Reflections on elections

Last Thursday was the first significant electoral event in the UK since the 2019 General Election and since COVID. As well as local council elections, there were votes for metro mayors, the devolved assemblies/parliaments and a by-election in Hartlepool. So, what did those election results tell us about he current state of the parties.

Labour woe

For Labour, it was a disappointing night. At this stage of a parliament you would normally be expecting the main opposition to be making a bit of a come-back, so for the party to see further erosion of the so called red wall and the loss of the Westminster seat once held by Peter Mandelson was not good. This has provoked further infighting within the party and unsurprisingly, everyone has learnt the lessons that they wanted to learn seeing the results as confirmation of what they already believed. For those on the centre and right of the party, the result is evidence of how much work there is still to be done recovering from 2019, the left is in their opinion suffering from “Long Corbyn”.  Meanwhile, critics outside of and to the right of Labour have put the boot in accusing Keir Starmer of engaging too much in wokery and lacking in patriotism. I think that this is to misunderstand again the specific issues around race and discrimination as though opposition to racism needs to be set in opposition to love of your country. 

Meanwhile, those on the left believe the result vindicates them.  If only the party had stuck with the wonderful manifesto that have been so popular in 2017 and 2019 that it had meant that Labour could not even win against a tired and terrible campaign from Theresa May before going on to lose heavily to Boris. The Corbynites seem blind to two things. First of all that Starmer won the leadership on the basis of an appeal to unity, that he was a member of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet and that much of the policy platform remains in place as part of that accommodation.  Secondly that the process of recovery was always going to be long and tricky, consider the way that it took the Tories 4 attempts to find an electable leader and that they followed up the 1997 landslide defeat with another one in 2001.

Labour would do well to remember that Sir Keir is still in the early days of his leadership and the contest that truly matters will be the General Election in 2024. It is possible that by then he will be facing a different context and a very different Tory leader, who knows whether that will be a help or a hindrance to him. However, I think Labour still face two significant barriers to electoral recovery. First there is Sir Keir himself. I have felt since day one that he has limited electoral appeal. Labour have had lawyers as leaders before, John Smith brought the reassuring presence of a provincial barrister whilst Tony Blair’s experience as a barrister contributed to his ability to debate and persuade. Starmer by contrast is less Blair or Smith and more Michael Howard, his lawyerliness gives him the air of one who could argue any brief given and also he has tended towards a nit-picker’s approach throughout COVID. He has halted the slide into un-electability but failed to deliver the compelling positive vision that will make Labour electable again.  For those reasons I suspect that like Neil Kinnock, IDS and Howard he will prove to be a transitional leader rather than future Prime Minister.

Labour’s other big problem is that they still seem a long way from understanding why they had lost not just an election but the general good-will of the population. This is where the Tories were between 2007 and 2005.  To understand this, they need to understand the character of the British public. First of all, it is a well-known saying that Britain is essentially a conservative country. However, this does not mean that the country is tribally Tory or Thatcherite (this was the misunderstanding that Hague’s Tories made). It means that the country tends to be cautious and pragmatic, there’s a suspicion of the visionary and of ideologies. This means that in that historically the working classes supported Labour, it wasn’t out of a heart felt belief in socialism but rather in the hope that they would have their own people representing them and that they would deliver good jobs, wage increases, better housing. In other words, people vote primarily for parties who they believe will leave them personally better off.

In that context, Labour’s failure over the past ten year has been to assume that the Tories were basically idealogues, un-reconstructed Thatcherites committed to a miniscule state, libertarianism and unrestricted free markets. However, consistently over the past decade the Tories have proved willing to intervene and to spend if they thought it would work.  The Conservatives with the exception of a brief period of history from 1997 have been ruthlessly pragmatic in their approach.[1]

So, the Labour recovery is a long way off. My suspicion is that they will need another election defeat. The next Labour Prime Minister probably is not in the shadow cabinet right now and may not even be an MP. A lot of people are now pinning their hopes on Andy Burnham returning to parliament on the back of two successful terms as a popular Manchester mayor, much in the style of Boris Johnson.

Conservative Complacency

I’m going to call this early, but I suspect that the Tories may look back on the elections in 2021 and wish that they had lost them.  The risk for the Tories is that they will celebrate these victories and so fail to see long term danger they are in. Political fortunes can change quickly, the final end of Labour has been prematurely announced before and things could swing back quickly.  Boris seems to be enjoying a honeymoon period, I think this is partly due to the apparent success of the vaccine but also because normal politics has been suspended for a year so that the Conservatives are still enjoying the honeymoon period from the 2019 election. 

The risk for the Tories is that they may well assume that people haven’t noticed or aren’t bothered by the whiff of sleaze that has followed them round.  It’s not just that there are question marks about transparency. It’s the impression of entitlement and the inability to live within their means.  It is hard to be the Prime Minister who asks people to make sacrifices whilst you are splashing outhuge sums of money on redecorating number 10.  The Tories may well have benefited from robust opposition and some sobering losses now.

Furthermore, the big danger to the Tories is coming from north of the border. The collapse of Labour in Scotland and the impression that the Tories are not removable in Westminster has resulted in the SNP continuing to defy political gravity. Lose the Union and it is reasonable to ask “then what are the Conservative and Unionist Party good for?”

Scotland and Truthfulness

The old joke goes “How do you know when a politician is lying?”  Answer “Their lips are moving.” There has always been a problem with truth and integrity across politics and there are already documented issues with our Prime Minister. However, Scottish politics offers another example.   

