UK Election proves England is a centre-right country

“UK Election: What the hell?” was Jason O’Mahony’s blog title on Friday and I can well understand why. Absolutely no one, except my mother, saw that result coming. How did it come about?

In fact, it was all to do with the remarkable decline of the Liberal Democrats. The Conservative/Liberal coalition had a majority of 78, and it stood to reason that if the Liberal Democrats began to lose serious numbers of seats to the Conservatives (i.e. seats which already contributed to the parliamentary majority), the Conservatives would themselves then stand a chance of forming that majority alone. Most polls suggested, however, they would lose only a handful of their 57 pre-existing seats to their coalition partners (and a by-election told the same story), making this largely irrelevant.

Only they did not lose a handful. They lost 27. That alone gave the Conservatives a working majority, and from there it was only a matter of trying to hold on to the ground they had.

That was not supposed to be easy, however – Lord Ashcroft’s constituency polls suggested they would lose a net 41 seats directly to Labour.

In the event, they lost just two (net) plus one more to UKIP.

It is, therefore, a relatively simple story of how the Conservatives turned a similar vote share (up just under a percentage point) into an overall majority, regardless of Scotland. This was mostly to do with Conservatives voting the same way they did last time, plus a breakdown in the Liberal Democrat vote causing a split which enabled Liberal seats to be gained easily where the Conservatives were the main challengers.

The fundamental point to all of this is that, in times of possible difficulty and even fear, voters’ emotional response is always to shift to the right for protection. As this is predominantly an emotional response, many sympathetic to the left simply discount it as possible – leaving them exasperated when the results come in. That is to leave quite aside the discussion that Labour “can only win from the centre ground” – which is another way of saying that Labour, and left-leaning people in general, need to come to terms with the fact England as a whole is positioned further to the right than they care to admit.

I am still astonished, though, at how the pollsters got it so remarkably wrong and thus led us all down a different narrative. We’ll come back to that!

Reality of an Election Campaign

As candidate, agent, Acting Party General Secretary, constituency organiser, general adviser and (most importantly) spouse, I have fulfilled almost every role there is to fill during an election campaign. The public view of it is perhaps rather different from the reality!

My sense is that the public generally view the candidates as full-time and the campaigns as somehow state-funded. Neither is true. Candidates are normal members of the public with work and family commitments just like anyone else; and they and their parties have to raise almost all money involved through their own fundraising. Inevitably, in fact, this gives incumbents and other full-time politicians (say, MLAs running for MP) an advantage, as non-full-time challengers operating entirely voluntarily have to juggle general work commitments with the campaign.

A good campaign will have started well in advance. Months before polling day some kind of communication should already have gone through doors introducing the candidate. A subsequent communication should, ideally, follow demonstrating some of the candidate’s work “on the ground”. Therefore, when the campaign proper starts (officially usually five weeks before polling day), the candidate should already be identifiable to many householders, even if not an incumbent.

The much maligned posters then appear confirming the candidate. In both Irish jurisdictions, it is usual to use face posters placed on public property to achieve this; this is distinct from Great Britain, where usually the name alone, placed alone on private property, suffices. This may be a quirk of the electoral system and electoral tradition, where in Ireland candidates need to be known and personable, whereas in Great Britain there is (or at least was) greater reliance on pure party loyalty. There is, frankly, no need for so many. Main intersections is what you are aiming for, and you want them commonly branded (different posters of the same party or even the same candidate look indecisive, not a popular trait electorally).

Candidates are entitled to one mailing through Royal Mail. Parties do this in many varying ways. Some are happy simply to fire out leaflets in the hope people read them, usually emphasising key points both about the candidate and the party; others like to personalise them, either paying for a mail sort or labelling themselves to try to ensure the addressee takes an interest – labelling is a highly time-intensive activity but can be a good way of involving less mobile campaigners. Some parties, usually the labellers, go for a second leaflet in some locations at their own expense (both in terms of time and money) to re-emphasise an issue, particularly if one has been picked up early in the campaign.

Then, there is canvassing – an art much misunderstood even by canvassers themselves. The purpose of canvassing is, in principle at least, to identify your own voters (often referred to as “definites”) and any waverers (“potentials” or similar). The purpose is not to pick up lots of queries (you should already have done that before the campaign), and it is absolutely not to spend half an hour trying desperately to persuade one person! Outcomes do vary – naturally optimistic canvassers have to be persuaded that “I’ll give it a wee read and see” is not remotely a “definite”; on the other hand, pessimists can sometimes discount potential supporters by ending the interaction as soon as the leaflet has left the hand. The purpose of the canvass leaflet itself is purely to indicate the candidate (or their team) actually called – some make these unnecessarily complicated so that householders who were actually canvassed while out are left with the impression they were not.

