncaster North. And if either lose their seat they cannot be Prime Minister as you have to be an MP to be Prime Minister. Now I should say that Witney and Doncaster North are safe seats for their parties and the chances of either man losing are nil.

However famous names can and do lose at elections. One example was Patrick Gordon Walker who lost Smethwick (see previous post) in the 1964 election which eventually cost him the job of Foreign Secretary. But the most famous slaughter of big names came in Labour’s 1997 landslide where 7 out of 22 MPs who were in the Conservative Cabinet lost their seats including the most infamous defeat in UK politics.

In 1997 Michael Portillo was the most hated politician in the country – called a “bastard” by his own party’s Prime Minister John Major. And Labour hated him too!   Still he was defending a majority of over 15,000 in Enfield Southgate so he was expected to win – and then become leader of his party after their election defeat. But  Labour took Southgate on a huge swing of 17.4 % (the UK swing to Labour in 1997 was 10 %). It was such a memorable event it became known as the “Portillo Moment*” and briefly coined a UK catchphrase “Were you up for Portillo**?” But that result only affected the leadership of the Conservative Party – not the result of the election. There is just the possibility of a “Portillo Moment” in this year’s election – and this could decide who goes to Number 10 Downing Street on May 8th.

The man in question is the leader of the Liberal Democrats (Lib Dems for short) and the UK’s Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. Like Portillo he is defending a majority of over 15,000 in his seat – Sheffield Hallam. Like Portillo he should be safe. But like Portillo he is hated in the UK. This is partly because a lot of Lib Dems hate the Conservatives and didn’t want the party to go into coalition with them. But his real mistake was to say during the 2010 campaign that he would oppose an increase in tuition fees for students in England and Wales – and then he voted for an increase once he was in government. As the Lib Dems had campaigned for the student vote in 2010 on the issue of not raising them they felt betrayed. I don’t think many students will vote for the party this time. And unfortunately for Clegg his constituency includes Sheffield Hallam university! A poll earlier this year in the seat suggested he was behind Labour and just ahead of the Conservatives. He might even finish third.

But this matters more than just wither or not Clegg holds the seat. If Clegg does lose the seat it could cost his boss David Cameron his job of Prime Minister. This is because it looks like no one party will get a majority and who becomes Prime Minister will depend on who can do deals with smaller parties. Most people think that the current  coalition was built on the chemistry between Clegg and Cameron. As I wrote above the majority of the Lib Dems are hostile to the Conservatives and a new leader – which the party would need if Clegg loses – is likely to want to either deal with Labour or go back into opposition.

This could cause real trouble for David Cameron. if the Lib Dems won’t deal with him who will? A look at the other parties who had MPs in the last Parliament is not encouraging for him.

Scottish National Party (SNP) – had 6 MPs in the last parliament. Their constitution bans deals with the Conservatives.

Plaid Cyrmu – 3 MPs – won’t back a Conservative government that the people of Wales reject. The Conservatives have never won a general election in Wales

United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) – 2 MPs –  might go with the Conservatives but would take Cameron to the right where he does not want to go. Also unlikely to win many seats and might lose the two they have.

Green Party – 1 MP – Caroline Lucas who said in 2010 she would not vote for a Conservative government. One suspects if the party wins more seats those MPs would agree with their former leader.

Respect – 1 MP – George Galloway who got kicked out of Labour for opposing the Iraq war. There is no way he would back the Conservatives.

Then there are the Northern Ireland parties:

Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) – 8 MPs – Cameron’s best hope. But they would want rid of the bedroom tax and more spending for Northern Ireland which Cameron would oppose.

Sinn Fein  – 5 MPs – who don’t take their seats so can be discounted. Wouldn’t deal with the Conservatives anyway.

Social Democratic and Labour Party – 3MPs – A sister party of Labour. Enough said

Alliance Party – 1 MP – A sister party of the Lib Dems but the MP – Naomi Long – did not back the coalition or take the Lib Dem whip.

It is clear form the list above that the parties outside the “big three” are more likely to back Labour than the Conservatives. That means Cameron’s only hope of remaining Prime Minister is to do a “Coalition version 2” with the Lib Dems. But if Clegg is defeated the chances of that happening are at best greatly reduced and at worse gone. With this in mind of the 650 seats in this election Sheffield Hallam is the most important. It could on its own decide David Cameron’s fate. It could very well be that if Nick Clegg loses his seat that David Cameron’s chance of remaining at 10  Downing Street go with him.

* There is even a UK band called The Portillo Moment.

**This means were you awake/did you see Portillo’s defeat live on TV? The result was declared at 3.01am and the result of the election was already known so a lot of viewers would have gone to bed. If you are interested I was up for Portillo.

Should there be UK Election TV debates?

