What can we expect from the political parties?
I’m not going to be one of those commentators who tries to explain how they predicted the correct general election result when the record shows anything but. I didn’t expect the Conservatives to have an absolute majority, nor did I expect the almost total takeover of Scottish seats by the SNP. I also didn’t expect the Lib Dems to get as few seats as they did – and ditto with UKIP.
For the most part, I sat on the fence saying the whole thing was too close to call. Given that neither of the two main parties said who they’d negotiate with in the event of a hung parliament – predicted by pretty much every opinion poll, it was difficult for anyone to see who was going to emerge with the confidence of the Commons to become Prime Minister. That’s all academic now – apart from the opinion polling industry who have some serious questions to ask of itself.
Osborne’s July Budget
It’s due on 8 July if this report is correct. The Financial Times ran a headline predicting 100,000 further job cuts to the civil service. I can’t see how these are going to be delivered without some serious changes to the Whitehall machinery of government. These are combined with further tightening of laws on trade union industrial action. I can understand why politicians are saying there needs to be a minimum level of turnout for votes in favour of strike action to be legitimate – but then shouldn’t the same apply for politicians & elections? I remember in my university days that student union AGMs would be inquorate so budgets could not be passed & thus student union services closed until they got a quorate meeting. (Not having a room big enough to hold the minimum threshold of students to pass a budget didn’t help…). However, the closure of student union bars had the desired effect: lots more students turned up to rearranged meetings. What would happen to democracy if turnouts below say 40% at elections meant bins didn’t get collected until a rescheduled election? ‘Democracy’s not a spectator sport’…and all that
Conservatives hitting the ground running vs opposition navel-gazing?
Labour and the Liberal Democrats are currently in the extended processes of electing new leaders. Both parties at a leadership level appear shell-shocked (understandably) at the general election result. Their online activist roots perhaps less so – being younger, more energised and perhaps feeling less tied to decisions made by politicians at a time when perhaps some of them were still at school.
Yet just as in 2010 with Labour, do both parties run the risk of sorting out internal issues while the new government sets in concrete a new narrative that becomes impossible to undo for the next decade? Remember the problems Ed Miliband had with TV cross-examination by the public – they were all asking about issues about the 2007-2010 Gordon Brown administration. It was as if they were still waiting for the former Prime Minister to publicly account for his failures in office. The lack of his open public and media appearances over the past five years haven’t helped in that respect. Ditto with Blair. The public has not seen either former Prime Minister scrutinised in detail post-Downing Street in a way that might have drawn lines under the more controversial aspects of their times in office. Not that there’s necessarily precedence for doing so – or that repeated public appearances would help. Think Thatcher during John Major’s years in office.
How can Labour escape the shadow of Blair & Brown?
It’s one of the reasons why so many seemed to pin their hopes on Dan Jarvis MP, the former soldier, as a new leader. But he declined due to family commitments. For me I’ve felt Labour needed someone from the post-2010 generation of MPs. The electorate took out two possible candidates – Ed Balls and Douglas Alexander – at the recent general election. The recent ‘Progress’ hustings indicated that cabinet ministers under Gordon Brown were more prepared to defend the latter’s legacy than the rest. But as Sunny Hundal said in a talk in Cambridge recently, Labour need to select someone who is a much better communicator than Brown or Miliband were – and pick someone who in the minds of the electorate looks like they are a Prime Minister in-the-making.
Rebuilding from a near-wipe out for the Liberal Democrats
For them it really is a case of going back to their grass roots. Former Cambridge MP David Howarth (who was MP before Julian Huppert) summarised the issues for the Liberal Democrats here. The most interesting part for me is on coalitions. From my perspective, one of the central pillars of the Liberal Democrats is voting reform towards proportional representation; something that increases the likelihood of either minority governments or coalitions. Yet at the same time, experiences from other countries – and now the UK – shows the electorate punishes junior coalition partners harder than the senior ones.
