Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Democracy Village: A Parable of the Liberal Democrats?

Several bloggers far more illustrious than I (Iain Dale, Adam Boulton and Ben Brogan, for example) have carried the recent developments surrounding the Parliament Square 'Democracy Village'. Camps - unlike marches - are an attempt to entrench the expression of a given political view (or more commonly, views) in either a public or an inconvenient place (or more commonly, both). Hopefully, we will soon see the end of it.

But these things can be awfully tricky to eradicate if the inhabitants are determined enough. The Greenham Common Peace Camp provides clear examples of some of the defining characteristics of leftist commune-camps:

1) It didn't achieve anything: Britain maintained cruise missiles at RAF Greenham Common until 1991, when they were removed due to a treaty that was the result of what one might call 'grown up' diplomacy. The camp had nothing to do with it.

2) It was damned hard to get rid of: The women were evicted several times, yet they kept on returning days later. Could be troublesome if the 'Democracy Villagers' decide to try something similar: constant police evictions will simply lead to increased coverage.

Of course, the Democracy Village is not identical to the Peace Camp: it lacks not only the hypocritically sexist admission criteria but, more importantly, the clarity of purpose. It began as a demonstration with a clear message and substantial support, but after failing to achieve its aims it has over time lost both support and focus, becoming a little-heeded focus for a staggering array of leftist agit-prop. A sort of tragic parody of the fate of the Liberal Party.

Travelling Light

Just a quick post to explain that this blog may be somewhat light for the next couple of weeks, due to IRL commitments. Normal service should be resumed from June 10th. Thankyou for your patience.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Why even a solo Conservative government would be legitimate in Scotland

To the oft-voiced argument 'Scotland elected one Conservative MP and has a Conservative government - this is WRONG!', my counter is straightforward.

Scotland is part of the United Kingdom. In being part of the United Kingdom, it accepts the terms of that union. In union-wide elections, Scotland has its proportional share of seats, but it obviously does not have casting vote.

The Conservative & Unionist, Liberal Democratic and Labour parties are all unionist - they subscribe to the terms of the union I described above. Thus a vote for the Liberal Democrats or Labour is a vote for a party that subscribes to the legitimacy of the union and thus the legitimacy of a Conservative government that carries the largest number of seats in the Union Parliament.

The party that rejects the legitimacy of the Union, the Scottish National Party, did not get substantially more votes than the Conservatives (who with the SNP and Liberal Democrats were all within the 400,000 - 500,000 mark), and certainly failed to come close to matching the pro-Union vote.

Thus the Conservative government of the United Kingdom derives its mandate for administering non-devolved issues in Scotland from the Union whose legitimacy has been endorsed by the vast majority of the Scottish electorate in the pan-union elections. Simple.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Kennedy and the Coachman

In Sunday's Observer, Charles Kennedy lays out his reasons for abstaining on the vote to ratify the Coalition agreement. It got me reflecting, as I have in the past, on the nature of the Liberal Democrat party and membership, and its ramifications on the current position of the party and its future. The present agonies that sections the party and its supporters are undergoing can be traced several overlapping factors, which I will look at here. These are: the Conservative appropriation of abandoned Liberal political territory; the conflict of identity following the merger and clash of traditions; and the soap-bubble like character of support a perennial third party was always likely to attract.

1) The Encroaching Blues: Divisions within the Liberal Democrats are hardly new. In his article, Kennedy refers to two groups who split from the former Liberal Party: Sir John Simon's National Liberals (presumably he included the latter group too) and Joseph Chamberlain's Liberal Unionists. Liberal Conservatives often have a lot of sympathy with these groups - indeed if this blog had household gods, Joseph Chamberlain would undoubtedly be one of them. It may be significant that the eventual fate of all of these groups has been to align with the Conservatives. Liberal defections to Labour have happened, but never in a big, bulk manner.

This is evidence of what I think has been a long-running issue for the Liberal Democrats and their predecessor party: continual encroachment upon their territory by the Conservative Party. When Margaret Thatcher won her landslides in the Eighties, it was because her brand of economically liberal Conservatism reach out to the apirational lower and middle classes - who might one have been Liberal voters. It was the Conservative appropriation of economic Liberalism that allowed her to pull that off.

It is perhaps a touch ironic that, if the aim of the post-Grimond Liberal leaders has been the eclipse of the Conservatives by a progressive alliance, it has been their adoption of that position that has done so much to sustain the blue foe. By moving leftward, the various leaders of the Liberal Party have abandoned more and more territory to the Conservative Party. Unlike the left, in Britain the Conservatives continue to hold a near-hegemony over right-of-centre representation. With the exception of UKIP in European elections, the Conservative right has nowhere to go. The more ground ceded to the Conservative Party, the broader a church it becomes and the wider its appeal grows. The way to sideline the Cornerstone-style tories would have been to create a viable centre-right Liberal alternative, rather than shifting left and abandoning fertile political territory to the Conservatives.

