Sunday, 10 May 2015

UK 2015 Election I - The real result? Britain is no democracy

"The Scottish Lion has roared" - Alex Salmond (SNP)
"We have a mandate" - George Osborne (Conservative)
 
A Dutch friend has asked me what I make of the result of the election, which has delivered a majority of seats to the Conservative Party, almost entirely composed of MPs returned to Parliament from English constituencies. For good or ill, what follows in this post is my response. The next post contains my convictions on what should be done about it.

Why the result is illegitimate
 
Alex Salmond says that the Scottish Lion has roared. To be precise, half of it roared. The Scottish Nationalist Party won all but three seats in Scotland (56/59), but not all of them were won outright with a 50% majority - the result required for an election or other major decision in a Trades Union, company board, trustee board in a charity, shareholders' meeting, or a membership organisation. Often this is conditional upon the numbers of those voting reaching a minimum proportion of the electorate to begin with. No such requirement applies to UK national or municipal elections. For instance, the institution of the London mayoralty followed an referendum for which the turnout was little more than 10% of the electorate. Yet on the basis of the approval of little more than 5% of the London electorate, a new political system was applied to the capital, and powers transferred from national and borough government, as well as other authorities, with no real mandate. It is not enough to say, "Qui tacet consentire videtur" (if you are silent, you are seen to agree). 50% of votes is outstanding and a deafening message; but it is not a majority, nor is it a mandate to overturn the referendum result on Scottish independence, not does it give the SNP the exclusive voice of people in Scotland. The SNP members of Parliament need to come to terms with how they represent the half of voters who did not support them to promote Scotland's interests or the United Kingdom's. Bear in mind that the SNP's 56 MPs represent 1.45 million voters, which 4.8% of the number who voted across the entire United Kingdom. By contrast, the repellent UK Independence Party 3.87 million votes, yet captured no more than a single seat. Whatever you think of UKIP or the SNP, this is not democracy.
 
George Osborne, seeing that the Conservative Party captured  329 seats in the House of Commons, the majority needed to govern without the support or consent of other parties, said that his party had a mandate from the British electorate. In fact, the Conservative Party received the support of no more than 36.9% of the electors - 11.29 million people, out of an electorate of approximately 45 million, of whom 66% turned out to vote (31.68 million). So the Conservative Party will govern Britain as if it has a democratic mandate from the voting people on the strength of securing a majority of the seats in the House of Commons. It will thus claim full executive powers - the powers of the British Sovereign and control over legislation, without achieving the support of a majority of those voting. Indeed most electors voted against the Conservative party. Thus the Conservative Party has not achieved the mandate it claims, even though it has more votes than the other parties.

Without expressing a view one way or the other on the politics of the different parties, I say that it is not democratic for one party to prevail and thus impose its policy without the support of the majority of those voting, not just across the country as a whole but in each constituency where an individual representative is returned to Parliament. Some members were elected outright with a majority of those voting and they are unquestionably legitimately returned. Others failed to achieve a majority and there should have been a run-off between them and their nearest rival. Without a majority of 50% of the voters behind them, they are not legitimately the representatives of the voters in their constituencies.

Critics of my view will say that, in our first-past-the-post system by which a winner is decided as in a horse race, there is general assent to the outcome and a high turnout of voters indicates positive engagement with and thus support for the present system. After all, they say, a change to the present system was rejected in a recent referendum. Whether or not that assent remains as robust as claimed, the figures demonstrate lack of support, and positive opposition from most of those who have voted. Seeing that in the last two decades under both Labour and Conservative Prime Ministers our armed forces have been deployed in the Mediterranean, Afghanistan and the Middle East to remove anti-democratic regimes in the hope of replacing them with according to various forms of democratic voting systems, Great Britain has little room to lecture the world about democracy for others, when its own system delivers sweeping and unassailable power for the next 5 years to a party that not only failed to achieve even 40% of the vote, but that won control of the House of Commons, and thus sovereign power, without

On this showing, Britain may be democratic; but it is not a democracy. It is a parliamentary monarchy in which the Prime Minister exercises all the powers that the Monarch possesses procedurally; there are elections but they currently do not reflect the will of the people by democratic majority consent. The last time there was government party achieved more than 50% of the votes to mandate its formation of a government was in 1931, when Stanley Baldwin took 55% (it can be done!), 470 of 615 seats, but as part of a National Government of six parties, addressing together the effects of the Great Depression. If Baldwin could do this, there is no need for a modern party to accept the dishonour of securing most of the seats on insufficient votes to justify them.

