In the immediate aftermath of the election, what was striking was not only how quickly the media concentrated upon the ‘winners and losers’ of the election but how quickly such features faded away. Partly, I suspect, that was because the cabinet reshuffle that provided much material for similar pieces. For once, I’m not entirely sure of the protocol for cabinet appointments following a successful election.
Anyone with an ounce of sense understands that even though they cease to be members of parliament once parliament itself is prorogued, ministers stay in the job until the election result is clear. However, I believe – not know – that unlike America, where the entire cabinet resigns so that the President can appoint new people without the whole ‘been sacked’ thing, ministers stay in their job unless replaced by someone else at the Prime Minister’s whim, erm, wish.
So we do get the whole “been sacked”, “been promoted”, “been left in place” thing. Notable losers this time around include the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who was despatched from the government with haste, and the Party chairman, Grant Shapps, who was demoted to a junior minister’s job. This last appointment seemed to indicate that David Cameron agreed with the public on at least one thing: the Conservative Party won this election despite Grant Shapps, not because of him.
There were some other losers, and some big winners. With a single party majority, Cameron could – and did – appoint a Cabinet from solely his party, something he was unable to do in the last parliament. And some of his appointments were so egregious that you suspect Cameron reviewed potential ministers’ curriculum vitae, saw what they didn’t like, and then appointed them to the ministry responsible. So we got a minister for equalities who voted against equal marriage in a free vote, a new disabilities minister who voted against protecting benefits for disabled children and cancer patients and a culture secretary who has contempt for the BBC Licence Fee. Oh, and don’t forget the new health minister who is “personally and principally opposed to abortion“.
However, away from the reshuffle, there were other big winners and losers, the very fact of which seems to have been neglected somewhat. It’s almost as if, in some cases, the media seem to have thought as one: “Well, me mentioned them a lot in the forty-eight hours after the election, we don’t need to mention them again.” So, let’s just take a look at six, three of each.
winner – nicola sturgeon
Unquestionably the single politician who came out of the 2015 general election with the biggest personal bump in fortunes. Anyone who thought – and I suspect there were many in the UK who thought this – that she was destined to be forever in Alex Salmond’s shadow, to be someone who would pale next to what he achieved, had a rude awakening. Every time she spoke, people listened. I think it’s fair to say that lots of those people didn’t actually hear what she said, though. She spoke with passion, but never allowed that passion to override political common sense. To be fair, she had an easy target with David Cameron’s manifesto, but that didn’t seem to helpLabour that much, did it? A friend on mine maintains that had Alex Salmond said before the independence referendum that he’d step down immediately afterwards not matter the result, the Yes campaign could have grabbed another 10 percentage points, and won. I wasn’t so sure; I am now. Knowing that they’d get rid of Salmond and get Sturgeon in his place, I don’t doubt the Yes campaign would have triumphed. Whether that would have been good or bad for Scotland is an entirely separate question.
The same friend maintains that Nicola always wanted a Tory government; much easier to spin the ‘we’ll never get what we want inside the Union’. I’m definitely not convinced on that one. In no way does the election result we’ve just had damage Sturgeon’s ambitions for herself nor for her country. I think she’d rather have had a Labour government dependent – if only vote by vote – on her Westminster representatives, but with the Tory government she’s quite prepared to use that same line… in spades. It worth noting that Cameron went to Scotland to discuss the Smith proposals and didn’t shy away from acknowledging that further devolution, beyond Smith, is on the table.
winner (for the moment) – the SNP
I’m separating out the leader from the party because I think they came out of the election very differently. Not only because the Westminster representation has it’s own group leader (Angus Robertson is continuing in the role, with 56 MPs, not the six he had before the election) but also because I suspect the next year will grant them very different fortunes. One of the advantages of having ten times as many MPs is the extra power the party has in Westminster. Formally granted ‘third party’ status last week, they’ll have seats on select committees and be guaranteed two questions every week at Prime Minister’s Questions. One of the drawbacks is that the leadership (both in Westminster and in Scotland) will encounter more rebellions and bad behaviour, if only because no-one but no-one expected – at the time the prospective parliamentary candidates were selected – ninety-five percent of them to be elected.
While I wish Mhairi Black, the new MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South, every good fortune, I defy anyone to tell me that when she was selected, to fight the seat held by the Shadow Foreign Secretary, they expected her to win, and win decisively. There are a lot of similar winners who are now going to have to learn what it is to be an MP. And some of them won’t be up to the job. That’s not limited to the SNP; there are always some in every party. It’s just a matter of how they implode. But unless every vote is going to be a three line SNP whip, while some in the Westminster group of SNPs will be on the left of the party, some on the right, some of them will vote however the hell they want to, party party (and discipline) be damned.
winner – the first past the post system
One of the reasons offered way back in 2011 (yes, it was that long ago) by those who supported the first past the post system was that it tended, on the whole, to offer single party majority governments. Sure, there had been minority governments in the past, and even the odd coalition. (It’s important to remember that all coalitions are odd beasts, but that’s not quite what they meant.) But as a rule of thumb, you could do a lot worse than “first past the post gets you single party government. Now, for some, this is an advantage; single party majority governments, while of necessity, being intra-party coalitions, do tend to be more stable, do tend to involve less compromise and again on the whole, tend to supply the best chances of a government enacting its manifesto. A manifesto, I remind you, that they have a mandate to enact. For others, single party majority government in a parliamentary system means ‘rule by executive fiat’, more supine legislatures and since an opposition is limited in their ability to prevent legislation passing, and political nature abhors a vacuum, it always leads to vicious infighting among the main opposition party.
