Well, I certainly chose an exciting period in British politics to stop blogging didn't I! I must admit I had hit a bit of a disconnected phase in my life, the demands of a new job etc meaning that blogging and the like got put on the back burner. However, with political debate seeming to be at an all time high in the country just now, I figured it was about time I started to put my money where my (electronic) mouth is.
I have several topics that I would like to blog on and will try and cover them over the next wee while. However, it would seem logical to start with a brief analysis of the General Election and where the parties now stand. Of course analysis has been done to death and I know that I will not add anything new to the debate; I do think, however, that this election will have ramifications for the political environment for years to come and it is therefore important to take stock of where we are.
It has been interesting that to date the only party with talk of backbiting and infighting has been the Tories, the party which has just taken office after 13 years in the political wilderness. At the end of the day the election was a success for them - they came first by a clear margin in the popular vote; took a big increase of seats; and, crucially, now have David Cameron in office as Prime Minister ready to implement the Conservative manifesto over the coming years.
Of course this success should not be downplayed following the Conservative struggle since 1997. However, it does contain within it some worrying aspects for the party. Firstly, this was an election that was in the bag, that was meant to be a landslide of 97 proportions. With supposedly the worst PM ever in office and the country in financial difficulties, the eloquent young Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition had been confirmed in office months before the election took place, the media falling over each other to debate the scale of Labour's annihilation. And then the election happened, and it turned out that whilst the public were indeed ready for Labour's time in power to finish, they were not exactly bowled over with what the Tories were offering. A win is a win and being in power is what matters, but in the end the Tories had to be helped across the finish line by their new BFFs in the Lib Dems rather than romping over it as they had expected.
The Tories' showing in Scotland was also disastrous. At a time when the country was supposedly ready for ChangeTM (damn you President Obama for making that word so pervasive in our political lexicon!) Scotland indicated that it is still not convinced by the Tory project. Some of this is the lasting legacy of Thatcherism, however it also reflected the fact that the Conservative Party did not seem to care terribly much about Scotland. In contrast to Wales, where the Conservative Party has embraced its Welsh identity and is reaping the electoral benefits, the Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party remains unfit for purpose, irrelevant across the country. Indeed, given the circumstances perhaps David Mundell retaining his seat should be treated as a success!
The final aspect of this brief overview is of course that we now have a Con-LD coalition government. As I will discuss in a minute I think this poses more problems for the LD than for the Tories. Whilst they would have obviously preferred to govern alone, the fact is that LD in the Cabinet will not drastically alter the Conservative administration's plans and could act as useful fall guys for the difficult decisions that will be made. Cameron has been able to show his statesmanlike qualities in the arranging of the coalition - if at times the LD have seemed a bit desperate, the Conservatives have in contrast seemed assured. There will be rumblings beneath the surface and I think that the coalition will be used as ammo for elements of the Conservative Party to attack Cameron - sections were already discussing the idea of replacing him on at least a couple of previous occasions - but in the meantime Prime Minister Cameron has what he wants.
Labour's election ended up being the mirror image of the Conservatives. It was a failure - after 13 years the Labour Party no longer forms the Government and therefore the election campaign did not succeed. There are numerous reasons for this, and I will return to them in more depth in a later blog, but essentially the public got fed up of the party in power. The energy of the first couple of terms in office had fizzled away and it had become a collection of the same old faces. New ideas seemed in short supply and Gordon Brown as PM had reached a stage where it was virtually impossible for him to do anything right.
Yet, the election didn't turn into the rout that had been widely predicted. Labour managed to hold a number of very vulnerable seats (and lose a few that shouldn't have been so vulnerable!) and in Scotland saw a dramatic improvement in its fortunes with majorities increasing across much of the country. Labour's loss was partly down to Gordon Brown's standing, but its achievement of a remarkably small defeat was also testament to his popularity in parts of the country. The media would have you believe that everyone hates Gordon, subjecting him to a level of vitriol which I don't think any PM has suffered before - and there are indeed strands of the South of England who agreed with this venom, despising him for his beliefs, Scottishness or lack of media polish. However, it turned out that actually many people in the North of England and Scotland have respect for him and objected to the smear campaign.
Labour also benefited from the fact that this wasn't 1997. In 97 two elements were at play - the country desperately wanted rid of the Tories, but it also wanted Tony Blair and Labour in power. In 2010, the country was indeed tired of Labour - 13 years is a long time in power by British standards - but were not convinced by David Cameron or by his protestations that the Conservatives had changed. Underlying this was the resurgence in Labour's fortunes in local government elections in England - true the party had reached the nadir in recent years, but they did demonstrate that an improvement and fightback was possible and indeed underway.
Labour goes into Opposition now at a time when very difficult decisions will have to be made regardless of who is in power, and knowing that in parts of the country at least the Lib Dems have dealt themselves a very major blow. It is crucial that the leadership campaign is an open, positive and exciting one, but this has turned out to not be the dark time that many in the party had feared.
The election's biggest winners or biggest losers? Only time will tell. Choosing to enter a coalition Government with the Conservatives, ushering David Cameron into power, has given the Lib Dems a role in British political life far beyond their wildest dreams. It would have been inconceivable until very recently for Nick Clegg to be Deputy PM and his colleagues in Cabinet, or that that they briefly would have been first in the polls. But the success of the Leaders' Debates (well the first couple anyway) propelled the Lib Dems into a position far beyond their target.