What was going on in the vote?

After the Scottish independence referendum was won by the unionists, it was the moment the union as we know it was lost. So it has proved, with a sufficient number of Scots rejecting the three unionist parties and their economic and social programmes, as well as the not yet materialised promises for much fuller autonomy for Scotland within the union.

Left-leaning Liberal Democrats, who in 2000 voted against Labour and who would never have taken their protest so far as to vote for the Conservatives, have been punished with annihilation for being in government with the Conservatives (10 Scottish seats in 2010 down to 1 in 2015). At the same time Scottish socialists and social liberals rejected Labour, because (a) they were exasperated by Scottish Labour MPs using their seats to get control of England and forgetting Scotland; and (b) even all the old Scottish Labour seats would never give enough leverage in Westminster to force the new UK Parliament to deliver , without further prevarication, on the promises made before the Referendum to ensure a defeat for the independence lobby. The 2015 election result is thus a massive protest at the Conservatives and Labour and Liberal Democratic parties' failure to sort things out after the referendum.

It seems to me that in Scotland the Scottish Nationalists are a competent party of government after a recent experience of dead hand control from a Labour establishment with a sense of entitlement to rule the major cities and the new Scottish national government. But they have been supported this time not because everyone wants independence, but because Scotland (which has proportionately more MPs in relation to the size of its population than in England) wanted to send a message not about the UK in the context of a shared economic crisis and responses to it, but of its own needs and views. Nowadays these are firmly anti-Conservative. 60 years ago Scotland was majority Conservative.

What happens now?

Here is my prediction. Mr Cameron (incidentally, his name shows he is patrilineally of Scottish descent; we in the UK are really entwined - I am half Irish, half English, and I have Scottish cousinage) is a pragmatist. He will move to ensure that the massive body of SNP members are not a constant sore in the new Parliament. He will give Scotland greater if not full economic autonomy within the UK, a bit like a German Land. It will inevitably mean a similar deal for Wales, Northern Ireland too. This latter will be essential in order to balance the deal for Scotland.

Already the Conservatives are talking about a different focus on the north of England. So we may sooner rather than later get a United Kingdom that ceases to be a unitary state and moves to become a federal union. Expect this major development to be hurried and bodged out of haggling on all sides for short term partisan interests.

On the other hand, there will be steady pressure from the wider Conservative Party MPs to govern without consideration of other interests, on the strength of its unjustified majority of seats. Ruling the UK on an exclusively English power base, to advance the exclusive interests of the Conservative minority will intensify both Scottish convictions that separation is necessary and other parties in England's efforts to qualify Conservative dominance within England. Unless this is handled with extreme tact and diplomacy, it will be the Conservatives who destroy the Union and not the Scottish Nationalists.

The second thing will be a deal between the SNP and Cameron to support a "Yes" vote on the now inevitable referendum on staying in the European Union or not, assuming the Prime Minister gets the deal from the EU Commission (Jean-Claude Juncker)  and other EU nations on reforms that will halt "ever closer union" in the EU, and the reduction in the sovereignty of individual nation members, something which very few in the UK want. We are an island nation and suspicious of continental empires, from Habsburg, to Napoleon, Prussia, the papacy, Hitler, the USSR, the EU and now Putin.