As if this were not time consuming enough, candidates also have the media (in all its forms) and “hustings” to contend with. They may be offered TV slots, invaluable for further recognition (people like to vote for candidates they feel they know, and TV seems to count); or radio slots, to put over a particular message. They will also have to contend with huge amounts of email and social media traffic – growing rapidly in the 2010s – trying to appear personable and vaguely normal while avoiding the inevitable trolls who seek to trip candidates up or engage, sadly, in outright bullying. Email queries are often set up by particular campaigns and the same query can be received many times (these used to come on postcards too, but these have now been largely discarded); then there will be genuine emails about a specific topic or range of topics, and unfortunately less that genuine ones from opponents and admirers (for reasons political or otherwise)! Most time-consuming of all, depending on constituency, can be “hustings” hosted by local groups or communities where candidates are invited to appear on a panel – the highlights of these are now often broadcast on social media in one way or another, and the outcome more often than not takes the form of a misplaced remark rather than a brilliant point, as was in evidence in South Down this year.

The final days are the “Get the Vote Out” operation. This is in fact more advanced in Great Britain, where parties even go the extent of placing polling agents to collect voters’ numbers to determine which pledged voters have and have not voted by different times of day. In Northern Ireland, this tradition has not taken root and parties have wildly varying ways of doing it, which may involve further leaflets or letters aimed at nudging “definites” to the polls and/or persuading “potentials” or “undecideds”.

After all that, votes can even be lost at the count. Parties need to be organised with paperwork throughout the campaign, not least to assign counting agents who check the count proceeds correctly (including that votes are in the correct bundle) and that dubious votes are correctly assigned.

It is all a most remarkable, wearying and (in the case of most challengers) voluntary thing. Yet it is democracy in action – and, as we know better than most in this part of the world, it is a lot better than the alternative.

Polls open – please vote!

Polls have opened in the United Kingdom General Election.

Elections, for all their faults, must serve as a reminder of the things which, as civilised people, we should never forget to cherish:

– we are innocent until proven guilty in an independent court of law;

– we have rights and freedoms established in law; and

– we elect our legislators and they are accountable to us.

These seem remarkably simple things, yet they are unavailable to the vast majority across the world and it is remarkable how we forget about them when they do not suit.

We must never yield to a society where vigilante “justice” rules supreme; we must never restrict rights to the extent that even minor offence is not tolerated; and we must never stop voting to the extent that our legislators can ignore us.

A society without Rule of Law (even when it doesn’t suit), without Freedom of Expression (even when it offends), and without Elected Representatives (even when they cause us to despair) is at once less fair, less free, and less effective. Here in Northern Ireland, of all places, we know that the alternative to democracy is bloody chaos.

So, whatever you do, remember these are hard-won things available only to a minority world-wide – so please vote! Have your say.

In Northern Ireland, remember your passport, driving licence or smart card (or electoral ID card) as you head to the polling station.

Why Paula Bradshaw must be elected

Fancy that, not only does this Alliance member want a member of the same party elected, but even a member of the same household…

Yet it is just as important that Paula Bradshaw be elected in South Belfast as it is that Naomi Long be elected in East. Naomi herself has been consistent in reminding people…

Naomi

It is essential, when the incumbents have let us down, that we replace them. Let us recall that, in the case of the South Belfast, the incumbent has suggested that failure to give them pay rises would “see MLAs living in poverty”; has committed is party to opposing abortion even in cases of rape and incest; and has condemned an entire profession by saying GPs never get cases of foetal abnormality right. He is a double-jobbing embarrassment, and he absolutely must not be maintained in office just because we fear someone else may get in!

But let us not be negative. It is also vital that we enable new entries to the political scene to be elected. If we always do what we’ve always done…

Remember, unlike incumbents and other challengers in the political scene, candidates like Paula are full-time mothers and full-time workers. They cannot be expected to knock every door (although Paula has given it a go), attend every hustings (although she has) or be seen at every envelope opening (she hasn’t done that; nor should she, as it’s so obviously insincere when candidates do).

