I am delighted that my book cover for Harold Wilson, Denmark and the Making of Labour European Policy, 1958–72 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2017) is taking shape. The book will be available for pre-order from March this year.
I am delighted that my book cover for Harold Wilson, Denmark and the Making of Labour European Policy, 1958–72 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2017) is taking shape. The book will be available for pre-order from March this year.
My piece for Eurooppatiedotus, European Information run by the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, was published recently. You can find the published piece here. The English language version is below.
On Thursday 23 June Britain will hold a referendum to decide whether to remain in the European Union (EU). The question people will be asked is ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?’. The options for voters will be ‘Remain a member of the European Union’ and ‘Leave the European Union’. It is only the third national referendum in British history, and only the second on membership of the EU. And the result is far from certain.
Who can vote?
Who is eligible to vote in the referendum has been a subject of much debate in Britain. It is complicated by British history and the significance the government still gives to the successor states of the former British Empire, the Commonwealth.
The simple answer is that all British and Commonwealth citizens aged over 18 and living in the United Kingdom can vote. British troops stationed abroad can also cast a ballot, as can those citizens who no longer live in the country but have been on the list of voters – the electoral register – in the last 15 years. Unlike in general elections, Commonwealth citizens living in Gibraltar are also eligible.
Controversially, EU citizens who live in Britain are not allowed to cast a vote, despite many paying taxes and contributing much to Britain’s communities and way of life. There are, however exceptions: people from Ireland, Malta and Cyprus will each be allowed to vote because of the historical links between Britain and these countries.
Who can’t vote?
Many people, including the leadership of the Labour party, had hoped to extend the vote to include 16 and 17 year olds. They used the decision by the Scottish Government to offer the vote to this age group in the Scottish independence referendum in September 2014 to justify their argument. However, government ministers blocked the plan, saying that 16 year olds were too young to make a decision of such national importance.
What will people be voting for?
People will be asked to decide whether to remain in the EU based on the reforms that Prime Minister David Cameron secured at a meeting of the European Council in February. If people vote to remain in the EU, these changes will become law immediately. They include:
Sovereignty: For the first time, and unlike every other EU member, Britain will not have to take part in ‘ever closer union’ with other EU states.
Eurozone: Britain will definitely not join the euro, and will not be penalised for doing so. Britain will also no longer have to bail out eurozone countries that come into economic difficulty.
Welfare: The most controversial change. Child benefit paid to EU workers will be paid at the rate of their home country. This will mean citizens from Poland and Romania will get paid less. People who marry EU citizens will also not be given an automatic right to stay in the EU. This affects every EU country, not just Britain.
Role of national parliaments: The Prime Minister won the right for all EU national parliaments to block unwanted legislation. 55% of national parliaments must decided that the legislation is unwanted before the Commission and European Parliament have to reconsider it. This also affects the whole of the EU, not just the UK.
Competitiveness: The Commission and European Parliament will be compelled to make better regulation, so that businesses and industry throughout the EU can remain competitive – something likely to increase growth throughout the Union. The City of London will also have specific safeguards to prevent it having to comply with eurozone regulations such as a tax on transactions.
Who will lead the campaigns?
In the UK, political campaigning is tightly controlled and regulated. The Electoral Commission – an impartial, independent body – sets the rules about who will lead each campaign and how much they can each spend. It is the Electoral Commission that set the referendum question, and it is the Electoral Commission that ensures fairness and openness in the referendum campaign.
The Electoral Commission will select an official ‘remain’ and ‘leave’ campaign group, and this decision will be announced on 14 April.
The two official campaigns will each be given £600,000 (€768,000) of public money to spend on administration, TV and internet ads, and public communication. They will also be able to accept private donations from other individuals eligible to vote in the referendum, or a UK-based company, charity, trade union or bank. Other groups, such as UK universities and trusts, can also donate. To ensure transparency, the source of donations over £10,000 (€12,800) has to be made publicly available. There is an overall spending cap of £7 million (€8.9 million), regardless of how much the campaigns receive in private donations.
Other, unofficial groups can also spend money on the campaign if they wish. However, this is also tightly controlled. If these unofficial groups register with the Electoral Commission, they will be able to spend no more than £600,000. Those groups that do no register with the Electoral Commission can also campaign if they choose to, but their finances are even more tightly controlled: they can spend just £10,000.
