Politics

EVEL is less a threat to the Union than a reflection of the threat it is under. Today’s proposals shows that the UK is moving, almost blindly, towards an ad hoc, muddled and unofficial federalism. This is why, despite its dryness, EVEL is incredibly important, and together with the forthcoming Scotland Bill, part of the most significant constitutional changes since devolution.  Read more

According to new demographic statistics released on Thursday, Britain is becoming more populous, diverse, urban — and older. More Britons are being born than dying off, more are living in cities (especially London), and net migration remains high. The UK population is 64.6m, up by about half a million over the past year.

These trends are well-established but it is fascinating to look at the data and speculate on how demographics influence public policy and politics.

Consider, for example, the UK’s “population pyramid” in 2014 versus 2004. It breaks down the British population by age. The bars refer to 2014 data and the black outline traces what those numbers would have been in 2004.

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In trying to explain the rise of the Scottish National party, one possible explanation is that it was a growing sense of Scottish national identity that led 45 per cent of Scottish voters to vote Yes in the independence referendum and more than half of them to opt for Nicola Sturgeon’s party in the general election earlier this month.

But in an excellent post at the London School of Economics policy blog, Jan Eichhorn, Chancellor’s Fellow (Social Policy) at the University of Edinburgh, argues that data from social attitudes surveys do not support this argument. He uses the chart below to suggest that Scots’ sense of personal identity has not shifted in a more Scottish direction since devolution — if anything, the opposite is true.

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In The Unfinished Revolution, his account of New Labour’s rise to power, Philip Gould wrote that the paradox of 20th century politics in Britain was “that the party of conservatism held power because of ceaseless modernisation” whereas “the party of radical change lost power because of its conservatism”. Far more so than the US Democrats or centre-left parties in north-western Europe, Labour has strong nostalgic tendencies, the pollster argued, stemming from its roots in Fabianism, religion, trade unions, and the cultural conservatism of the English working class.

Such attitudes were fostered by the break with Liberalism, which made more difficult the sort of left-wing coalitions found elsewhere in the rich world. In the century that gave rise to the mass franchise and the welfare state, the Conservative party was in government for two-thirds of the time; the Labour party was in government for less than a quarter of it (23 years). For Gould, this was due to Labour’s resistance to what he called “modernisation” and the embrace of ideological purity over pragmatism. Read more

Where now for this weary union? After the general election triumphs of the Scottish National party and the Conservatives, voices in both parties are calling for the UK government to find a new constitutional settlement. But what might this mean?

I think there are four possible – but not equally possible – options for what might happen in the short-term, roughly taken to mean the next year, before the 2016 elections to the Scottish parliament in Holyrood. They are not necessarily exclusive. Read more

Okay, the US vice-president hasn’t directly commented on the Scottish National party. But in any analysis of public policy it is important to keep his words in mind:

“Don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.”

In a piece for FT Weekend, I try to kick the tires (as Joe might put) of the Scottish government. So naturally, I started by asking: how does it spend its money?  Read more

One of the smartest moves Alex Salmond ever made was to swiftly pass on the leadership of the Scottish National party to Nicola Sturgeon after the independence referendum. She personifies the generational shift in the party’s support base from an eclectic group of often conservative nationalists to Scots who would historically be expected to vote Labour. According to opinion polls, she has successfully overseen the transfer of Yes votes in the referendum to likely SNP votes on May 7. At the launch of the SNP manifesto on Monday, Ms Sturgeon’s speech was peppered with cheers from the party’s besotted activists. She appears alone on the manifesto cover.

Inside, the word “independence” appears only once. Instead, the manifesto is full of miscellaneous pledges to spend more money than Labour. If the SNP were to play a role in the next Westminster government, what its manifesto suggests is not that the party would mount a sudden push towards independence, or even “full financial responsibility”, but that it is geared for opportunism and grinding negotiations. This is because for the SNP, independence is a process, not an event. Read more

I highly recommend this post by Carl Gardner, a barrister and former government lawyer, about the legal basis for what happens when there is a hung parliament.

In it, Gardner makes a critical distinction:

“Under our Parliamentary system, the test for whether a Prime Minister can govern or not is whether he (or she) commands a majority in the House of Commons. Once it’s clear to the Prime Minister that he no longer does so, by convention he should resign.” Read more

There is something quite bizarre about Conservative enthusiasm for the Right to Buy policy (to be clear: not the sell-off). Many of the people who may benefit from it aren’t the hard-working families of four of the Tory imagination. Many will be retired. Whisper it: some may be on benefits. Meanwhile, private renters are going to be miffed that they don’t get free money.

On top of this, there is the stance towards housing associations, which seem to me to be following a very Conservative approach to public policy. They are charities – and they are increasingly using the capital markets to provide their essential services.

And now this could be undermined by the new policy. I’m starting to think that (fellow) critics of Right to Buy II, while correct in their analysis have confused something. This is not a policy that represents Thatcherism redux. It’s in fact the opposite. What was once the emblematic Tory policy is now not very Tory at all.  Read more

I was asked if I had any suggestions for reading in Scottish politics. I thought I’d share the following non-exhaustive list of good articles from the last few months.  Read more

Another of the Conservative manifesto proposals to appeal to “hard-working people” concerns the minimum wage. The Tories say they will legislate “so that nobody working 30 hours on the Minimum Wage pays Income Tax on what they earn”.

This sounds like a big deal. Is it?

The main national minimum wage is currently £6.50 per hour. At 30 hours per week, this equates to £10,140 per year. The Conservatives have said they want to see the minimum wage reach £8 per hour by the end of the decade. This would mean £12,480 per year for the worker on 30 hours per week. (£8*30*52 = £12,480.)

