Archive | October 2014

The UK Party System

The concept of a Party System is used by political scientists as a short hand to explain how party politics work in individual states.

The party system describes the number of ‘relevant’ parties in a system. Relevant is clearly a subjective term- does it mean you can win the first order election (in the UK a general election), that you win second order elections (e.g. devolved assemblies), that you win seats in Parliament, that you secure a certain percentage of the popular vote even if that doesn’t translate into very many seats.

Historically polities have been divided into three main categories. Two party systems (these are usually found in systems with FPTP) for example the USA where the Democrats and Republicans dominate, multiparty systems (usually found in systems with proportional electoral systems) for example Germany where at least five parties have a chance of forming the government (in coalition) or single party systems, normally found in dictatorships although South Africa where the ANC dominates is arguably an exception to that rule.

Traditionally the UK was described as a two party system. This was certainly true in the 1950s when the Labour and Conservative Parties seemed to take it in turns to govern but also by the fact that they won over 90% of the vote and 94% of the seats in the general elections during this period.

Gradually this two party hegemony broke down, from the 1970s onwards the share of the vote enjoyed by Labour and Conservatives began to fall and the break through of the SDP in 1983 and subsequent success of the Liberal Democrats led many commentators to suggest that the UK had in fact become a 2 1/2 party system (a designation unique to the UK) e.g. that we only had two parties who could form a government but we also had a party (the Lib Dems) that were too relevant to be ignored completely (due to their number of seats and percentage share of the vote) but weren’t going to be occupying Downing Street.

However events since 1997 have challenged that. Firstly devolution led some commentators to suggest that we actually had several party systems, a distinct multiparty system in Northern Ireland with the Northern Irish parties and a distinct multiparty system in Scotland with the SNP in government and some other minor parties with seats in the Scottish Parliament e.g. the Scottish Greens or Scottish Socialists. But particularly in Scotland this party system only applied to the Scottish Parliament at Westminster the SNP remained a very minor party and the Labour party still dominated.

2014 has done a lot to suggest that Britain not only has multiparty politics in the regions but at least in terms of popular support it now has a multiparty system at a UK wide level too. Despite the efforts of FPTP to stifle this when votes are converted to seats.

There have been several pieces of evidence for this:

– At its peak UKIP have been polling over 20% of support.
– Green Support has risen to 8% overtaking the Liberal Democrats
– SNP support has increased in Scotland, with predictions suggesting that they will poll 54 seats in Scotland in 2015.

We are now looking at a situation where the two major parties could poll c.60% of the votes cast, where 7 parties (outside of Northern Ireland) secure a significant number of seats at Westminster and our government is probably another coalition. It is hard to justify the 2 party model by any of these matrices.

At present it seems that in terms of seats we could be looking at:

SNP 54/650
Lib Dems c.30/650
Greens c.3/650
UKIP c.15/650
Plaid Cymru 2/650
Northern Irish Parties 18/650

While FPTP makes this far from an exact science. We can see that even in terms of seats around 1 out of every 6 seats in Parliament will be held by an MP from a party other than the Conservatives or Labour.


Scotland (Again)

Those of you who thought we could ignore Scotland after the No vote in September’s referendum and go back to the idea that politics exists largely within the Westminster village were mistaken. The Scots are still dominating the political news agenda. Largely as a result of the disarray that Scottish Labour have found themselves in, over the past week.

This whole narrative has various applications to the AS politics course.

Firstly in summary- what has been going on.

1) Johann Lamont the Leader of Scottish Labour (she led the MSPs and the MPs) resigned last Friday, some commentators have suggested that she resigned before she was pushed. Johann Lamont’s resignation per se wasn’t a major problem. However, her resignation was accompanied by a stinging attack on Ed Miliband and the Labour leadership citing that she felt that he treated Scottish Labour as a ‘branch office’.

2) This prompted a flurry of speculation as to who could replace Johann Lamont with various candidates including Gordon Brown being suggested. Brown ruled himself out of the race.

3) So far three candidates have put themselves forward for the post (the leadership election is scheduled for December). The candidates are Jim Murphy MP (Shadow Secretary of State for International Development) and two MSP Neil Findlay and Sarah Boyack.

4) STV commissioned a poll yesterday asking Scottish voters how they would vote in a General Election. Despite their defeat in the referendum the SNP would secure 52% and Labour’s support would collapse to 23%. Now as you know votes don’t equal seats under FPTP. But it is predicated that this would translate into 54 seats for the SNP (they currently have 9), Labour’s support would collapse from 41 MPs to only 4, the Lib Dems would secure 1 MP and the Conservatives would be wiped out.

Now this has numerous applications to our study of Unit 1 and Unit 2.

