The possibly far-reaching implications of the Glenrothes by-election


Please excuse a political blog. Old habits die hard and it has been an interesting week!

There is bound to be much speculation about the implications and consequences of the Glenrothes by-election. Momentum is important in politics. Gordon Brown now has some. The financial crisis fits a man who believes in Government and craves big issues into which he can immerse himself. In contrast, whatever points the Conservatives can score by reminding us of Labour’ hubristic claims to have ‘ended boom and bust’, free market values and slick PR don’t sit well with financial meltdown and a mood of austerity.

The expectation will still be of a Conservative victory, although few now envisage a 1997 style landslide. But behind current predictions for the next General Election lie trends which may prove as important as the result itself. While last night was a defeat for nationalism it was also a confirmation of the splintered electoral map of Britain.

There is nothing new about a North South divide in British politics. It was the North and the inner cities that kept Labour alive in the 1980s, when it had virtually no appeal to the middle classes. This divide helped revive nationalism after the failures in the late 70s, especially when the Conservatives decided to use Scotland to test the poll tax. But even then the Conservatives had just enough presence (and recent history) in the north of England and Scotland to claim an aggregate national legitimacy.

But in the next election, a variety of factors including the different values and personal appeal of the party leaders could turn this divide into an abyss. From what I hear of areas like Kent, the South Coast and the wider commuter belt, there is a good chance that, with the exception of some parts of inner London, Labour will be wiped out south of Coventry. Yet the Conservatives have little presence, and continue to be weak, in the conurbations of the North. Arguably, only the North West and Midlands contain areas that feel genuinely contested.

This creates two prospects. First, an election in which the battle of the air (the media contest between Brown and Cameron) bears even less relation than usual to the battle on the ground. While the leaders trade claims on our TVs, on our streets the Tories may be conducting an unopposed sweep of the south (aided by the apparent decline of the LibDems) while a cash strapped Labour satisfies itself with northern consolidation.

Second, an incoming Conservative Government could from day one face a major problem of legitimacy and connection. If the Conservatives decide they can keep relying on the south, and if Labour retreats to its heartlands, the emergence of the divisive geopolitics seen in varying degrees in Italy, Thailand or the US can’t be out of the question.

Whatever its other pros and cons, Scottish independence would go some way to solving this problem. The Scots wouldn’t care who ran Westminster and the Conservatives would so dominate England that the urban north would just have to accept its minority status. But last night’s result suggests the steam may be coming out of nationalism. This offers the prospect of a Scotland lacking the desire to go it alone but viewing a Conservative UK government with a mixture of indifference and resentment. (With electoral politics exacerbating divisions, society will need lots of organisations like the RSA firmly committed to working to the same values and broad agenda across the UK.)

There is of course a simple way out of this: electoral reform. This would guarantee Labour a sprinkling of southern MPs outside inner London and the Conservatives a voice even where they are comparatively weak, as we see in the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament. But here is something about which the two major parties continue to agree absolutely – the maintenance of Westminster’s unrepresentative electoral system.

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