A couple of things that caught my eye yesterday.
First, apparently Prime Minister’s Questions was yet again dominated by grown men flinging insults at each other, rather than actually discussing any issues. (I’ve long thought that the most transgressive thing you could do there is to ask an actual question) It was capped by David Cameron making a huge deal out of Ed Balls forgetting someone’s surname, because no other human being in history has ever had a minor memory failure in a public situation.
After all, it’s not like the Prime Minister once managed to forget the existence of his own daughter, is it?
Meanwhile on Twitter, everyone’s favourite answer to ‘who’ll be the next Tory to join UKIP?’ was marking a little bit of history:
— Daniel Hannan (@DanHannanMEP) February 4, 2015
Except that, a cursory glance at the document, or indeed a basic knowledge of British political history would have told him that anniversary wasn’t actually until next week. Yesterday was merely the anniversary of the first round of that election, not the second round in which she was actually elected.
Of course this doesn’t matter, because Hannan’s not in a role where his basic job relies on him being able to understand what official documents say before commenting on them. You or I might think that’s exactly a member of a Parliament might be for, but Hannah’s clearly transcended that.
It seems that the prospect of some kind of grand coalition is the bad idea that will not die of the moment, probably given an extra burst of unlife by the election campaign having started yesterday despite no one wanting it to. There’s more of a link than just that coincidence, too, as both are pretty much just obsessions of the Westminster bubble right now, with no real relevance to anyone outside it.
As I said in my post at the weekend, I don’t think a Tory-Labour government is likely after the next election, or indeed any election unless there’s some crisis driving it. (This, of course, is assuming we have the same electoral and party system as we do now – when that’s changed, as it has in Scotland, it’s much more likely to happen)
The sort of crisis it would take wouldn’t be just a single election that doesn’t deliver a clear majority or an obvious coalition of one big party and one small party. In that circumstance, I believe we would end up with a minority government that would attempt to survive by numerous deals with other parties. It probably wouldn’t last too long (though never underestimate the power of party discipline) but would be much more preferable to Labour or the Tories than a coalition with their ancient enemy.
What there’d also be in the run-up to the following election (be it six months or a year away) would be massive pressure from the media to the public on the lines of ‘you’ve had your fun, now make a proper decision this time’. The hope would be to end any incipient crisis (or at least kick it a few years down the road) by getting a majority government (or at least a workable coalition) from a second election. However, if that didn’t happen, we’d be into a political crisis, and I could imagine that you would then get a grand coalition of some sort. It might not last a full term, but I suspect it would come in to try and deliver some changes to the system to deliver stable government in future. (In other words, electoral reform that benefits large parties, not small ones)
The other option would be if there was some international crisis (economic and/or geopolitical) that prompted the need for some form of national unity government. That’s what prompted national governments in the UK in the past, but there don’t seem to be any of sufficient scale on the horizon to justify a national government. There’s my hostage to fortune, so come May when we’re facing Putin’s invasion or the complete collapse of the European economy triggered by a Syriza-led government in Greece, feel free to mock me for it.
There have been occasions since WW2 when circumstances could have led to Britain having another national government but luck and electoral timing appear to have spared us from it. For instance, if the second election of 1974 hadn’t delivered a majority and certain allegations about Jeremy Thorpe had come out, a national government might have been the only solution. (And there have always been dark rumours about things happening behind the scenes to make this happen)
Another more recent potential might have been if Gordon Brown had gone for an election in late 2007, and then found himself facing the full blast of the global financial crisis with little or no Parliamentary majority. Pressure to at least find some way to bring the Opposition closer to Government could have been immense, and who knows where we might have ended up?
The British system has been very good for years at dodging full-on crises, and it most likely will again, but it takes a major crisis to provoke a response that’s wildly beyond the norm and I don’t think one inconclusive election will be enough to make it happen.
Having realised that the long weekend after New Year is a very boring time for much of its target audience, the Guardian has decided to liven things up. All news websites now use clickbait headlines and articles to drag in readers looking to be offended by something wilfully controversial, and the Guardian is no different. Sure, it likes to pretend to be above that, and it doesn’t employ any of the Jan Moirs, Richard Littlejohns or Jeremy Clarksons who are masters of the clickbait article, but this piece by Ian Birrell is clearly intended as pure clickbait. (And from the number of people I’ve seen linking to it, very successful clickbait it is too)
Like all clickbait it begins with a catchy headline that will already be getting many of its readers angry at the implications – proposing a Tory-Labour grand coalition is a sure way of angering members of both parties – and then spends a few hundred words trying to justify the headline, hopefully stoking the flames of outrage. People then discuss their outrage on social media – complete with links to the article to help others get outraged – and the website editors sit back and smile as they watch the clicks roll in.
