Is British Politics Heading Backwards In Time?

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With all of the chaos going on both globally and politically in the world, British politics is heading for an intense election and it seems these days everyone has an opinion.

In a piece by Glen O Hara entitled “British politics is heading back to 1974” [1], O Hara writes:

Suppose for a moment that you faced an upcoming General Election in which the governing Conservatives were pretty unpopular, having presided over a Parliament of economic crisis, domestic confrontation and ideological polarisation.

But presume also that, during that contest, the Government was faced with a relatively unpopular Labour Party tainted by its past handling of economic failures that refused to go away.

Then assume that old and new insurgent parties were making it difficult for the “big two”, and that the whole thing seemed likely to end up in a Scottish Nationalist breakthrough heralding a totally new era for politics north of Berwick and Carlisle.

So we’re talking about 2015, right? Wrong. The above description would cover the uncertain result of February 1974 just as well, and what happened next is just as instructive.

The February 1974 election was called by Ted Heath, the Conservative Prime Minister of the time, on the theme of “who governs Britain” – the government or the trade unions. The public seemed enamoured of neither, and turned to the tried and tested Harold Wilson (who had already been Prime Minister between 1964 and 1970) to lead Whitehall and Westminster towards some sort of accommodation with the unions.

But they didn’t give him a majority. Labour fell short of that mark by some way, securing only 301 MPs. The party ended up 17 seats short of the 318 they needed for an overall majority. When Labour tried again in October at the second General Election of the year, they ended up with 319. It meant an overall majority of just three.

There followed years of exhausting, painstaking, vote-by-vote negotiations and manoeuvres. The Labour Whips’ Office worked for night after night, week after week, to keep the show on the road, cajoling, threatening, making deals. Only in March 1979, after the disastrous Winter of Discontent, did they fail and lose a Vote of No Confidence. But by then much of the Parliamentary Labour Party welcomed the end as a relief that finally put them out of their misery.

A still more interesting point about the 1974 elections was what happened among the suddenly not-quite-so-minor parties. The Liberals jumped from 6 to 14 seats in February, before falling back by a single seat in the autumn.

Things changed even more radically in Scotland. The SNP gained 7 seats in February and 11 in October. They seemed poised, just for a moment, to leap decisively towards greater devolution or even independence – until the failure of Labour’s devolution plans (and the loss of a referendum) in 1978 brought a stop to all sense of constitutional momentum for a generation.

There are striking parallels with the situation today, at a time when falling living standards, a general sense of disconnection between governors in Westminster and the public, and a search for new solutions outside the seemingly “old-fashioned” Conservative and Labour teams, are all back at centre stage in our political life. Again the “big two” are on the back foot. Again, almost everybody else (apart from the unfortunate Liberal Democrats, locked in their loveless marriage of convenience) is licking their lips over the carcass of traditional politics.

The next General Election similarly seems likely to be more of a fractious and inconclusive scuffle than a clean contest. The results we finally get to in May 2015 might look rather like February 1974.

At the moment, the Conservatives look as if they will be lucky to make it back near 300 seats. In other words, they seem likely to go backwards in May: hardly a ringing endorsement for any party looking to continue in power.

Labour will be delighted if it touches 290 seats, though for now 280 looks more likely. The Liberal Democrats will similarly think that they have dodged a very deadly bullet indeed if they come out with 30 seats. They may well fall even further from their current total of 57.

The Scottish National Party is enjoying a post-referendum surge while Scottish Labour tears itself to pieces over its leadership and the extent (or otherwise) of its links with Westminster: it might gain 25 to 30 seats at the General Election.

The United Kingdom Independence Party, for all its sound and fury, might only be able to seize five or six seats; Caroline Lucas may well manage to hang on in Brighton Pavilion for the Greens. The eighteen Northern Ireland MPs who take up their seats (unlike Sinn Fein) will probably again amount to eight Democratic Unionist Party members, three from the Social Democratic and Labour Party, one Alliance MP and one Independent (Sylvia Hermon in North Down).

That will create an extremely fractured and fractious House of Commons. Neither the Conservatives nor Labour are likely to be able to reliably command the 323 seats for a working majority, even with the Liberal Democrats as their allies. The most stable government that we can hope for is probably a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition with about 330 seats. This would have an overall majority of eight, and a working majority of 14. And that result would seem to be at the outermost edge of what is possible in terms of stability and durability: such a Coalition is unlikely to hold on to its overall majority for five years, given likely losses at by-elections and to defections.

Nearly as likely is a weak and divided administration led by Ed Miliband, forming a coalition with the Liberal Democrats but remaining reliant on votes from the Scottish National Party and the Welsh and Northern Irish Nationalists, Plaid Cymru and the SDLP, on a “confidence and supply basis”.

The UK’s various Nationalist parties can probably be persuaded to support a Labour Government’s survival, given the alternative of allowing the formation of a Conservative administration that they would have brought to power. Their own voters would turn on them in a fury if that were to happen. Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP’s new leader, has indeed explicitly ruled out ever even supporting a Conservative government in any way, which means that she will almost certainly have to instruct her MPs to vote against a Conservative Queen’s Speech, but to abstain or vote for a Labour one.

But here’s where things get even worse. The Coalition’s foolish and misguided Fixed Term Parliament Act might necessitate keeping either unhappy compromise – a renewed coalition with a knife-edge majority or a ramshackle rainbow alliance – on the road for five years. That’s unless no government can be formed quickly, or there’s eventually a two-thirds majority in the House of Commons for a dissolution. In either of those cases we’ll speedily be back at the polls.

This particular piece of coalition bodging was designed to protect the Liberal Democrats from an election that might pull the rug from under them in this Parliament. But it contains more rules in theory than will be observed in practice. One suspects that all sides of the House of Commons might soon be glad to revisit a result that gives no-one any power at all.

If the numbers are anything like what we’re expecting at the moment, Parliament’s mandate and ability to function will have to be renewed at some point long before 2020 – the planned date of the election after next.

The parallels with 1974 are not exact. Wilson lacked appeal in 1974 because his remedies and rhetoric had been found wanting when they had been tried before, and because he seemed tired and detached.

Ed Miliband has more severe problems of both presentation and strategy, and would kill even for Wilson’s most lukewarm numbers. The public’s frustration with “business as usual” is boosting support for UKIP, not for the Liberals’ direct descendents in the Liberal Democrats.

But the central lesson seems compelling. At such extreme periods of flux, and granted such a general and imprecise sense of outrage with the political class and all its works, an uncertain result seems the most likely.

Any government that does emerge will probably have to endure a ceaseless push-me and pull-you with (in order of their likely number of MPs) the SNP, the Democratic Unionists, UKIP, the SDLP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens.

Governing the House of Commons will be hard enough; governing the country may be impossible without a second election. Welcome back to 1974.





Royce Christyn
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