The Liberal Democrats have taken an early Easter break in by-elections this week with there being no candidate in either of the two principle council by-elections taking place on the 13th April 2017.
After a week off last week with no by-elections we are back this week with four principle council by-elections and the Liberal Democrats are back to winning ways.
The institutions and challenges we have identified in previous weeks’ editions of Westminster Wednesday do not exist in a vacuum. They sit within and among us, and therefore our understanding of them – what they are, what they should do, where they came from – and so on, informs the way they operate, and how we respond to that. The concept of ‘political culture’ is one worth introducing here. Philip Norton defines it as “denoting the emotional and attitudinal environment within which a political system operates.” All of us exist within the UK’s political culture, and have been influenced by it – consciously and unconsciously. Here, we will look at two things – first of all, some of the influences on the process by which we acquire our political culture (this is called political socialisation) and secondly, some of the ways in which our political culture shapes our view of politics.
There are many places from which we, as humans, draw our understanding of how the world both is and should be. From our families, to teachers, friends, work colleagues, and beyond, we are all informed by the environment in which we live. In terms of how we understand politics, those listed above are important, but not exclusively so. Here, we will consider three key factors in the UK’s political socialisation process; class, location, and history.
The UK is a deeply class conscious society; as anthropologist Kate Fox noted “class pervades all aspects of English life and culture.” Class is, as Fox, Norton and others have observed, more than merely a function of how much you (or your family) earns; it is also a social statues, and has measurable impacts on our behaviour in everything from how we speak and dress, to what we do with our front gardens. Naturally, therefore, it shapes our view of politics. Traditionally, those of a working class background voted for the Labour Party, and those of a higher class background voted Conservative. But the class distinction also operates in terms of interest in politics – surveys have indicated that people of a lower social class report less interest in, and less optimism about, politics, than those of a higher class.
Secondly, our location plays a critical role in shaping our culture. On the grandest scale, there is a sheer geographic fact which shapes British political culture – that the country is an island (or series of islands), dwelling close enough to a major landmass to be unable to ignore it, but far enough away that it is able to rely on the sea as a means to be permanently distinct. Below that, we are confronted with an array of nations, regions and localities, each with their own identity. These identities are informed in part by their location within these islands – rural areas and urban areas have developed different value sets, different views on the importance of aspects of politics, based on their geography.
Finally, there is history. The history of the UK, and the countries that would form it, is told to us through a host of mechanisms – schools, the media, politicians, our families. We are told about the UK’s relationship with Europe over time, our relationship with monarchs and powerful leaders, our attitudes towards values such as liberty, justice, and peace. We are told about what we have fought for, built for, lived for – and so carried on in ourselves, and the world. Sometimes, we are told things that we are ashamed of now, as a warning to keep away from repeating past mistakes – more often, we are told things we should be proud of, things that are worth preserving. This is not just a lesson about old buildings or pieces of paper – it informs what we believe are politics are for, what makes them valuable, and how we can impact them.
We can measure the impact of political culture in a host of ways; for now, we will focus on three key areas – its impact on problem solving, political systems, and co-operation. Each of these is a distinct area, with clear impacts on the way we, as the British, think about and “do” politics.
The UK’s approach to problem solving can be characterised as focused on the empirical, as opposed to the rational. Whilst this division was theorised by the Italian thinker Giovanni Satori, other writers such as George Orwell have identified this distinction that marks the UK out from its continental neighbours. What this means in practice is that the UK tends to justify things in pragmatic terms – that is, they’re good because they work, rather than they’re good because the theory is sound – and to look to policy issues when something goes wrong, rather than an overarching theme of the state, or democracy, or similar, to understand these issues. The UK is perhaps the clearest example of an empirical political culture anywhere in the world.