Kennedy references the leadership of Jo Grimond as the leftward turning point. This was not entirely fair: according to Roy Douglas, in his book Liberals, Grimond desired:

"a great remodelling of politics, in which the Liberal Party, the non-Socialist element of the Labour party, and many 'Liberal-at-heart' Conservatives would come together in a great new radical movement."

- in essence, a distinctive Liberal political position, rooted in but not defined by the centre ground. Whilst this may have been a touch to the left of the Liberal position in the 1950's, it is well to the right of many - including, I think, Mr Kennedy - now. In moving leftwards, the Liberals and Liberal Democrats simply risked moving into crowded electoral territory, shedding votes to the Conservatives and splitting the very 'progressive' vote whose hegemony it seeks to secure. However, this attitude is not consistent across the entire party, which brings us to:

2) Identity Conflict: The Liberal Democrat Party is a product of electoral necessity; a fusion of the old Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party (which brought in, amongst others, Charles Kennedy). However, this merger only exacerbated a dilemma that was present even within the pre-merger Liberals: between what we today call 'Orange Bookers' - or classical liberals (ish) - and their 'weirdie-beardie' bedmates. Although many who would have been natural Liberal recruits in decades past had become the soft wing of the Conservative Party, there remained a body of centre-right Liberals in the party alongside the U.N.D., beard-and-sandles types. Even after the infusion of Social Democrats during the merger, this group survived. Indeed, it is the survival of this group that has allowed the Liberal Democrats to continue pitching to Conservative voters (and they do) and credibly claim to be a party of the centre.

This division was not particularly problematic until the party was confronted with power - and worse, at least the illusion of a choice as to who it shared power with. While the instincts of the majority of the party lie with Labour, there is a substantial minority whose instincts lean the other way - including the leader. Nor can its electorate be claimed clearly for the 'progressive' camp either, although many have undoubtably tried to do just that. In LD/Labour marginals, the Liberal is likely to have come through on the back of Conservative votes, and in the shires too the Liberal Democrat will need to have successfully wooed Tory support.

The identity conflict emerges because this wing is closer to the pre-Grimond heritage of the Liberal Party. When Charles Kennedy writes that last week's events:

"drive a strategic coach and horses through the long-nurtured "realignment of the centre-left" to which leaders in the Liberal tradition, this one included, have all subscribed since the Jo Grimond era"

he is correct: Clegg is (intentionally or not) reconnecting with an older strain of Liberal Party thought and action. The result is increasing discontent on the left (Kennedy and Ashdown being key figures to watch), and a coming to the fore of a long-postponed reckoning between the two wings of a divided party. How this conflict is resolved could have a major impact on the development of British politics in the coming decades.

3) The Soap Bubble of Discontent: Being in opposition as long as they were, it was almost inevitable that the Liberal Democrats would become the vehicle for all kinds of oppositionalism and protest. This fractious support base was never going to survive any brush with power unscathed. No matter how many times Liberal Democrat figures went on television to say 'we hope to hold the balance of power in a hung parliament', it seems that there were sections of the base that simply either did not or would not understand what this meant. You see them a lot in the comments sections of blogs and newspapers - it normally runs something along the lines of "I voted Liberal Democrat to keep the Tories out but Nick sold us out and now I'm never voting for them again!"

The Liberal Democrats never campaigned as 'Labour Lite' and Nick Clegg was forthright in saying he would offer the party with the mandate in terms of seats and votes a mandate. This was always near-certain to be the Conservatives. The message could not have been much clearer, and anyone who genuinely feels 'sold out' by the Liberal Democrats making a deal with the Conservatives should have a long, hard think about whether or not they really want PR. What this evinces is that sections of Liberal Democrat support were based not on stated party policy but on a belief that the party was 'really' whatever that particular elector wished it to be. Distance from power allowed a Liberal Democrat support base to develop that was broad - stretching from libertarians to people who thought Labour were 'too right wing' - but fragile, sustainable only in the fantasy-friendly world of third place. Once the party had to make decisions, this bubble was always going to burst.

The Liberal Democrat leadership has probably thought through the ramifications of gaining power enough to take a three-point fall in their stride. After all, the moment they gained power they were always going to disappoint someone. A spell in government will see some sections of support harden, and others disappear. How the party manages this will decide its course for a long time to come: will coachman Clegg continue the drive towards the Liberal party of old, or will the SDP-ers regain the helm? And can both wings remain in one party for much longer?

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Little Englanders at large

Over at ConservativeHome, Tim Montgomerie proposes that the Conservative party north of the border should separate from the UK party. Akin to the pre-1965 Unionist Party, except with some truly terrible suggestions for names.

Personally, I don't think this is a good idea. The old Unionist Party had history this new thing won't, except perhaps if it plays really hard on being a restoration of the old Unionist Party. But if this happens, it plays into the SNP's court as to the vast majority of people who don't remember the pre-merger party, it will look like the SNP have gained such ground as to have justified a "Unionist Party" - just like Northern Ireland! It would be a tragic irony if whilst trying to normalise the Union in Northern Irish politics on the one hand, Cameron de-normalised it in Scotland with the other. It would also in my view be a blow to the credibility and principles of the Conservative & Unionist Party.

