Politics and Governance in the UK

by Michael Moran

Update 51: July 2015 - Ten years of Politics and Governance

Reflecting on the May General Election Result

The general election result of May 2015 is beginning to look like a landmark – a turning point in political history comparable to 1945 or to 1979. But it is not a landmark in the way those two momentous outcomes were – that is, harbingers of a new era in politics. 1945 and 1979 decisively changed the direction of public policy. The May result confirmed its existing direction – towards austerity welfare policy and a determined attempt to shrink the size of the central state. Now, empowered by victory and the formation of a single party Conservative government, we can expect the Conservatives to press ahead with even more determination. The result is nevertheless a landmark because it signifies the closing of a long chapter in British electoral history.

For nearly a century the party system – and government – were dominated by two big Britain wide, and largely London controlled, political parties. The Conservative ‘victory’ in May partly conceals the fact that it is no longer a significant UK wide institution: it has not been a serious Parliamentary force in Scotland, or in Wales, since the early 1990s, and it recovered almost no ground in May. Its ‘success’ depends on English voters. Moreover, it continues to decay, even in England, as a membership force. But it is the Labour Party, of course, which has suffered most grievously. The ‘first past the post’ electoral system magnified the scale of Labour’s wipe out in Scotland, but nevertheless the destruction wreaked by the SNP north of the border is breath-taking: in securing over 50 per cent of the votes it did something which for a very long time has been beyond the capacity of the two historically dominant parties.

Meanwhile in England, especially in Labour’s traditional heartland constituencies of the north, UKIP continues to advance as a threatening presence. Labour is losing the attachment of the manual workers in the north of England just as certainly as it started losing the attachment of working class Scots a few years ago. The peculiarities of the electoral system meant that UKIP failed to convert its big advances in popularity into Parliamentary seats, but it is now established as a threatening second placed party in 120 constituencies. All Labour can hope for is that, like many minority challengers from the right, UKIP will implode through infighting and scandal; but since its great advances have always been accompanied by infighting and scandal that seems a forlorn hope. The new Labour leader, when she or emerges in the autumn, will meanwhile face an almost insoluble electoral conundrum: the party simultaneously needs to move left to recover ground lost in Scotland, and to move right to recover ground lost in England. Whatever other qualities are needed, Labour must hope that the new Leader is an outstanding illusionist.

Reflecting on ten years of Politics and Governance in the UK

I have just completed the third revised edition of Politics and Governance in the UK – the book goes to press next week and will publish this August in time for the new teaching year. That means it is now just ten years since the first edition was published, and I thought that a useful overall update for readers would be some reflection on how the system has changed in that decade.

The period of change of course actually spans more than a decade. The book was originally conceived right at the end of the last millennium. The first edition finally appeared in 2005, just in time to report the result of the 2005 election. The second edition, which was published in 2011, was mostly drafted over 2009-10, and took full account of the result of the May 2010 general election. Writing the second edition obviously was a smaller exercise than was producing the original first edition, but in many respects a more difficult one. The first draft had been written in the light of what had seemed like certainties; the period of 2009-10 saw many of those certainties disappear.