Except of course that it didn't, the media reports of major Lib Dem breakthroughs turning out to be wide of the mark. I, like many others, was sceptical of the exit poll when it showed the LD doing pretty poorly, but in the end it turned out to be pretty spot on. It is not to take away from a few Lib Dem successes and also their success in holding seats against the Conservatives, but in the end a loss of a couple of seats, given the context of the election, marks a disappointing result.
In addition they managed to do the impossible and prove the Labour Party right! Labour campaigns about "Vote Clegg, get Cameron" had been attacked for being negative and unfair, failing to represent the progressive heritage of the Liberal Democrat party. In the end it turned out that the campaigns were spot on. Clegg and his colleagues represent the new direction of the Lib Dems, a move away for the centre-left policy of Ashdown, Kennedy and Campbell towards centre-right Orange Book liberalism. This is obviously a decision that the party itself is happy with; I'm not so sure the public necessarily agree though. Nick Clegg used the Debates as an opportunity to attack the 'Old Parties', to set out the clear water between the Lib Dems progressive policies on immigration, Trident and the EU. Now, we are in the sad position of seeing Simon Hughes trying to justify his description of the Conservatives as progressive and radical. There is a radicalism in the Conservative Party it's true, but is the radicalism which Margaret Thatcher used to reshape Britain. Now the Lib Dems are part of a Government which is anti-immigration (they will now support the cap they opposed); pro-Trident renewal; anti-Europe and implementing £6billion of immediate cuts (which Nick Clegg had branded as "economic masochism so early in recovery" and that they would "risk pulling out the carpet from under the feet of the British economy").
Will there be a public backlash against the decision? I think so, but it is not clear how long that would last for. Needless to say Labour, the SNP and the Greens will blast the Lib Dems over this, reinforcing in the public conscious that the LD are now a party of the centre-right. There is no doubt that the Tories will happily let the Lib Dems carry the fall out for any popular decisions if they can - any sensible party would. And in particular the Lib Dems, through Secretary of State for Scotland Danny Alexander, carry the unenviable job of justifying Conservative decisions to a Scottish electorate which firmly rejected those policies.
The biggest loss however is that of introducing a proportional voting system. This was possible, albeit difficult, with Labour but will never happen with a Conservative administration - they see it as electoral suicide to do so. AV is not proportional and will not help the Lib Dems make the breakthrough they need - it might even, if there is a lasting backlash, see them punished in a few seats by other parties rallying against them. It therefore seems that the Lib Dems have sacrificed their long term success and real political reform for the short term attraction of seats in Cabinet. I don't envy them the decision they had to make - I don't think there was an easy answer and the decision they took was the most straightforward - but I think they may regret it. On election day the electorate demonstrated that there was a progressive majority of voters, yet ended up with a non-progressive administration. Perhaps the centre-right is indeed now dominant in the UK - if not, the Lib Dems may suffer for their choice of partners.
The SNP had a terrible election yet may well have been saved by the Lib Dem decision. Salmond in his bombast had set the party up for a fall - 20 seats always looked wildly optimistic given the nature of Westminster elections and in the end the lack of any increase, coupled with the expected failure to hold Glasgow East, was a major set-back, albeit the vote increased nationally. In Glasgow the SNP had expected to lose East and it had become apparent that they would not manage to take Central, however the thrashing that they received in both was serious. Salmond is now on a losing streak - he confidently called Glenrothes, Glasgow NE and 20 seats and has been dramatically wrong in all of them.
Of course there is a tendency at Westminster elections for Scots to view the SNP as an irrelevance and this is doubly the case when the Tories are the favourites to win, with voters returning to the Labour Party as their best defence. However, the SNP campaign was pretty unconvincing, their more Nats, less Cuts slogan failing to connect with the public. The Holyrood elections next year are a completely different prospect, however there must be unease in the SNP camp that they will be able to retain power.
The Lib Dem decision to join with the Tories, however, helps to remove one of the biggest threats the SNP faced - namely supporting a Conservative minority Government. Now the Lib Dems can carry the blame for Conservative policy, and Labour and the SNP can fight over who defends Scotland the best. It doesn't have much of a direct impact on seats for Holyrood - the Lib Dems are a relatively peripheral party in the Parliament - however I think it will become the defining drive of the respective election campaigns.
Greens - huge breakthrough in Brighton Pavilion, personally I think it was a great day for British democracy - this wasn't a by-election, but the real deal. They are already doing the sensible thing of trying to tempt over disillusioned Lib Dems and this could be a successful policy. Key issue for them is to move beyond just being the few key figures who are elected - Caroline Lucas in England, Patrick Harvie in Scotland - in order to broaden their appeal.
BNP - absolute disaster of an election for them, both nationally and locally. And it couldn't have happened to a more deserving party. Hopefully this can be a turning point, with their empty rhetoric of hatred and violence being consigned to the rubbish bin where it belongs.
UKIP - who? So much for breakthroughs - don't think that was the publicity that Farage had been exactly looking for!
So overall it was a fascinating election leading to a very interesting and exciting period in British politics. I will aim to get back to regular blogging - I don't claim to have any coherent thought to add, but at this time of debate and discussion it is vital that as many citizens as possible take part in what's going on.