Of course, we should not change for change’s sake. However, when a candidate comes forward who has worked in the constituency for a quarter of a century including as a Charity Chief Executive for half that period; who has worked and got to know people in all sectors (traders, community, agencies, etc); who has a detailed knowledge of how people can work with politicians to deliver change because she has done it herself… well, the case makes itself.

The hustings have offered a clear example. We all know the type of candidate who offers merely vague generalisations about how good things are good, bad things are bad, and therefore we should have more good things and fewer bad things. We have seen it on all the panels. Yet Paula is the precise opposite of such a candidate – offering, from her position, instant advice on how people can work with her to deliver a new cultural centre, or changes to procurement, or new funding channels for their voluntary group.

To make an obvious point, if enough people vote for her, Paula will be elected. She is not the favourite because it is assumed people will vote tactically, out of fear of another candidate winning. In fact, there is no reason for them to do so! In 2011, Anna Lo topped the polls (although, to be fair, the total Alliance vote ended up marginally behind the DUP and SDLP); in 2014, that gap had been closed and the three parties were almost even with each other according to tallies.

After all that has gone on, think of the message which would be sent out from Northern Ireland if two Alliance women were elected in South and East Belfast even in the face of a Unionist pact.

Vote for what you want! And remember, if you vote for it tomorrow, it happens…

Why Naomi Long must be re-elected

Fancy that, an Alliance Party member focusing on Naomi Long during election week…

However, I think the re-election of Naomi Long is far more important than merely the election of one Alliance Party representative in one constituency. It is about the absolute requirement, in a democracy, to elect someone who will competently, diligently and inclusively represent the interests of the area she (or he) represents.

Among Northern Ireland’s MPs during the 2010-15 term, some were no doubt competent (say, Jeffrey Donaldson); some were no doubt diligent (say, Margaret Ritchie); some were no doubt inclusive (say, Lady Hermon). Ask for one who is all three, however, and an obvious candidate leaps off the page – Naomi Long.

I was in Dublin in January for a panel on the European Union with representation from the Irish Republic (Ruairi Quinn, Labour TD and former Finance Minister), Great Britain (Kenneth Clarke, Conservative MP and former Chancellor), and Northern Ireland. The Northern Irish representative was the star of the show, wowing the audience not only with this superb speech, but also detailed and thoughtful answers during the Q&A sessions. That representative, of course, was Naomi Long.

Of course, she would never have been there in the first place, were it not for her diligence at a Councillor and subsequently MLA before the 2010 election. I have delivered some of the target literature during this campaign and it is marked that, on some streets in East Belfast, the majority of houses have a record of past successful casework from Naomi Long’s office since 2003.

It is merely the icing on the cake, therefore, that she also happens to be the first ever MP elected from Northern Ireland on a clearly and openly cross-community basis. From Short Strand to the Ice Bowl, every street will have been trodden without favour by ‘community’, without favour by class, without favour by creed.

This is not only about one constituency or one person, therefore, but about how we in Northern Ireland see ourselves and our democracy. Re-elect Naomi, and we send a clear message that if you work competently, diligently and inclusively you will be rewarded – and more than once; reject her, and we send a clear message that really all we want is people wrapping themselves up in a flag – even if they have demonstrated no competence, no diligence, and no appetite for inclusiveness (quite the contrary, if we elect people content to legalise homophobia, for example).

We may all wish Naomi well on Thursday – not for her sake (she’ll be fine!), but for ours.

Guide to UK Election Night

So, with the Conservatives needing 19 net gains and Labour 65-68, where are the marginals and how will Election Night run?

Comparison with 2010 results is essential!

2200 BST – Polls Close

Polls close at 10pm across the UK, and instantly broadcasters will provide the result of an “Exit Poll” taken in marginal seats, announced in terms of seats won (as opposed to vote share).

This is generally extremely accurate – in 2010 it projected Conservative 307 (actually 307), Labour 255 (258), Liberal Democrat 60 (57). Likewise in 2005, it had the Labour total absolutely accurate and the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats within 10. Even as long ago as 1970, the exit poll in a single constituency proved more accurate than the pre-election polls taken across the country.

The most notorious exit poll was in 1992. It was about to project a Labour majority but was changed within seconds of 10pm to declare a “likely hung parliament, Conservatives short by 23″ – in fact, the Conservatives had won with a 21-seat majority. Nevertheless, this was a highly unusual election and, in any case, exit polling has improved vastly since.

2245 – First Declaration

Sunderland South (actually now “Houghton and Sunderland South”) has been first to declare since 1992, and will likely be so again.