Firstly Labour look set to undertake a period of fratricide. Jim Murphy and Neil Findlay are the front runners in this election and they represent a dichotomy in the Labour party. MP v MSP, Blairite v left winger. This isn’t just a battle for the leadership this is a battle for what it means to be Labour in Scotland. Jim Murphy comes from a relatively impoverished Glaswegian background but rose through the ranks as a Blairite, he sits on the right of the Labour Party and believes that to stop the rot of Labour’s falling support in Scotland there must not be ‘clear red water’ between Westminster and Holyrood e.g. Scottish Labour must not drift to the left. Despite being seen as a Westminster politician Murphy is popular in his homeland and his one man 100 town campaign tour for the ‘no’ campaign during the referendum won him many fans. In contrast Neil Findlay MSP (and Shadow Health Secretary in the Scottish Parliament) come from the left of the party. Findlay had wanted Brown to stand but following the former PMs decision not to contest the election Findlay has put himself forward. Findlay is a member for the Campaign for Socialism groups within Labour and it is likely that he will gain the backing of the Trade Unions (who have a third of the voting power in December’s election). This looks set to be a classic internal Labour battle. Left v Right, Old Labour v New Labour, Brownite v Blairite but with the added dimension of Scotland v Westminster, MP v MSP thrown in. It could however, potentially irrevocably damage the Labour Party. Not only in Scotland but also beyond. Ed Miliband will not want the fissures and cleavages that still bubble under the surface of the Labour Party to be exposed so graphically and so publicly only 5 months before a general election.

If Labour do collapse in Scotland as per the STV poll this also raises important points.

Firstly, Labour tend to win General Elections because of their support in Scotland. Labour would have been in power with workable majorities on only 3 occasions (1945, 1997 and 2001) in the twentieth century without their support base in Scotland. If they are wiped out here it is unlikely that they will be able to muster a majority at Westminster even if they are fractionally ahead in the poll of the popular vote across the UK. Part of the reason FPTP favours Labour at present is Scotland. The seats are smaller and the Scots are overrepresented- both of these factors serve to compound the FPTP electoral bias that favours Labour.

Secondly, it puts a different complexion on the West Lothian Question- Labour’s rump of c. 40 Scottish MPs are a key reason why the Conservatives want the question solved, the same principle would stand with a left wing SNP dominating but it might change Ed Miliband’s views on the subject…

Thirdly, it raises interesting questions about the SNP. The SNP were defeated in the referendum, by a bigger margin than many pollsters had predicted, they lost their charismatic, talismanic lead (Alex Salmond) and yet the whole experience seems to have benefitted them. It is likely Nicola Sturgeon will take the party further to the left, a move that some have questioned (it is as Downs and his bell curve would suggest) received wisdom that elections are won in the centre ground) but this left wing rhetoric appears to be welcomed by Scots who have started to take the SNP seriously not only at Holyrood but also at Westminster

Finally, it brings to the fore issues concerning the changing party system. Britain can clearly no longer claim to be a two party system. But I will discuss this further in my next post.

If you want to read more about the current state of Scottish politics I would have a look at the following:

Are Safe Seats Really Safe

This is a really interesting article because it challenges a concept that we are frequently encouraged to take for granted. We talk quite freely about safe seats. We refer to them as an undemocratic feature of the British system, we refer to them frequently as a criticism of FPTP.

While the statistics put forward by the ERS and other proponents of Electoral Reform are useful (and you should learn and use them) this article suggests that occasionally safe seats can fall and that big swings are not unknown. It also suggests that safe seats become a self fulfilling prophecy- the parties don’t campaign so the opposition provides little in the way of alternative. This is becoming more acute in the age of Lord Ashcroft and the Conservative ‘Take Your Seat Campaign’.

It also raises a very interesting point regarding turnout- if turnout where to increase and a new sector of the electorate were to participate the old certainties of safe seats could come to an end as new voters will not necessarily support this same parties as the voters who have previously voted in safe seats. This links to the notion of the different preferences of young voters highlighted by Lord Ashcroft (see Russell Brand post).

Can and should FPTP survive the rise of UKIP

UKIP have been riding high in the polls for months now. The rise of UKIP has led to some to question whether our constitution is fit for purpose in the age of either a four party or perhaps genuinely multiparty system in British politics.

The spectre of the SDPs success in the opinion polls and relative failure in the 1983 General Election looms large in the minds of most political commentators. Despite their popularity the system is stacked against UKIP.

This article looks at whether or not FPTP can continue to survive.

How to Run a Democratic Referendum

Referendums are not only becoming a more frequent feature of UK democracy but also a feature of politics throughout the EU. This article offers an interesting angle on the issue of whether or not referendums enhance democracy. Ultimately whether or not referendums are democratic to a great extent comes down to how they are organised and conducted. This article looks at the factors that needs to be considered to ensure that a referendum is run in a democratic manner.

Stretching the Constitution

The UK Constitution is uncodified, and the key factor that is always put forward to support this status is that it affords the system flexibility.

This flexibility has been tested by the current coalition. Cameron and Clegg has taken aspects of the Constitution and reformed, stretched or disregarded procedure and convention in order to sustain a government that few commentators felt would last as long as it has when Cameron and Clegg stood in the Rose Garden at Downing Street back in 2010.

This post from Democratic Audit, looks at the constitution under the coalition in an article that provides lots of examples of flexibility and recent constitutional change that will be useful for Unit 2 essays on the constitution.

Russell Brand- A Revolution?