And like so much clickbait, the ideas it’s putting forward don’t stand up to much scrutiny. Unity governments of the sort Birrell proposes aren’t just rare in British politics, they’re rare in almost all countries. Yes, Germany has had two recently, but Germany’s a special case where not only the electoral mathematics and party positions forced it, but there’s also a strong aversion to minority governments (from what I can tell, they’re incredibly uncommon even at the state level) and Angela Merkel remains strikingly popular.
In Britain, by contrast, there isn’t a prescription against minority government – one of the arguments for the coalition within the Liberal Democrats was the alternative was a Conservative minority government – and national governments have only arisen in response to crises, not election results. There’s no Merkel-esque figure in British politics for a national government to form around, and the costs to the parties of agreeing it would be immense.
The mathematics might make a Tory-Labour coalition possible (as they did in 2010) but that’s about the only thing that does. For it to come about, it would have to be the least worst of all the options available to both parties after the election and short of some unforeseen international crisis erupting before then, I don’t see the circumstances in which that could happen. If various combinations of nationalist parties hold enough seats to make a coalition with the Liberal Democrats unworkable for either party, I’m still sure that whichever is the larger would find running a minority government much more appealing than a grand coalition. Why collaborate with the enemy when you have a realistic prospect of working without them?
It also forgets the level of animosity that exists between Labour and the Conservatives. As far as I’m aware, there’s only been one case recently of the two forming a coalition in local government (in Stockton-on-Tees a few years ago) and that was in some rather odd circumstances. Birrell might believe that replacing Miliband with Chuka Umunna would solve all those problems, but I’m not aware that Umunna was educated at Hogwarts to have the magical powers needed to make the majority of the Labour Party think it’s OK. Similarly, the idea that the Tory Party are so desperate to remain in power that this wouldn’t be Nigel Farage’s greatest ever recruitment tool requires forgetting decades of political history.
I’m expecting the next election to create a very interesting result, and for there to be some interesting times after it, but in the absence of a major crisis, a Tory-Labour coalition will not be part of those interesting times.
The Tories have clearly decided that they have to win the Rochester and Strood by-election, and are willing to throw everything they have at ensuring they get their victory. As happened with Newark, they’ve told all MPs they have to pay a number of visits to the constituency, and David Cameron may well go there for five campaign trips. (Another sign of my advancing age is that I can remember when Tony Blair’s one visit to the 1997 Uxbridge by-election was regarded as a major change in protocol for a Prime Minister)
Throwing the kitchen sink at trying to hold a seat in a by-election from UKIP isn’t a rare event any more, but some of the news that’s coming out is making me wonder if the Tories are so focused on the short-term gain of holding the seat, they’re not seeing the potential damage they’re doing in the long run.
First up, there are already rumours floating around that someone is doing push-polling that’s attacking Tory MP turned UKIP candidate Mark Reckless. (‘Push-polling’ is a practice common in US elections where negative messages about a candidate are spread by means of purported phone polling) Whether this is happening or not, the idea that it is has caught traction amongst UKIP supporters, as I discovered when I mentioned it on Twitter on Sunday. Now, there may well be nothing in these rumours, but they fit in with the mindset and narrative of UKIP supporters that they’ve got ‘the establishment’ frightened, and the only way it can stop them is to fight dirty.
As part of the Tory campaign to hold Rochester and turn back UKIP, they’ve used an open primary to select their candidate, giving everyone in the constituency a postal vote to choose between the final two contenders on the Tory shortlist. As you might expect, mailing every voter in a constituency (and paying for their freepost return envelopes) costs a lot of money. This wouldn’t normally be a problem, as Tories tend to have (or be able to get) a lot of money and election spending limits don’t usually apply to candidate selection. However, that might not be the case in Rochester. As Channel 4’s Michael Crick reports here, the Tories are working under advice from the Electoral Commission that this spending doesn’t count towards the £100,000 spending limit for the by-election, but other lawyers aren’t so sure that’s the case. As Crick points out, this raises the prospect of the Tories winning the by-election, but then having that victory invalidated in an election court. Given the time it would take for a complaint to be filed and an election court to sit, it’s unlikely there’d have to be a second by-election before the General Election, but I don’t think that’s the important point.