In 2010, this seat was: Labour 50.3%; Conservative 21.4%; Liberal Democrat 13.9%; Independent 6.4%; BNP 5.2%; UKIP 2.7% – giving Labour a lead of nearly 29 points over the Conservatives.

There is little doubt that UKIP will surge here (they are likely to more in the east than the west), most likely to around 20%. Much of that will come by taking the BNP and Independent vote from last time, but some of it will be at the expense of what were the three “main parties”. The first question will be who the UKIP votes have come from.

If Labour is still above 50%, it could be looking at an overall majority, as its vote will have held with UKIP taking votes only from the other two parties (in effect). Around 47% may be regarded as par, particularly if the Conservatives are also down at least three points (and thus in third place). Much below 45% and Labour could be in some difficulty (particularly if the Conservatives remain above 20%), although the scale of that difficulty would be hard to assess accurately from just one result.

0100 – Next Declarations

By now, other northeast constituencies such as Sunderland Central, Washington & Sunderland West, Durham North West and Durham North should have declared – all safe Labour seats with vote shares last time ranging from 42% to 52%. Again, UKIP should surge to 15-20% in each, meaning that all three main parties would expect to lose share (if there are any which do not, they are doing well).

Nevertheless, until we hear from the London seat of Dagenham & Rainham, we will still only be hearing from one part of the country. This will be the first seat to declare which is in anyway marginal (held by Labour 40.3% versus Conservative 34.3%). As it is still in the east of England, a UKIP surge is again to be expected (the BNP alone had over 11% in 2010) and should secure the seat for Labour – if somehow the Conservatives win, an absolute majority for them should not be ruled out; if UKIP wins, a serious breakthrough is likely and a Hung Parliament is certain.

0200 – Early declarations

A lot of the declarations around now should be from borough constituencies in Northern Ireland – and are therefore almost irrelevant to the overall election resultOne to watch is Belfast South, held by the Labour-whipped SDLP incumbent who won last time unopposed by Sinn Fein but now is facing a challenge from the DUP and (at the outside) the Alliance Party – all three parties were in the 19-24% bracket at both elections since 2010.

Also declaring around now still in the North East of England are Darlington (held by Labour since 1992 and perhaps thus far the least vulnerable seat to a UKIP surge; Labour won by eight points last time), Durham City (the first clear indication of the LibDem retreat outside core marginals, having scored 37.7% here last time) and Easington (where they tend to weigh Labour votes rather than count them…)

About now we may also get the first seat in the English Midlands, Nuneaton – the first true marginal of the night particularly if Labour is hoping to gain ground. Labour lost it to the Conservatives last time but is still under five points behind, meaning that a win for Labour here would be a clear indication that the parties are about level overall in terms of votes, setting Labour up to be potentially the largest party.

It is possible that around now we will also get the first seat in from Wales, probably Vale of Clwyd – Labour holds this by almost exactly seven points over the Conservatives and it would herald nothing short of a disaster if there were any problem for it here.

In Scotland, Na-hEileanan an Iar (Western Isles) may declare first (depending on the weather), but it is entirely a-typical and always has been (it is held comfortably by the SNP yet returned a strong vote against independence in September); the first mainland declaration is likely in Angusalthough as this too is held by the SNP with the Conservatives in second place, it may not tell us much about any SNP surge against Labour and the Liberal Democrats in the rest of the country.

Some seats in the south of England may begin to drift in around now. Of interest would be Battersea in London, a classic bellwether constituency historically and still one, having been gained by the Conservatives from Labour last time by twelve points.

The swing from Conservative to Labour in London is likely to be greater than in the rest of the country, meaning that even seats held by the Conservatives by twelve points (around 6,000 votes typically) are in play as “marginals”, even in the event that Labour does not secure an overall majority.

0300 – Hunt for Marginals

Unless there has been a particularly high turnout, results should be flashing in regularly now.

Remember, Labour will be well ahead at this stage regardless of the final result, as urban Labour-leaning constituencies tend to declare first.

In Scotland, we may by now have the first indication of the SNP surge. Can they take Lanark & Hamilton East or East Kilbride just south of Glasgow (overturning a Labour lead of 28-29 points and nearly 15,000 votes in each), Glenrothes (surely not, from fully 40 points and 17,000 votes back), or even Fife North East (currently held easily by the Liberal Democrats with the other three main Scottish parties all about even well behind)? A real indicator may be Gordon Brown’s old seat of Kirkcaldy & Cowdenbeath where the new Labour candidate defends a 50-point lead which should mean the seat is just held, but where the margin for a non-incumbent Labour candidate will tell us much.