But this is not the point of this post. More depressing for me by far than Montgomerie's post are the comments cropping up beneath it that follow the basic formula: "The Union is useless/defeated/oppressive - can we govern England now please!" If there's anything more distasteful than genuine nationalism, it must be nationalism derived from a cocktail of electoral calculation and petulance - a sort of "They won't vote for us? Fine, screw them!" Combined with this is a strange tendency to conflate the Conservative Party's problems with the Union's: the SNP won six seats and not many votes more then the Conservatives in Scotland, and taken together the pro-union vote remains overwhelming. In Wales we're the second party.

There is a strain of English nationalism in the Conservative Party that the result in Scotland is going to encourage (the result in Wales will be overlooked, naturally). Unionists within the party must remain vigilant against it. Thank goodness Cameron is leader.

Update: Tory Bear takes a letter that could have been written by an SNP entrist here, and the unionist-enGnat battle breaks out in the comments section again.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

The Conservatives and Europe

The Economist analyses the reasons for the Conservative Party's (and Britain's) relations with Europe. An excellent read.

Armchair Technocrats

A strain of argument that surfaces from time to time is the criticism of politicians' CVs when it comes to cabinet appointments. Charlotte Gore provides an example of the argument, mocking the CVs of Osborne and May.

Now as easy and enjoyable an exercise as this sort of thing undoubtedly is, it is a bit unfair on our politicians. Like it or not, running a country is not like running a business and staffing cannot operate the same way.

There are three things that apply when you are filling a corporate vacany: 1) You have a clear image of what the job entails, 2) you scout around for the best qualified candidate for that job and 3) you pay them the market rate (or above) for their labour in order to induce them in. None of this works in politics.

1) Ideology ruins this. In nearly all departments different parties will want different things from the post. This applies to some roles more than others, but it is this lack of common conception of purpose that lies at the heart of why the technocratic approach doesn't work. Only in a post-political, managerial government could the private sector employment pattern really work for Ministers of State (the overlap between technocracy and undemocratic governments is no accident of history). For as long as political choice remains, different parties will approach the same positions in different ways and fill them accordingly.

2) This means that a candidate must be assessed upon ideological and political criteria beyond the contents of a printed CV for a private sector job application. Whether or not the ideas of a candidate align with those of the government - and whether or not they can work well within government - is rightly central to cabinet appointments, as they have to enact the policies that have gained an electoral mandate. If technical expertise were placed before politics as the principal (but not sole, by any means) criterion for selection, it would create a system wherein individualistic ministers who considered themselves experts in their field might resent 'interference' in their ministry by the government at large. A government that was a loose confederation of independent ministries would lack coherency, accountability and credibility - it would not work.

3) The political scene also serves to depress pay, which narrows recruitment. Ask people if they think that the most important cabinet jobs in the country should be done by the most able people possible, you'll find few to disagree. Put to those same people the wages that would need to be offered to recruit such talent, and you will hear a lot about 'troughing politicians' and them 'being in it for themselves'.

The truth is that for those very clever people who do reach the cabinet (or enter politics at all) it usually entails a sometimes substantial pay cut, not to mention a constant chorus of execration in the press and from 'the public'. So cut Cabinet ministers - and indeed politicians in general - some slack: many could be making an awful lot more money elsewhere.

It's easy to forget the pro-Euro Tories

One area which is often pointed too by (even well-wishing) Coaliton doom-sayers is the contrasting attitudes of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats to the issue of Europe. The contrast between the Liberal Democrats' broad Europhilia and the image of an overwhelmingly Eurosceptic Conservative party (including the aptly titled BOOs - Better Off Outs) could not be more striking. Yet when it comes to Europe the Coalition is not split so neatly along Blue-Gold lines as it might initially appear.

After the Conservative party finished tearing at itself over the European issue with the defeat of the Europhiles, there was no mass exodus from the party afterwards. The only example I can find is the Pro-Euro Conservative Party, a not-very-large splinter group that attempted to be a Conservative SDP-equivalent and whose ex-leader beat Nigel Farage into third place in Buckingham.

Today, Kenneth Clarke is the obvious surviving example of a Europhile Conservative yet he is often seen as a completely isolated aberration and it is forgotten that he is President of the Conservative Europe Group, a fully fledged Europhile organisation within the party.

If the Coalition lasts, the support of their new Liberal Democratic colleagues and the sidelining of the paleo-Conservative right of the party may in some way reshape the internal dialogue of the Conservative party, and allow its Europhiles to find their feet once more.

Update: Completely by coincidence, New Right has a piece on how the new Conservative Europe Minister is pro-European.

Turkey and Europe

Although I cannot find a link, the Times carried an article the other day on growing Turkish disenchantment with Europe, and the European Union in particular. Tired of having her long-standing application consistently stalled by Paris and Athens (and to a lesser extent, Vienna and Berlin), Ankhara is now cultivating her links with Latin America and the Muslim world - including Iran.