With only eight MPs and one MEP, the Liberal Democrats may find the level of media exposure plummets. With so few politicians in national public office, there will be a huge burden on those nine. This means that the hundred or so peers appointed to the House of Lords for the party will need to step forward and take a fair share of the burden – for so long as the House of Lords remains unreformed.
What will the SNP do for England?
This for me is one of the big unknowns. Historically the SNP have refrained from voting on matters that only affect England. Labour controversially used their Scottish MPs to vote through the Higher Education Act 2003 that brought in top up tuition fees in England that ultimately gave powers to the government to bring in the even higher fees with just two debates in Parliament. This self-inflicted sore remains an irritant for those on the left who in principle don’t like tuition fees. The question for the SNP is what time and resources they’ll use for debates/campaigns that only affect England. The first test of this looks like being on fox hunting – the SNP stance angering anti-hunt campaigners in England.
UKIP and The Greens?
Over 4 million votes, only two MPs. Yet both Douglas Carswell and Caroline Lucas between them seem to have had more influence as backbench MPs than most in terms of influencing agendas. Recent headlines about power struggles in UKIP means it’s too early to know what will happen with them. The massive rise in the number of MEPs plus Douglas Carswell holding onto his seat means that there a growing number of political power bases within the party that are alternatives to Nigel Farage.
As for The Greens, aside from the widely-expected loss of minority control of Brighton Council, progress has continued at a slow but steady pace as far as politicians elected to local public office is concerned. While the Greens have benefited from the decline of the Liberal Democrats, 2015 may mark a low point at which the Lib Dems start fighting back. The challenge for The Greens is to hold onto those that switched.
Cameron with a smaller majority in the Commons than John Major
It will be interesting to see how disciplined the Conservative Parliamentary Party is compared to the Coalition. What concessions will Cameron need to make to his backbenchers to ensure is program for government can be implemented? Will he look to do deals with MPs from other parties (such as the Northern Ireland unionists, or even the Liberal Democrats?) in the face of rebellions? Would Labour or the SNP step in to save the government from defeat in the face of something (in their minds) even worse brought in just to placate Conservative rebels? Expect the House of Commons to play an even more central role in the workings of Whitehall than in the Coalition years.
New views for new ministers with old views?
Something that has been widely commented on has been the attributed views of various new ministers given their new portfolios.
- Justice Secretary Michael Gove and capital punishment
- Health minister Ben Gummer and abortion
- Disabilities minister Justin Tomlinson and cancer patients
- Equalities minister Nicky Morgan on equal marriage
To be fair to Morgan, she changed her mind & publicly said so, as did Lib Dem leadership candidate Tim Farron here. I think it’s refreshing when politicians can account for when they got things wrong & explain how & why they got things wrong. (As well as what they might do differently in the future). It remains to be seen how some of the new ministers get on in their new posts given past comments.
Cameron as a ‘hands off’ Prime Minister
One of the major differences between Cameron and his Labour opponents is how he’s seen to allow his ministers to be ‘the faces’ of his parties policies. Under Blair and Brown, I always got the sense that ministers under them were never really in control of their policy areas. The result in the late 2000s was policy paralysis. They were all too busy looking over their shoulder towards Downing Street – but there weren’t enough hours in the day for the Prime Minister to approve everything. I never really got that sense with Cameron & Clegg. After five years of a more devolved setup, I’d be surprised if Cameron resorted to the Brown-style command and control. For a start Cameron doesn’t have the parliamentary majority to ram through measures unpopular with his party.
The world in 2020 will be a very different place – but will the parties have evolved sufficiently to account for this?
Are we at a stage where the big political names of 2020 are yet to emerge? It might be that both The Greens and Lib Dems go into the 2020 elections with leaders who do not hold national elected public office. UKIP may have imploded, disbanded following an EU-exit referendum victory or they may have solidified their gains to become more of a permanent parliamentary and local government presence. We may have PM Boris or Osborne coming face-to-face with a Labour leader who would have succeeded the one about to be elected by Labour members this autumn.
At the same time, we don’t know how resilient society will be to another round of public sector cuts in the face of ever-rising housing costs, growing visible inequalities and continued global instabilities.