Britain’s post-election reform priorities: a stony path ahead

In my last post, I predicted the outcome of the British General Election and the post-election reform priorities that the resulting British government would pursue. Now that the election outcome is clear, it is worth reviewing how accurate my pre-election predictions were and whether it is time for me to eat my hat. It also presents an opportunity to reflect on some of the key reform priorities in the next few of years. It is clear to me that Britain will emerge transformed, while also impacting directly on the future of the European Union (EU).

The future is blue

In advance of the General Election, unlike the vast majority of polls and media pundits who were convinced that there would be a hung parliament, I wrote: “My main prediction is that the Conservatives will win more seats than any other political party, even if the polls suggest that the election might be a close call. I also predict that the Conservatives will gain an overall majority.” For someone who normally lets his heart rule his head at election time, this was bull’s-eye!  Just reflect on what.

The pollsters are taking the heat and the leading newspapers and other media commentators are reflecting on how they could have got things so badly wrong in advance of the exit polls on election night. But this is not the first time that the opinion polls have been badly out of kilter with reality (Neil Kinnock anyone?) and it will certainly not be the last.

The blame game starts

The blame lies fully and squarely with the Labour Party’s inadequacies during the General Election. This was not an election that was won by the Conservatives whatever their post-election euphoria may suggest. The fact is that too few voters trusted the Labour Party to do better than the previous government. I wrote in my post“The main reasons for this prediction are all to do with Labour, rather than the Conservatives or their policy initiatives… Many voters will switch to the SNP in Scotland and the Conservatives and/or UKIP in England… Large segments of the general public neither relate to nor trust either Ed Miliband or any of the current crop of Labour leaders.” These are the core challenges that Red Ed’s successor will have to grapple with, with the changes in Scotland and the attractiveness of UKIP to former Labour voters at the heart of it (but see below).

Hail the Scots

On Scotland and the Scottish Nationalist Party, I wrote: “The clear winner is going to be the Scottish National Party (SNP) and with this development, the dynamics of Westminster-based politics will change dramatically, especially for the Labour Party.” I added that: “Labour is going to be decimated in Scotland and the other political parties will have almost no influence there.” There are only three non-SNP members of parliament in Scotland out of 59. This is a stunning development and is one of the three critical issues in terms of the future of the UK (see the other two below), something that is already acknowledged by the new Conservative government.

The British bulldog bites… itself

In terms of UKIP, I wrote: “… the UKIP vote, though significantly understated in the opinion polls, nevertheless does not seem to be as much of a threat to the Conservatives as previously anticipated. This is as much to do with the current electoral system as UKIP’s almost wilful self-destruction through incompetence.” This prediction was spot-on. The party gained almost 4 million votes, mostly in England, yet managed only to win one seat. As I have previously written, I consider them to be an anti-immigration verging on racist (and homophobic) party, which is dangerously fanning the flames of angry nativism, as the only remaining UKIP MP, Douglas Carswell, famously put it. But we cannot fail to recognise that the first-past-the-post system can have seriously negative repercussions for democracy – imagine the dismay of the 4 million voters who voted for UKIP and have one MP for their efforts.

Nigel Farage did the right thing by resigning for UKIP’s disastrous performance. He then did the wrong thing by un-resigning immediately afterwards. This takes UKIP beyond the “almost” into the “wilful self-destruction through incompetence” territory. The key issue is whether Farage can emerge phoenix-like from the resulting ashes. Even if he does re-emerge victorious from the unedifying in-fighting, he will not remain unscathed and neither will UKIP as a party. The thin patina of “being different from the rest of the political herd” has worn off and voters will take notice. This is not to imply that UKIP will not be a powerful force to reckon with, especially in relation to the forthcoming EU referendum. It will play a crucial role with or without Nigel Farage as their leader; indeed, UKIP might be even more powerful without him. Despite his “I am just an ordinary guy downing his pint and puffing his fag” routine, his impulsive style of leadership may prove to be difficult to convert into a coherent and consistent campaign against remaining in the EU. Others might well do better.

