Archive | June, 2009

BNP’s Euro success should not shut door on voting reform (9 June 2009)

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BNP’s Euro success should not shut door on voting reform (9 June 2009)

Posted on 09 June 2009 by admin

The two electoral systems most widely discussed for Westminster are both less likely to elect extremists than first-past-the-post

As the dust settles on the county and European election results, one can take stock of what they mean for the parties and politics over the next year and in the long term.

The county elections are probably the more accurate measure of what might happen in the next general election, because they use the same electoral system and the considerations people have in mind when choosing their vote are more similar.

The county results point to the Conservatives being substantially ahead and in a position to win the next general election, although they have less of a margin of comfort than they did last year, when they were 43-23 ahead of Labour in national vote share, rather than this year’s 38-22. While Labour’s vote collapsed, the Conservative vote has been gently drifting downwards.

It is too easy to dismiss the Euro results as a freakish curiosity: while voters perhaps behave oddly in European parliament elections, the results can be consequential and indicative of future trends.

The 1979 European election produced a Conservative landslide, and the campaign was marked by ludicrous Labour infighting, a prelude to the divisions and disaster of the next four years. In 1984 Neil Kinnock proved that Labour was not dead, and in 1989 Labour inflicted Margaret Thatcher’s only defeat in a national election. It was the first pillar of her rule to crumble; a botched reshuffle, the resignation of the chancellor and a stalking-horse challenge followed by the end of the year – and in 1990 she was out.

The 1989 election was also interesting for the 15% of the vote for the Greens, and the Conservative tilt to Euroscepticism. In 1994, John Major did not do quite badly enough to trigger a leadership challenge. In 1999, the Conservatives’ win, and the vote for Ukip, helped take joining the euro off the agenda, and the low turnout and strong vote for smaller parties was a sign of what was to come, confirmed by the fragmentation of the vote and the weak performance by both main parties in 2004.

The 2009 European elections will surely be notable for more than confirmation of existing trends away from the two (or three) principal British political parties.

The pre-eminent fact is the astonishingly low Labour share of the national vote, at 15.8%. Winning at the last general election in 2005, with 36% of the British vote on a 61% turnout, showed that Labour was on thin ice. Euro 2009 may be an important point on a long-term declining trend in Labour’s vote and vote share that has only been briefly interrupted for decades (in 1966, 1997, and arguably 1992).

The working-class vote is decreasing and becoming less unionised, less cohesive, less loyal to a party and less inclined to turn out.

New Labour found a new, but fickle, group of voters to add to the declining existing Labour electorate, but accelerated the alienation of the old core vote. Now the New and Old Labour electorates are bleeding away at the same time and the remnant of Labour stands cruelly exposed, unable even to win a plurality in Wales.

It seems a particularly severe case of the malaise that has afflicted the centre-left in other EU countries, including France and Germany (although Spain’s socialist government did not do too badly against a poor economic backdrop). However, the saving grace for the left of British politics is that the Conservatives are winning by default rather than because of a surge in their own support.

The 2009 elections present a possible future for British politics in which the Conservatives enjoy a huge parliamentary majority with only 35-40% support from the voters and a progressive vote divided between Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Greens, plus a more rightwing fringe vote split between Ukip and smaller parties, such as the English Democrats and the BNP.

This is, after all, what happened in a number of places last Thursday – including the former Labour county of Staffordshire, where the party is now fourth placed in seats, its three councillors outnumbered by four Lib Dems and four Ukip politicians, not to mention 49 Conservatives.

Labour is probably protected from such an extreme wipe-out at Westminster level because it has a number of very safe urban seats, which would withstand even huge swings, and the party’s Euro vote seemed to hold up a little better in some of these areas than it did in the counties.

The short-term reaction in some Labour circles, driven by an understandable dislike of the BNP, has been that the European results should end discussion of electoral reform for Westminster.

This would be a very short sighted approach. For a start, the systems most widely discussed for Westminster – namely the Alternative Vote (AV), and AV with a small proportional top-up as recommended by the Jenkins commission (AV+) – are both less likely to elect extremists than the present first-past-the-post system.

Other more proportional systems, such as the Single Transferable Vote (STV), create incentives for parties to campaign everywhere and not neglect areas; electors who feel ignored are vulnerable to the appeal of extremists.

It is notable that although there was disenchantment with the governments and traditional parties in Ireland and Malta, which use STV, in the European elections, the reaction did not produce a swing to extremism.

However, a longer term perspective would suggest that the next centre-left government after a Tory victory in 2010 might well not be a single-party Labour majority (and if it is, it might be based on a share of the vote too small to qualify as popular consent).

Electoral reform is more important than ever for the future of the centre-left in British politics because the progressive side will probably never again be marshalled behind a party as it was behind Labour in 1995-2003. Labour’s future needs to be plural and coalition-building, and electoral reform is a key part of that future.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/blog/2009/jun/09/bnp-voting-reform

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A right romp (8 June 2009)

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A right romp (8 June 2009)

Posted on 08 June 2009 by admin

Lewis Baston on the winners and loses in the European elections

Gordon Brown surveys a landscape of ruins this morning. Labour’s 15% of the vote in the European elections is absolutely abysmal, the worst ever for the party by a considerable margin. The ignominious details pile up – behind the Conservatives in Wales, far behind the SNP in Scotland, fifth and without enough votes to qualify for a seat in south-west England.