Driving Turkey away from the European Union might please the likes of Sarkozy - who is worried his electorate will react badly to a big, brown nation joining the European club - but it would be fantastically short-sighted to allow this view to prevail. Turkey represents that rare thing: an avowedly secular, democratic and (still) pro-Western Muslim state. It sits at a historic crossroads between Europe and the Middle East, and with its young population is likely only to grow in importance in the coming decades.

Britain has long maintained a Turkophile foreign policy, and this has in the past included support for Turkey's EU bid. It will be a test of the Coalition's perhaps tricky European policy to see if they can continue to support Turkey's entrance. A failure to do so would represent a tragic polarisation at the borders of what one might clumsily call the 'Christian' and 'Muslim' worlds. It would send the wrong singals to other Muslim states on the European periphery with an eye to membership, such as Azerbaijan and especially Morocco, which has been reforming continuously for decades in order to secure eventual EU membership. We must not cut off Muslim states from the Union, or we would be handing Islamic extremists more supporters, more bases, and more material and political capital at our direct expense.

Unionists must be cautious of the Liberal Democrats

After my post-coalition euphoria, it struck me there was an area (just the one, of course...) of Liberal Democrat policy I hadn't given nearly enough thought to. It wasn't until I listened back to the BBC 5-Live coverage and Paddy Ashdown dismissed the DUP as 'Irish politics, not British politics' that it struck me: what exactly is the Liberal Democrat position on the Union, and Northern Ireland in particular?

I saw Nick Clegg speak last year, and put this question to him afterwards. The answer he gave was the Lib Dems aimed for a federal UK with very strong dissolved institutions, "but absolutely within the Union". This is of course an awful lot softer on the Union than I and other Conservatives might like, but it suggests a fundamental commitment to the UK that ought to be reassuring.

But - and it may be a significant but - there is no conclusive evidence that this sentiment extends to Northern Ireland. Lord Ashdown certainly struck a 'reunificaton by consent' sort of tone. I shall endeavour to find out more, any LibDems care to enlighten me?

Internet Problems

Posting will be infrequent, as my laptop has died and I'm having to get to internet where I can. Apologies.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Unionists: Come Home

This is a re-post of a guest post I wrote for O'Neill over at Unionist Lite.

As O’Neill invites me to write this, we stand in the aftermath of a general election that was not a good one for unionism – every model it had going suffered defeat. The dominant party was decapitated in Belfast East; Unionist Unity failed to break through in Fermanagh & South Tyrone; this led to a nationalist counter-move that delivered in South Belfast, and attempts to integrate the province into mainstream British politics floundered in North Down and South Antrim. A string of disappointing results but, if we learn from them, potentially useful lessons. What unionism does now will be crucial, and it is my view that there is only one route that offers a positive, long-term hope for a unionist triumph.

It is time for unionists, of all stripes and none, to join the mainstream political parties of the United Kingdom. Unionist MPs can no longer afford to be a caste apart in Westminster, sidelined and relevant only in coalition negotiations where their regionalist influence is resented. More broadly, unionism can no longer afford both to compete within itself and to come across as a cultural expression with a limited reach. All that will lead to is more split votes, more disaffection and a continued erosion of the pro-union electorate. Instead, unionists should opt for real unionist unity: with their fellow British citizens on the mainland.

Only normalised mainland politics in Northern Ireland will ever represent a final victory for unionists. As long as a completely separate six-party system is maintained in Northern Ireland, the union will never be normalised - if the SNP or Plaid could have completely separate party systems in their respective countries would they not jump at it? Without normalised politics the ‘us and them’ will always remain, and support for the union amidst Catholics will remain untapped, wasted on the neutral Alliance or the SDLP. Catholics are not automatically nationalists: crude population projections and headcounts mask support for the union within sections of the Catholic population that mainland political parties, untainted by their histories, can tap. A wholesale transfer of MPs, MLAs and Councillors into the mainland parties (all of which organise in NI) would force them to take Northern Ireland seriously. What better way to ensure a unionist –sympathetic government in Westminster than to provide it with an electoral stake in the province?

The alternative, an orange-hued monolithic approach to ‘unionist unity’ that attempts to turn Shankill Road into some form of Maginot Line, is doomed. Unionist Unity is postponed surrender: an admittance that unionism is sapped of courage and hope, forced into a deeply unappealing rearguard action that will only serve to further alienate moderate Protestants and Catholics alike. The path that offers salvation is the path that offers perhaps the greatest short-term courage: unionists must decisively reject the trappings of an isolated and sectarian past, and embrace fully the politics of the United Kingdom. To win, unionists must come home.

Liberal Unionism

Alex Massie describes his hopes for Liberal Unionist government from the coalition. Over the moon to find someone else using the label!