Third, Cameron will press ahead with reform to the boundaries and sizes of voting constituencies in England, which vary considerably and favour towns and cities, and thus Labour. In the last government, the Liberal Democrats prevented this change. If the proposed rules were used yesterday, we would now have a 20+ Conservative majority, rather than 8. This is likely to face considerable opposition from the other parties and in the House of Lords, but it will pass in the Commons and the constitutional convention that nothing specified in the manifesto of a sole party that forms the government in a new Parliament can be prevented by the Upper House. While the reform of constituency sizes to be more even appears to be more democratic, it is only half of what is needed: the other half is the establishment of the principle that no one gets elected without securing the support of 50% of those voting, either the first time round or, as in France, at a run off between the two candidates gaining the greatest support. Sadly, for short-term partisan advantage, I cannot see the Conservatives magnanimously providing this and now Labour has been shocked to discover that it has lost the power base across the UK that first-past-the-post once enabled it to overcome the built-in Conservative majority ensured in England. Had Labour supported a system change instead of assuming it too had a chance at power and a majority of seats without achieving a majority, they would not be so miserable now.

Fourth, I think there will now be gradual movement towards reform of the House of Lords, which is now getting to be as large as when it in theory populated by 1330 hereditary and appointed members. There are now 779 members: 26 bishops; 92 representatives of the hereditary peerage and the rest appointed. We can  expect quite a few more to be thus rewarded having lost their seats at the election.  Cameron wants a largely elected House of Lords, but this will give us even more politicians competing with each other and their parties, instead of embodying the thinking and intentions of the people. So I think Lords Reform will also be bodged for short term political advantage.

But, whatever the quick constitutional reforms effected to respond to the emergency of a Scottish Nationalist landslide, and the collapse of opposition to the Conservatives in England, the huge risk of  is that, even with a federal solution on offer to Scotland, it will have de facto independence. We are kidding ourselves if we think that an almost entirely Nationalist Scotland will not assume its own voice with relation to the EU and other European states. If the SNP is bold, there is nothing to stop it, with such a massive body of representatives for only one party, making a unilateral Declaration of Independence. In fact, Cameron would not resist because to do so would cause permanent English-Scottish enmity. The SNP's hand is thus very strong. With the sheer realism of the potential of such a threat, I do not think the SNP will be able to resist the temptation to press for and stage another independence referendum long ahead of the gap of a generation that everyone assumed just a matter of days ago. Hence my belief that de facto it is the end of the 300 year old union. It will be followed after the Queen has died with a vote for a republic in Scotland; and then will end the union of crowns. The end of the UK will have serious repercussions on the defence of England in more dangerous world, as one occupant of an island with two or even three nation states likely to be constituents of the EU, and its role or entitlement to a role in the UN's Security Council.

If Scotland goes independent, the SNP will have lost its purposes. It will disintegrate into its right wing liberal, socialist, centrist and progressive component parts, at the same time as the Scottish Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative (no longer Unionist) parties re-emerge and evolve, possible merge, in the new context.

This has been something of a revolution. It will go wrong badly if the "old boys" fail to realise that everything, including them, has to change.

With the imbalance of votes and representation, and thus the control of power, that we now have, my worries - apart from the dire social effects of promised economic policies - are primarily three:
  1. new powers to the police and security services to monitor, know and control social media and electronic communications
  2. the repeal of the Human Rights Act in favour of a more malleable 'British Bill of Rights'; and
  3. the further politicisation of the police and the courts - first it was the 'streamlining' and modernisation of the so-called 'justice system' by the creation of HM Courts & Tribunal Service, giving levers of logistical control and operational pressure to a party political Minister of Justice in Whitehall instead of a Lord Chancellor sworn to maintain their pure freedom and independence; then it was elected Police & Crime Commissioners (think Commissioner Gordon from Batman) whose purpose was to deliver control and supervision of police operations and leadership (think The Wire) to a party-sponsored campaigning politician; next, as in Scotland, there will be the demolition of the Peelite principle that the Police Force is none other than the community (polis) policing itself. The pressure from Whitehall will be to take policing further and further away from the community that polices itself and solves its own problems locally, towards a more 'streamlined', 'efficient', 'fit for purpose', 'modern' police managed on regional and national lines, at a scale and level at which the levers of control can more easily be handled by the Home Secretary, representing a party of government unable to command the support of the majority of the electors, but unrestricted because of the preponderant number of parliamentary seats it can secure in the exercise of full executive power. Expect this more national police 'service' to become a gendarmerie - an armed force under the direction of the government.

Next I will post my views on what should be done to recover confidence in our politics.
 

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