In Wales, Carmarthen East should provide a first seat for Plaid (held by nine points from Labour) unless Dwyfor Meirionnydd (another safe Plaid seat) counts particularly quickly, and Carmarthen West for the Conservatives (also by nearly nine from Labour). If Nationalists are having a very good night, Plaid may also fancy its chances of overturning a seven-point deficit to Labour in Ynys Mon (Anglesey).

In Northern Ireland, the first (and perhaps only) Independent win of the night should by now have been declared in North Down.

Further south, Northampton North and South were both Conservative gains from Labour last time – if Labour takes the former, it will be a sign that it is approaching largest party status; if it takes both an overall majority is in prospect. Other Conservative-held marginals such as Ipswich and Halesowen & Rowley Regis are the types of seat which are likely to determine the next Prime Minister – hold these and the Conservatives may yet hope to be towards the 300 seat mark; lose them and even largest party status is not absolutely secure.

Oxford East may give us some idea of the Liberal Democrat demise in seats they do not hold; they targeted this one last time but should fall much further than nine points behind this time; Thornbury & Yate may be the first declaration from a Liberal Democrat-held marginal – a loss of this seat to the Conservatives, where the margin is currently 14 points, would herald real disaster. Castle Point is an oddity, taken by the Conservatives from an Independent last time but actually one which should fall safely in the Conservative column under challenge from UKIP.

In London, Putney was long a standard marginal but should really remain Conservative unless Labour is on for a working majority. On the other hand, if the Conservatives were to overcome a five-point deficit to take Tooting from Labour, the Prime Minister may safely begin planning his next five years. Hampstead & Kilburn was a genuine three-way marginal last time but, even without the incumbent, should now be safe Labour with the Liberal Democrat vote halved.

For an absolute majority, the Conservatives would probably need to have taken the lead in total seats won by about now.

0400 – Outcome apparent

The outcome should be now be apparent.

In England, seats such as Chester may by now have indicated the Conservatives are losing too many seats in the north to Labour to hold their current position or even to remain the largest party; Carlisle, a later declaration, will also be interesting from this point of view. On the other hand, Labour’s hopes of largest-party status may well by now have been hindered by losses such as Dundee West and even Inverclyde in Scotland to the SNP. This will turn seats such as Kingswood near Bristol into real bellwether Conservative-Labour marginals; if Labour is to become largest party it will also need to take at least some seats in the South East declaring by now, such as Hastings & Rye (where a UKIP incursion would help, surely).

The Liberal Democrats should by now have some seats, such as Bermondsey and Yeovilon the board thanks to well-known and widely respected incumbents.

Labour’s failure to guarantee office may have been confirmed by now in the south, such as again in Basildon South and perhaps even Bedford, where the Conservatives are just three points ahead; it would also want to take Peterborough for any chance to govern alone. The Liberal Democrats’ losses should begin to mount up, by now including Brent Central and perhaps Hornsey & Wood Green to a Labour Party now rampant in inner London. A real Liberal-Labour bellwether will be Bristol West, where the Liberal Democrats defend a 20-point (11,000-vote) lead and there is a strong Green presence, but may even sneak back in with “lent” Conservative votes (watch for that candidate going well below the 18.4% scored last time).

In Scotland also, towards this time, the Glasgow seats may well all have declared – safe Labour may have become safe SNP, or it may not, but either way a tale will be told!

By now also we may have individual stories too. Can UKIP take Great Grimsby from Labour? What will the Leader of the Opposition have been able to say at his own Doncaster North count? Will the Conservatives have held their only Scottish seat in Dumfriesshire or even picked one up on a split elsewhere in the Borders or conceivably even in Edinburgh, where the SNP is weaker but will still make gains on “unionist splits”? Will the Liberal Democrats have held on to that eternal Liberal-Conservative marginal of Sutton & Cheam?

We will probably not yet know, however, whether UKIP has won Clactonwhether the former Scottish First Minister has gained Gordon for the SNP from the Liberal Democrats; whether the Conservatives have benefited again from a Labour-Green split in Norwich North; what the Prime Minister has had to say at Witneyor, perhaps most eagerly anticipated of all, whether the Deputy Prime Minister has held Sheffield Hallam for the Liberal Democrats from Labour.

