The next General Election

Eden Court was shut to the public for the last few days, at least one pub still has a yellow and black banner above its door, and town was full of people wandering around with bright yellow ID badges around their neck from the middle of last week until Sunday.

Yes, the Scottish National Party Annual Conference was in Inverness, rounding off the yearly political party conference season. From what I read on the BBC News website, it seems like the SNP had a reasonably good conference, and the party is definitely riding high. It’s won two elections in a row (Holyrood/council in 2007, then the Euros this year) and there’s no reason to believe they’ll lose the next Holyroods in 2011. Indeed, they’ll probably increase their wafer-thin majority.

I’ve read a few articles in the last few days, including one or two in the London press (such as this Guardian one), that seem to suggest the SNP are gaining respectability, and that the idea of independence – at least, the idea of holding a referendum – is a valid, if not desirable, option.

Alex Salmond, therefore, was in bullish mood in his conference addresses (though, admittedly, when is he ever not?), saying that the best outcome at the next General Election, which must take place in or before June 2010, is a hung parliament. He aims for the SNP to win 20 seats, to provide, he says, a real lever on whoever forms the government, offering support in exchange for substantial economic concessions to Scotland.

On the first part, he’s quite right. A hung parliament is the best outcome, not just at the next election but in general. Westminster’s tired politics is gradually falling apart at the seams – the expenses row has widened the gulf between elector and elected, numerous MPs are standing down at the next election, knowing the knives are out for them, and we face the terrifying prospect of a choice between an exhausted and demoralised Labour Party and a Conservative Party that, in policy if not morale, is indistinguishable from the government they criticise.

To have either of these two parties awarded an overall majority – let alone a thumpingly massive one – would be an affront to democracy. The winning party will, after all, almost inevitably have much less than a majority of the votes, and that’s bad for accountability and public faith. Tony Blair, after all, took us to war in Iraq a few years ago with something like 35% of the votes cast (and therefore a much smaller proportion of the overall electorate).

It is a vital form of checks and balances, therefore, that no party can govern alone with an absolute majority. The Scottish Parliament, with either coalition or minority administrations, demonstrates that proportional representation works. Parties are forced to talk to each other, trade ideas and policies and reach compromises; either after each election (in the case of coalition government) or, even better, on each individual issue (in the case of minority government).

For a parliament like Westminster which is so staid, anachronistic, corrupted and unpopular, that sort of inter-party dialogue is desperately, urgently needed. Presidential, one-party government, where the ruling party has representation in parliament vastly inflated compared to its share of the vote, means that basically the government cannot be stopped for five years, except by very rare backbench rebellions. Come June 2010, whoever leads the biggest party will have to pick up the phone to other party leaders and begin to talk. That can only be a good thing.

The common criticism of coalition governments is that you then get policy decided in (metaphorically) smoke-filled rooms, politicians carving things up amongst themselves.

But hang on, surely politicians talking to each other across the divide, establishing common ground, is a good thing? Surely the desire to seek consensus is precisely what’s been missing from Westminster over the past few governments. Thatcher, Major, Blair and Brown have never had the need to ask anyone’s opinion beyond their party, and have therefore just carried on as they wished; presidential, arrogant, even and especially when wrong. Autocracy, even with five-year lifespans, is an unhealthy democratic culture.

To that end, Alex Salmond is quite right that a hung parliament is the best outcome in 2010. He’s probably wrong, however, to predict 20 MPs. Scotland only has 56 MPs at Westminster, and it would take a seismic swing away from Labour in its most deep-rooted heartlands to achieve anything more than about 15 for the SNP. Of course, June is months away, and there’s plenty that can happen.

Even if the SNP does return that target of 20, though, they will at best be the fourth-largest party in the Commons. The Liberal Democrats, currently at about 60 MPs, are inevitably going to be the kingmakers in a hung parliament. It’ll be LibDem leader Nick Clegg’s phone that will phone the day after the election, not Salmond’s.

Clegg will become popular, wanted, important. Heck, he might even become well-known.

So Salmond is right to say a hung parliament is the best outcome, but over-optimistic (not for the first time) in aiming for 20 seats. I hope it happens, but I doubt it will. And in any case, the bigger challenge is to come – the independence referendum bill, to be presented later next year.

And that’s a whole other ramble.

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