At the height of COVID  Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP powered out in front so that a majority even with proportional representation looked likely. As the death toll mounted and Boris came under pressure, so too did support for independence rise. Nicola Sturgeon argued that  a majority would give her the mandate she was looking for to demand or even introduce herself, a fresh referendum.  However, a mixture of things began to push that into reverse including that:

  • The SNP’s aim is for Scotland to be independent from the UK but to rejoin the EU but the EU’ handling of vaccination has been atrocious and their approach to relationships with Britain have come across as bullying. EU membership may not be that attractive a proposition after all.
  • Similarly, the Northern Irish border issue raises questions about the possible impact of a hard land border between England and Scotland post-independence.
  • The SNP became mired in scandal revolving around allegations concerning their previous leader, Alex Salmond.

Sturgeon began to backtrack just as happened in previous elections. A  vote for the SNP was less about an independence mandate and more about personalities and domestic policies. The question put to people was to the effect of “Who do you want to run your NHS, Boris or Nicola.” Now, notice that this question was disingenuous because Scottish health is a devolved matter and no matter what the outcome of the election was, Boris would not be running the Scottish NHS anytime soon.

Furthermore, what we have seen is that once the results came in, the SNP have been quick to claim that there is a mandate for independence because a majority of MSPs will support it. However, this will require them to depend on Green Party votes.  The problem with this is that th election itself was not a referendum on a single issue, so to assume that everyone who voted Green or even SNP was supporting a new vote is again questionable.  The SNP’s strategy is dishonest.

There is an argument to be made for independence, just as there is an argument against it and just as there were arguments for and against Brexit. However, those arguments need to be made properly and truthfully with integrity for the good of the country. We need to pray that this will happen.

The Dog that did not bark in the night

The fascinating thing about British politics has been the return since 2015 to two party politics. The Liberal Democrats have not recovered from their period in coalition and particularly from their u-turn on student-fees. 

Why is this? Well, I think there are three factors at work. First of all, the third party tends to struggle to cut through and get its voice heard in the news cycle. So, they need a leader who stands out due to charisma or personal convictions. Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy did this.  Nick Clegg was also able to cut through due to the surprise factor during the very first TV debates.

Secondly, the third party needs a cause. The Liberal Democrats made this “Stop the War” during Blair’s third term.  However, the big single issue cause during the past ten years has been Brexit and so third party attention has been on UKIP and the Brexit Party. Furthermore, if the third party acts as a protest movement then through Brexit, the Tories have managed to achieve that rare feat of being both the establishment and the insurgents, hence their ability to win the Hartlepool By-election. Boris is both the leader of the government and the protestor in chief. The primary single issue for protest in the next 10 years is likely to be the environment so the Lib-Dems should be concerned about he increasing prominence of the Greens.

Thirdly, a third party needs a space on the political spectrum in which to operate. It cannot be just a single issue party. The big issue will get them so far in terms of winning a big chunk of votes but not of building a broad enough base to win significant numbers of seats in a first past the post Parliament as the Greens and UKIP discovered. Traditionally, the Lib Dems have functioned as a centre party. To some extent, Blair’s centrist/almost centre-right image enabled the Lib -Dems to position themselves as a sensible option to the left of New Labour.  However, the centre ground is now crowded with the Tories moving towards higher spending and significant intervention. Meanwhile, the Labour Party have managed to position leftwards in terms of its significant leaders offering the potential for radical socialist options in the long term for those that this appeals to. However, when you look at the actual manifestos in 2017 and 2019, Labour’s offer to abolish student fees  alongside ideas such as free wi-fi far from being red in tooth and claw Marxism wre the very kind of proposals one can imagine a Lib Dem leader making.

As things stand, it looks like the Liberal Democrats still have a long period in the wilderness ahead of them.

Why talk about politics on a theological blog

Most of what I write on is from a Christian perspective. I’m mainly interested in pastoral stuff and on how what we believe in terms of doctrine applies to Christian life. I’ve got a particular concern to see urban pastors and planters raised up. So, why do I talk about politics and elections some-times?

Well, sometimes, it is obvious, politics touches on big ethical issues such as abortion, racism, euthanasia, freedom of religion and same sex marriage.  Politicians intervene in a way that puts pressure on people to go against God’s Law. Sometimes politics interferes in the basic aspects of church life as we saw during the pandemic.  Often the behaviour of politicians raises questions about things that matter to us such as trust, truth and compassion. So we talk about what the Bible says to those issues and call it Public Theology.

However, I think it is helpful for us to be interested in what is going on more generally.  An interest in politics is a cultural interest in and of itself. But furthermore, it helps us to observe what is happening around us, to learn to see the world as it is.  For example in this article I have raised the point that people are generally pragmatic and more interested in what works for them rather than ideology.  That has something to do with our approach to apologetics. There are lessons to learn.

Furthermore, I think that a healthy awareness of the current political scene and particularly its limitations is a helpful reminder to us that politicians often want to be seen as the bringers of good news and hope, yet all political parties will fail and disappoint. They do not have a trustworthy Gospel to bring.

Finally, it is important to be aware of what is happening because we are told to pray for our leaders. Today I hope we are taking time to pray for the new MP in Hartlepool, the Mayors, the First Ministers, local government and for Keir Starmer and Boris Johnson.

[1] It is arguable that even Thatcher fits the “pragmatic” assessment. There were ideologues with Keith Joseph and Nicholas Ridley in her cabinet but to some extent she stumbled on Thatcherism and even she knew where to draw the line at least in her early days in power.

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