THE BLOG

A Political Health Check

13/05/2016 14:59

Election results are the political equivalent of medical scans. They provide copious information while leaving plenty of scope for the commentators to decide what is important and what is not. Which of the results is a symptom of a tectonic movement? Which, on the other hand, merely shows that a candidate has irritated his or her supporters who have reacted by staying at home?

Down here in London most of the attention was focused on the campaign for mayor. Mr Khan won and the reasons for that are fairly obvious. It isn't just that London is usually a Labour city, something demonstrated at the last general election, but rather that Mr Khan proved to be the stronger of the two main candidates. He resisted the temptation to make personal attacks (oh dear, what can Mr Goldsmith's strategists have been thinking of there? Everyone knows that the public loaths such tactics) but he also gave the impression of having a little more weight. Certainly he will have no difficulty in working with a Tory government, and then there is the bonus. That the moderate son of Pakistani immigrants can achieve such an office sends just the right message to the Muslim community.

Still, welcome though the result may have been, it is hardly a major shifting of the political geology. Nor indeed were the English Council results or even those in Wales. Yes, it is true that UKIP picked up some seats in the Welsh Assembly but that is surely a by-blow of the Referendum debate rather than anything more fundamental. No, to find something psephologically interesting, you have to look at Scotland and the fact that the Conservatives, under their charismatic leader Ruth Davidson, have pushed Labour into third place at Holyrood.

Politics in Scotland is changing and at the root of the change is the price of oil. The Scots are financially sophisticated and they cannot but realise the effect which the fall in that price has had on the viability of independence. In the period just before the 2014 poll the price of crude was $115 per barrel and their projections for the national finances were drawn on that basis. It is now down at $43 and, although it may come back a bit, its price will forever be capped by the ability of the West to obtain energy from fracking. So that's "Bye, Bye, PetroScotland" and back to a country which can only preserve its standard of living on the basis of subventions from south of the border.

None of this is news to the SNP, although you cannot blame them for being a little disingenuous about the issue, as independence from England is their raison d'être. So they continue to chunter on about independence as an aspiration, and after all who knows what opportunities a Brexit vote might throw up, while settling down to the day job of getting the best position for Scotland that is attainable within the union?

The interesting question is where this has left Labour. Having seen their vote slip away to the SNP against the background of the Scottish Referendum, they now find that, because they and the SNP are both leftward leaning and chase many of the same objectives, they have no lever for getting it back again. Suppose that the SNP gradually moves away from independence. Yes, a bow here and there towards Robert the Bruce and a tear in the eye on the anniversary of Bannockburn, but in reality becoming a left of centre party devoted to good government. Why would the left-leaning voters go back to the party which ignored them for so many years? And for those Scots, and there must be many of them, who are appalled at how close to an unfinanceable breakaway Scotland came, there is a resurgent Tory party. The natural way of British politics is to have one party of the left and one of the right with a number of also-rans, and Labour seem to have cut themselves out of the main competition. Although nothing is forever (as Ruth Davidson has demonstrated), it could take them a very long time to recover.

Like good doctors we should complete our survey of political movement by looking beyond the graphs and figures for symptoms of unease. The tension within Labour is all too well documented with Mr Corbyn looking out from a fortress built on an impregnable foundation of activist support as his enemies struggle to find a way onto the battlements. It is all quite exciting in a "Game of Thrones" kind of way but at least it is comprehensible. That is more than can be said of much of the programme being pursued by the government.

The odd thing here isn't the EU debate (we all know how they got trapped into that) but the quarrels they pick on the side. What possessed them, for example, to try to convert all schools to academies? After all, they already have power to convert those which are failing, and to start changing the status of the rest is a mere moving of the deckchairs on the ship of state education. Yes, it may be tidier but surely they should have consulted, if only with their own supporters. Now they have had to backtrack.

When Mr Osborne addressed the Westminster journalists recently he joked about a new rule, saying, "It is called the 5:2. After two out of every five Budgets, I eat some of my own words". The backtracking on academies is an example (the original policy was announced by the Chancellor at this year's Budget), but it isn't just Mr Osborne. The Government has a way of announcing things which are not fully thought through, Andrew Lansley's health reforms being an obvious example.

So why do they do it? One could put it down to thrusting ministers trying to make names for themselves but I suspect there is something more fundamental than that and that much of the hyperactivity comes from a belief that a government must maintain forward momentum if it is to succeed.

In theory there is much to be said for this. Governments with momentum develop a teflon-like ability to throw off minor problems. Who cares if an MP claimed the price of his duck house if a serious attempt is being made to solve the problems of the NHS? Take a government which is not driving forward, however, and like the shipwreck so vividly described in "Jaws", it soon becomes a ring of people flailing in the water with the sharks removing them one by one. That is the conventional wisdom and usually, I think, it is right. What happens, though, when the government is involved in titanic struggles to get the deficit down and to deal with Europe? Does it still need an aggressive program or do those struggles provide it with sufficient momentum on their own?

I suspect that the answer to the last question is "yes". The recent election results show that the public is prepared to cut the government quite a lot of slack despite its to-ing and fro-ings and that must be because they appreciate the difficulty of the big issues it is wrestling with. If that is right, the best advice to ministers must be to slow up, relax a bit more, get up later in the morning and spend more time with the family.

Republished from the Shaw Sheet http://www.shawsheet.com

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