What about the political parties?
All national and regional parties are officially in favour of remaining in the EU, even if many of their own members are not. How much each party spends of its own money is again very tightly limited, and is based on their share of the national vote in the 2015 general election. This means that the Conservatives have the most to spend – £7 million – while smaller parties such as the SNP, Liberal Democrats, the Green party, and UKIP have between £4-5 million (€5.1-6.4 million).
What groups are there?
At the moment various groups exist. On the ‘remain’ side is Britain Stronger in Europe, a cross-party group that consists of businesses, individuals such as billionaire Richard Branson, television personalities, trade unions and politicians. David Cameron himself will not join this group but will campaign for Britain to remain as the prime minister.
The ‘leave’ side is more fractured. Vote Leave is very well funded and counts prominent politicians such as London Mayor Boris Johnson among its members. Grassroots Out is another group, comprising UKIP leader Nigel Farage and other politicians from Labour and the Conservatives. A third group, Leave.EU, has since merged with Grassroots Out. A final group, Business for Britain, has close connections with Vote Leave.
Some parties also have their own campaign groups. The Labour in for Britain group is a specifically Labour-group run by the former interior minister, Alan Johnson. However, some left wing Labour MPs instead support Another Europe is Possible, which emphasises the social benefits of remaining in the EU. Anti-EU groups include Conservatives for Britain and Labour Leave. None of these groups are likely to have access to party funding, but they do indicate how divided the Conservatives and Labour – by far the two largest parties in Britain – both are.
The debate so far
Many of those opposed to the EU are concerned about sovereignty and the freedom of the British Parliament to make policy unhindered by Brussels. They also cite concerns about freedom of movement, immigration and control of Britain’s borders as reasons why Britain should leave. Some prefer free trade organisations, such as the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), to the EU. Countries like Norway and Switzerland are often held up as example of what Britain could be: close to the EU, but not a member of it.
Those who wish to stay say that Britain is better off in a large market of 500 million people. They point to the fact that half of Britain’s trade is with the EU, which they say would be hindered should Britain decide to leave. They also say that Britain is safer in the EU. For instance, they point to how the EU is able to stand up to Russia and negotiate with Iran about nuclear disarmament. Others say that Britain’s influence in the world – and in particular its standing in Washington – would diminish should it decide to leave.
At the moment, the polls are very close. People trust David Cameron more than most other politicians; they are therefore likely to accept his arguments. The intervention of President Obama in the campaign, saying that the United States wants Britain to stay, may also prove crucial. But lots can and will happen between now and 23 June. The next update in this series, which will cover the media portrayal and the decision by the Electoral Commission to designate official campaign groups, will include that latest developments. Be sure to check back.
This was originally published in Turku Sanomat on 25 February 2016. The English language version is below.
After months of waiting and weeks of negotiations, prime minister David Cameron has finally announced the date of the referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the European Union.
On 23 June the British people will decide the fate of the UK’s relationship with the 28-member bloc. Britain could very easily take a decisive step towards leaving a group that it joined over forty years ago.
Alternatively, if people choose to stay, Cameron will go down as one of the most transformative — not to say lucky — prime ministers Britain has ever had. And both Britain and the EU will be much better off.
It is vital for Britain to remain. The EU is a large and vibrant single market of 500 million people worth $16.6 trillion. Britain has a strong economy because of, not despite, this. Over half of Britain’s total exports are sent to other European countries, and this will likely only increase as euro members return to growth.
Membership also represents a huge opportunity for the UK to secure investment, with many companies choosing to base their European headquarters in Britain. Free movement has been incredibly beneficial to the UK, plugging skill gaps and creating a young, vibrant work force. Its university system benefits from EU funding and Europe-wide higher education networks. Its healthcare system is staffed by a huge number of EU citizens.
And for all this the UK pays far less per person than most other countries, including Finland, Sweden and Denmark.
There is also a strong political argument in favour of staying. In the 1940s and 1950s the main reason for European states to cooperate was for peace. Today it is for power.
The EU multiplies Britain’s influence in the world. London has more authority in Washington, New Delhi, Moscow, Canberra and Beijing precisely because it is part of the apparatus in Brussels.
