The Battle for Britain 2015
Sunday Mail, December 28th 2014
Britain has had a tumultuous year. And 2015 will be as dramatic and difficult to predict.
The UK general election will take place on Thursday May 7th. None of the three established Westminster parties are popular and nor are their leaders. Cameron’s poll ratings at least run ahead of Tory support, whereas Miliband and Clegg are massively unpopular with 22% and 13% satisfaction ratings respectively; and Miliband is more unpopular in Scotland than the Tory Prime Minister.
At the last UK election in 2010, the Conservatives finished 20 seats short of a majority, but 48 seats ahead of Labour. Combining with the Lib Dems in coalition produced a comfortable majority, but any Labour-Lib Dem potential deal would have been scuppered as they were 11 seats short of a majority.
The politics of parliamentary arithmetic matters. 2015 may well see both Labour and Tories unable to form a majority by themselves, or in association with the Lib Dems. This will produce either a three party coalition government, or more likely, a weak minority government of either Labour or Tories needing to win individual parliamentary votes on an issue-by-issue basis.
Already Westminster insiders are looking to the prospect of two general elections one after the other. Tory strategies are already planning contingencies, having raised £78 million in the last four years, a figure which dwarfs Labour funding – a quarter from City of London hedge funds. Money will have a bigger impact than ever before in this election along with social media, with any party which stands in each constituency able to spend £32.7 million in the long campaign.
The old parties don’t have Westminster politics all to themselves anymore. UKIP won the May Euro elections with 27% of the national vote, returning 24 MEPs including one in Scotland, and went on to win two by-elections. The SNP’s popularity has gone into the stratosphere since the referendum: with party membership reaching 92,000, and impressive poll ratings for Westminster and the Scottish Parliament. The Westminster SNP figures worry Labour, with the two polls taken since Jim Murphy became Scottish Labour leader, showing the SNP way ahead of Labour, meaning that Labour cannot count on its 41 Scottish seats the way it once did.
Yet this is a Westminster insider class version of Britain which doesn’t address the popular concerns and anxieties many people feel. An alternative viewpoint would address the creaking nature of British society: the divided society, episodic anger, lack of trust in elites and institutions, and widespread sense of feeling let down and disappointed at the state of the country.
There are many contributory factors to this: the economic dislocation of the 1980s, the arrogance in New Labour politics, and the lack of accountability following the banking crash and the political expenses’ scandals and more. All of this combines into a popular view that politicians and the mainstream parties no longer represent and look after the interests of working people.
The writer John Harris captured this recently looking at the alienation in former Labour heartlands – from the North of England to Scotland and Wales. In the latter, someone asked ‘What’s Labour done for the Rhondda Valley?’ while a young worker looking for work when asked ‘What a trade union was?’ replied ‘What’s that?’
There is a counterview to this from Westminster watchers that everything is alright. The former political editor of the ‘New Statesman’ Rafael Behr gave voice to this when he dismissed the notion of crisis writing, ‘Sudden transformations in politics are rare. The safest prediction of what will happen next is … it will look a lot like what is happening now’.
How ingrained this is can be evidenced by Behr dismissing the referendum, as ‘The union that entered 2014 is the same one that leaves it’. This ignores an SNP and independence movement galvinised, the Westminster class confused and bemused, and the emergence of the English democratic question.
If that view is blinkered, a third perspective will become more vocal on the right as the election approaches. In places such as the ‘Daily Telegraph’ and ‘Spectator’ it will trump ‘the great British jobs miracle’, and want to mobilise opinion to slash public spending and bring the state back to the levels of the 1930s – a strategy Chancellor George Osborne has embraced.
2015 will witness these competing visions of Britain present themselves. The traditional parties will do all they can to keep the show on the road, to pretend the insurrections of UKIP and the SNP go away, and that they can keep their monopoly of Westminster politics and power.
Next year’s election may not see Britain’s increasingly discredited political system overthrown, but uncertainty and change will continue to shape what passes for Westminster politics. The old parties are in retreat, confusion and denial about the modern world. In Britain as elsewhere people will in larger numbers turn to populists, outsiders and anti-establishment forces to show their discontent and disillusionment. And in this, 2015 while not promising a revolution, marks a country in significant transition.
Today is 1,425 days since the Chilcot inquiry concluded taking evidence. Since the end of the Iraq war Britain has had two general elections and three Prime Ministers, while the US published its Senate investigation into allegations of CIA torture. Can the UK really have another general election with Chilcot unpublished? And when it does, unlike the Hutton and Butler inquiries, will it get closer to holding to account those who took Britain into its most unnecessary and avoidable war in years?
The Labour-SNP struggle for supremacy will witness another round in the 2015 contest. Fascinating research published last week showed how Labour and SNP voters saw themselves and their parties. Labour voters see themselves as left-wing, think they support a left-wing party, and see the SNP as significantly to their right. SNP voters see themselves as left-wing, think they support a left-wing party, and see Labour as even further to their right. The gap between the how Labour and SNP voters see their own parties is tiny, but there is a chasm between these perceptions. Expect to see the above version of Scotland on show in both the 2015 and 2016 elections.
Finally, what will be the next Yes? All around Scotland as we approach New Year celebrations, Yes window posters, car stickers and declarations on social media remain, continuing to pay tribute to the democratic engagement and hopes raised by the referendum.
But Yes depends on the time, moment and question asked, and what will happen when the next big referendum question comes along with a Yes/No? More than likely this will not be on Scottish independence, but instead on UK membership of the European Union. Will the Yes side align with pro-independence opinion, or could it be more complex? And should people just keep up their window posters and stickers to transfer to the next campaign?