0500 – Stories still being told

If the arithmetic is especially tight, a key declaration around now will be Brighton Kemptown, a key ConservativeLabour marginal; nearby Hove should fall unless it has been a particularly bad night for challengers.

It will probably be longer yet before we know whether UKIP has taken Boston & Skegness or Thanet South from the Conservatives (the latter is their own Leader challenging); and whether the Greens have held their only seat in Brighton Pavilion. We will also not yet have heard from the two genuine three-way marginals in England outside London at this election – Cambridge (currently Liberal Democrat-held) and Watford (currently Conservative-held but with a directly elected Liberal Democrat Mayor challenging in a seat which was Labour before 2010). Also likely now to be a three-way marginal, but with UKIP joining the big two parties, is Thurrock. We will also not yet know the fate of the most senior Liberal Democrat Cabinet Minister in Inverness defending from the SNP, nor of his party colleagues in places like Taunton Deane or Torbay trying to fend off Conservatives.

An unusually late declaration also is expected from that standard Labour-Conservative marginal of Birmingham Edgbaston, which often gives a clear indication as to whether or not the Conservatives can win a majority.

0600 – A new dawn?

We will still be awaiting some interesting results such as Berwick upon Tweed (Liberal Democrat defence but without incumbent) and Hexham (the northernmost Conservative seat in England), and we may even still have recounts in the closest seat last time, Fermanagh & South Tyrone (Sinn Fein against a jointly endorsed Ulster Unionist candidate).

We should, however, have a clear idea by now how it has gone – at least in terms of which is the largest party.

The very last declaration may well be St Ives, where the Liberal Democrats will hope to defend a lead of below four points (1,800 votes) from the Conservatives.

Why NI MPs need to turn up!

Imagine paying someone three times the average salary and then finding that he works only five days a month. Yet, for some reason, we in Northern Ireland tolerate that kind of performance from some of our MPs.

It’s all about “constituency service”, apparently. Yet we have Citizens’ Advice Bureaux, independent Advice Centres, lots of MLA offices, and local councillors for that. No, actually, it isn’t about “constituency service” – we do not pay each of our MPs £200k in salary and costs for that (by the way, give me that and I’ll soon provide a “good service”!)

We pay them to legislate; not just to vote on issues, but to shape debate, to make deals, to prioritise matters and hold people to account in committees, and so on. There can be crucial votes of global importance – like the Syrian intervention; there can be debates shaped – like including Kincora in Child Abuse inquiries; there can be matters prioritised – like regional airports, of interest to Nottingham, and Carlisle, and Belfast; and there are finance officers, security personnel, NIO officials and all kinds of others who need questions asked about performance on our behalf. That takes more than a day a week or so!

MPs are also getting away with the claim that their votes don’t matter because most legislation affects only England. Wrong. This is in fact almost never then case. Firstly, some legislation applies in its entirety to Northern Ireland – sometimes directly (broadcasting, defence, aviation), sometimes indirectly (pensions, business registration – these are always adopted by the NI Assembly). Secondly, most legislation has at least some effect in Northern Ireland – the Child Poverty Act imposes targets on the NI Executive, for example, and even the Single Equality Act has an impact on some off-shore and security operations. Thirdly, almost all legislation has a financial effect – the raising of Tuition Fees reduced the NI Budget (as consequentials assume a similar hike here, which never happened, so we had to find the money from other budgets to cover the gap), but an extra £8b for Health in England would add around £275m to the NI Budget (consequentials mean it comes at around £3.45 for every £100 added in England). That is before we even get to Votes of Confidence, Budget votes, Queen’s Speech votes, military intervention votes where, in a hung parliament, all votes can count.

The very notion we would elect MPs not to turn up at all, or who turn up so rarely that they are not even fully informed when they do, or who pay such scant attention that they miss the opportunity to shape debate and do deals (on, say, international aid, regional airports or pension provision), is utterly ludicrous.

But, of course, democracy is the worst possible form of government apart from all the others we’ve tried…

 

267: the number for Constitutional Crisis

The Conservatives have placed far too much store in Lynton Crosby’s abilities – his basic strategy, of splitting the opposition party on a core issue, doesn’t make any difference in a campaign completely devoid of serious policy propositions and where, in any case, there is more than one opposition party. As a result, Ed Miliband may now expect to hold the keys to Number 10 within the next month.

The numbers are fairly obvious – Labour can get to a majority, at least on Confidence and Supply, more easily than the Conservatives even if it is behind in seats. This in itself will cause an issue – if the Conservatives have more votes there will be an issue of democratic legitimacy of a Labour takeover of power based on Nationalist preferences; if they also have more seats, there will be serious questions asked.