Articulate Optimism

Over at 3000 Versts, Phil Larkin presents an articulate argument for optimism amongst moderate unionists, and emphasises the fact that we cannot allow ourselves the luxury of despondency. He also gives his opinion on the reasons UCUNF failed. An excellent read.

To save multiposting, Ian Parsley and Liam Clarke offer a couple more articles arguing against a retreat to unionist unity.

The Second Fronts: Wales

Unlike Scotland and Northern Ireland, the Conservatives had a pretty good night in Wales, moving back to being the second party in Westminster terms. However, we missed out on a few seats and some others have moved well into range, so here I’ll take a look at Welsh seats (mostly) outside the Red Belt and take a swipe at what the future might hold for the Conservatives there. All numbers that look two neat to be real have been rounded to the nearest hundred.

Labour: Vale of Clwyd
A pre-election majority of 4600 falls to 2500, but this was one the Conservatives were predicted to have taken. A three-point rise in vote share for the blues and a four-point drop for the reds. Eminently takeable if the swing goes the Tories’ way in a second election.

Labour: Delyn
Neighbouring Vale of Clwyd, and with a very similar showing: a Labour majority of 6300-ish falling to 2300. A four-point drop in Labour vote share and an impressive nine-point increase for the Conservatives. Another seat the Welsh party should have its eye on.

Labour: Alyn & Deeside
An even more impressive result here, with a Labour majority of around 8400 slashed to 2900. The Labour vote share fell nine points to 40%, whilst the Conservatives rose seven points to 32%. This seat has been Labour since its creation in 1983 but it doesn’t look out of reach.

Labour: Wrexham
A tougher prospect with the Conservatives in third place, but a Labour majority of 6800 fell to 3700 at this election. The Conservatives also managed to close a four-point vote share gap between them and the Liberal Democrats to only one point, gaining five points in the 2010 election to the Liberal Democrats’ two. The Labour vote share here, as in neighbouring Alyn & Deeside, fell by nine points.

Labour: Clwyd South
A Labour majority of 6200 fell to 2800 in the last election, as Labour’s vote share dropped seven points to 38%. The Conservative vote share rose five points, to 30%. The Conservatives enjoy a thirteen-point vote share lead over the third place Liberal Democrats.

Labour: Newport West
Labour’s majority of 5500 fell to 3500 at the last election, with the Conservatives maintaining a strong second place with a fifteen-point lead over the third-placed Liberal Democrats. The Labour share dropped four points to 41%, with the Conservatives gaining two points.

Labour: Cardiff South & Penarth
Even with a slashed majority, from 9000 to 4700, this seat presents a formidable challenge to the second-placed Conservatives. Labour’s vote share fell eight points, with the Conservatives gaining four points and the Liberal Democrats two, widening the gap between the Conservatives and Liberals to six points, 28% to 22%. The Conservatives might have to start eating into the Liberal vote to overcome a near-5000 majority.

Labour: Cardiff West
The Labour majority fell from 8400 to 4800 at the last election, with Labour dropping four points. The Conservatives rose seven points, handily increasing their lead over the Liberal Democrats, who gained only one. Another formidable but not unreachable seat in a city that once returned three Conservative MPs.

Labour: Bridgend
Labour’s majority falls to 2263, down from just over 6000 after the last election. Labour’s vote share falls seven points, from 43% to 36%, with the Conservatives gaining five points to rise to 30%, increasing their lead over the Liberal Democrats who rose a single point to 23%. Last won for a single term in the 1983 election this might represent something of a high-tide mark for the Welsh Conservatives, but with a slashed majority and Labour losing control of the council last year (to a ‘rainbow coalition’ of everyone else) it should now be squarely within Conservative sights.

Labour: Gower
A sobering history: this seat has never been Conservative. Yet on present numbers this could change. Labour’s vote share fell four points for the second year running, falling to 38% and slashing a majority of 6700 to around 2800. The Conservatives, who fell in 2005, gained 6.5 points taking them to 32%, broadening their lead over the Liberal Democrats, who gained only 0.6%.

Labour: Ynys Môn
A bit of an outlier, but an interesting seat. Gained by the Conservatives in 1979 (as Anglesea), and held until 1987, the Conservatives remain only three points behind the second place Plaid in what looks like a three-way fight. It might be a bit of a push, but a Labour-Plaid split could allow the Conservatives to come through.

Liberal Democrat: Brecon & Radnorshire
Gained by the Conservatives in 1992 after the Alliance captured it in a 1985 by-election, this seat has been Liberal Democrat since 1997. A majority of a few hundred in 2001 became one of 3900 in 2005, and this majority narrowed only slightly in the last election. Nonetheless history shows that, if the Conservatives can combine an effective ground campaign with a good election, this seat could be regained. After all, neighbouring Montgomeryshire fell without so promising a past.

Plaid Cymru: Dwyfor Meirionnydd
Bear with me on this one: in the 2010 election both Labour and Plaid’s vote share fell by 7.8% and 6.4% respectively, with the second-placed Conservatives gaining a massive 8.1% increase in vote share. The notional Plaid majority of 8700 fell to 6360, with Labour dropping into third place.