The British political culture towards its own political systems exists in a strange state of semi-deference, and semi-approval. Individually, the British often disapprove of the actions of their governments, or the way that the system is seen to respond to their expectations and demands. But, on the other hand, there is no significant effort to overturn the fundamental basis of the constitution, nor has one seriously been threatened in the UK since the end of the 17th Century. There have been changes, but the process is seen as incremental – and that is understood to be a good thing. Whilst the British political culture does not entail whole-hearted deference to, and approval of, its political system, it would be wrong to state that the British reject these systems.
Finally, the British conceive of their politics in terms of individual liberties. Here we see the history coming through strongly – a story about the UK’s attachment to individual freedom often begins with the Magna Carta of 1215, and may include such events as the Civil War and the Great Reform Act. British political culture places great emphasis on the right of individuals to go about their lives without what is seen as undue interference from the state, and this manifests itself in frequent angry resistance to government efforts to invade the privacy of citizens.
There is a caveat to all of this. Some of you will have read this, and immediately produced a red pen to correct my history or evidence here and there. But that in some sense is wrong – because political culture, like a nation, relies not on evidence to function, but on a common story. These stories aren’t necessarily true in an objective sense – Magna Carta was, for example, mostly concerned with restating existing land rights for nobles, rather than any kind of effort to establish some sort of widely held rights for the citizenry – but they are held to be one thing or another, and so become a part of the story.
This, here, is a truth that has been forgotten and uncovered again in recent months – politics, political culture, the very essence of a community – rely as much on stories and narratives as they do on objective, recoverable facts. We tell ourselves stories to give our communities a sense of higher, wider, nobler purpose than the cold light of day would seem to allow for. It might be comforting to some of you to image these fairy tales will blow away on the wind; but they remain critical to our lives, giving meaning and texture to the world around us. Without understanding them, the institutions that run our lives can seem arid and strange. Put them back into the picture, and context draws them into full life.
This week, we will be considering the issue of federalism in the UK. In previous weeks, we’ve discussed both local and devolved government in Britain – how they came to be and what powers they have. Here, we will look at the tensions that exist within the current set up, particularly in regards to the two largest nations in the UK; Scotland, and England. Of course, the devolution settlements for Wales and Northern Ireland both face significant challenges, and many would argue there are other nations within the UK that should be considered, such as Cornwall. But for reasons of space, and in an effort to draw out some of the bigger themes more clearly, we’ll be focusing on these two examples first and foremost.
Naturally, we need to define our key terms – here, the concept of federalism. Federal states divide their power between two key levels of organisation on an equal basis – devolution, the concept that the UK has adopted, implies an unequal power relationship between the centre (the stronger) and the regions (the weaker). Outside the UK, many states have adopted federal systems – two key examples being the United States, and Germany. This post uses federalism as the theme both to be distinct from the post on devolution, and to give indication of one possible future direction – one that has been endorsed by the Liberal Democrats themselves.
During the 1990s, the Labour MP George Robertson declared that the plan to devolve power to Scotland would “kill Nationalism stone dead”. This quote has become something of an embarrassment for Labour since; not only has the primary vehicle for Scottish nationalism, the Scottish National Party (SNP) thrived, but the Scottish Labour Party has imploded – whereas once it dominated Scotland, it now has a single MP, and is reduced to the third largest party in the Scottish Parliament.
The Scottish Parliament was created as a stronger body than either the Welsh or Northern Irish Assemblies; with a stronger mandate in the referendum that led to its creation, with the power to modify income tax to raise additional revenue. Since 1999, two further acts of Parliament have transferred additional powers to Scotland – the 2012 and 2016 Scotland Acts. These have granted the Scottish Parliament an array of new powers over areas such as its finances, elections, and criminal law. But this is a reactive process; the UK government is constrained in some sense by the result of elections in Scotland. In 2007, the Scottish people returned a Scottish Parliament where the SNP was (just) the largest party, and they proceeded to form a government. In 2011, despite the electoral system, the SNP won a majority – and negotiations began within months on granting them the power to hold a referendum on Scottish independence. The result of these negotiations was the Edinburgh Agreement, which granted the Scottish Parliament the power to hold a referendum on the matter by the end of 2014 (it was eventually held in September 2014) that would be “fair, legal, and decisive”. The result was a lengthy two-year campaign on the matter of whether Scotland should become an independent country, with supporters arguing for a “Yes” vote, and opponents arguing for a “No”. The result, in the end, was that independence was defeated by 55% to 45%, in a referendum where over 80% of Scottish voters turned out.
