“A week is a long time in politics” is a Harold Wilson quote that most politics observers like to roll out at times of rapid change in the political world. The speed of shifting sands in politics has been torrid in the last year. It was beginning to feel that the white hot centrifugal point of geopolitical drama had finally shifted away from the UK and the EU trash talk. Events in Syria, the Korean peninsula and even alarming photos of Donald Trump’s son wearing a full Arsenal kit were generating far more attention. Theresa May would take the opportunity to breathe deep and allow a short period of calm, would she not?
Snap elections are a curiously, but not uniquely, British beast. Many countries have systems that enable an election to be called before a Government term is complete, but Theresa May’s act of democratic thuggery this week is the mother of all ‘snapped’ elections. May stunned everyone as she announced an election and delivered a blistering statement on the lack of unity in Westminster to drive the Brexit agenda forward and walked away. Commentators lurched into action, the constitutional lock of the fixed term parliament act had been wrenched from the door and left ruined. How could an opposition reject a chance to seize power at the ballot box and not be accused of being weak? A defacto second referendum was the cry, and cry was what many seasoned political activists did. Many soft and quiet tears were shed. The activists are tired, British politics has been a relentless campaign tour for over ten years and it is these exhausted local volunteers upon which the keys to power rest.
The British system of representation is one of the more effective when it comes to local representation. The population vote in local contests for an individual to represent them at Parliament. A government is formed from the party that collects a majority of those representatives. Constituency politics requires members of Parliament to be accountable to their voters on a local level. Their work is not just in the Legislature at the capital but also significantly in the local area. Representatives must be available to the local population and raise concerns on their behalf. An effective local MP can be returned to Parliament time and time again regardless of party affiliation. In effect campaigns are staffed by dedicated local volunteers not for a national goal as such, but to elect a local champion. This local representation is one of the most positive aspects of the British system, the problem is that the laws that govern election spending are built around local campaigning rather than national expenditure and parties are finding it increasingly challenging to mount effective local campaigns with an ever decreasing number of volunteers. The foundation of British Election law was laid in 1695 and using principles adopted in the 1800’s regarding expenditure and crimes such as “treating”, where candidates would effectively buy votes by providing gifts, of food or drink. It was not uncommon for voters to be intoxicated by the alcoholic gifts provided by candidates before staggering to vote.
Promoting the national party is a national expense, promoting the local candidate a local expense, and the parties who wrote the rules delineating the two in 2009 are now finding devious ways to sidestep spending caps and hide this extra spending in the national campaign expense in order to produce campaigns that engage people, reach them and find out who they intend to vote for, or even enthuse them to vote at all. The system, in general, provides effective, dedicated MP’s who work tirelessly for constituents regardless of party affiliation, but the rules on spending were not designed for a digital mass media era, does British politics risk losing this elegant delivery of local representation by adjusting Victorian legal limits on campaign spending?
In 2015 it seems increasingly clear these rules were at the very least bent, at worst, outright broken or flagrantly ignored. The worst alleged offender being the Conservative party, who face accusations of considerable overspend and creative accounting in anything upto 24 seats. Professional election strategists and bus loads of volunteers sent out through the country to spread the message all listed as national expenses. Yet, when these people are promoting the local candidate the local campaign is effectively paying for exposure and campaigners without declaring the cost. Why is this an issue? Why is this something that anybody other than political nerds and accountants should concern themselves over? Simply put, the conservative party majority in Parliament currently stands at 12.
The prospect of having two dozen MPs charged with a crime of election fraud and the potential flurry of by-elections that would almost certainly erode the Government majority was too great a risk. By calling a general election May will probably have been convinced she can increase her majority and sustain a solid five years of secure tenure. Nothing to do with Brexit, nothing to do with unity. Nothing to do with the good of country. Simple old fashioned party politics expediency.
So the campaign got underway with the first major talking point, the Conservative strategy is to once again play high stakes poker in an attempt to quash the UKIP threat. The anti EU party receives hostile press and is attacked relentlessly from all sides, but they had risen to a high watermark of 4 million votes across the nation in the 2015 election and seem to behave more like a pressure group for policy change than a political party, and with astonishing results. (See Brexit) It does not matter if they win any seats, or even none at all in June, what matters is that they garner less votes than last time, to reinforce the narrative of decline and lack of purpose. Radio phone in shows, facebook timelines and newspaper columns abound with UKIP supporters stating they are voting Conservative and call upon their “brethren” to do the same, to ensure a secure Brexit. It smells like a PR campaign, a guerilla marketing campaign, a mantra to feed into peoples heads, a seed that must be planted before the frost of election fraud prosecution strikes.
The Labour party is experiencing a left leaning lurch in response to the Centrist guidance of the Blair years. The 1983 election saw a genuine socialist lead the Labour party to a generational disaster of a result. His manifesto was dubbed “the longest suicide note in history”. If polls are to be believed, Jeremy Corbyn, the current beleaguered Labour leader, is on course to deliver a result that would make 1983 look like a cause for celebration. His party is in open rebellion and horrendously split by the damaging battle, encapsulated simply as a divide between a “Blairite” Parliamentary party and a strongly socialist general membership. Corbyn clearly appeals to his dedicated members, but to win elections, he must, like all political parties, extend his appeal beyond his core vote, and this seems highly unlikely. Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats (who a few short years ago were in coalition Government, currently cannot field a football team with their current number of MPs, rejected by the first time voting generation who raised them to power on a promise to reverse the unpopular policy on University tuition debt, a promise they failed to deliver on) have now promised to reverse Brexit. A promise which seems highly unlikely to be delivered on. They could benefit from a perfect storm of anti Brexit fervour and anti Corbyn desperation, and a swathe of tactical voting but, for either party to defeat the Conservatives would require a come back that would bend the laws of electoral reality.
Further intrigue is added with the Scottish National Party. At last count, they took almost every seat in Scotland and anything remotely close to that impressive standard would ensure no chance of a Labour government in Westminster. The maths is clear, Labour need to win big in Scotland to win power. How the SNP vote will hold up compared to 2015, whether significant numbers will drift to other parties or stay home is anyone’s guess but the narrative of democratic deficit suits the SNP even if it does not reflect the will of the people. A dangerous paradox of power in devolved Scotland and opposition in Westminster allows the SNP to have their cake and eat it and it is unclear how long this strange circumstance can hold firm.
When you add in to the mix a tempestuous unpredictable mood in Northern Ireland and unheard of swells in Conservative popularity in Wales and the final added spice of a full County local election vote on May 4th midway through the General Election period, politics observers in Britain are trying to call an election in some of the most volatile circumstances since…since…well, since whenever!
Expect a Conservative strategy that hints at enough vulnerability to assure their faithful turn out along with coveting the UKIP vote. The danger of a Labour success must be real enough to scare voters into the Conservative arms. Election night 2017 will be a drama that will live long in the memory. Whether it turns out to be an anti climax peppered with local shocks or a landslide of seismic proportions is too early to say.
Politics, is as ever, a positively disgusting, dirty and brutal game, but we keep watching, because next days, the goal posts will have been moved again and fresh blood will spill onto the floor. Whether the crowd will roar with approval or gaze lifelessly in the other direction, unmoved by the comic tragedy of it all, is the next great burning question. The people of Britain are frustrated and angry and now have been asked to vote once again. An angry electorate is an unpredictable one, and this will make for fascinating viewing from a safe distance, such as here in Spain. The ramifications though, in this year of French and German elections to be fought in equally unpredictable.