Plaid Cymru: Carmarthen East & Dinefwr
Another seat that saw a major boost to the Conservatives, with a 7.7% rise in vote share. Plaid and Labour both fell, the former by more than ten points. The Conservatives remain in third, but are within a couple of thousand votes of second-placed Labour. The gap between the Conservatives and Labour in vote share fell from fourteen points to six.

That’s the lot. The only non-Red Belt seats I’ve not looked at are: Arfon, where the Times Fink Tank prediction had us taking it but as far as I could see the Conservatives only advanced marginally (although did open a three-point lead over the fourth-placed Liberal Democrats) and Ceredigion: Lib/Plaid seat where we barely register. Trawling through the Red Belt seemed a tad pointless, so I didn’t.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

A Liberal-Conservative deal at last?

It seems that with Labour split over the prospect of a 'rainbow coalition', the Liberal/Conservative deal is back on. I'll be a little annoyed if Cameron actually fell for it enough to offer more concessions, but it doesn't look like that was the case.

Monday, 10 May 2010

The Second Fronts: Scotland

That the Conservative & Unionist performance north of the border was disappointing does not need restating, and reasons for a swing to Labour will without doubt be picked over endlessly in CCHQ. For seats we need to take from Labour, including Dumfries & Galloway, Renfrewshire East, Ochil & Perthshire South, Edinburg South and Stirling, this red-blue battleground is the story.
However, there are other seats in Scotland. Here, I will take a look at the Conservative & Unionist performance in seats where the Conservatives were challenging the SNP or the Liberal Democrats, to see if the pattern is consistent with that of Labour-Conservative seats.

SNP: Perth & Perthshire North.
- An SNP majority of 1521 in 2005 rises to 4379 in the new parliament, but the Conservative vote goes up. A squeeze on the Liberal Democrat and Labour vote appears to have boosted the SNP – the conservative vote share rose by a single percent whilst the SNP rose six. Not a good sign, but 4379 is not an unassailable obstacle, especially if Labour or the SNP shed some votes to the Conservatives in an increasingly two-horse race constituency.

SNP: Angus
- A neighbouring seat to Perth & Perthshire North, and a near identical pattern: a squeeze on the Liberal Democrat vote boosts the Conservatives by one percentage point and the SNP by six, turning a majority of 1600 into one of 3300.

SNP: Moray
- Once Conservative, now a relatively safe SNP seat. Unlike Angus and P&PN, the SNP majority fell slightly (roughly 100 votes) in the 2010 election, with the SNP share of the vote rising 3% but the Conservatives 4%, from a fall of 3% and 4% from Labour and the Liberal Democrats respectively.

SNP: Banff & Buchan
- With an SNP majority of 11837, Banff & Buchan was Alex Salmond’s unassailable electoral fortress, with a vote built up over long years holding the seat. However, he was not the candidate in the 2010 election and the majority was slashed by just over two thirds, to 4027. The Conservative vote in real terms increased by more than 50%. In vote share, the SNP fell ten points from 51% to 41%, whilst the Conservative & Unionist candidate gained 12 points from 19% to 31%. Liberal Democrat and Labour vote shares do not fluctuate significantly, indicating a direct SNP to Conservative transfer of votes.

Liberal Democrat: Argyll & Bute
- A potential three-way marginal of sorts between the unionist parties, this constituency saw the Liberal Democrat majority fall by roughly 2200, from 5600 to 3400. In vote share terms, they fell 5 points, with the Conservatives static, Labour gaining a point and the SNP gaining three, but the Conservatives (just) retaining second place, with a one-point lead over Labour.

Liberal Democrat: Aberdeenshire West & Kincardine
- A Liberal Democrat majority of 7400 slashed to 3600 in this seat, where they experienced 8-point drop in vote share. The Conservatives gained two points, Labour one and the SNP 5, but the Conservatives remain the only significant challenger to the Liberal Democrats in this seat, with 8 points separating them from the Liberal Democrats and 14 from the third-place SNP.

Liberal Democrat: Berwickshire, Roxburgh & Selkirk
- The Liberal Democrat majority held in this borders seat the Conservatives were once evens to take, but a 3-point rise in Liberal Democrat support also saw a 5-point rise in support for the Conservative candidate.

A pretty mixed bag of results, with rising vote shares and narrowing leads but also evidence of anti-Conservative tactical voting. Nonetheless, there appear to be avenues of advancement here if the Conservative party can wrench itself away from the horror of a swing to Labour and disappointment in red-blue seats. I’ll be interested to see how these seats fare if there is a second election.

Close to a deal

From the sounds of things, this mornings last-ditch effort by Brown to form a Salon des Refusés have come to nought, with the leaderships of both the Conservative and Liberal parties moving towards, of all things, a formal coalition. All that remains is to wonder if it can get past their respective parties...

Dangerous rumblings...