It is also a Conservative policy that the personal allowance – the amount one has to earn before paying any income tax – reach £12,500 by the end of the decade.

So, give or take £20, the new law won’t make any tangible difference at this point. Read more

On Tuesday the Conservatives announced what they see one of the most important new policies: extending Right to Buy to tenants in Housing Association properties.

When this idea was floated two months ago I wrote a Since You Asked column which tried to explain how it was emblematic of a 30-year approach to housing: less and less state support for housebuilding and more subsidies for renting and buying. I argued that, to put it kindly, it doesn’t address the problem of housing shortages.

It is hard not to conclude that the fog of nostalgia hangs over Tory policy discussions. Right to Buy is seen as the “aspirational” policy, so, like a faded Hollywood director, the Conservative party has tried again and again to tell the story in sequel form. Read more

I spent a few days in South Thanet last week trying to find out whether Nigel Farage might after all lose his campaign to become MP for the Kent constituency. Polls have the United Kingdom Independence party leader in a three-way tie with his Labour and Conservative opponents, though bookmakers still have him as the favourite.

A common complaint among local opponents of Mr Farage is that he is rarely in the constituency. When he does appear, he is cocooned in celebrity: the Ukip leader is surrounded by members of the media and security guards. When I visited the local Ukip office in Ramsgate on Thursday afternoon, it was shut. Not famed for his reticence, Mr Farage’s low profile might strike many people as surprising. Read more

The Scottish National party could, after all, wield power in an independent state. It just happens to be the state from which it wants to secede. Less than a year after the referendum in which Scots voted against independence, the SNP is projected to win more than 40 of Scotland’s 59 seats at the British general election. Such a bloc would make it the most formidable nationalist group since Charles Parnell’s Irish Parliamentary party of the 1880s. And since neither the Conservative nor the Labour party is forecast to win an overall majority at the polls on May 7, the new SNP MPs could be the most troublesome Westminster Scots since the Lords who took the then nascent union to within four votes of dissolution in 1713. Read more

Some supporters of Scottish independence believe in the conspiracy theory that MI5 was working against a Yes vote. Others have so much optimism bias about the economics of independence that I worry there is dopamine* in their Irn-Bru.

And let’s not mention the secret oil fields.

In the aftermath of the referendum Scotland feels beset by an asymmetric tribalism. Crudely, No voters, almost by definition, do not want the general election to be about independence. Yes voters, almost by definition, believe it’s still the defining issue.

The coverage of the SNP’s high poll ratings and what the party might do if it held the balance of power in Westminster often gives the impression that a madness has taken over Scotland and kilted Jacobites are set to invade from north of the border.

But in a very important sense, Scottish voters are behaving entirely rationally.  Read more

Perhaps it’s because it’s Friday, but the big story of the day is related to kitchens. Sarah Vine, a Daily Mail columnist (and wife of Michael Gove, a leading Conservative politician), wrote a column about Justine Miliband, wife of Ed Miliband, Labour party leader, and the couple’s kitchen. Some attention was given to the revelation that the kitchen upon which Ms Vine opined was in fact a second kitchen(ette), even more pixels were generated about the nastiness of the column, especially once Michael Portillo, a former Tory minister, coolly criticised Ms Vine on television.

These are events of Knausgårdian dullness and yet no enlightenment comes from reading more about them. On one level, of course, the spitefulness shown by Ms Vine matters: it speaks to the corrosiveness and amplified OUTRAGE of too much of the political culture. But it’s worth (promise) reflecting on the bizarre world in which the number, size, and symbolism of politicians’ kitchens matters in the first place. Read more

Ahead of the general election there will be lots of people making claims about polls. I asked Chris Hanretty, Reader in politics at the University of East Anglia, and one-third of the team that puts together Election Forecast UK, some polling questions I was curious about. I’ve edited his answers lightly for clarity and house style, and then pasted them below. You can read more of his analysis here.
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The independence referendum is still being fought in Scotland, but this time the nationalists are winning. This is one implication from 16 constituency polls commissioned by Tory peer Lord Ashcroft and released on Wednesday.

They support what has been increasingly obvious ever since Scots voted No on September 18: there is a new landscape in Scottish politics. The Scottish Nationalist party is projected to replace Labour as the dominant force north of the border.

Here are the headline results of Lord Ashcroft’s polls (click to expand):

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“[P]erhaps the biggest polling movement in recent UK history that almost no-one has heard of”, is how Professor Roger Scully, a leading authority on Welsh politics, describes the decline since 2012 in support for the Labour party in Wales.

I can’t speak for others’ knowledge of Welsh politics, but Prof Scully might be right:

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Last year, the United Kingdom Independence party won more votes than any other party in Britain’s European elections. It bested the Liberal Democrats in the local elections that took place the same day. But Nigel Farage’s outfit performed poorly in England’s big cities. It won no council seats, for example, in inner London, Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, and Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Ukip’s urban tally was a sign of an increasingly important divide between cities and the rest of England.

That urban and rural areas have different politics isn’t of course a new observation. Tory-Whig parliamentary battles were often proxies for conflicting views between landed gentry and city dwellers. More recently, Labour has dominated northern cities and the Conservatives have won the rural south with similarly huge margins.

What is new is how big cities – especially their cores – are once again expanding and, in doing so, taking on a clearer liberal identity. Cities is where Britain’s open and cosmopolitan outlook is most apparent. But politics has so far failed to catch up. Read more