Today is a big milestone in the UK political calendar. There are 100 days of campaigning left before the country goes to the polls on May 7th in what is looking like the most unpredictable UK election since 1974. There are many questions to be answered including Will there be leader’s debates on TV? And if so who’ll take part?
Unlike in the US, leaders debates did not occur in the UK until the last election in 2010 where there were three debates – on ITV, Sky News and the BBC – between then Prime Minister Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg. The debates attracted TV audiences of 9.3 million (ITV), 4.1 million (Sky News) and 8.1 million (BBC) (Dennis Kavanagh and Philip Cowley, the British General Election of 2010, page 266) and according to the same book (page 267) “The prevailing view among broadcasters and politicians…was that the debates had been a success and that they had come to stay”. So why with 100 days of the campaign left are the debates not a certainty to happen again? And would that be a good or a bad thing?
The event that has caused the problem has been the rise of a fourth party in UK politics, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). Since 2013 there have been seven by-elections in Great Britain. UKIP has won two, come second by less then 5% in two, and second in the other three. They also won last years European Parliament elections in the UK. The broadcasters (the three that covered the 2010 debates plus Channel 4) responded to the rise of UKIP by proposing a “4-3-2” plan. One debate would have four participants – the 2010 trio plus UKIP leader Nigel Farage – one would have the same participants as 2010 and the third would be a US style two headed debate between Prime Minister David Cameron and Labour Party leader Ed Miliband.
And then the problems started. The Green Party (who have one MP – who unlike UKIP’s two MPs* – won her seat at the 2010 Election as a Green) felt that if UKIP were in a debate, their leader Natalie Bennett should be too. And enter in a bizarre alliance, David Cameron, who said he would not take part in the debates unless the Greens were there. (I should explain that the reason we didn’t have debates in the UK pre 2010 is that the Prime Minister of the day always turned them down. We only got debates in 2010 because Gordon Brown was so far behind in the polls he felt he had nothing to lose.) So it looked like the debates were off.
So the broadcasters got their thinking caps on – and came up with a “7-7-2” plan. Two of the debates would include SEVEN parties – the four already in plus the Greens, the Scottish National Party (SNP) and Plaid Cymru – the latter two also wanting in despite the fact they are regional not national parties – while the third would be a Cameron v Miliband head to head. However, this plan is causing trouble too. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg wants to take part in all three debates and other parties want in – among them the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Northern Ireland. Mebyon Kernow (Sons of Cornwall) the Cornish Nationalists also want in – even though they only stand in six seats out of 650 – and even more ridiculously the Monster Raving Loony Party want to take part. The debates are disintegrating into a shambles. The broadcasters – showing breath taking arrogance – are bullying parties into taking part saying if any party does not turn up the debates will go ahead with the absentee party represented by an empty chair. But should the debates take place? In my opinion no.
First of all five parties might be too many. Seven would be. As the British General Election of 2010 (page 265) put it “The debate format had its limitations. Chiefly arising from tackling eight or more substantial topics in under 90 minutes”. And that was with three participants. Imagine the chaos with seven politicians trying to get a word in. Also a debate works best with just two participants – which is why they work in US Presidential elections and also where there is a “Yes or No” choice like last year’s Scottish independence referendum. They are not suitable for the multi party democracy the UK has been since at least 1974.
However my third reason is most important. I was never for the debates and the events of 2010 proved that. They had the effect of totally overshadowing the rest of the campaign. More seriously they turned politics into a game show – the equivalent of reality TV shows like the X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent. But politics is too important for that. Being good on TV should not be the most important quality for a Prime Minister. And it isn’t. Being good on TV won’t help a Prime Minister when it comes to making the most important decision he/she has to make: Should I send my country’s troops into war? Two of the UK’s last three Prime Ministers -Tony Blair and Cameron – got this wrong, although in Cameron’s case he was rescued by Parliament refusing to back his plan to attack Syria.
The other point is that the UK does NOThave a Presidential system. On May 7th we are electing a Government for the next five years – not a Prime Minister. And the debates in 2010 had the effect of giving more publicity to party leaders who are over exposed anyway.
I hope the parties don’t succumb to the broadcasters’ bullying and the debates don’t happen. For those who use the US as an example, the first presidential debates in the US were between Kennedy and Nixon in 1960. They did not happen again until Ford debated Carter in 1976. There is no reason whatsoever why they have to become a regular event here. Remember the broadcasters only care about ratings. We have imported a lot of things from the US. But not everything that works in the US is suitable for the UK. TV debates are one of the things that aren’t.
*UKIP’s two MPs were elected in 2010 as Conservatives. Last year they defected to UKIP, resigning their seats to fight them under their new party’s colours. Both retained their seats.

Have the Unionists won the battle…but lost the war?