Promising news on the Liberal-Conservative coalition, although there are dangerous rumblings on both fronts:

The Daily Mail carries news of the latest manoeuvres by the dry-right of the Conservative party to scupper his deal with the Liberal Democrats. Led by Norman Tebbit, these people appear determined to spearhead the case for coalition by demonstrating to Cameron the disastrous influence they will exert on his government should he attempt to go it alone.

On the other side, and perhaps more worryingly, The Sun and the Daily Mirror both carry news of Gordon Brown attempting to forge a last-minute agreement with the Liberal Democrats. Talk of secret talks between Clegg and Brown carry worrying implications:

1) A Liberal-Labour government is pure fantasy politics. Added together, they have exactly the same number of seats as the Conservatives and the DUP, on 315 seats. If you add the SDLP and APNI seats that could probably be brought on without trouble, you only reach 319. Even the Green, and Independent Unionist Sylvia Hermon, would leave this patchwork government short of the 323 seats that is, discounting Sinn Fein, the number required for an overall majority. So the Celtic Bloc would have to be brought on board as well. This government could scarcely command market confidence, and when the time comes for tough cuts to fight the budget this government's dependence on regionalist MPs would see England hammered - which is electoral suicide for both Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

2) Clegg is a sensible man, and leans to the Conservatives anyway. This talking with Mr Brown can either be one of two things. Either he is attempting to spook the Conservative negotiating team into further concessions, or his hand has been forced by the PR-Puritans in this own party. If the Liberal Democrat leadership cannot carry it's membership, that casts serious doubts on its suitability for government.

Update: The Spectator has the latest.

Update: And yet more.

The Telegraph's view of the Hadrian divide

Benedict Brogan of the Daily Telegraph provides a succinct and relatively impartial overview of the Conservative challenge in Scotland.

How do you solve a problem like the Union?

Rob Leitch, over at ConHome, has written about the troubles the Union may face given the divergence between the Conservative showing in England compared to Scotland.

I think that while it is right to highlight our party's failure in Scotland, this article is somewhat doom-laden, so I shall present my counter-points here.

1) The vast majority of Scotland is held by unionist parties: We should be careful not to translate our own party's difficulties north of the border into the kind of terminal scenario painted by Leitch. The Liberal Democratic and Labour parties held their own in Scotland, the SNP made no breakthrough and support for independence remains stubbornly low. We need to look at why we aren't breaking through, but the Conservatives should be careful not to do Alex Salmond's work for him.

2) I love FPTP, but it screwed us over north of the border: The Labour Party polled over a million votes in Scotland, and we polled over 400,000. The Labour Party won 41 seats in Scotland, whereas we won 1. We have a not-insubstantial vote in Scotland, but we're struggling to break through under FPTP. This is a difficult situation but is not beyond remedy.

3) This is hardly a result from which we can announce the doom of Tartan Toryism: If we had swept the board south of the border then maybe we'd be in more serious trouble, but frankly whilst no doubt an excellent result Thursday did not deliver the Conservatives command of the nation. London and Wales, other areas with more left-leaning electorates also saw the resistance of Conservative advances. There is not yet the evidence from which to conclude that this is a purely Scottish malaise.

4) A silver lining to even the darkest cloud: Most importantly, whilst there was a small swing to Labour (!) in Scotland the Conservatives did gain significant ground on the Liberal Democrats in two seats: Argyll & Bute and Aberdeenshire West & Kincardine, both seats that used to be Conservative. Additionally, there are Scottish seats where a fall in the Labour vote (which I assume is still possible in Scotland) or the Nationalists could deliver Conservative & Unionist MPs: Dumfries & Galloway, East Renfrewshire, Stirling, Ochil & Perthshire South, Perth & Perthshire North, Edinburgh South (if Darling stands down at some point) and even Moray or Berwickshire, Roxburgh & Selkirk are not out of the question. The latter may be distant now, but they are not impossible long term targets.

Much as I dislike their politics, we should learn from the SNP. In 1979 their Westminster representation fell from 11 seats to 1 - an electoral disaster by anybody's standards. But they've stuck at it, and now they run the devolved assembly.

As for Leitch's point on the little-Englanders in the party - he's absolutely right. And we "strong traditional unionists who will fight tooth and nail for the continuation of the United Kingdom" must do exactly that.

My thoughts exactly

Alex Massie presents clearly the case for Cameron.

John Redwood 'speaks for England'

Sometimes, one can forget that the full name of our party is the Conservative & Unionist Party. Certainly, that ailment appears to have befallen John Redwood, who has used his blog to attack Gordon Brown's legitimacy due to his undented phalanx of Scottish MPs, arguing that it is time to 'speak for England'.

This kind of nationalist populism plays to the little-englander wing of the Conservative right, who are more than happy to proclaim 'victory in England' and use it as an attempt to justify power. Rubbish. We won in England in 2005 by some counts, but nobody was then arguing it amounted to much - our national performance was risible. There are some issues surrounding England's place in the union due to the legislative imbalance created by devolution, but that does not change the nature of a United Kingdom election - that it is in fact a United Kingdom general election. Regardless of who votes for what, whoever can form a parliamentary majority in the UK Commons.