Reinventing the Brand

I wrote very little about the LibDems – it has been clear for quite a while that it was a party in meltdown. They are in many ways the party with the most realistic reform package and I would have considered voting for them (were it not the for 15 year rule which robs me and others of our democratic rights). I only wrote: “… the LibDems would have to perform much better than anticipated to have a chance of running the country” in another coalition government, that is. As expected, the LibDems have taken the brunt of the political punishment meted out by the voters while the Conservatives have taken the prize of running the country on their own. This was hard and unjust in my view, but such are voters and such is politics. The LibDems face a bigger challenge than the Labour Party, namely of reinventing themselves (once again) and re-establishing the trust of the voters.

I also discussed the two main post-election reform priorities for the new British government (I could have added the Scotland issue as a third, but did not). Judging by the political pronouncements made and the media reporting so far, both predictions appear to be on-track to be implemented.

To leave or not to leave… that is the question

The Conservative Party’s promise of holding a straight in/out EU referendum has been the subject of various posts in this blog. The Conservatives remain committed to holding the referendum by the end of 2017 at the latest. In my previous post I floated the possibility of it being held in 2016 in the context of a coalition with UKIP: “… the political price to be paid to UKIP will be a Conservatives campaign to leave the EU and to hold the in/out referendum in 2016, rather than 2017.” Now a referendum in 2016 is an increasingly realistic scenario, rather than 2017. It is increasingly clear, now that the election is over, that it might destabilise the government and the economy to have an ongoing debate for two years on the pros and cons of Brexit. I have little doubt about the economic, social, environmental and political benefits of continuing EU membership. To my mind, Britain would emerge a vastly diminished nation from a no vote.

My prediction was that: “The outcome of the EU referendum will be a narrow “yes” majority to remain in the EU.” I did not predict this because of an economic study or other. If you were to hold the referendum today, I think the majority of Brits would choose to leave. I predicted a small majority for remaining in the EU principally because: “If the Conservatives are able to form a majority Government, as the traditional party of business, it will ultimately side with remaining in the EU, whatever the pressures of UKIP or the antics of its noisy Eurosceptic wing. After all, the Conservative policy of offering an EU referendum in 2017 was a strategic move calculated to defang UKIP and yet placate the more rabid anti-EU Tories; it was not a decision to leave the EU per se.” I stand by that assessment.

I also predicted that: “The political price to be paid for campaigning to remain in the EU is that this will prove to be the second and final term of office for David Cameron as the Prime Minister and possibly as an MP.” Upon stepping into 10 Downing Street he immediately announced that he will not contest a third term as Prime Minister. Perhaps my gut feeling is not so outlandish that: “Their shambolic position on the EU reflects the fact that David Cameron and other senior members of the Conservative Party, on balance, favour remaining in the EU.” With a sound majority, Cameron can face-down the Eurosceptic wing and finally lance the Conservative Party’s long-festering EU boil.

Regardless of whether the Conservative Party has the balls to declare its position on the EU or not (as opposed to allowing MPs to follow their own convictions), I maintain my prediction that: “The SNP, LibDems and Labour will campaign in favour of remaining in the EU. Moreover, the business sector will make its views in an increasingly vocal and forcible manner and the wider pro-EU voice will be more pronounced than has been the case hitherto.” UKIP and other Eurosceptics have been kicking the hell out of the EC and EU football with little or no opposition. As I have previously argued, far too few prominent Britons have stood up to be counted in this debate so far. Such a state of affairs could not be imaginable in any of the 27 other EU countries. This is finally changing and the pro-EU cavalry is beginning to rally around. But the counter-charge is long overdue and forthcoming battle will be a close run thing.

Death by a thousand cuts

As someone who has lived and/or worked in around 35 countries, I can state what most Britons take for granted or have forgotten. Britain is a marvellous country in part because it has a welfare state courtesy of the famous Beveridge Report of 1942, which sought to counteract the “five giants” namely Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness. Since 1945, the welfare state has become established and was for a long period of time the model for others. But it is apparent that the welfare state has experienced a long drawn-out decline and no longer performs adequately against the five giants despite energetic efforts to reform it and ensure financial sustainability.

