Saturday, 7 March 2015

Scotland puts Miliband in denial

The emergence from the catacombs of the ennobled Kenneth Baker, spewing unctuous rubbish about the necessity of a Conservative-Labour coalition should the Scottish National Party continue to perform strongly, demonstrates quite how deluded the party political machinery has become about the state of opinion and trust in the political system.

In hindsight, the moment Labour last Scotland was when Cameron appeared, alongside Labour grandees, before the referendum promising to sell the Unionist birthright for a tartan-themed tin of fudge.  For over thirty years Scottish politics has been defined by an anti-Tory consensus, their presence in Holyrood the consequence of a representative political system that recognises plurality.  However hard Miliband and Jim Murphy try to pretend that this consensus continues, the catastrophic loss of trust in Labour flows directly from the alliance with a party that is distrusted, hated and held in contempt.

For Labour, this is catastrophic.  Whereas in the independence referendum there was a simple, binary choice, where 45% was not enough to win, in parliamentary elections 45% of the popular vote would be enough to secure a landslide on a scale that neither Blair nor Thatcher could have dreamed of.  Even assuming no drift to the SNP to hold Westminster politicians honest, the latest polling evidence suggests that the massacre of the GB-wide parties in Scotland will be brutal, pitiless and on a scale that more or less guarantees that no party will hold a majority in the House of Commons.

For Miliband and Cameron, this represents disaster.  Electoral machines are calibrated not on maximising popular support and engaging with people around ideas and vision, but on the basis that a  limited number of marginal seats will change hands and thereby propel the party into government.  Cameron has been banking on this throughout the government, squeezing and humiliating the Liberal Democrats with a view to picking up seats from them, while not targeting Labour to any significant extent.  Labour target both of the other parties.

Yet in a pluralistic world, this is a dangerous and limiting tactic.  If there is no positive reason to support a party, its core vote disintegrates, and it cannot appeal beyond this.  The decline in party membership for the three self-styled main parties has been matched by a surge in support for the Greens, the SNP and the Kippers.  In all cases there is a positive articulation from these parties, even if in the latter case it is a vile, semi-fascist play on the politics of envy, fear and hypocrisy.  The decline in support for the mainstream parties has been a trend for half a century, and working within a political system that is, fundamentally, only functional when there is a binary choice, by excluding plurality of voices and representation it is sowing the seeds of its own destruction.

Miliband is in Scotland today playing the"Vote SNP, get Cameron" card.  This is pure scare-mongering, rather than reflection of the potential post-May Commons battleground.  On current polling, Labour and the Tories will be neck-and-neck in terms of seats, with the balance made up of the Northern Ireland parties, the SNP, Plaid, Liberals and an unknown but probably insignificant number of Kippers and Greens.  In 2010, the electoral arithmetic meant that the only plausible and stable combination was Tory and Liberal, but it is very unlikely that this will be repeated this year.

The breakdown of tribalism in politics is not a passing fad.  With inter-generational warfare being stoked by the right, and with the manufactured disappointment in the Liberal Democrat participation in government, the political landscape increasingly resembles a dispersed archipelago with no interaction save for incoherent rantings through partisan megaphones.  In the best tradition of an infinite number of monkeys with typewriters, the UKIP defector Reckless identified the electoral system as a barrier to his party (narrow partisanship) but it remains the single stumbling block that maintains the fiction of omniscient party machinery.

The current UK national system elects constituency MPs on a first-preference-takes-all basis.  Where the result is clear-cut there is at least some semblance of accountability and representation, but in a multi-party democracy it cannot work.  With parties controlled by 20- and 30-something apparatchiks whose definition of getting out of Westminster is anywhere within Greater London, this is not a challenge to the legitimacy of the system but a calculated insult to the political elites by an increasingly disillusioned electorate.  Engagement is much more likely to occur and to be informed where the participant feels even a scintilla of being able to influence the result.

So Miliband's pleas will fall on deaf ears.  Mistrusted by the Scots, vilified by a cowed, venomous right-wing media, he is fighting the wrong battle.  He may well be the best option on offer to be the next Prime Minister, and his party may be the largest single force, but he is not articulating why his vision will command any wider support.  Scotland's modern democracy, with a system designed to ensure pluralism, has become the best indication yet of the disgust and distrust with which the machine politicians are held - and Salmond and Sturgeon have (disingenuously) exploited this.  For the majority who have not supported Cameron and his agenda, the outcome of this election should be clear-cut, an open, straightforward debate on the art of the possible.  Labour in Scotland needs to write itself off, and not to claim that it is the sole force that can dislodge a government and a Conservative party that has long since given up any claim to nationwide representation.

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