But whether or not you support the consequences of first past the post, it lived up to its reputations – both good and bad – and delivered a single party working majority. Some have suggested that this will be its last harrah, that in the next few years, the anger of an electorate at a government that was elected on only 37% of the popular vote will lead to a campaign for a new electoral system. I doubt it. Not only are the two main parties as always unlikely to kick away the prop by which each of them has at times been elected to government, they’ll now be joined by the third main party. If you assume that with a form of proportional representation the votes would have been similar (a view to which I’m not sure I subscribe), the SNP would not now have 56 MPs. They’d have 25, just a little more than the Greens. And UKIP would have more than three times as many as the SNP. I don’t think we’ll see the SNP calling for any changes just yet.
So, if those three were the winners, who and what lost out?
loser – scouring the entrails
Every single published poll over the six weeks before the election was wrong. Not a little wrong, but spectacularly wrong. While some predicted the Tories moving ahead, while a few predicted Labour pulling ahead, I don’t recall a single poll or interpretation of same predicting a majority for Cameron’s Conservative Party, with Labour down to 232 seats. Some said the Lib Dems would be thumped, but no-one predicted they’d be left with few enough MPs that they could comfortably fit inside a people carrier. And very few pundits differed. Most predicted coalition or, at the outside, minority governments and possible parliamentary gridlock and deals in darkened rooms at best. John Curtice is a notable exception, but then he had the actual exit poll to work with which, as I’ve stated previously, he got pretty damned close with, as he had in 2010.
I’m wondering whether there’ll be any accountability, real accountability. Will parties stop using polling organisations that, to be polite, utterly fucked up? Will any pundits not only apologise for their distinct lack of accuracy but also quit the game? I doubt it. I really doubt it. Maybe I should have labeled this bit “loser – accountability”.
loser (for the moment) – a decent opposition
I’m a firm believer that governments are at their best when they have been and continue to be challenged by people who know what they’re doing. Governments, and departments, who have to justify and defend their actions and policies bring light more than heat. We need strong opposition in this country, not as some would wish to prevent governments doing what they’ve been elected to do, but to ensure that it’s not done in secret, that transparency becomes a policy in and of its own right. Slogan painting, literally and metaphorically, is easy to produce and sadly equally easy to ignore. Evidence based opposition, fact based debate, proving that a government is wrong, whether it’s legally, ethically or morally is far more important.
I despair when I hear someone say that debate isn’t enough, for what that almost always means is that “their debaters are better than our debaters, so we’d better find another way to beat them.”
“Ah, but the government ignore evidence-based arguments.” Then find better arguments that they can’t ignore.
Unfortunately, the Labour leadership campaign and the SNP’s apparent lack of interest in English votes (they’ve already said they’re going to abstain on the attempt to repeal the fox hunting ban) means that opposition is simply not going to be there for at least the first four months of this parliament. Some have said that this time is precisely when attack should be made because that’s when the government will be at its weakest. I couldn’t disagree more. This government will be incredibly strong until the autumn conference season. But that’s not a reason for not opposing them. It’s a reason to oppose them more; unless you’re prepared to seriously oppose the government every blood day of the next five years, again and again, you won’t win the next election. And what’s more, you won’t deserve to.
loser – any chance of reforming the manifesto process
If the election and the single party majority government resulting have killed anything, it’s the chance of making a manifesto what it should be: a set of policies placed in front of the electorate that a government will try to get through, but don’t ‘pledge’ to do. The Tories can say, with some justification, that they have a mandate to govern and to enact every single policy in their manifesto, from the sensible to the ludicrous, from the easy to the impossible, from the intellectually rigorous to the ‘came up with on the back of a fag packet in the pub late one Friday night.” And that’s a pity, because every government needs wiggle room, and the specifics demanded by a more knowledgable* electorate don’t give them any.
(* I’m not convinced for a moment that the overwhelming majority of voters had more than the very vaguest idea of what the parties’ manifestos contained. I said ‘knowledgable’. I should have typed ‘ostensibly knowledgable’.)
Oh, while I think about it, nothing to do with winners or losers, but P J O’Rourke came out with a cracking line while commenting on the election, one of those lines I dearly wish I’d have written. I didn’t, but he did:
The British have voted Conservative – not by an overwhelming margin. But a “whelming” margin will do.