Persuading other EU states to support the renegotiations has not been easy. Central European states are especially worried that their citizens resident in Britain will have their benefits restricted. France is also worried about special protections for the City of London that will not cover its own financial sector.
But these countries should do all they can to help keep Britain in. For the EU needs Britain as much as Britain needs the EU.
First, the UK is a large economic power in its own right. It has the EU’s second largest economy, its third largest population, and it is the first destination for most global investment in Europe.
According to some, by the middle of the century Britain will have a larger population and economy than Germany does today. British membership will therefore only become more important to other EU members.
Second, the UK is a huge political power. Admittedly it does not have the same weight it has had previously. But the UK is a nuclear armed state. Together with France it is Europe’s only permanent member of the UN’s Security Council. This means that, besides Paris, London is the only other capital that is able to project its power by force.
The building of two new aircraft carriers — HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales — will make the Royal Navy the most feared and well equipped sea force in the EU, and second only to the United States in NATO. If the EU wants to extend its own peacekeeping force and secure its own external borders, it needs British equipment and British knowhow.
Third, Britain, along with Germany and the Nordic states, is a bastion of free trade. It helps guard against interventionist politics and often wasteful agricultural subsidies. Finland is better off financially in the EU because Britain is also a member.
Britain will be worse off it does not decide to stay in June. But so will the EU. It is therefore in everybody’s interest that it stays.
So that’s it. The election is over. The votes have been cast. The final results are in. And who would have thought it? Commentators – me included – widely expected that today we would be telling a different story. We thought that the debate would quickly move on from one about which party had won, or had failed to win, to one about which party would and should go on to govern. But it ended up being an outcome that few of us had foreseen.
Or was it? As the results filtered through, commentators were indeed quick to clam that we had all been deceived by the polls. But in all fairness, and not to sound a sore loser, many of my own predictions – and those of the opinion pollsters themselves – proved correct: that the Conservatives would be the largest party; that the SNP would win big in Scotland (they in fact returned the largest number of MPs for a ‘third’ party since 1929); that the Liberal Democrats would lose big everywhere; that neither UKIP nor the Greens would make the inroads that some had been claiming they would; and that the turnout would be higher than in 2010.
But what caught me, and others, by surprise was the size of the Conservative victory, or perhaps more accurately the degree of the Labour loss. 331 seats is impressive for a party that just five years ago couldn’t land a decisive victory over the much-maligned Gordon Brown. The success is all the more remarkable when you consider that David Cameron is the first prime minister to increase the number of their seats since 1987, and the first to increase the share of their vote since 1966.
And look at the scalps that fell on Thursday: key Liberal Democrat politicians such as Charles Kennedy, Danny Alexander, Vince Cable and Ed Davey, along with the likes of Labour’s shadow chancellor Ed Balls, shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander, and Scottish Labour leader, Jim Murphy. This is not to mention the three party leaders – Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage – that have since fallen on their swords.
In many ways, the result echoes that of 1992. Then, pundits had expected the result to be close with a hung parliament thought likely. But as it turned out, the Conservatives emerged victorious, the government confounding commentators and winning an overall, albeit wafer-thin, majority.
But this might come to provide an uncomfortable analogy for David Cameron. John Major did slightly better in 1992 than the Conservatives did this week – he won a 21 seat majority to Cameron’s 12. But it wasn’t long before the party was riven by debates over British EU membership. What was a working majority soon whittled away. By the time of the next election in May 1997, the Conservative government was a minority. This was itself a re-run of events two decades earlier. Soon after the October 1974 election, when Labour’s Harold Wilson secured a majority of just three seats, he saw his party split apart over British European membership. Like the Conservatives in 1992-95, Labour was also quickly forced to make concessions to minor parties in order to survive as it saw its majority ebb away.
I would therefore conclude on two points.
The first is that the polls were not as wrong as some have since claimed. They correctly identified the larger trends. Perhaps we all of us should have been more conscious of the fact that opinion polls have long tended to underestimate the Conservative vote and overestimate the Labour one. And we perhaps overlooked how likely the Conservatives were to hold off the Labour challenge while simultaneously picking up the Lib Dem vote. But much of the opinion poll data was within the margin of error.