However, for me, the key number is 267. If the Conservatives get to around 275 seats overall, the chances are they will have 267 in England. Why is that relevant? 267 would be enough for an overall majority in England.

Given that Parliament legislates predominantly only for England (albeit typically with financial consequences elsewhere), and most Cabinet Ministers (Health, Transport, Education) have responsibilities which apply directly almost exclusively in England, many would view it as democratically illegitimate for England as a country then to be governed by a Labour Government it did not vote for propped up by Scottish MPs – even less so if those Scottish MPs came from a separatist party in government in Scotland!

To be clear, what would then be happening would be that Labour would be passing policies and laws for England based absolutely on votes cast from Scotland and Wales, quite often by SNP MPs. To many in England, that would be outrageous when Scotland and Wales are themselves self-governing on those issues.

We may be left with a situation where Wales has elected a majority Labour Government and got a majority Labour Government; Scotland has elected a majority Nationalist Government and got a majority Nationalist Government; and England has elected a majority Conservative Government and got, er, a minority Labour Govenrment propped up by a party the English themselves couldn’t even vote for… Labour and Nationalists would be in power across Great Britain even though 86% of the people of Great Britain live in a jurisdiction where another party received most votes and attained a majority of seats. This would be even more laughable if in fact the Conservatives had most votes and most seats in Parliament.

Externally, it would be hard to feel too sorry for the Conservatives in such a situation – after all, they rejected the changes to the electoral system which would have clarified the legitimacy of each seat’s winner. Since most people in England would not, in fact, have voted for them, it is unlikely the Cavaliers and Roundheads would be making a comeback to overthrow the system immediately. However, throughout the Parliament, as Labour began to pass controversial policies and laws in England which most people in England reject, an obvious constitutional problem would emerge.

To make the obvious point, it is time for English devolution of some kind – before the oil under Sussex strengthens demands for English independence…

Belief systems ensure political failure

Generations ago, hunter-gatherers who had even the slightest sense that there were lions nearby were generally wise to assume there were and act accordingly, even if the actual chances were negligible. Their survival depended on it. After all, if there is even a 1% chance of being eaten alive in the next hour, you are probably best to move on.

We are therefore pre-disposed towards belief, and away from doubt. After all, there is simply no room for doubt if there is even a 1% chance it will lead to death. Therefore, once we have determined something is the case, it is extraordinarily difficult to persuade us otherwise.

Let us take the demonstrable fact that the DUP is homophobic – it has Councillors who blame hurricanes on gays, MLAs who describe homosexuality as an “abomination”, MPs who describe it as “repellent”, Ministers who equate it to paedophilia and as a corporate is involved in bringing forward a bill which would effectively legalise discrimination against homosexuals; needless to say, it has never had an openly homosexual elected representative. The evidence speaks for itself and is, rationally, indisputable.

Firstly, there are in Northern Ireland thousands of social conservatives from a Protestant background for whom this homophobia is a fundamental part of their belief system. Determination to hold what we have and draw security from – from Royal Family to nuclear family – is an innate part of who they are. It is astonishingly difficult to shift that belief system, despite the compelling evidence all around us that things have moved on. Doubt in this belief system is not to be tolerated – after all, it suggests insecurity and uncertainty (things social conservatives inherently dislike) and even risk of survival.

Secondly, there is another group who are actually not homophobic and who support social conservatives for other reasons (security policy, straightforward nationality or low tax). Remarkably to others but quite obviously to themselves, they simply deny, again as part of the belief system, that to vote DUP is to vote for an innately homophobic party. They deem homophobic statements regrettable but see them as “isolated incidents” – despite the fact evidentially there are lots of incidents and precious little isolation. Again, it is astonishingly difficult to bring doubt into this belief system.

At the other end we have social liberals – typically young, well educated, well travelled and professional – who have just as strong a belief system. This belief system is at the other end of the spectrum but is just as rigid (it also happens to be mine) . Again, even a hint of doubt in obvious markers of social-liberal progress such as same-sex marriage is regarded as behind the pale and not even to be engaged with – anybody even engaging with doubters is regarded as clearly uncivilised and untrustworthy. At an extreme, you end up with the view that officials should be sacked for not believing in climate change and religious faith should not be tolerated, as both are obviously irrational and therefore have no place in this apparently innately advanced belief system.

