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After the UK Election: Five years of certainty? I don’t think so….

May 9, 2015

Polling Station

So it’s over, thank goodness. And what now?

I’ll start with a truism popular both in business and politics: there are times when it’s better to make a decision that turns out to be the wrong one than to make no decision at all. And that, effectively, is what the electorate has unwittingly done by returning the Conservatives with an overall majority.

The stock market has reacted positively. Oligarchs and mansion owners have quickly moved to unblock the logjam of delayed activity in the upper end of the housing market.

Financial confidence, however, may prove to be short-lived if the certainty of majority government is tempered by the uncertainty of a referendum on Britain’s future in the European Union. According to David Cameron’s schedule, that event is due in two years’ time.

When I was a young boy learning about politics, I understood that Conservatism was about maintaining the status quo. That may have been the case in 1961, when Harold Macmillan was telling us that we’d never had it so good.

But since Margaret Thatcher handbagged her way into power in 1979, our largest right-wing party hasn’t done too much conserving. Deregulation, privatisation and outsourcing have been the hallmarks of Conservative rule, and there have been times when the Labour Party has come over as the reactionary force. Perhaps not during the Blair years, but certainly under Gordon Brown and prospectively under Ed Miliband. Under Brown, the mission seemed to be to roll back Blairism. Under Miliband, the positive proposals he put forward were overshadowed by the overwhelming impression was that the objective was to get rid of the Tories. That was also the most common sentiment I’ve seen expressed among Labour supporters in the social media.

To take Britain out of the European Union be would a staggeringly risky step, outstripping any risks Thatcher took. Not necessarily wrong, just risky. Projections that show the impact – positive or negative – of a British exit are basically extrapolations into an uncertain future. They prove nothing either way. For that reason I have a hunch that that the outcome would be that the out lobby will fail, unless a Greek exit triggers a financial disintegration within the Eurozone. The majority of us will simply not want to take the risk.

Even so, a referendum would not end the debate. The out voters would continue to agitate against our membership of the EU, just as in the wake of the Scottish independence referendum enough voters have rejected the result to turn Scotland into a one-party country as far as Westminster is concerned. I’ll come back to Scotland a little later.

A vote to stay in the European Union would certainly give David Cameron the prospect of calmer waters over the remaining three years of his government unless some new black swan – one of Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns – throws everything out of kilter. I would put the chances of that happening as highly likely. In which case the natural momentum of politics would suggest that disillusionment with the Conservatives and a reinvigorated Labour Party could threaten Cameron’s fragile majority by 2020. So another coalition or even a majority Labour government would be in prospect after the next general election. The electoral boundary changes now on Cameron’s agenda may prevent a Labour majority, but would almost certainly not stop the Conservatives losing their majority.

If you happen to be a house-owner looking to cash in on the long house price boom by downsizing and pocketing the profit, it would therefore seem that black swans permitting – 2018 will be the last opportunity to do so without your sale being blighted by yet more political uncertainty. Also by that time the current housing shortage will have started easing, because you can bet on the government introducing measures to encourage the construction of more affordable housing.

For the rest of us it looks like more of the same austerity medicine as the government struggles to meet its ambitious commitment to reduce the deficit. Further cuts on social benefits and public services await. Further tinkering with the National Health Service. Stealth taxes here and these.

The National Health Service is the ultimate sacred cow. Free at the point of delivery is the mantra with which no government since its establishment has dared to tamper. Except that it’s not free. Taxpayers pay for it. Those who don’t pay taxes don’t. Is it so iconoclastic to suggest that the mantra could change to free at the point of delivery, but only for those who don’t have the means to pay for it? Already there are voices calling for a £10 charge for general practitioner visits.

If the tax burden was shifted to allow the NHS to charge for certain services, an argument could be made that those who rarely used the service would no longer end up subsidising the frequent flyers to the extent that they are today. Tax breaks for infrequent use could incentivise healthy habits (maybe!). Any charges need only kick in when a user has achieved a certain level of income – say the 25% tax level.

I’m not advocating abandonment of the principle of an NHS free for all. But I can see that there are alternatives that would not necessarily be counter to social justice. Sacred cows may be sacred for a good reason, but that’s no reason not to cast a sceptical eye upon them from time to time.

The extraordinary political upheaval in Scotland raises some interesting questions. For any party in British politics to gain a virtual monopoly over a region is an anomaly to say the least. The Scottish Nationalists will need to walk on water over the next five years to maintain their current ascendency in 2020. Labour, from being an integral part of the Scottish establishment, will become the insurgents.

The SNP’s performance in government, which this time around escaped any serious national scrutiny, will be under the microscope. The three other parties whose representation in the region has been reduced to almost zero will be looking to exploit any failure by Nicola Sturgeon’s Holyrood legions. Therefore expect the SNP numbers in Westminster to decline from the current high water mark next time round.

One potential consequence of the SNP’s triumph might change the landscape dramatically. A major reason for the SNP’s success seems to have been a disillusionment with Westminster politics. The SNP is of Scotland and for Scotland. Its opponents in this election, even if they give themselves a tartan identity by inserting “Scottish” before the party name, are seen as instruments of their national party machines. Ergo, according to the SNP narrative, they are not of Scotland or for Scotland.

What if one or two parties arose that were genuinely independent of Westminster and the central party machines? Parties, say, that espoused left-wing, right-wing and centrist principles but were not in thrall to their natural allies in Westminster? They would therefore compete on equal terms with the SNP – untainted by a Westminster connection.

The fastest way for this to happen would be for the existing parties, Labour, Conservative and the Liberal Democrats, to allow their organisations in Scotland to sever formal links with the central party machines. A re-brand, including as a minimum a name change, would almost certainly be necessary. As is the case in Northern Ireland, the main Westminster parties would no longer contest Scottish elections, leaving the field to the new-born Scots-only rivals to the SNP.

While the Westminster parties would lose control over Scottish MPs wearing their colours, they could expect the support of the parties most closely aligned with their policies. And the SNP would be deprived of their unique sales proposition: of Scotland and for Scotland.

Even if the major parties decided against such a step, new home-grown Scottish parties will almost certainly be formed in opposition to the SNP. But it might take them much longer to become serious players.

However things pan out in Scotland, looking forward twenty years, it’s easy to imagine a federal Britain in which each region has a lively political forum in which parties are no longer campaigning on the narrow agenda of nationalism, but on issues specific to the regions. Just as political alliances within the European Parliament reflect common but not necessarily identical ideologies of parties in member states, so there would be natural alliances in Westminster.

Whether an English parliament emerges remains to be seen. But a federal model seems to me to be the most likely long-term outcome from the turmoil we’ve just experienced.

My personal feeling after this election is one of relative detachment. My constituency is one of the safest Conservative seats in the country. The sitting member is a cabinet minister who clearly has better things to do than run around chasing voters when he knows he’s going to win. I can count on the fingers of one hand the amount of leaflets we received, and those were for the local council elections.

I would have loved the opportunity to debate a few issues with the great man, but he didn’t come anywhere near my house or any others in the constituency as far as I’m aware. Too busy with more weighty matters no doubt. Nonetheless I felt taken for granted, as I always do on these occasions.

I have some sympathy with the Greens and UKIP, who argue that that the millions of votes they received bought them one seat each, whereas the SNP’s 1.5 million reaped them a far richer harvest. But I don’t see the first-past-the-post system changing any time soon. So my vote, which went neither to the incumbent nor to the two above, will continue to count for nothing.

After all, newly-empowered turkeys don’t vote for Christmas.

From → Politics, UK

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