The UK needed a referendum – not on EU membership but on devolution

The EU referendum saw a forgotten, marginalised segment of British society send a vote of no confidence to the political establishment. Devolving some genuine democratic power back to these communities would be a positive show of respect from a distrusted elite.

The Brexit vote was a shock for most. But the outcome would have been the same for nearly any wing of the political establishment that dared to present itself for public judgement. That the EU happened to be the chosen bogeyman for this particular exercise in binary democracy is almost immaterial. A referendum ballot that read ‘do you have faith in the British Parliament to effectively carry out the will of the British people?’ would have probably fared no better.

For a long time, the perceived wisdom of modern politics was that the status quo had a built in protection – that when confronted with a choice between the safe, understood reality and the unknown, risky alternative – people would follow their human instincts and choose the path they already knew. For people to go against their nature, to ignore their leaders and experts, shows just how utterly broken status quo politics must have become in Britain.

Much of the support for Leave came from some of the poorest, most rural, deprived, working class communities in Britain. These communities have been in decline for decades. The disappearance of the UK’s heavy industries (mining, manufacturing, steel works, ship building, etc.) over the last 30+ years began this trend, but continued lack of investment from successive governments only worsened it.

When UKIP started banging the drum of immigration and EU membership, these became simpler targets to blame than the complex economic realities of liberalised markets and globalisation.

But rather than defang the political establishment and take back some control, this referendum outcome is empowering an even more centralised, authoritarian and right wing government.

Much of marginalised today’s Britain finds itself in a similar situation to Scotland during the 80s and early 90s, when an entire country was being unfairly penalised by a remote and unrepresentative political class – a class of people imposing their will on those they neither represented nor had any affinity to. In the case of Scotland this discontent sowed the seeds for the eventual rise of the SNP who now dominate Scottish politics.

The EU referendum was primarily about immigration, that is clear. But a great deal of the language of the debate was focused on power – where it resides, who wields it and whether those people are accountable. Imagine that the referendum in June 2016 had not been about leaving the EU but had instead been about devolving power to the UK regions. The electorate would have had a genuine opportunity to strip some of that perceived power away from the Westminster elite and back to them locally. Framed in the right way, this would have been an easy argument to win – a clear message about the nature of power and the positive values of sharing and democracy.

In France, Germany and many other European nations, a decentralised, federalised infrastructure already exists – where regions have genuine autonomy over their local economies and decisions. A devolved Britain would be a fairer, more equal society – both financially and socially. Gordon Brown is one of the few mainstream politicians to champion this view. Sadly he is not being widely listened to by others.

The so-called Northern Powerhouse project championed by the Tories was never more than a crowd pleasing slogan adorned with a few empty promises. And though there are some so called ‘devolution deals’ being offered to regions in the UK, in reality they are piecemeal financial tokens – worth only a tiny fraction of the actual tax revenue generated by each region. But these attempts show at least a vague awareness that Britain needs a better, fairer system of sharing economic and democratic power outside of London.

Westminster politics are often referred to as a bubble. Outside of this bubble, the rest of Britain (and especially those who have lost their opportunities for social mobility) live in a political void. Their only hope is for a mainstream political party to be brave enough to burst the bubble – to share power with the people they represent. This would not diminish the power and effectiveness of parliament but rather legitimise it.

Releasing control to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions would not only be a show of faith in our democracy but also one of respect to the people who live within it – because inviting people to participate is surely a better solution than ignoring them and waiting for them to revolt, which is exactly what happened when Britain voted to leave the EU on June 23rd.

Why Labour Lost The 2015 General Election

How a perfect storm of the SNP’s rise, the Lib Dem’s collapse and a weak response to its economic record produced a devastating loss for Labour – and a surprise win for an under-performing Conservative party.

No one saw it coming – least of all the Labour Party politicians and supporters who believed that with another hung parliament almost certain, there was a real chance that a Labour-led coalition could dethrone David Cameron in May 2015. Instead the Tories pulled off the unthinkable: A (narrow) majority win.

Throughout the Labour Party, many are now offering their perspectives as to what went wrong. Unsurprisingly, many are attributing Labour’s loss to a significant shift to the left. Their solution is to move back to the centre just as Tony Blair did with New Labour in the mid-90s.

But it wasn’t an embracing of left-wing politics that cost Labour this election, if anything this election sidelined manifestos, pledges and promises like never before. Instead, this election outcome came from a perfect storm of the SNP’s rise, the Lib Dem’s collapse and a weak response to Labour’s tarnished economic record – all played out against the backdrop of a growing dissatisfaction with the Westminster status quo of two-party politics.

The rise of the SNP in Scotland
Dissent amongst Scottish voters had been brewing for decades. Subsequent Tory and Labour governments had failed to address the high levels of poverty in Scotland and an increasingly anti-Westminster attitude had firmly taken hold by the turn of the 20th century.

The SNP were successfully able to position themselves as the protest party of Scotland (just as UKIP has for English voters) and tap into the anti-establishment / anti-Westminster mood throughout Scotland. Their narrow win in the 2007 Scottish Parliamentary general election paved the way for 2014’s independence referendum and though 44% in a referendum is a loss, in a first-past-the-post election it’s a landslide.

For Labour in Scotland, the loss of 39 seats was an unmitigated disaster – but it was never realistically within the power of the Miliband team to prevent it from happening under their 2010-2015 tenure. For the Scottish voters who handed the SNP 50 seats in the 2015 election, this was a clear two fingers up to the Westminster establishment – an establishment that had been letting them down for decades.