The Alex Salmond era at Holyrood ends this weekend as Nicola Sturgeon will be confirmed as the SNP’s new leader – she is the only candidate – and next week will be elected Scotland’s fifth First Minister since the Scottish Parliament opened in 1999. That of course has been predicted ever since Salmond resigned the day after the referendum. But post-referendum Scottish politics has not gone the way most people had predicted and if it goes on the way it is going we could end up with another referendum a lot sooner than we think.
Most people expected Sturgeon to take over a demoralised party – after all the SNP had seen the whole reason for its existence rejected by the Scottish voters – but instead the SNP has gained 75,000 new members post referendum. Meanwhile the Scottish Labour party is in total disarray. Last month its leader Johann Lamont quit and while doing so fired a broadside at UK leader Ed Miliband saying he treated the Scottish Labour Party as a “branch office” of London. To show what a shambles this party is Lamont’s successor will be Scottish Labour’s seventh leader in fifteen years. And their poll ratings are awful. The election prediction website Electoral Calculus (http://www.electoralcalculus.co.uk/scotland.html) has the SNP at 43.48% and Labour at 26.61%. If that happened at next May’s UK General Election the SNP would have 47 seats (up from 6) and Labour just 11 (down from 41). And that is an average of the October polls. One was so bad for Labour that it would mean the SNP won 54 seats and Labour just 4. How on earth did we get into this position?
There are a number of factors here. I suspect the new SNP members are those people who voted “Yes” in the referendum but had never voted before and the referendum had ignited an interest in politics they hadn’t had before. As for Labour there are two factors at work here. One recent, the other long-term. Labour made a dreadful mistake joining up with the Tories in the “No” campaign. What you have to understand is that Scotland hates the Tories and any party that helps them gets the odium of Scotland’s voters. The SNP well know this. In March 1979 they helped to bring down the Labour Government. Their 11 MPs voted with the Tories and Labour lost the vote by one. As a reward, at the subsequent election the SNP vote went down by 13.1% and their seats went from 11 to 2. And they suffered for years after that. As former SNP deputy leader Jim Sillars said (in Iain MacWhirter’s book “Road to Referendum” page 174) “there was pure hatred on the doorsteps…for letting the Tories in”. More recently the Lib Dem vote in Scotland has collapsed ever since 2010 when they went into coalition with the Tories. At the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections they went from 16 seats to 5 and if they keep more than 2 of their 11 Scottish seats in the UK General Election next May I’ll be amazed. Labour should not have joined up with the Tories as it has enabled the SNP to do to them what they did to the SNP after 1979. Labour called the SNP “Tartan Tories”. The SNP now call Labour the “Red Tories”.
Labour’s other mistake is more long term. They never really wanted a Scottish Parliament at all. In August 1974 UK Prime Minister Harold Wilson more or less forced the Scottish Labour Party to support a Scottish Parliament at an infamous conference at Dalintober Street in Glasgow. That was because in the election the previous February, the SNP had gone from 1 MP to 7, and its vote had gone up from 11.4% to 21.9%. As Wilson had no majority there was going to be another election soon, and Wilson supported devolution only to cut down the risk of the SNP gaining Labour seats. Short term it worked – in the October election the SNP went from 7 seats to 11 and their vote went up to 30.4% but none of their 4 gains came from Labour. But the problem was that because devolution’s only purpose was to stop the SNP when the Scottish Parliament was finally set up Labour according to MacWhirter (page 211) “didn’t know what it wanted to do with the Parliament it created”. Further more because Labour didn’t regard the Scottish Parliament as important its big names – Brown, Cook, Reid Darling etc – stayed in London and Labour had their “B” team at Holyrood against the SNP’s “A” team – with predictable results which lead to their disaster in 2011.
Some will think this only matters to the Labour Party. But it does not. it matters to the whole of the UK. The aforementioned Electoral Calculus predicts that if the UK General Election was held now Labour would have 302 seats, the Tories 263, the Lib Dems 16 and the SNP 47 – and their allies Plaid Cymru* 3. (with other parties winning 19). This means Labour could only rule with SNP support (the SNP’s constitution bans coalition with the Tories. They learned their 1979 lesson well). What would the SNP demand?
To make maters worse Alex Salmond could lead the SNP at Westminster. There are rumours he will try to win the Lib Dem seat of Gordon (majority 6,748). Judged by the polls that would be a formality. So we could have the nightmare scenario of Alex Salmond dictating terms to the UK parties. He could demand a second independence referendum in return for supporting Labour.
All this means the Scottish Labour Party needs to get its act together pronto. There are three candidates for leader – Jim Murphy, Neil Finlay and Sarah Boyack. They must pick the beat person for the job. And that is Jim Murphy. They must also pick Kezia Dugdale as his deputy. These two are the best in a depressingly shallow pool of Scottish Labour talent. So poor is the Scottish Labour party’s pool of talent they had to drag ex PM Gordon Brown out of mothballs to help win the referendum.
If Scottish Labour do not get this choice right they could face wipe out next year. And Scotland could be heading for another independence referendum very soon. And if that happened, could it be a case of the Unionists winning the battle but losing the war?
*Plaid Cymru (in English “The Party of Wales”) are the Welsh Nationalists. They and the SNP form a parliamentary bloc at Westminster.