Of course, as we are all now aware – that was not the end of the matter. In May 2016, despite losing their majority, the SNP were re-elected as the government of Scotland, and with the support of the Greens, had a majority in the Scottish Parliament to vote through a motion for another independence referendum. Since the EU referendum in June 2016, the Scottish government has been building an argument for a second referendum in the near future, preferably before the UK leaves the EU, to decide if Scotland should leave the UK. Opponents of this have been seeking to build a case against this; in some cases, by arguing that more powers should be devolved to Scotland.
The two principle reasons for the referendum, identified by supporters of Scottish independence, are the UK’s exit from the European Union and the election of a majority Conservative government in Westminster. On the first matter, it is argued that, as Scotland voted to Remain in the EU, it should have the right to a different Brexit to the rest of the UK – at the very least. The second matter focuses on the collapse of the Labour Party, which makes the likelihood of a length period in power for the Conservatives extremely high – a government which currently only includes 1 of Scotland’s 59 MPs. The first one poses a considerable difficulty for the UK government – it is very unlikely that the UK could negotiate a deal where part of the country leaves the EU less than other parts of the country. So either the government would need to disappoint its own supporters, or risk alienating Scottish opinion further. On the second point, it is worth noting that it is by no means a fixed situation that the Conservative Party will only have 1 MP in Scotland come 2020. The Scottish Conservative Party is now the main opposition to the SNP in the Scottish Parliament, and are consistently polling higher than the Scottish Labour Party. The possibility that the Westminster Parliament elected in 2020 might contain more than a single Scottish Conservative MP should not be understated.
In summary, the issue here is that Scotland’s government is positioning itself to try and remove Scotland entirely from the UK; causing a considerable domestic issue for Westminster to face. Regardless of the rights or wrongs of the cause, the issue here is how much the UK – traditionally a unitary state – can accommodate such a movement well enough to relieve these strains on the whole.
The ‘gap’ in devolution is England. Outside of London, the devolution process has been fitful – a series of “metro mayors”, which will first be elected this May, representing further devolution of power to local regions. But, unlike in the other nations of the UK, there is no consistent pattern of devolution across the whole nation. In 2004, the Labour government held a referendum on the creation of a devolved assembly for the North East of England – a proposal that was defeated by 77%-23%. After that, the matter went quiet for a while, but it has since re-emerged, partly due to the process of devolution elsewhere.
The key issue was succinctly posed by former Labour MP Tam Dalyell, who termed it the “West Lothian Question”. This asked how it could be right that Scottish MPs could vote on legislation affecting only England, but English MPs could not do the same for Scotland. There were some efforts to try and take the edge off this question – by reducing the number of Scottish MPs in particular – but the fact remained that the question was without a satisfactory answer in Westminster. In 2015, the newly elected majority Conservative government introduced a rule called “English Votes for English Laws” (EVEL). Under this procedure, the Speaker of the House of Commons decides if a bill contains provisions that only apply to England (or England and Wales). During the passage of the bill through the House of Commons, a new stage has been introduced, where only English (and perhaps Welsh MPs) may sit and consider a “motion of consent” to the legislation, and then vote on whether to grant it or not.
EVEL is, however, at best a temporary measure. As academics like John Curtice have noted, there is an emerging English identity – it is much less intense than that of Scotland or Wales, and it is often overlapped with Britishness – but there is an emerging identity within England, and an emerging discourse within that identity about England’s place in the UK, particularly with regards to devolution. As Englishness continues to grow within the UK – even if it is conflated with Britishness – the question over what to do about England will become more pressing.
