A Question of Legitimacy. What Does the New Politics Mean for British Democracy?

A Question of Legitimacy. What Does the New Politics Mean for British Democracy?

From Political Outsiders to Westminster’s Third Force
This week Conservative peer turned self-financed pollster Lord Ashcroft published his long awaited constituency polling from across Scotland. Focusing on sixteen seats, many of which could previously be described as safely Labour, Lord Ashcroft revealed dramatic swings to the SNP that could unseat as many as fifteen incumbent MPs. In fact, across Labour-held constituencies the average swing to the nationalists was 25.4 percent. If replicated in May, such results would see Labour’s 41 Scottish seats reduced to just 6.

It is important to temper any analysis of these results with an acknowledgement that they are only polling results and there are still three months of solid, perhaps desperate, campaigning ahead. However, even if the SNP were to win 25, as opposed, to the 50 suggested by The New Statesman, they are likely to begin the next Parliament as the third largest party in Westminster. With the Scottish electorate standing at little over 4 million people, it is possible that they could reach this position by winning just 1.3 million votes, or 45 percent of a (generous) seventy-five percent turnout.

This raises a fundamental problem that will require sober reflection and resolution: is it feasible in the long-term for a minority, however sizeable, of nationalists to act as kingmakers in Westminster, even while the voices of other minority parties remain under-represented. It seems unlikely, for example, that UKIP will win more than 5 Parliamentary seats, and yet they could well win 15-20 percent of the vote, or 4.5-6 million votes, based on a similar turnout to 2010. How can this be reconciled in a modern democracy?

Reflecting on Electoral Reform
The subject of electoral reform is long running and deep rooted. In 1931 Ramsay MacDonald’s minority Labour government introduced the ‘Representation of the People’ Bill’, which, though passed by the Commons, was withdrawn from the Lords following MacDonald’s ignominious fall from power. More recently, the Blair government established new assemblies in London, Scotland and Wales based on a system of proportional representation and in 2010 a referendum on introducing an alternative vote, itself a feature of MacDonald’s bill, failed to generate public interest or support.

However, the tone of the debate has shifted. The idea of a coalition government, cobbled together by two, perhaps even three parties, is entering popular lexicon and with it questions of sustainability. How, for example, could Conservative hawks, keen to roll back the state at all levels, govern for another five years with Lib Dem statists and the DUP, a party driven by protecting Ulster’s Protestant working classes, for whom austerity has been particularly sharp? In the face of crisis unlikely coalitions can be constructed, but they seldom prove feasible in the long-term

The debate on ‘English votes for English laws’ has also expedited this process. It is telling that totems of the establishment, such as The Telegraph, have waded into the debate, calling for an explicitly English Parliament and for Scottish and Welsh MPs to be excluded from contributing to the debate on “English matters.” For some within the Conservative Party the existential threat to the United Kingdom and questions of democratic legitimacy are secondary to strong arming Labour in the immediacy.

The model of Union sustained since 1707 has not been perfect, unions, be they friendships, marriages or business partnerships, seldom are. However, it is undeniable that it has worked. In that time Great Britain has achieved remarkable success on the world stage in fields too various and disparate to list. Affording greater powers to Scotland and to England in a haphazard and unplanned manner risks undermining the unity that has helped to achieve this.

Short-Term Tactics and Long-Term Vision
There is no doubt that politicians are aware of this problem. In the tea rooms of Westminster it is a topic of almost constant conversation, not only amongst those MPs whose seats are immediately threatened. Public pronouncements to date have danced around the issues yet the real challenge, to the fundamentals of Britain as a democratic union of four nations, remains unaddressed. On the left, Labour have sought to out-national the nationalists in Scotland, while on the right the Tories have looked to manoeuvre to achieve electoral advantage in England.

In the age of twenty-four hour news cycles it is difficult to articulate visions for the future, but now more than ever this is what is needed. The nationalist challenge must be met head on with a compelling vision for Britain’s future. More equal representation will be key to this, with power relinquished by the traditional duopoly, an act that is surely better than having it torn from them. Failure to achieve substantive reform will undoubtedly lead to further fragmentation, which, in the current first past the post system, creates uncertainty and sharp resentment.

 

This article was originally published last Friday in Whitehall Weekly. You can subscribe here.

Jack Taylor

Jack Taylor

Consultant at Keene Communications
Jack’s background is in domestic politics, having worked in various research position in both the Commons and the Lords. He has a particular interest in matters pertaining to infrastructure, transport and development.
Jack Taylor

About the Author

Jack’s background is in domestic politics, having worked in various research position in both the Commons and the Lords. He has a particular interest in matters pertaining to infrastructure, transport and development.