Proportional representation won’t save the Union

In the days following the results of the 2015 General Election, there have been calls from all sides of the political spectrum for electoral reform. Quite rightly, those on the left are both furious at the lack of representation they’ve been afforded at Westminster, and also terrified at the prospect of a future where nobody but the Conservatives will be able to achieve a majority in Parliament. Those on the right aren’t much happier, with analysis showing that UKIP would have had a massive gain in seats under a proportional system, rising from the 1 that they currently hold to upwards of 80.

Proportional Representation - General Election 2015
How the BBC visualised the difference

Of course, this sort of disproportionate result has always been present in previous elections. It’s just that up until recently it has largely been masked by the domination of the two major parties. Cracks in the system began to show with the rise in popularity of the Lib Dems, and are now fully exposed both by the UKIP surge, and the simultaneous demise of Labour in Scotland.

One of the stated benefits of the First Past the Post System is to produce strong majorities in Parliament, bringing with them political and economic stability. Seemingly against all the odds, FTPT has managed to again achieve that, at least in terms of the numbers involved anyway. Whilst the Tories will be able to hold what’s called the ‘confidence of Parliament’, that doesn’t mean that they hold the confidence of an increasingly fractured United Kingdom. This election has demonstrated a strong need for electoral reform, with some sort of proportional system required to give legitimacy to future governments, but it will not solve the constitutional problems being faced, particularly in relation to Scotland.

If the UK truly was a single entity, without borders, then PR would provide a solid foundation for people to feel like they are genuinely and fairly represented, irrespective of where they lived. However, that is not the case. No matter how  unpopular it may be to some, we are – to use Cameron’s words – ‘a family of nations’, with distinct and separate identities. Even ardent Scottish Unionists recognise this; a truism that is not just some product of contemporary nationalism, but evident culturally and structurally. People in Scotland support proportional representation, but also want a stronger voice for their nation within the family dynamic. We may just be 5 million people out of 64, but we are also 1 of 4 nations. It is this contradiction that is posing such an issue for the future of the UK. Even with electoral reform, this identity crisis will remain; the Scottish question unanswered.

Scottish Independence British State

Another danger lurking underneath the surface of the calls for electoral reform is that the debate may indeed only serve to highlight the differences between Scotland and England, and ultimately expedite the breakup of the Union. In many corners, the questions about PR are posited in terms of reducing the influence of the Scottish, with the thinly veiled question at the heart of things really asking: Why do the Scots have so many MPs with such a small percentage of the population? This isn’t correct, of course – as we would have the same number of MPs whatever parties held them, but it’s easy for the issues to become conflated given the (disproportionate) success of the SNP, and the antiScottish rhetoric that has emerged. To my pro-Union friends seeking a fairer electoral system: beware this trap. Proportional representation won’t save the UK, and if the debate isn’t approached carefully, it could do more damage to the relationship than it will good.


Header ‘Scottish and British flags’ image by ‘The Laird of Oldham‘ – used under Creative Commons License. ‘Poland-Ball’ style image by ‘Universalis‘ – used under Creative Commons License

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General Election 2015: The aftermath 

I’ve just woken up to the sun shining brightly over Loch Ness, as the final results of the General Election trickle in from around England.

At around 6am I headed to bed with only one Scottish seat left to declare, and its announcement looking likely to bring the total number held by the SNP to a staggering 56 out of 59 possible.

It’s important to reiterate just how incredible this outcome is. Some of the safest Labour seats in the UK have fallen to the SNP, mere months after a ‘no’ vote in an independence referendum. The seven seat stronghold in Glasgow has been swept aside with seemingly remarkable ease, colouring the city yellow – along with much of the rest of the country. Between them, Labour, the Lib Dems, and the Tories now only have three representatives. The record breaking swings to the SNP were so large that they broke the BBC’s swingometer.

They weren't expecting that.
They weren’t expecting that.

Where once household political names would be relatively safe from such shifts in the political landscape by virtue of their recognisability, it seems like that prominence may only have served to aid in their downfall. Danny Alexander has gone, Jo Swinson has gone, the Scottish Labour Party leader has gone, and the former shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander has gone, losing to a 20 year old politics student. It’s fascinating.

That right Jim, aye?
That right Jim, aye?

Even as the losses piled up, Labour Party members seemed unable to deal with the idea that they have fundamentally lost the confidence of the Scottish people – taking swipes at the SNP rather than asking themselves what the hell just happened. Scotland doesn’t belong to Labour, and the continuing failure to comprehend that by entitled politicians has doubtless played a significant part in their downfall. It wasn’t a ‘rise in nationalism’ that crushed Labour, as Ed seems to think. Labour have done this to themselves.

This isn’t just about standing shoulder to shoulder with the Tories as part of Better Together (though that certainly has been an element), it’s about a complete inability on their part to speak up for Scotland in Westminster: instead, working as a branch office of the British Labour Party. The Scots are fed up of their hollow promises. My now ex-MP who held his seat for 15 years voted to invade Iraq, against any investigation into the war, for national ID cards, and even to raise University tuition fees in England. Typical of the toxic sort of politics that has no place in post-indyref Scotland. Oh, he’s also the one who said that he was ‘bored with politics‘ just last week. Jog on pal.

What Scotland Looked Like Before
What Scotland looked like before
What Scotland Looks Like Now
What Scotland looks like now

As the results came in over the night, there was a markedly different mood between my Scottish and English friends. The former were abuzz with excitement and anticipation, whilst the latter despondent and almost disconnected from the whole thing. It’s not hard to see why this might be, given the bleak choice that faced those on the left. Miliband wasn’t just a weak opponent, but one who has spent so much time trying to appease Middle England on issues like immigration that red has seemingly just become another shade of blue. If I was down south, I couldn’t have brought myself to vote for him, tactically or otherwise.