What compounds this issue is that England is very unlike any other state in any federal country in the world. In none of the current federal democratic states does one state control such a large share of the landmass, or share of the population, or share of the wealth, as England does within the UK. Giving England as a whole a devolved Parliament would present considerable challenges to do with the relative power of that Parliament against the other devolved assemblies; and against Westminster itself. But breaking England into smaller units poses questions of identity and effectiveness – whilst some regions have clear identities (Yorkshire being a key example) others, like the South East, have a variety of much smaller identities and other challenges, such as a lack of a clear urban centre to take on the role of ‘capital’ of that region.
What is clear, however, is that England and the English are not going to go away. Like any nation, England is an imagined community – the English are people who imagine a story about themselves. This story covers their history, language, culture, relationship with the divine, values, and more. Nations like to have institutions that can represent and embody their story to the world; to defend their values, cherish their history, and so on. Just because these communities are imagined, however, does not make them less powerful or indeed less real to the people who live within them. If the English nation continues to expand, then the pressure for a settlement for the whole of the UK will grow. The UK government will then face a similar situation to Scotland – mounting pressures for change, and limited tools to relieve that pressure.
With just the 3 Principle Council by-elections, one without a candidate for the Liberal Democrats, and the other two where the Liberal Democrats didn’t stood a candidate in years it looked like a quiet night was in store…
In previous instalments of Westminster Wednesdays, we’ve looked at some of the most important institutions of the UK’s political landscape – the constitution, Parliament, the executive, local and devolved government. Now we’re going to move on to touch on a variety of important issues confronting the UK’s politics, beginning with the topic of electoral reform. As Liberal Democrats, generally, one of the things we have in common is a belief that the system we use for choosing MPs should be changed. To begin with, I will briefly outline the three main electoral systems used in the UK – First Past The Past (FPTP), Single Transferrable Vote (STV), and the Additional Member System (AMS). Then we’ll move on to consider the Lib Dem position on electoral reform, and the recent history of that topic in the UK.
Electoral systems in use
Let’s begin by defining our terms – what is an electoral system? An electoral system is the means through which votes are considered valid, and then converted into representatives in an elected body. There are a variety of ways of doing this, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. There is not a single part of the UK that uses one electoral system to choose its elected represents – a situation that will likely change when the UK leaves the EU and so no longer elects MEPs. In some areas – Scotland, for example – at least 4 separate electoral systems are used for different elections. Rarely, however, are there days when voters are called on to use more than one system at once.
Elections to the House of Commons are held using the First Past The Past electoral system, with the country divided in 650 constituencies, each one electing a single MP. The candidate that wins the largest number of votes – not necessarily a majority of votes cast – wins the seat contested. This means that parties can, and indeed always have since 1931, win a majority of seats in the House of Commons without a majority of votes cast in the country behind them. In 2015, the Conservatives won a majority with just under 37% of the vote.
For elections to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, the Additional Member System is used. Under AMS, a voter has two votes – the first elects a constituency member, using FPTP. The second is a regional vote – Scotland has 8 regions for this, Wales 5 – where candidates are elected proportionately based on party votes. However, the more constituencies you win in a region, the less likely you are to win list seats in that region, balancing out representation.
Finally, elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, and local government in Scotland and Northern Ireland, use the Single Transferrable Vote system. Again, voters are divided into constituencies – but each one will be represented by multiple elected representatives, like the AMS regions. Rather than placing a cross in a box, as with FPTP and AMS, voters rank the candidates on the ballot paper – 1, 2, 3 – giving as many votes or ‘preferences’ as they like. Then, all the votes are counted and that total, plus the number of seats in the constituency, is used to calculate a number of votes required to win a seat – this is called a quota. If any candidate has enough first preferences to meet the quota, they are automatically elected. Votes over that quota are re-allocated to the second preference on the ballot, and then any candidates who reach the quota are also elected. If there are seats remaining – as there often are – the candidate with the fewest first preference votes is eliminated, and their second preferences are handed out. This continues until all the seats are filled.