The key about the push-polling story isn’t whether or not it’s happening, it’s that it feeds into the existing UKIP narrative. We’ve all seen the way they rant about ‘the LibLabCon’ and complain about how they’re excluded by the metropolitan elite consensus. Now, I’m quite sure that the regular media commentators would probably dismiss a challenge in an election court as just some arcane quibbling over the rules, but imagine how that story would play out amongst UKIP members and supporters? Cries of ‘they had to break the law to beat us!’ and ‘we played by the rules, they didn’t!’ would be rife amongst them and what’s more, it would feed into the narrative they give to their voters. We’re proper hard-working people who believe in doing the right thing and playing by the rules, but those politicians up in Westminster don’t think the laws should apply to them. They broke the law to stop us winning in Rochester, what makes you think they’re going to listen to you? and so on. As with Matthew Parris’s comments on Clacton, media commentators dismissing any legal challenge would be portrayed as out of touch and ignoring the concerns of the ‘real people’. It’s the perfect way for UKIP to show that they’re the victims of an Establishment stitch-up. It might not appear that way amongst the commentariat, but it would play well on the social media grapevine.
For their sake, I hope the Tories aren’t just relying on the Electoral Commission’s advice that their spending on the primary doesn’t count towards the by-election, and have taken some other legal advice. If they win in Rochester and Strood, they need to do it fairly and be above challenge, otherwise the short-term anti-UKIP firewall it creates could be buried beneath the greater costs they’ll pay for winning it.
It must be a thing if two Sunday columnists have both noticed it – Andrew Rawnsley and Matthew D’Ancona both notice that there are simultaneous plots against both the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition and attempt to work out what it means.
For me, it’s Rawnsley who finds the best explanation:
In Britain, it runs deeper than that. Austerity has sharpened and accelerated a much longer-term trend of disintegrating support for the two major parties. They’ve gone, the solid blocks of red and blue voters that the major party leaders used to be able to mobilise. There has been a decades-long decline in the blue-red duopoly. It is the bad luck of Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband to be leaders of their parties when the music finally stopped.
As I’ve said before, we’re still living through the process of a long and slow breakdown of the old party system in British politics. The number of people not voting has steadily risen – 1997 was the last election when a party got more votes than the number of people not voting – and amongst those who are voting, support for the main two parties has been continually dwindling to the point where polls are now showing them both dropping below 33%, meaning ‘other’ could now be said to be topping the poll.
The various plots – in all parties – are often coming from people who are trying to persuade themselves that this is only a temporary blip and that normal service will be resumed as soon as they confidently state that they’ve rediscovered what normality is. Once they’ve got their particular Johnson as leader, everyone will suddenly realise what fools they’ve been and things will go back to the way the plotters think they should be. That ‘the way things should be’ hasn’t been the way things are for almost fifty years now is entirely inconsequential. Some people have an assumption that Britain should be a two-party state and any diversion away from that is just a temporary blip that will be corrected as soon as the right people are back in charge.
Maybe I’m wrong and getting the right leaders in place is all it would take to magically revert the system back to its default settings, but I suspect not. It feels to me that what people want and expect from politics and politicians has fundamentally changed, and the current system can’t address it. A continuing series of tweaks can stave off a full collapse for a short time, but not for good. The foundations of the system are crumbling away from beneath us, and that must be acknowledged before any real fix can come.
One of the benefits of being a student again is getting access to academic journals, which means I can see some of the latest research in political science before it gets chopped up, filtered and misrepresented by the press – if it’s ever covered at all. Instead, I get to read it, then chop it up, filter and misrepresent it to you here.
One new article published in Political Studies is ‘Not as Bad as We Feared or Even Worse Than We Imagined? Assessing and Explaining Conservative Party Members’ Views on Coalition‘ by Tim Bale and Paul Webb.