It is a disaster without recent precedent or parallel. At least in the 1931 general election there was still a solid 30% working class vote for Labour. One might have to look back to 1924 and the end of the Liberals as a party of government. It might have been even worse, had voters in urban areas without county elections not turned out in unexpected strength – hence the smaller slide in the Labour vote in London and the strange bright spot of Leicester. Many of these determined voters were hoping to stop the BNP.

Much has and will be written, a lot of it valid, about how mainstream politics has created the conditions of alienation and anger that led to the BNP vote – and the parties will try to bid for support by “understanding” the feelings of those voters. Less will probably be written on the need, to quote John Major, to “condemn a little more, understand a little less”. With the array of protest parties contesting the elections, nobody can claim not to have had enough choice of political spittoons to expectorate into, but a large number of people chose that particular one. Before the election, there was some hope that the BNP’s reputation for racism and thuggery would cause voters to think twice about supporting them, no matter how cross they were with the Westminster parties. But while some BNP voters may not themselves be racist, indulging a temper tantrum with the system was more important to them than the rights and dignity of their fellow citizens from ethnic minorities.

The Green party has reason to be disappointed with the election. It was untainted by any expenses problems and has a programme of political reforms, so it could have hoped for more than to displace Labour as the fourth party in southern England. But the politics of recession tends to be difficult for Greens, who find that voters anxious about their jobs are less concerned about the long term.

The Liberal Democrats also fared indifferently. Euro elections are always difficult for them because their pro-EU stand is unfashionable and their campaigning techniques centre around candidates’ personalities. The protest vote headed instead towards the right, with Ukip polling at levels that seemed inconceivable a few months ago. It is ironic indeed that the expenses saga seems to have driven people towards a party whose MEP group elected in 2004 contained a benefit fraudster and another currently under investigation for expenses fraud. A deeper irony is that Ukip fetishises precisely the Westminster parliament that people are supposedly disgusted by and want to reform.

The Conservatives did well in the circumstances, considering their own deep involvement in the Westminster expenses scandal and their own spot of bother in the European arliament that led to one MEP being expelled from the group and their then-leader Giles Chichester stepping down over a “whoops-a-daisy” breach of the rules over his own expenses. Chichester returned to Brussels and Strasbourg in triumph at the head of the south-west Conservative list that won half the region’s seats.

With the exception perhaps of those in Scotland, the European elections saw the British voter in a sour and unpleasant mood, vulnerable to the blandishments of an assortment of rightwing populists. Other countries have had elections a bit like this where the normal rules do not apply, as with the rise of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front in 1980s France, or the Lega Nord in 1990s Italy, or the Pim Fortuyn election in the Netherlands in 2002. Sometimes these episodes prove short lived. Let us hope that when the 2014 European elections begin, we look at the 2009 results and wonder: “What on earth were people thinking?”

http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2009/jun/08/european-election-results-analysis

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In much of the south, Labour is a fringe party (5 June 2009)

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In much of the south, Labour is a fringe party (5 June 2009)

Posted on 05 June 2009 by admin

Even through the dark days of the 80s there were still active branches and elected councillors even in small towns, but no longer, reports Lewis Baston

The Conservatives have done extremely well in terms of seats in the county council results. It was almost a foregone conclusion that they would hold on to what they had, and sweep Labour out of the remaining county councils in the Midlands, but they seem to have done rather better.

They were not just beneficiaries of a Labour collapse, but also made considerable progress against the Liberal Democrats, notably gaining control of Somerset. So far the Tories even look as if they are doing well in the new Cornwall unitary council, winning Redruth Central – a town where the party scraped barely 10% of the vote in the 2005 county elections. It seems possible that they will manage a clean sweep of all the county councils, a feat at the most optimistic end of their hopes.

For Labour the results are utterly miserable, with extremely few exceptions (the party strangely gained a couple of seats in Nelson, Lancashire, despite the general collapse, and nearly held firm in Hastings). Across a lot of southern England, Labour is running in fourth, fifth or even sixth place in the county elections behind candidates of more or less any other party that fancies its chances – Greens, Ukip, English Democrats …

In much of the south, Labour is in effect a fringe party. It has been practically eradicated as a force in politics in these areas and may well never recover. Even through the dark days of the 80s there were still active branches and elected councillors even in small towns, but no longer. There have also been some spectacular collapses in northern England – in Burnley Rural ward, which Labour was defending, the party came fourth and lost the seat to the Lib Dems.

The county elections reveal an English electorate attracted by populist rightwing parties, a predictable expression of the widespread indiscriminate cynicism about mainstream politics. The BNP has polled at the upper end of expectations, getting 7% even in some areas (such as Chelmsford and the Clacton area) outside its traditional stamping grounds.

The far-right party has so far won seats in Lancashire and Leicestershire, albeit only on 27%-31% of the vote through fractured opposition. If David Cameron objects to electoral systems that let in extremists, is he now going to condemn first past the post in local elections?

Aside from the BNP, the rightwing mood is apparent in the high votes for Ukip where it has stood in local elections, small rightwing parties and perhaps the surprise package of the lot, the English Democrats, who won the demolition derby that was the Doncaster mayoral election.

They have also achieved some quite impressive shares of the vote in county elections – Essex, for instance – despite the lack of knowledge of the party among the media.

The total vote for these parties plus the Conservatives could make the 2009 European election the most rightwing expression of opinion the British have made collectively since 1931.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/blog/2009/jun/05/local-elections-labour-lewis-baston

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