The second point is that while Cameron has won the war he may end up losing the peace. There are a huge number of issues that the government now needs to confront: the EU referendum, the Scottish question, Heathrow, HS2, cuts and defence to name but a few. These would test any government, all the more so one with such a precarious majority. And yet, history tells us not only that parties with narrow victories rarely have an easy ride, but also that they often crumble with devastating effect. Cameron should take this as a warning. For the shock is likely not to be this election but what is still to come.
After what seems like an eternity, the end of the election campaign is finally in sight. The last of the leaders’ debates – a special Question Time in which David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg sought to defend their records and sell their programmes – has taken place. The jostling for post-election ministerial positions, not to mention coalition bargaining, is well under way. It is now a matter of days before millions of people cast their vote. Or will they? Just how bad will the turnout be on Thursday?
Political commentators have, understandably, expressed both concern and consternation that so few people vote in British elections. In the first bout of elections for police and crime commissioners that took place in 2012, the average turnout hovered around 15 per cent. In some areas the figure was closer to 10 per cent. This was likely due to the fact that the posts were new and relatively unknown, but other contests have faired little better. The 2012 Manchester Central by-election, for instance, saw just 18 per cent of voters choose Tony Lloyd’s replacement – the lowest turnout in British political history. Three other by-election battles held that same year – in Cardiff South and Penarth, Croydon North, and Middlesbrough – were marginally better but still drew fewer than 27% of voters to the polls. Turnout for the 2014 European Parliament elections was likewise poor, with a figure of 34 per cent comparing unfavourably to 60 per cent in Italy, 56 per cent in Denmark, 52 per cent in Ireland, 48 per cent in Germany and 44 per cent in France.
Of course, such figures have to be taken with caution. By-elections and European Parliament votes have traditionally seen lower turnout than their general counterparts, in large part because they provoke far less media coverage and public interest than nationwide general elections.
Yet even the three most recent general elections have seen fewer people heading to the polls. As Figure 1 below demonstrates, the 2000s has been a period marked by voter inactivity. The first indication of serious apathy among the electorate was the June 2001 general election, when turnout fell nearly 12 per cent compared to the 1997 vote and edged below the 60 per cent mark for the first time in the post-war period. The figure is not too difficult to explain: New Labour’s victory appeared a certainty; the pre-Iraq Tony Blair was still a popular prime minister; the Conservatives, then under the leadership of William Hague – described by The Sun as a ‘dead parrot’ – appeared to be a gaffe-prone party still deeply split over Britain’s EU membership. Turnout, it is doubtless true, recovered somewhat in the 2005 and 2010 votes, but the figures were still well below the average for the 1945-1992 period.
But, as with every statistic, the devil is very much in the detail. Take the last general election in 2010 as an example. The overall turnout was a little over 65 per cent, higher than in 2001 and 2005 but still low by historical standards. However, this figure belies the complex story of Britain’s voter turnout and the very clear variations across age, sex, occupation and colour.
The graphs and table below begin to tease out such intricacies. Figure 2, for example, demonstrates that the vast majority of registered older voters – 73 per cent in the case of those aged between 55 and 64, rising to 76 per cent of those aged 65 and over on the day of the election – turned out to cast a ballot. In comparison, the figure for first-generation voters, those aged between 18 and 24, was just 44 per cent. Look no further for reason why Ed Miliband recently visited Russell Brand.
The divergence is even starker if you break the age groups into male and female voters. As Figure 3 reveals, in 2010 both younger and older men were more likely to vote than their female counterparts – even though women make up 52 per cent of the British electorate. In the case of 18-24 year olds, the gap was 11 per cent, with 50 per cent of men registered to vote in the age category actually casting a ballot compared to just 39 per cent of women. This might explain why Labour’s deputy leader, Harriet Harman, has been touring the country in the pink (yes, it’s pink – Harman confirmed as much last week) ‘women to women’ battle bus.
Leaving aside the issue of age for one moment, the voting figures from the 2010 election similarly reveal a huge divide in turnout depending on occupation and ethnicity. Take the first set of figures from Table 1 below, showing categories according to the NRS social grading system. The results show that there was a clear correlation between occupation and likelihood to vote. Those from the AB group (higher managerial, professional and administrative positions) were proportionally more likely to turn up in a voting booth than those classed C1 (supervisory, clerical and middle management), C2 (skilled manual worker) and DE (semi-skilled, unskilled, casual worker or non-worker).