If the Conservative & Unionist Party didn't break through in Scotland, that's our problem, not Gordon Brown's. Our position in Scotland (and Northern Ireland) is lamentable currently but it should not be used as an excuse to abandon a fundamental principle of the party - unionism. David Cameron's commitment to the union may provide another line of attack for the paleocons who are after his scalp - unionists in the party should not let it.

Thoughts on the result

My response to the result of the general election.

1) Overall Result: A Conservative coalition or arrangement with the Liberal Democrats is in all likelyhood a better result for Cameron and the party than a small majority. Had a small majority been achieved the Liberals could have joined Labour in the luxury of opposition whilst the Conservatives made the tough decisions alone, and then reaped the electoral benefits. As it is, it spreads the hurt. Cameron can also use Liberal votes to stop the paleocons in his own party holding him to ransom. If Cameron and Clegg can sidestep PR to do a deal, that'd be a good short term outcome. Will probably need another election within a year though.

2) The South: Obviously solid Conservative territory. In the Southwest, Southeast and East the Labour party have a combined total of 10 seats. Conservatives didn't gain from the Liberals everywhere but made significant inroads in Cornwall, taking three seats and slashing majorities in others.

3) London: Labour vote held up rather well, disappointingly. Satisfying capture of Richmond Park some comfort.

4) The North: Did not produce the kind of Conservative breakthrough one might have hoped for, but some impressive gains and good swings offer rays of hope. Disappointing but promising for the future.

5) Wales: A bit of a mixed bag, but good. Labour held off a Plaid Cymru challenge in Ynys Môn, and the Conservatives moved back into second place with eight seats. Missed out in Vale of Clwyd, but a surprise scalp in Montgomeryshire.

6) Scotland: Ouch. As with the other unionist focus in Northern Ireland, a very poor night for the Conservatives. A swing to Labour (!) saw us make no gains, although we avoided the humiliation of losing our lone seat in Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweedale. Dumfries and Galloway, East Renfrewshire, Stirling, Ochil and Perthshire South, Perth and Perthshire North and Angus all evaded us. The Conservative vote did advance against the Liberal Democrats in Argyll & Bute, where the majority over the Conservatives fell by about 2000, and Aberdeenshire West & Kincardine, where the Liberal Democrat majority was slashed by roughly 4000. Seats to watch for the Scottish Conservatives & Unionists.

7) Northern Ireland: Hmm. Well, for the UCUNF it's another ouch. Reg Empey failing to take Antrim South is a major disappointment - having a probable government minister holding a seat in Northern Ireland would have been a major forward leap for unionism. Strangford was also a disappointment - clearly the avoidance of a by-election for months allowed the Irisgate outrage to die down. Belfast East - unsure. I'm a big fan of the APNI's original purpose of non-sectarian unionism but it isn't clear that is what they are anymore. Same mixed feelings about Fermanagh & South Tyrone: seeing Sinn Fein returned is always depressing (especially by four votes), but I never liked the idea of 'unionist unity' - it isn't a strategy that supports the long-term integration of Northern Ireland into the UK. Still, with seats such as FST, Tyrone West and South Down long-shot targets for Unity candidates I can see the temptation. For my money, I think that the mainland parties should try to build a unionism that appeals to the 35%-odd of Catholics who favour the union (only 7% vote for Unionist parties). Lady Hermon obviously a disappointment - if she's going to vote as a loyal Labour MP I wish she would stand as one and help to bring mainland politics to Northern Ireland.

Cameron is a firm Unionist, and he must stay the course. There is evidence that the results in Northern Ireland and Scotland will lend courage to the EnGnats in the Conservative ranks, and the little-Ulstermen in the UUP. He must not take his eye off the long-term aim: of a Conservative & Unionist party with representation in all parts of our United Kingdom.

A Liberal Conservative and Unionist

The ballots were cast, the results declared, a truly bizarre parliamentary balance has arisen, David Cameron has delivered the greatest swing to the Conservative & Unionist Party since 1931 and... nobody knows quite what will happen, and the Tory Right are getting the knives out for the Cameroons.

This blog was born out of long perusal of the Times and Telegraph online websites, right-of-centre blogs and the news, and observing poster after poster announcing that:

1) If only, if only Cameron had presented the electorate with a vision of Thatcherite purity, the electorate would have flocked to this new messiah and this could have been our 1997, and

2) The rise of an unappealing vein of English nationalism as a new narrative in the paleo-conservative attack on Cameron.

As a member on the liberal wing of the Conservative & Unionist Party, I find the first of these propositions preposterous and the second distasteful. With a lot of the blue blogosphere likely to be giving Cameron's overtures to the Liberals, poor showing in Scotland and attempts to break into Northern Ireland a lot of flak in the months to come, this blog is my attempt to try to provide a different Conservative perspective.