It may seem strange to be celebrating a landslide SNP victory in Scotland when the Tories are currently finalising a majority from votes in England, but for the Scots, having no real impact on those who hold power in Westminster has always been the case. Given this, seeing real change sweep across Scotland became the most exciting and important thing, not whether we got Cameron, Miliband, or some other cookie cutter Prime Minister that we didn’t vote for anyway. The ‘roch winds blew through the Great Glen of Scotland tonight’. The established political wisdoms no longer apply here, and it’s exciting.

For all of that though, when the dust clears we will still be faced with the decidedly grim prospect of another 5 years of Tory governance. It’s incredibly unlikely that we will see ‘some sort of federal offer’, as Boris Johnson has suggested. Instead, what we definitely will see is a concerted attack on civil liberties, with the Tory tongues already drooling at the prospect of scrapping the Human Rights Act. We will see more hateful rhetoric around immigrants, with the currently ludicrous and contradictory system being stacked even more against British citizens with non-EU spouses. We will see a referendum in 2017 that could ultimately rip Scotland out of the European Union against the wishes of the people, and directly in the face of that membership being hailed as one of the benefits of remaining in the Union.

Ultimately, last night was a clear statement of how politics in Scotland have shifted. There could yet be a revolution, but things are going to get worse before they get better. We have a fight on our hands.

Scotland and the 2015 General Election

Two weeks from today, those who come under the designation of British will take to the polls to vote for the Members of the UK Westminster Parliament. There are exceptions to this of course, such as those who have already voted by post or by proxy, and those who won’t see the point in participating at all.

The number of people who end up lumped into the inaccurately labelled category of ‘apathetic voters’ is substantial, a phenomenon common in mature political democracies the world over. This often elicits protestations that the disengaged and disaffected should spoil their ballots rather than abstain, or that there is some sort of moral imperative to cast a ballot due to the sacrifices of those that have come before. These tired old arguments come around like the seasons, and have little discernible effect. The simple truth for many is that there is little point in taking even a symbolic stand if you don’t believe there is any real prospect of change.

This time may be different.

It can be easy to forget in amongst the laboriously prosaic campaigning, but this time we find ourselves at a genuinely exciting moment in British political history – whatever the outcome of the election may be. The old assumptions and expectations have been broken down in a way that few people would ever have predicted.

One of my earliest memories relating to the general election that didn’t just involve getting the day off school was when Tony Blair’s New Labour party were seeking to gain power from John Major’s Conservatives in 1997. The Daily Record displayed a headline that stated: ’18 Reasons We Need a Fresh Breath of Blair’, one for each year the Tories had been in power.

Back then it seemed like there might be real change afforded by voting for Labour, but of course, that seems almost laughable now. What was on offer was nothing more than the illusion of something different; a choice between two barely indistinguishable parties, cloaked in rhetoric and false promises. This was just the other side of the coin in a bleak partisan system where nothing really transformative ever took place. Nowhere else was this more keenly felt than in Scotland, where each successive election just seemed to confirm that voting had no impact upon the actual result.

Tony Blair and George Bush

Now, things seem fundamentally different. The far right has inevitably smartened up enough to present itself as a credible threat in the form of UKIP and Nigel Farage, simultaneously managing to make the Tories appear more rational, whilst also pulling them to promise more extreme action. The Lib Dems have all but completely extinguished their relevance as anything other than a party designed to prop up whoever is in power at any given time and needs a hand – the Parliamentary equivalent of a temp agency. Labour are having an existential crisis, faced with a complete meltdown in their traditionally safe heartlands… and not only do we now have televised debates, but the Greens and Plaid Cymru are represented on there as well (though why Patrick Harvie wasn’t included in Scotland is still a mystery).

Nigel Farage

Even the ever dependable First Past the Post system, so desperately lauded by the mainstream parties for its ability to produce sizeable majorities (and therefore allegedly ‘stable’ governments) has failed to achieve even that basic task. The irony of that is compounded by the fact that not only do we have a popular SNP government in Edinburgh, but that they have a majority under a proportional system designed specifically to prevent such a scenario from taking place. Ouch.

Nicola Sturgeon

It should not be underestimated how fascinating all of this is, especially when we remember the situation that our American friends are still trapped in. However, sadly the details are at risk of being nothing more than window dressing if it doesn’t actually have the potential to produce real change for people. Whether the Greens are getting on TV a bit more often is irrelevant if it remains the case that they cannot garner enough nationwide support to be in a position to actually make an impact. For many across the UK, this is still the reality they are faced with when deciding how to vote. This is not the case for those of us in Scotland.

Scotland Westminster

One of the main underlying issues around the debate over Scottish independence was a dissatisfaction with the status quo; a rejection of the helplessness of the Westminster system that favoured those already in positions of power. People were fed up of being stuck with the Hobson’s choice between red or blue – though it is extremely generous of me to imply that the Tories were ever actually really an option. For many who voted yes, there was a crushing resigned fear that the result would signify a return to the old situation, but it hasn’t. Rather than doggedly stick to supporting a single party in a system that offers no alternatives, for once we are able to vote in such a way that not only will it actually count, but in a way that could also bring about a genuine shift in politics across the UK. Hell, arguably it’s already happened.

For the first time, our ballot feels like it actually matters again, and that those in Westminster are having to sit up and take notice. You can’t tell the Scottish people that they will be better as part of the United Kingdom and then expect them to not want a seat at the head table.

Image of Tony Blair and George Bush is in the public domain.
Image of Nigel Farage from Euro Realist Newsletter used under Creative Commons licence.
Image of Nicola Sturgeon from the Scottish Government used under Creative Commons licence.
Image of ‘Scotland Place – Westminster’ by me.