Here are some features of the system which seemed fixed for a long time when the book was originally conceived and drafted:
  • Britain seemed irrevocably a European political system. Indeed the first edition confidently announced that writing about British politics without taking account of the European Union was like writing about Californian politics with taking account of the fact that the California was a state of the USA. The only issue seemed to be how far, and how fast, the UK would integrate into a federalised European Union. The Euro was introduced while the first edition was being drafted, and the debates in Britain seemed to be not whether, but when, the country would enter the Eurozone.
  • New Labour was at its triumphalist height. True, the healthy parliamentary majority secured by Mr Blair for a third time in 2005 masked both a fall in the level of Labour support and deep discontent within the Party, especially about the Iraq War. But ideologically New Labour had embraced the heart of Thatcherite economics, pushed it further, and added its own distinctive component – institutional reform, especially in the form of devolution. The Conservatives seemed electoral dead ducks: in October 2005 Mr Blair faced his fifth Conservative leader across the House of Commons – and could have been confident of seeing off the latest, who happened to be David Cameron.
  • The ‘Union’ of the United Kingdom seemed secure. New Labour’s greatest achievement appeared to be the constitutional settlements negotiated for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland between 1997 and 1999. ‘Settlement’, indeed was the commonest account of what was happening: separatism in the United Kingdom had now apparently been stilled by a stable system of devolution. The final chapter of the first edition contained an account of how the apocalyptic accounts of the ‘break-up of Britain’ originating in the 1970s and 1980s had not come to pass.
By the time the second edition appeared all these ‘certainties’ looked highly questionable but how the questioning might be resolved remained unclear. Indeed much of the analysis in the second edition had a necessarily provisional quality, and needed to wait for the third edition for a fuller treatment, notably about the following.
  • The great financial crisis of 2007-9 destroyed New Labour’s hard won reputation for economic competence, and led, after the general election of 2010, to the departure from the Party’s front ranks of the last architects of the New Labour project, like Gordon Brown. But the failure of the Conservative Party to reinvent itself with complete success with the electorate meant that it failed to capitalise on this by winning a Parliamentary majority, and was forced into coalition with the Liberal Democrats – and it was unclear even when the second edition of Politics and Governance in the UK was published in 2011 whether that coalition could survive a full term. As we now know, it did.
  • That the forward march of Europe was being halted was clear even by 2010. The great financial crisis also inaugurated a prolonged crisis of the Eurozone, and removed, perhaps for ever, and certainly for the foreseeable future, the chances that Britain would exchange the pound for the Euro. Domestically, the EU remained very important, but in a manner not expected even a few years earlier: the actual issue of future membership of the EU emerged as a critical line of domestic political division. Moreover, it became plain that one of the earlier ‘certainties’ – that the UK would experience increasingly deep integration into a federal Europe – was certainly not going to be realised. Indeed as we approach the referendum on our future membership which the new Conservative Government has promised by 2017 it is clear that a new political consensus is developing: that if the UK is to remain in membership it must be a member of a European Union which has brought the process of continuing integration to a halt.
  • The most unexpected and potentially explosive developments have occurred in the nature of the United Kingdom itself. Even in 2010 there was barely a hint of the constitutional upheaval that has accompanied the Scottish referendum campaign of 2014. True, in 2010 there was already a minority Nationalist government in office in Scotland. But the great financial crisis actually seemed to undermine the credibility of the independence case: the apocalyptic consequences of the crisis for the Irish and the Icelandic economies, for instance, seemed to make the case for a healthy, small independent Scottish economy much weaker. The referendum of 2014, and the general election result of 2015, changed all that. We still do not fully understand what has happened in Scotland, such has been the speed and depth of the change. But it is plain that its consequences go well beyond the Scottish case: it has reopened the question of the nature of Welsh devolution; has forced English regional devolution onto the political agenda; and, potentially most explosive of all, the prospect of an independent Scotland has given renewed impetus to a movement that New Labour had seemed to curtail in the Good Friday Agreement – the movement to reunite the island of Ireland.
The new, third, edition takes account of these developments, and much more. The following themes are particularly important.
  • The original image of ‘governance’ in the UK – of a system of multiple levels in complex bargaining relations with each other – remains central, but the increasingly unstable nature of the system of governance is now given added emphasis.
  • The exhaustion of the New Labour project, and the re-emergence of the Conservative Party as a dominant electoral force, is charted. But a theme familiar from the first two editions remains: despite the Conservatives’ unexpected success in the General Election of the May 2015, these two hitherto dominant party institutions remain in decline, both as membership forces and as electoral forces. The failure thus far of Cameronian Conservatism to mark itself out in the way Blair’s New Labour did remains a great uncertainty – and it is still unclear whether a new European settlement and/or the creation of ‘Northern Powerhouses’ in the form of devolved English regional government will provide that historical distinctiveness.
  • ‘Europe’ is put in its place, and that is an important place, but a different one from that emphasised in earlier editions. The third edition continues to emphasise how our membership of ‘Europe’, now of more than forty years duration, has irrevocably shaped British government and society. But the new edition also stresses that the key issue over the coming years is the terms – or even the existence – of our future membership of the EU.
  • The new edition is, however, not only about change. A striking number of important features of political life identified as long ago as 2005 are still important and loom large in its pages: the importance of social movements; the central place still occupied in the system of governance by the core executive in Whitehall; the power of richly resourced lobbies in areas like the City of London; the sheer muscle of the central state in London in still raising resources and distributing those resources; the importance of the judicial and security systems as, simultaneously, a threat to, and a defender of, the liberties of individual citizens.
  • Finally, a number of more ‘technical’ changes in the new edition are worth noting. I delivered the very final draft a month or so after the May 2015 general election so the result of that contest, and its consequences for party leadership, are described. An important original philosophy of the book – that there should be the most careful integration of the text with the wide range of exhibits – is retained, but I have learnt over three editions that as far as exhibits are concerned, ‘less is better’. So the reader will find that while the book remains rich in images, briefings, timelines, extracts from the language of political life, these have all been trimmed to ensure that they do not disrupt the presentation of text.
Michael Moran, University of Manchester, July 2015.