And the same goes for ethnic background. While there was great divergence between regions – London for example had a higher proportion of non-white voters than the national average – overall there was a 16 per cent disparity between white and non-white registered voters choosing to cast a ballot on polling day. Put another way, if in 2010 you were a white male aged over 65 with a managerial or professional background, you were much more likely to vote than if you were a young black semi-skilled, unskilled or jobless female.
Who, then, will likely vote on 7 May? Will turnout be as disappointing as it has been in the last few elections? I think there’s reason to suspect that the overall figure may not be as bad as some fear. Returning to Figure 1 above, which shows the overall turnout at every general election since 1945, the trend certainly shows that as time has progressed fewer people have chosen to go out and choose their local MP. But the graph also tells another tale that might give reason to think that turnout this time around will in fact improve, not shrink.
Think of some of the most closely fought elections battles since 1945: the vote in February 1950 (when Labour under Clement Attlee won just a five seat majority); the ‘who governs Britain’ election of February 1974 election (when Labour’s Harold Wilson saw his party gain fewer votes but more seats than his rival, Conservative prime minister Edward Heath); and the first post-Thatcher election in 1992 (when, despite all the predictions of a hung parliament, John Major won a workable majority of 21 seats over Neil Kinnock of the Labour party). In each of these, the competition between the two biggest parties was fierce and the probable victor uncertain. But where this was the case, voter turnout was higher than the elections that preceded them. In other words, the less certain an outcome, the more likely people will vote.
I mentioned in a recent post that opinion polls give us a better indication than some would argue as to the likely state of the parties come 8 May. This remains true, but any way you look at it they still point to a hung parliament. But if history tells us anything, it is that this uncertainty should translate into an improved turnout. And there are already signs that this will indeed be the case. More people than ever before have registered to vote in Thursday’s election. This is on the back of the September 2014 Scottish referendum, where turnout reached 90 per cent in some areas. The period of voter inactivity might, then, finally be at an end. But exactly who and how many will vote, and the party they will vote for, will only become clear this week.
A couple of weeks ago, I bemoaned the lack of discussion about foreign policy in the general election campaign. On that occasion I wrote that none of the main parties had ‘dared to mention foreign policy at all’ and that the campaign lacked any sort of ‘discussion about Britain’s role in the world, the degree and veracity of Britain’s international ambitions and the country’s place in an ever-changing and increasingly uncertain global environment.’
Strong words indeed. But I may be prepared to eat them. For judging by recent developments it is as though the political world took note of my criticisms and responded accordingly. This week in fact saw two notable developments in the campaign concerning Britain’s place in the world.
The first came on Friday, when Ed Miliband travelled to Chatham House to set out Labour’s foreign policy priorities. The speech did much to highlight how British policy will likely develop under a Labour government.
For a start, a Miliband administration would likely cut the armed forces less than if the Conservatives remain in power after 7 May. As is usual – and perhaps understandable – for any politician, he refused to be drawn on specific figures. But he went further than most, rejecting ‘the extreme spending cuts that the Conservative party propose’ and calling Cameron’s already savage cuts to defence ‘truly catastrophic’.
Miliband also made clear that Labour would be committed to what he called ‘hard-headed multilateralism’. The party leader was at pains to stress that the biggest challenge to Britain today does not come from nation states but from those threats that cross national borders – in particular Islamic terrorism, climate change and migration. For Miliband, such issues can only be dealt with if ‘we work with allies across the world and seek to strengthen not weaken multilateral institutions.’
As part of this, Miliband’s analysis centred on Britain’s future in the EU. As he rightly put it, Britain is ‘stronger as a leading partner in the EU […] it is precisely our influence within the EU which makes us more influential in the world.’ The thrust of his critique was that under Cameron Britain has shirked its responsibilities and reduced its influence, not least because the prime minister has endangered Britain’s EU membership at the behest of ‘political forces in his own party and by his fear of other political parties in our country.’
The second main event of the week was not unconnected to Miliband’s speech: the announcement by Douglas Flint, chairman of HSBC – Britain’s largest bank – that his company’s board is actively considering whether it should relocate the bank’s headquarters out of London. Flint cited ‘regulatory and structural reforms’, including forced changes to the bank’s structure and the UK bank levy, as reasons why a change was under discussion.