After the polls began to show the scale of the SNP’s potential gains in Scotland, it became clear that the chances of a UK Labour majority were virtually nil. The best team Miliband could hope for, was to win more seats than the Tories but accept that they’d still fall short of a majority. In that scenario, with a result in the region of 280 seats in England and Wales, Labour would need the support of a coalition partner (most likely the SNP) to take power.

There is a popular belief currently circulating amongst commentators, that English voters in marginal seats were particularly terrified of voting Labour if it meant the SNP would be their coalition partner. It was certainly an issue played up in both the Tory election campaign and the right-wing press. However, research carried out on the election data by the British Election Study shows no evidence that the possibility of a Labour/SNP coalition caused any shift in vote or allegiance in England or Wales.

There is a risk for Labour that this myth could well take hold in the same way the infamous Sheffield Rally did for Neil Kinnock in 1992.

It’s also worth noting that the same research shows that the biggest reason for former Labour voters to move to the SNP in Scotland was austerity – these were the people most concerned about cuts to public spending. This means that in Scotland, Labour’s voters (and former voters) were further to the left than their party. If Labour wants to stand a chance of winning back Scotland and holding the North of England it would do well to recognise this lesson.

The collapse of the Lib Dems
As with the SNP’s surge in Scotland, one other thing the pollsters did accurately predict was a wipeout for the Lib Dems, following their five years in coalition with the Tories.

Of those who formerly supported the Lib Dems in 2010, their 2015 vote roughly splits into equal thirds: a third moved to Labour, another third moved to other parties (primarily Tory, Green and SNP) and a third stayed with the Lib Dems.

Under a proportional representation system this would have been hugely beneficial to Labour. However, under First-past-the-post it benefited the Tories, who gained 27 former Lib Dem seats compared to Labour’s 12.

This happened because two thirds of former Lib Dem seats had the Tories in second place already, so former Lib Dem voters shifting their vote to a third place Labour candidate simply bumped the Tories up into first place (leaving Labour second or third).

Labour’s failure to defend its economic record
The third contributing factor to Labour’s defeat goes back to the global banking crisis of 2008. Following the 2010 election, the Tory press machine successfully re-wrote history by shifting the blame for the crisis away from the deregulated financial sector in the USA and the EU and instead blamed it on Labour’s public spending between 1997 and 2010 (spending that they had matched pound for pound up until 2008).

At some point after Ed Miliband’s leadership victory, his team clearly made the decision that instead of attacking this myth head-on, they would simply draw a line under it and move on. In politics, it’s often the case that being defensive is seen as an admission of guilt, which may explain Labour’s reluctance to engage on this topic. However, in hindsight it was a mistake – especially now that subsequent research has shown that that the economy was a number one issue for many voters.

Conclusions
There are other factors that determined the outcome of this election (potential UKIP voters floating back to the Tories, Ed Miliband’s perceived leadership qualities) but the above three issues are the major contributors to what, on paper, looks like a historically bad loss for Labour. Some are likening it to Neil Kinnock’s defeats in 87 and 92, or even to Michael Foot’s dramatic wipeout in 83.

But when looking at the numbers in isolation, it’s easy to see why even some in the Conservative party are treating this outcome with caution (and not as the kind of landslide victory that both Labour and the Tories used to enjoy throughout the 80s and 90s).

With Scotland being such a unique case, it’s perhaps more telling to look at the results for England in isolation – where the Tories only saw their share of the vote up by 1.4%, giving a net gain of 21 seats. Labour’s vote share in England went up by 3.6% but only gave them a net gain of 15 seats. It’s thanks to the eccentricities of the First-past-the-post system (mainly in former Lib-Dem seats) that Labour saw its vote share rise by almost three times that of the Tories – yet gain a little over half as many seats in England.

Without the 27 former Lib Dem seats, the Tories would have ended up with 304 seats – crucially short of the 326 majority needed for a majority in parliament and 2 seats less than they won in 2010. Likewise, with the addition of the 39 seats that Labour dramatically lost to the SNP, they’d have finished with 271 – 13 more seats than they won in 2010.

In many ways without the SNP surge and the Lib Dem collapse, we’d have seen a rerun of the 2010 general election with a tiny loss of seats for the Tories and a mildly significant but small gain for Labour.

Under those conditions, the shortfall between Labour and the Tories would have only been about 30-40 seats – precisely the marginal seats that Labour would have targeted and hoped to swing. However, without a strong economic message to counter the Tory narrative it’s doubtful whether that would have been achievable.

While it may be comforting to see that it wasn’t a surge in support for the Tories that won them the election, there was no surge in support for Labour either. In reality they’ve both remained fairly static since 2010.

There are two key factors preventing the Tories from increasing their share of the vote: 1) UK household living standards have not risen in line with the economic recovery. 2) They are still seen as the party of the rich and powerful. The real worry for Labour would be if the Tories manage to significantly address and improve these two issues in the next five years.

It’s also fair to say that this result in no way suggests we’re back to a two party system in UK politics. There are now 120 constituencies where UKIP are now 2nd, plus 60 seats where the Greens beat the Lib Dems (not to mention that SNP’s unprecedented 30% increase in vote share).

The final note of caution to Labour is around UKIP. This election showed that a large number of potential UKIP voters were happy to tactically vote Tory in seats where they could stop a Labour or Lib Dem gain or hold (mainly in the South). Research by the British Election Study has shown that for every 1 Tory vote lost to UKIP, the Tories gained 2 back from UKIP.

This wasn’t true for working class Northern UKIP supporters in Labour strongholds – as they had no incentive to vote tactically by switching away from UKIP.