Russell Brand has seemingly changed professions in recent weeks. From comedian to thinker. Russell Brand’s book ‘Revolution’ has been published, and has rattled the status quo. Russell Brand’s appearances on Newsnight and the Radio 4 have generated a considerable amount on news copy. Whether or not you agree with Russell Brand, or feel that his book has the answers. It certainly raises some interesting points that link to the democracy topic in Unit 1.

Russell Brand’s central point is that politicians are disengaged from the wants and needs of ordinary people in the UK, particularly the young. This is born out by the voting figures for young people. In 2010 only 44% of 18-24 year olds voted, while only 55% of 25-34 year olds went to the polls. These groups account for 20% of the population (some 9 million people) Brand would suggest that these people don’t vote because they don’t have anyone to vote for. While this might be the case the undercurrent that not voting is somehow a solution is less convincing.

Pensioners account for 16.6% of the population, in 2010 76% of over 65s went to the polls. According to a recent poll commissioned by Lord Ashcroft pensioners overwhelmingly voted Conservative. If you examine coalition policy you will see that their loyalty and participation has been rewarded. George Osborne has proposed £12bn in welfare cuts. However not a penny of these cuts will come from the £83.4bn the government spends per annum on pensions. Pensions account for over half of the £ welfare bill. In contrast the £5.3bn currently spent by the government on Job Seekers Allowance (a benefit overwhelmingly utilised by 16- 24 year olds) is going to be cut, with 18-21 year olds (without children) only being able to claim the benefit for a maximum of 6 months. It is clear if you look at these statistics that it pays to vote. The wants and needs of younger members of society can be ignored by political parties because they are not electorally useful, because they don’t vote. 18-34 year olds are more progressive than older members of society and more open to change, Lord Ashcroft’s poll revealed that 28% of 18- 24 year olds and 14% of 25-34 year olds would vote Green. If 18-34 year olds had voted at the same rate as pensioners in 2010 it is unlikely David Cameron would be PM. However, the reluctance to vote amongst younger age groups does not mean that they don’t participate. It is these groups that dominate the political activism of social media and constitute the largest numbers of participants in protests.

On Radio 4’s ‘Start the Week’ programme Russell Brand was interviewed alongside the founder of the 38 degrees petition website. Petitions have been a recognised form of democratic participation since the Middle Ages, however the advent of the internet has revolutionised the ease and speed at which petitions can be gathered and delivered to those in power. As well as being a means of participation, petitions can also be a tactic of pressure group activity.

38 degrees has come under criticism, for being issue driven and encouraging the fragmentation of British politics, working against the notion of interest aggregation promoted by the oligarchy of parties. It has also been criticised by MPs who complain that 38 degree e- mail bombs, clog up their inboxes and generate vast amounts of work for staff.  However, 38 degrees will claim the credit for significant policy changes such as the u- turn on the sale of forests by the coalition in 2011.

Finally this week saw the second reading of the Recall Bill in Parliament. The Bill currently states that an MP can be subjected to recall if 20% of his or her electorate desire it. However this mechanism can only be triggered if the MP has been convicted of a criminal offence and sentenced to 12 months or more in prison or they have been suspended for 21 days or more from the House of Commons. It is estimated that 90% of MPs oppose recall in any terms. However, many believe that an effective mechanism of recall would improve accountability of MPs and restore partial sovereignty to the people in the interval between general elections.

By Election Success

UKIP have finally got an elected MP after months of riding high in the polls and strong showings in recent local elections the result in Clacton on Thursday has finally given UKIP the presence in the House of Commons they craved.

The election result is interesting for several reasons:

1) It brings another minor party into the House of Commons, adding to the view that Britain now has a multiparty system, with 7 parties from the mainland (not including the NI parties) now represented in the House of Commons it is hard to argue against this view.

2) It is a good example of a classic by- election protest vote. Normally the Lib Dems have benefitted from this anti- politics, anti government sentiment but now UKIP appear to be the beneficiaries.

3) Carswell scored a resounding 60% of the vote cast, this is highly unusual in modern British politics, as the break down of the two party system has ensured that British politicians rarely gain a majority in elections.

In many ways the result in Manchester was more interesting, Carswell was a popular local MP who had defected in a Tory stronghold. Events in the North demonstrated that UKIP could not only take votes from the Conservatives but also from Labour. UKIP came with 600 votes of gaining two MPs on Thursday.

There has been extensive coverage in the press over the weekend of these events, the pick of the articles includes:

Selling off the family silver…

The Conservatives announced the planned move to privatise the government’s 40% share in Eurostar. The proposed rationale for this move is to target the national debt. The plan to privatise has echoes of 1980s Thatcherism. However the rationale is questionable, the £300 million it will raise is a drop in the ocean compared to the £1.4 trillion public debt burden. In fact the Today programme this morning likened it to rummaging down the back of the sofa for loose change.

The government has set itself the target of selling £20bn in public assets by 2020- with Royal Mail already sold for £2bn and the student loan book and the nuclear waste processing organisation Urenco also on the radar for sale. These are good example of Thatcherism being alive and well in the Tory party.