But it was the uncertainties facing the British banking sector, and most obviously worries about potential British withdrawal from the EU under a future Conservative-led government, which appear to have hastened the review. As Flint put it at the company’s AGM in London, reforming the EU would be ‘far less risky than going it alone, given the importance of EU markets to British trade.’
There is perhaps some irony in the HSBC announcement. Relocating a company’s headquarters is not a cheap undertaking, and might well prove more trouble than it’s worth. And then there’s the matter of where to place the building – Hong Kong has emerged as the most obvious substitute, but the decision to put a bank’s finances under the glare of Chinese scrutiny is not one to take lightly.
Putting these developments to one side for a moment, all this talk of impending EU exit and ensuing economic doom and political obscurity has got me thinking. What would British exit from the EU – ‘Brexit’ as it’s often called – look like? What are the alternatives, if any?
It is a discussion that has been had many times before, and I don’t here in any depth want to recite what Parliament, the CBI, the European Movement and various academics have all already said on the matter. A few points are worth mentioning, however.
Some, especially Eurosceptics such as Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan, support membership of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). Britain was instrumental to founding EFTA in the late 1950s and was a signature to the Stockholm Convention establishing the association signed in January 1960, before it left to join what is now the EU in 1973. The story goes that by rejoining what is a free trade area based on intergovernmental organisations, rather than a customs union like the EU, Britain would be free to set its own tariffs and tax rates and to negotiate its own foreign trade agreements.
But EFTA is a smaller player on the world stage. And joining EFTA doesn’t necessary mean less interference from ‘Europe’: EFTA states often participate in EU foreign policy operations; the organisation is represented by a Secretary General in most international trade discussions in the same way that the Commission represents the member states of the EU; the EFTA council and parliamentary assembly perform somewhat similar functions to the EU’s Council of Ministers and the European Parliament of old; and topics such as health services, energy, climate change, maritime policy and the environment feature regularly on EFTA’s agenda. This is not to mention that a UK return to EFTA is far from assured.
Others talk of the ‘Norwegian model’. This consists of being a member of EFTA but still accessing the EU’s Single Market through the European Economic Area (EEA), an agreement between the EU and EFTA established back in 1994. But there’s an obvious downside: although not an EU member, Norway contributes to the EU budget – a considerable amount when compared to Britain’s own per capita net contribution – and accepts the rules relating to the free movement of people – the much maligned policy which allows civilians from any EU member state to work and reside in the UK – without any political input whatsoever. And the EFTA Court, established to ensure compliance with the rules of the Single Market, is a supranational body not unlike the European Court of Justice. Even the Norwegian prime minister recognises problems in this arrangement. Then there’s the ‘Swiss model’, which closely echoes the Norwegian model but excludes services, a sector so vital to the British economy.
Beyond Europe, some remain hopeful that Britain might reinvigorate Commonwealth trade – an argument that seemed antiquated even in the 1960s – or join a North American free trade area, despite the fact that the US wishes Britain to remain in the EU.
This is what is most perplexing about the current debate over Britain’s future in the EU. The Union might not be perfect, and alternatives doubtless exist, but the options available to Britain are clearly second bests. This is why all of the main party leaders – David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and Nicola Sturgeon – support Britain remaining a member of the EU. If others want Brexit, they need to explain why such poor alternatives offer Britain, and Europe, a better future. Even the briefest examination of these options suggests they don’t. This is why I might not eat my words just yet. Miliband’s speech and HSBC’s announcement were both welcome interventions in an otherwise foreign policy-free election. But they are just the beginning of a debate that the country deserves about its future.
Elections are strange affairs. For all the uncertainty inherent in a campaign the party machine is a highly structured operation. Coverage in the media, the political message adopted, the line of attack on the opposition, the visits undertaken by key party figures – all of these aspects are agonised over and planned meticulously well ahead of the event.
The last seven days were no exception. The third week of the 2015 election campaign was manifesto week, an especially strange phenomenon where political parties all scramble for airtime trying to convince voters that the ideas outlined in their programme deserve to become legislation.
