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Friday, May 06, 2011 

Disunited Kingdom.

The majority for the SNP in the Scottish parliament has come as a surprise, but it probably shouldn't have. Even if the opinion polls before the start of the campaign showed a Labour lead, the party under Iain Gray has done almost everything in its power to turn-off potential voters, running a magnificently negative campaign, the only thing it now seems its strategists are capable of devising. Up against an SNP that's done the equivalent of stuffing voter's mouths with gold, the staggering collapse in Liberal Democrat support which the party hoovered up almost whole, a positive if more than slightly fantastical campaign based around an economy built on renewable energy, the Scottish Sun calling for a vote for the SNP and the disadvantage of having a crop of politicians with all the initiative and wisdom of a wet fish, it's a marvel that Labour's share of the vote has only gone down by less than 1%.

Not, it should be said that the SNP are much better on that last score - I'd vote for a donkey before I'd vote for Nicola Sturgeon - it's more that we're seeing the broad left to centrist vote split between the SNP and Labour, with the former Lib Dem and Tory supporters preferring the SNP. What this certainly isn't, despite Adam Ramsay attempting to make the point, is any great broader problem for the centre/centre left - if anything, it shows just how scarred Scotland continues to be by memories of Thatcherism. With the exception of their differences on crime and on some of the giveaways the SNP has brought in, the two parties overwhelmingly favour the continuation of the same neo-liberal economic policies which brought the world to the brink 3 years ago. Indeed, Alex Salmond famously looked to Ireland and Iceland as to how an independent Scotland would prosper, or not, as might well be the case.

The other truly noteworthy result is just how well the Conservative vote has held up in England, with the party gaining rather than losing seats. This has mainly come from the widely predicted Liberal Democrat thrashing, yet they've also won seats in some areas from Labour. Too much can and will be made of local results just a year after the forming of a government, but this hasn't really been a normal first year considering the cuts and VAT rise. Labour has made steady, decent, unspectacular gains is the best that can be said. Ed Miliband and the shadow cabinet's performance in general has been low key and understated, and simply has to improve: David Cameron hasn't been so much as touched thus far. Nick Clegg has becoming the coalition whipping boy, much to the Conservatives' delight.

Staggeringly obvious is that it's now in the Liberal Democrats' best interest for the coalition to last the full five years, just as the clamour grows among the grassroots for Clegg to demand further concessions. Impossible as it is to predict what will happen a year from now, yet alone in four, it's difficult to see how the party will be able to recover significantly before then to put up much of a challenge in some of the highly marginal Westminster seats they currently hold. Cameron meanwhile, especially if the AV vote also fails, is in the best of all worlds: his mastery out of the coalition, never in doubt in the first place, is now close to total. If the Tories disengage, they can be more than optimistic about their chances of gaining a majority, especially when Labour clearly isn't ready for a snap election. The odds on the coalition lasting the distance have suddenly lengthened dramatically.

As for the AV referendum, the hope has to be, even as the first result from Orkney has just come in with 60% voting no that the showing of the SNP with a close to 50% turnout in Scotland will count in the yes campaign's favour. The 35% turnout in London where no other elections were held is also encouraging: even if it turns out to be a no, it can't be said any longer that this is an issue the public don't care about. Update 17:00: with the next few coming results coming in, with even those in Scotland voting overwhelmingly no, it already looks hopeless.

One final thought: with the SNP with a majority in Scotland (and under a form of proportional representation no less, no campaigners), Labour able to rule in Wales as a minority and the coalition in power in Westminster, this suddenly doesn't look very much like a United Kingdom.

Update 18:00: More than safe to say that the noes overwhelmingly have it. I'm disappointed, naturally. What's ultimately counted against the yes campaign more than anything else is that from the beginning this was the reform that no one bar a tiny minority wanted. All the rest of us were either voting yes hoping it would eventually lead to AV+/PR or on the basis that it's an ever so slight improvement on FPTP. Combined with the staunch opposition of the entire right-wing press, the association of the referendum with the Liberal Democrats, rightly and wrongly, the dire nature of the yes campaign which never managed to properly explain just why FPTP ought to be a historic relic of two-party systems, the often little short of disgraceful no campaign, and the misinformation which even Lib Dem voters fell for, the result can't really be called a surprise. As those of us on the left often do, we underestimated just how powerful those opposed to any change whatsoever still are.

No real reason to be too downhearted, though. As said above, the decent turnout, around the usual level associated with local elections, shows that people do care about electoral reform, even if it's to oppose it. Moreover, support for reform is still only going to grow. The SNP majority in Scotland under a form of PR gives the lie to the idea that such a system can't result in "strong" government. As support for the two, even three main parties continues to decline, as it will, while still shutting out the Greens, UKIP and others from anything approaching fair representation for their share of the vote, it's inevitable that'll we'll have to return to this subject, even if it takes another 15-20 years. We then might also manage to get something better than a miserable little compromise on the ballot.

20:50 update: Well, resounding doesn't even really cover it. For there to be any chance yes had to triumph in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London, and it lost even where there's a form of PR in operation for the devolved elections. My own hope was to be able to claim there was as many people voted yes as voted for the Lib Dems last year, and with 2 areas still to declare, even that's around 1,000,000 short. Can't really complain about the turnout - 42% would have been above the 40% threshold the Lords were looking to impose at one point, and it's the failings of the campaigns respectively for not managing to persuade more people to take an interest.

Speaking of which, Daniel Hannan of all people skewers the yes campaign most effectively - I'm not exactly convinced that Nigel Farage would have made the difference, as he undoubtedly turns off as many people as he manages to speak for, but it clearly needed to have been far broader, less metropolitan and with better celebrities if they were to be involved at all. Full Labour support would have also have been vital, and instead we had the splitting between those who love the unmitigated power FPTP can deliver such as in 97-05, and those who realise that it was exactly those years that dragged Labour into the abyss of 2010. Still, there's always the next generation, isn't there?

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I can't agree more with this article.

BTW I think that "Untied Kingdom" would have worked better as a headline :-)

and under a form of proportional representation no less, no campaigners

I didn't vote No to PR. I voted No to AV.

Just to expand on that slightly, it won't really do to put the No victory down to "those opposed to any change whatsoever" - or, for that matter, to associate the Yes lobby with "the left". Many people on the Left voted No because we don't want AV - and, among those of us who support PR, we weren't prepared to gamble on AV being a stepping stone to PR (Australia has used AV since 1918).

If the No vote looked even slightly like the combined vote for the Tories, the BNP and David Blunkett, it might be valid to start looking for ways to discredit the No vote and carve it up into different sub-groups of ignorant and/or prejudiced people (a.k.a. the John Curtice approach). Given that the vote was 70% against, with very little regional variation, I think it's only fair to assume that lots of people voted no to AV because lots of people don't want AV.

You've put far too much emphasis on the remark at the end of that paragraph: I wasn't even beginning to argue that the result was down to those that opposed any change whatsoever, especially as that would contradict the other reasons just above, rather it was always going to be an uphill struggle against the financial and political backers of the no campaign and the right-wing press. I admit it's wrong to associate the campaign wholly with the left though - that was one of the key mistakes.

I still think that if we cut into the vote to see just why everyone voted the way they did we'd get some fairly depressing answers and that short-sightedness on the part of some would play a key role, but as argued the case for a yes simply wasn't made. We've got no one to blame but ourselves for that.

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