#GE2015: The UK electorate prepares to go seriously off script, again…

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:

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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.

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  • John Gorman

    Regarding Northern Ireland he has missed out on some major points prior to his predictions such as UUP withdrawing from North Down and SF actually standing this time in South Belfast but at least he has given it a go unlike most other prediction sites as I mentioned on the other thread

  • Korhomme

    Politicians see things rather differently:

    “The people have spoken, the bastards.”

  • Nevin

    Pat ‘Yesser’ Kane is unlikely to draw attention to the criticism of SNP ministers by candidates from other parties. As an occasional observer of the For Argyll and the Isles website I noted an article and an attached letter to a Scottish government minister from a Labour candidate in the 2015 Westminster election:

    Thinking of the secrecy and lack of information about the forthcoming ferry tendering process, it is insulting to island communities for the SNP it hide behind ‘commercial confidentiality’. It is particularly important to secure the information because it will be intolerable if companies like Serco and Stagecoach receive full details of route costs, freight income and ferry leases etc, while the people of the Argyll & Bute routes – whose services they are and whose taxes pay for them – are kept totally in the dark.

    The Scottish Government ministers underestimate local people if they think we cannot see the cynical manipulation of the tender process for what it is.

    The SNP has postponed the tendering decision until three weeks after the next Scottish Parliament elections.

    Our lifeline ferry services are too important to be manipulated for political gain.

    We shouldn’t expect open government; government needs to be opened up.

  • mickfealty

    Actually, more precisely than that Korhomme, it’s the Juncker problem

    So if polls help the electorate decide who they are not going to vote for, how can politicians find a way to level up?

    In other words as a politician what do you have to do to get sufficient buy in from the electorate to do stuff rather than just talk about it endlessly on Twitter, down the pub, or the comment zone of their favourite (or indeed least favourite) blog?

    Or do we all have to wait for the brute strength of the coming man, as der Fuehrer put it in those last few living hours in his bunker?

  • Korhomme

    Ha, indeed, the Junker problem or the Junker paradox.

    I’ve actually looked at (for) our local parties’ economic, nhs, etc policies; and all I get is blank spaces.

    What does it take to drag #norniron into the 21st (20th) century, to get the politicos and the electorate to discuss things other than the usual sectarian stuff? (There are times when I imagine that the DUP and SF are several jumps ahead of the rest of us; by concentrating on ‘flegs’, emblems and marches, they are presenting the Brits with problems that can only be solved by throwing money at them; and yet, the cunning aim of both of them is to prevent austerity.)

  • kalista63

    The Tories have shipped in GB candidates to stand in the NI elections. Curiously, as Brien Feeney pointed out, they’re not standing in N Belfast of FST where unionist pacts exist.bthe GFA dictates that no GB parties are to play a part in the constitutional position but it’s, seemingly, being broke.

    I think that’s well worth a blog.

  • Pete

    I thought they were only standing in 11 constituencies in NI? Therefore they can’t only be standing aside in the 4 seats where there is the DUP UUP pact.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    the GFA dictates that no GB parties are to play a part in the constitutional position

    No it doesn’t.

    (edit) [I’m assuming you’re making some sort of argument that the GFA suggests that GB parties should not run in elections here]

  • mickfealty

    Here was me excited that we had more comments on the topic laid out above Paul. #Disappointed [If people don’t understand the piece, there’s no obligation to comment on it.

  • mickfealty

    That is I think because they are all flat-packing most of their distinguishing features so they can swivel on a sixpence if necessary. All distinguishing features bar one, of course. Note that the only NI party to respond to Vote Match’s questions was Alliance.

    The wider question in the piece is how do you bring an increasingly recalcitrant electorate sufficiently into the deal as to be able to sell it afterwards. We are currently seeing a stand off between populists (who at core stand for whatever you’re having yourself) and technocrats who are competent but much prefer to work ‘with the democrats off their backs..’

  • Korhomme

    An explanation for the lack of policies is said to be that the parties are preparing them for the Assembly elections. Fair enough, it might be said, but as there is some prospect of at least the DUP being involved in hung parliament negotiations, it would be reasonable to know where they stand.

  • Reader

    But the Conservatives are standing in East Belfast and South Down, where there are also unionist pacts. Did Brian Feeney explain that?
    Also, the GFA doesn’t say what you think it says: there are no restrictions on what parties can stand for election, or where, and they can campaign on any issue they like. The same freedom applies to Southern parties, and to all island parties like the Greens and SF.
    All that is implied by the GFA restriction is that only Northern Ireland people will have a vote in any eventual constitutional referendum. And *that* isn’t even on the horizon.