The main purpose of their research was to look at whether support for the coalition – and any potential future coalition – varied across the Conservative party, and whether those views changed depending on other factors such as their age or political views. Their conclusions on this subject were that the most important factors in support for the coalition, and for any potential future coalition, was dependent on ideological factors rather than demographic ones. As they put it:
In general, we found that demographics (apart perhaps from higher education) and activism do not appear to have much to do with members’ views on whether coalition was the right move in 2010. What matters more is ideology and leadership – more specifically whether members feel the leadership respects them, how close they feel ideologically to their leader, how well they feel David Cameron has performed as Prime Minister, and whether or not they like the policies his government has introduced
While this discovery – that there is a significant chunk of Conservative opinion that would prefer another coalition to returning to opposition – is interesting, what I want to concentrate on here is some of the data Bale and Webb have found out about the general views of Conservative members. These are the statistics they base the detailed work of their study on, but for the general audience they’re interesting in themselves. (The statistics were gathered by a YouGov survey of Conservative members)
The survey found that the average Tory member was 59 years old and more likely to be an ABC1 (83% of respondents) white (95.6%) male (68.9%) from London and the south east (56.8%). They also see themselves as right-wing (8.37 on a 1-10 left-right scale) and more right-wing than David Cameron (who they see as being at 7.02 on the same scale). Questions on left-right and liberal-authoritarian issues, found that they tended to be on the right economically and authoritarian socially, but “more culturally conservative than they are economically right-wing.”
On political issues, you probably won’t be surprised to find that they tend to support Conservative government policies and not support Liberal Democrat ones. In general, their support for or agreement with Conservative policies was 65.6% with 21% opposing or disagreeing. For Liberal Democrat government policies, those averages were 33.9% in favour and 39.3% against. The main outliers from those trends were limited support for university tuition fees (46% support), ring-fencing NHS spending (50%), cuts in defence spending (17%), not restricting workers from Romania and Bulgaria (23%), same-sex marriage (24%) and protecting the overseas aid budget (18%). The pupil premium – a Liberal Democrat policy – gets significantly more support (58%) than other Lib Dem ones.
To give an idea of the policies they do support, here are the percentages of support for other policies:
You might notice that the question of EU membership isn’t in that list. That’s not because it wasn’t asked, but because the results are so interesting that I decided to deal with them separately. The respondents were asked their opinion on two subjects: whether they would support Britain remaining in the EU after membership was renegotiated (Cameron’s current policy) and whether they would support British withdrawal from the EU today.
There’s a narrow majority in favour of continuing membership after renegotiation – 53.6& support it and 37.9% oppose it. On the question of whether Britain should withdraw from the EU today, though, their view is clear: 70.8% support it, and 20.4% oppose it. Just to make that clear: 71% of Conservative Party members think Britain should leave the EU. If you want to take away a single statistic to explain why David Cameron has a UKIP problem, this is it.
The main thrust of this research is the coalition, and as saw at the start, it shows that the main dividing line in the Conservatives about whether they support the coalition or not is an ideological one, not one determined by demographics or how active in the party they are. The closer a member feels to the leadership position, the more likely they are to support the coalition. While that might sound somewhat obvious, the important finding is that it is a stronger factor in determining support for the coalition than any other.
The members were also asked their opinion on their preferred option in 2010: 41% wanted a Conservative minority government, 33% thought the coalition was the best option and 24% would have gone for a second general election. (These are all hindsight figures, not necessarily what they were thinking at the time) That 33% tend to have more support for both Conservative and Liberal Democrat policy, position themselves slightly to the left of the party average (but still perceive themselves to be further right than David Cameron) and aren’t quite as Eurosceptic as the rest of the party, though a majority of them (54.1%) would still support EU withdrawal now.
What this research gives us is a very interesting insight into the Conservative Party membership, and a sense that while there may be support for the coalition within the party, it’s only for a relationship of necessity, not a great meeting of minds and principles. However, it also shows that there is support within the party for the sort of red meat conservatism that’s being proposed at their conference this week. However, as much as the leadership might try and assuage the membership with policies, the membership’s view on the EU could still be a massive problem for them and a huge opportunity for UKIP to exploit.
The research project was about the coalition and Conservative members’ views on that as it correlates to their background and beliefs, but what I’d love to see (if it’s possible from the data) is how those views on Europe and the EU break down across the membership. We can see that those who are more in favour of the coalition are less likely to support EU withdrawal, but how does that view break down in terms of age and party activity? It’d be interesting to see if activists are more likely to be in favour of withdrawal than armchair members or vice versa, given the implications that might have on the effect of UKIP defectors. Are they gaining those who do the work, or those who sit at home?