So those are the three most important UK electoral systems, but what of their future?
Electoral reform in the UK
One of the key policies that the Liberal Democrats wanted from entering a coalition at Westminster was a change in the way MPs are elected to the House of Commons. Opponents of FPTP argue that it is disproportionate – that is, the number of votes cast and the number of MPs won is not as closely related as under other electoral systems. The largest number of votes will get you a majority, but smaller parties struggle to make a break through, and governments are often elected with the support of fewer than 40% of the electorate. The concession that the Lib Dems gained on electoral reform in 2010 was the promise of a referendum on changing the voting system for the House of Commons to the Alternative Vote – which is somewhat similar to STV. That referendum was held in May 2011 and resulted in a heavy defeat for electoral reform – 32% to 68%. Despite this, there have been other, more successful Lib Dem efforts to implement electoral reform. During the first government of Tony Blair (1997-2001), the Lib Dems helped drive through the AMS voting system for Scotland and Wales; they subsequently, in coalition with Labour in Edinburgh, implemented the STV system for Scottish local government.
But why change the electoral system in the first place? Defenders of FPTP argue that it produces stability – a majority government is almost always elected (only two elections since 1945 in the UK have failed to do this; February 1974 and May 2010) – and can readily take decisions and lead the country. As we’ve already noted, opponents argue that it is disproportionate, discriminating against smaller parties and resulting in governments elected by considerably less than a majority of voters. They argue that a system that is more proportional – that more closely ties the number of votes to the number of seats – is fairer, because any government will need the support of parties that attracted a majority, or nearer a majority – of seats. Opponents of reform often argue that the result is chaos; they point to countries such as Belgium, which once went over 500 days without a government while its political parties struggled to reach agreement to form a coalition with a majority in its parliament.
At the moment, the defenders of FPTP have the upper hand – they are able to use the AV referendum as a tool to push back on demands for electoral reform, and the Conservative Party, which is currently in power, shows essentially zero interest in extending electoral reform to Westminster, or to English and Welsh local government. But advances continue around the world – Maine, in 2016, voted to move to the Alternative Vote. Proponents of electoral reform in the UK have a steep hill to climb, but as 2011 recedes into the distance, their chance will likely come again.
As Tim Farron observed in his conference speech yesterday, membership of the Liberal Democrats has risen to its highest this century; over 1,000 people joined us in the last ten days alone. Our spring conference also broke records: it was the best attended in party history, with the largest number of first timers ever.
As was often said to me during many conversations I had with both new, old and returning members, the concept of “a newbie” is a state of mind. Being a newbie could just as easily describe the renewed energy and confidence amongst our members which has led us to win 34 seats in council by-elections since the general election, along with the election of Sarah Olney, a newbie herself, in Richmond Park last year.
What is now clear is that the newbies have the potential to drive this party back into government, perhaps even in their own right, and, as Tim said yesterday, this should be our aim.
As part of that aim, we want to give our members, particularly our newbies, the chance to share their views. As can be seen from our policy debates at conference, we are an open party where opinions can be shared and respected. Not only that, but ideas from our members can become law. The increase in personal tax allowance, which is now enjoyed by every income tax payer in the country, came from an ordinary member of the Liberal Democrats.
So if you’re interested in contributing to our Monday Member blog, we are taking submissions.
You can submit an article or contact us for more information by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
We look forward to hearing from you.
It was a quiet set of results in last night’s Principle Council By-Elections with none of the 4 seats contested changing hands.
Tomorrow sees the beginning of our Spring Conference for 2017, once again in York. It’ll be my first party conference and I look forward to meeting many of you there!
This week we step away from the series on Party Political Broadcasts and take a relatively short hop back in time to our last conference in Brighton back in September. This is Tim Farron’s closing speech which, in my opinion, is where we see him at his most passionate.
It had been a tough year so far but it was also a year that saw thousands of new members join our ranks.