With some sadness I wrote: “The last prediction is that the squeeze on the public sector is set to continue for the next few years and it will further transform Britain and its welfare state, resulting in a more divided and fragmented society.”  There is no doubt about the need to reform the welfare state. The concern is that the agenda is driven almost entirely by the Government‘s austerity agenda, resulting in predefined targets of how much to cut so as to balance the national budget by a certain deadline. This does not amount to a serious attempt to reform the welfare state.

Furthermore, the evidence is that the working poor and non-working segments of the British population were not the cause of the economic and financial crisis that plagues Britain and most other European countries. (As an aside, neither was it the EU, the euro, the Labour Party, the EU or non-EU immigrants, the asylum seekers and any of the other convenient scapegoats that keep being bandied around by the politicians and large segments of the British media). But in reality it is the working-poor, the unemployed and other benefit recipients, including the disabled and vulnerable in society that have paid disproportionately the price of austerity, compared with the wealthy (who have done rather nicely during the same period), the retired (who have maintained their standards) and the middle-income families (segments of which are certainly feeling the pinch, but not nearly to the same extent).

In this context, I predicted that this trend is set to continue: “The Conservative Party does not deny that further cuts in the order of GBP 12 billion  in social expenditure are in the pipeline, even if it is rather coy about how exactly this will be achieved. If the last Parliament was anything to go by, the brunt of the cuts will continue to be borne by the more vulnerable members of society, while corporations and the wealthy are spared.”

Somewhat gloomily, I also predicted that: “… some of the things that Britons are most concerned about such a shelter (sufficient, affordable and good quality housing), health (NHS, access and quality) and education (primary, secondary and tertiary) will continue to experience gradual deterioration… Instead, the (EU and non-EU) migrants will continue to act as the lightning rod for people’s frustration with a slowly crumbling system, while those that have been running these very systems for decades or generations are largely spared the British citzens’ ire.” I certainly hope that this prediction misses its target by a proverbial country mile.

What is already apparent is that the Chancellor, Mr George Osborne, is not wasting his time in continuing the process of financial and fiscal reform, otherwise known as austerity (but see Paul Krugman’s piece on The Austerity Delusion). He has announced that there will be a further Budget on 8 July 2015 to set out how the Conservatives will eliminate the gaping national deficit. He stressed that it will be a budget for “working people” but the centrepiece will be how £12bn can be shed from Britain’s welfare bill. It is almost certain that this Budget will usher in a fresh wave of austerity measures that will presumably not be so good for the “non-working people” of Britain.

Just to be clear, there are 33 million (78%) economically active people (16-64 years of age) in the UK, of which 1.8 million or 5.5% are unemployed. There are a further 9 million economically inactive (22%) people. If you are part of this group of 27.5%, this is clearly not going to be a Budget designed to make you happy. Since very few of these people will fall into the category of “skivers”, “benefits cheats” and similar (something which the government is well aware of despite the rhetoric deployed), it is hard to see any justification for yet another assault on their already low or precarious standards of living. Why can the cuts not fall proportionately on the wealthy, profitable businesses and others that have high incomes instead, other than for the usual sordid short-term, partisan politics with a small “p”?

Britain is not is the same category as Greece. I have always been convinced that Britain is one of the wealthiest, fairest and most compassionate societies that I have come across, something which makes me proud to be a Brit. After the next five years, following the Budget of 8 July 2015, I might well have grounds for revisiting that impression.

As I wrote in my previous post, I would have gladly eaten my hat for getting these predictions wrong. Sadly, it appears as if the great majority of them have either been correct or are on-track to be realised in the next term of government. Britain will emerge from it a poorer nation in almost every sense.

Ricardo Pinto, AngloDeutsch™ Blog, www.AngloDeutsch.EU


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