In the aftermath of the last Westminster election I was asked to London to speak on several wash up panels to examine the faultlines of an historic election. Labour’s long single party rule had come to an end, not with the crash some (in fact most) in London’s Tory press had hoped for but with the narrowest of victories.
At the RSA’s PDF Replay event, I described the result as “a really intelligent outcome by what was possibly the UK’s first really intelligent electorate…” by which I meant that the electorate had come to their own conclusions almost completely regardless of the advice given them by London’s big media barons.
Opinion polls had made a difference, but so too had independent tools such as the electoral calculus, which cut out the need for a lot of traditional punditry if only in interpreting the polling that began to run thick and fast in way that the UK had never seen before.
Indeed, two years later Nat Silver posed serious questions of traditional pundits in the US when they kept on taking up a Republican victory when, taken in aggregate, the polling had sewn up an Obama return weeks before he or Mitt Romney had got near to the actual finishing post.
Silver is now playing the same game with UK politics (though his NI predictions where the polling data thins into non existence are downright odd in places), so the electorate have a continuous feedback loop which allows them to see and game the results (Big Brother like) almost independently of what the political parties say or do.
All of this has proved liberating for some but the changes are largely concentrated (for now) in those areas where the big Westminster parties are culturally at their weakest. Most obviously for Labour, that’s Scotland.
Elsewhere there are likely to be few other footholds in this election as the big two scramble for every tiny advantage they can get in the race to Number Ten.
Indeed the ground war is such that few in Labour or the Conservatives have been giving real thought to post election coalition building strategy, a whole host of policy issues (inattention to which has been a key driver of voter dissatisfaction), and ahem, the increasingly complex and dangerous area of foreign policy.
This burying of the project in the field makes sense when the electorate appears so given to going off on its own self selected trajectories, but the result is something akin what Ireland has known for most of its existence, the long term fragmentation of democratic power. Aka, the political trilemma.
In the chaos, lots of counterfactuals may conjure themselves into reality. Alex Massie plays with one such: ie, the material interest that the SNP may have in seeing a Conservative led government, driven by its own Eurosceptic right wing:
It means the future of the Barnett Formula and Scotland’s generous levels of public spending will be scrutinised like never before. It means the question of “English votes for English laws” will not go away. It means that English Tories will treat Scotland as a separate country already.
If forced to choose between their Unionism and their lust for power many English Tories will plump for the latter. Already you can hear the sounds of knives being sharpened, ready to cut Scotland free. Too many of these people know us little and understand us even less.
Maybe. In the meantime, a way must be found to run the country sustainably and – if all this on the ground engagement is to mean anything – in the wider public interest. As Gerry Hassan noted perceptively recently “in Scotland, there’s a sense of dreaming and then not doing, talking social justice and then not doing it.”
In a draft manuscript by my old friend and former colleague Paul Evans on the future of democracy is included a notation from a fascinating interview on BBC Radio Four with Labour MP Tony McWalter in 2007, in which the latter talked about the problem of strong leaders who get in the way of a clean understanding of the public will:
That’s a rising question, and one that’s not likely to be resolved at the next UK election (or the next Irish one). Much of this boils down one single great problem: our capacity to socially think, dream and see better ways of doing things far outstrips our representative’s capability to make them happen, and expect to get re-elected.
Regardless of who is up and who is down right now, this is something all political parties will need to get grips with for the long term survival of the representative democracy we’ve taken for granted for so long, if nothing else.
That means, I suspect, doing the opposite of going skittish and short term. As Pat Kane noted in his own afterword yesterday to the No vote in last September’s Referendum:
I know we have a countervailing public sphere of networks, blogs, think-tanks, campaigns and new commercial publications to read, discuss and financially support. Call it Project Share.
But how many inroads does this continuing Yes exuberance, its mood, modes and media, make into the frowns and doubts of the 55 per cent? I would suggest, not very many.
And the reason is that the No vote was a systemic vote – a commitment to an apparently stable means of progress, rather than an apparently unstable one.
How do independence activists get their winning share of this systemic vote? Well, one way is certainly to improve and toughen the indy offer, with a lot of quiet but serious research.
The labour of love required to establish an independent country should not be underplayed again.