This intolerance of doubt is alarming, regardless of its source. In fact, people who really care about all of society should always allow for a reasonable dose of doubt – to do otherwise is to be closed and ultimately bigoted (yes, social liberals can be bigoted in the strict sense of the word too). Particularly, they should always be willing to change their views in the light of new evidence, and not just within the confines of their own belief system – they should not just wait for “the other side” to do this. Without this compromise, and ultimately social harmony, is impossible.

 

Guide to UK Election (Northern Ireland)

Northern Ireland beats a different drum when it comes to UK General Elections. The Conservatives run candidates, but most have never even visited Northern Ireland before and none will score four figures; Labour does not run at all, relying on the SDLP to take its whip; and the Liberal Democrats ask their supporters to vote Alliance (with whom some share a membership), even though Alliance does not take the Liberal Democrat whip. The Ulster Unionists were traditionally aligned with the Conservatives but went alone from 1974 to 2005 and will do so again now. The DUP has been talked of as a potential ally for UKIP, but there is no formal arrangement. The Greens run, but on a separate Irish manifesto.

Antrim, East – DUP to hold.

Held easily by Sammy Wilson since 2005, with nearly half the vote.

Antrim, North – DUP to hold.

Held easily by Ian Paisley jr, taking over from his father, in 2010, with nearly half the vote. Minor interest in battle for second Unionist party between Ulster Unionists and TUV.

Antrim, South – DUP defending against Ulster Unionist.

This seat has changed hands several times this century, and is held currently by Rev William McCrea for the DUP. It is an Ulster Unionist target, coming from less than 2000 down last time (though this gap trebled in subsequent elections).

Belfast East – Alliance defending against DUP

This seat was won in a three-way marginal by Peter Robinson of the DUP in 1979 from the Ulster Unionists and Alliance; subsequently a Unionist pact saw it safely in DUP hands. However, a three-way contest went the way of Alliance’s Naomi Long in 2010; the Unionists are attempting a pact to regain it through the DUP’s Gavin Robinson.

Belfast North – DUP to hold

A Unionist pact has secured this seat for the DUP Leader in the Commons, Nigel Dodds.

Belfast South – SDLP defending against all comers

This seat went DUP 24%, SDLP 24% and Alliance 20% in 2011 so is at least a three-way between Jonathan Bell, Alasdair McDonnell and Paula Bradshaw; Sinn Féin is running Mairtín Ó Muilleoir as a two-stop strategy to make it a four-way in future!

Belfast West – SF to hold

Paul Maskey won this with well over half the vote in a recent by-election, taking over from SF Party President Gerry Adams who held it from 1997.

Down, North – Independent to hold

Independent former Ulster Unionist Lady Hermon should have a comfortable enough gap with tactical votes to see off popular DUP challenger Alex Easton.

Down, South – SDLP to hold

Former SDLP Leader Margaret Ritchie has nearly half the vote at Westminster level here.

Fermanagh/South Tyrone – SF defending against Ulster Unionist

Having won by 52 in 2001 and 4 in 2010, popular Sinn Féin incumbent faces another race to 47% against pact-backed Ulster Unionist Tom Elliott.

Foyle – SDLP to hold

Popular SDLP incumbent Mark Durkan has no trouble attracting “Unionist” votes to win this seat easily.

Lagan Valley – DUP to hold

DUP defector Jeffrey Donaldson held the seat comfortably in 2005 and has around half the vote.

Londonderry, East – DUP to hold

DUP Executive winner Gregory Campbell has never had any trouble here after gaining it in 2001.

Mid Ulster – SF to hold

Francie Molloy’s slipped below half the vote in a recent by-election, but held on easily.

Newry/Armagh – SF to hold

A bizarre joint Unionist challenge and an SDLP campaign which has made no serious cross-community effort will see the only non-incumbent defending at this election, Mickey Brady, home handily.

Strangford – DUP to hold

Popular local worker Jim Shannon will hold this East Down seat (why is it not called that?!) comfortably in an area of considerable DUP strength.

Tyrone, West – SF to hold

Scottish-born Pat Doherty is safe here with around half the vote.

Upper Bann – DUP defending against Sinn Féin/Ulster Unionist

The SDLP has fallen far enough to turn this into a genuine three-way – Sinn Féin was actually the leading party here for first preferences in 2011. The DUP incumbent David Simpson will make this fact widely known as he seeks to hold off popular Ulster Unionist Jo-Anne Dobson.

 

 

 

 

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