Manifestos are both an irrelevance and a vital part of the campaign calendar. It is a truism that most of the electorate ignore party manifestos. Despite the considerable amount of money, time and effort that goes into producing the documents few voters will ever read them. Indeed, at the last election just over a quarter of the electorate admitted to reading one. People will at best be aware of the noise that surrounds manifesto launches, and even then they tend to absorb messages not from politicians themselves but from a media that translates political rhetoric into accessible anecdotes. On the other hand, however, manifestos are key to the political process. They encapsulate in one document how a party will act in power, the basis of the mandate on which a party will rule. They also play an important constitutional role. Manifestos allow the civil service to study the likely platform the next government will adopt, especially useful when planning a transition of power. And in an age of hung parliaments it is the manifesto that allows other parties to identify areas of commonality with potential coalition partners.
Historically, manifestos have been rather short. At first, they weren’t even documents in their own right. Often they were simply a printed copy of a speech delivered by an important member of a party. Take, for instance, the 1900 Conservative manifesto. The ‘manifesto’ was actually a transcript of a speech delivered shortly after the dissolution of Parliament by Lord Robert Cecil, then better known as the Marquess of Salisbury. Salisbury outlined just four issues – what he called ‘the gravest questions’ of state – and, unsurprisingly given his proven expertise in foreign policy, three of the four were related to external affairs: the problem of voter turnout; the question of South Africa, coming as the election did during the Second Boer War; the need to reform Britain’s military; and Britain’s continued influence in China. But it was short of specific proposals: the prime minister was keen to highlight the problems the next government would likely face but resisted the urge to outline solutions to them.
Brevity hence characterised the 1900 Conservative manifesto. But this was not particularly unusual. In fact, the majority of the manifestos produced before the 1945 election consisted of fewer than five pages. Ever since then manifestos have steadily grown in size and importance. At the 1979 election the Conservative manifesto contained about 80 pledges, many of which would come to form the central tenets of Thatcherism. By contrast, the most recent Conservative manifesto, launched by David Cameron at an event in Swindon, has over 600 pledges. Tony Blair might have managed to whittle his priorities down to five points that fitted neatly on the back of Labour’s credit card-sized pledge card, but today the party’s manifesto runs to 84 pages.
While few people today may end up reading a manifesto, watching the televised leaders’ debates is another matter. Thursday’s opposition contest, hosted by the BBC, attracted over 4 million viewers. The seven-way leaders’ debate, shown on ITV at the beginning of April, drew in around 7 million. Those who tuned in last night were, according to the Conservatives at least, treated to a glimpse of how messy the post-election coalition talks will likely be should Labour find itself in a position to negotiate a centre-left coalition. For Ed Miliband, the event was a chance to criticise Cameron for failing to turn up and defend his record in office. Miliband doubtless embarked on a high-risk strategy by taking part in the debate, but it probably paid off. The Conservatives had hoped that the SNP, Plaid and the Greens would attack the Labour leader from the left, while UKIP leader Nigel Farage would do so from the right. As it turned out, Miliband was serious, sincere and statesmanlike. A snap poll conducted on the night also declared Miliband the ‘winner’.
Like manifestos, however, last night’s debate is unlikely to make much difference to the outcome of the election. It is worth restating what I’ve said before: the debates will probably decide the nature and framework of the campaign but not the final result. Political parties pour plenty of cash, resources and manpower into preparing their manifestos, as they do with the leaders’ debates, but chances are they are whistling in the wind. And it is perhaps this more than anything else that explains both the still considerable voter disenchantment in politics and also the political stalemate that the polls suggest will emerge from the 7 May vote.
UKIP defections, Labour surge, leaked memos, non-doms, nuclear bombs, paid volunteering, police numbers, fiscal autonomy, fruit pickers and Joey Essex (again) – this week the election campaign has had it all.
But perhaps the most significant intervention this week came on Tuesday when Tony Blair, the three-time election winning Labour leader still very much reviled and revered in equal measure, delivered a speech on Britain’s relationship with the European Union (EU). Blair was unequivocal in his condemnation of David Cameron’s policy of holding a referendum on continued British membership should the Conservatives win a majority on 7 May. In what he called a ‘momentous decision’, Blair explained:
I believe passionately that leaving Europe would leave Britain diminished in the world, do significant damage to our economy and, less obviously but just as important to our future, would go against the very qualities that mark us out still as a great global nation.
Unsurprisingly, then, Blair went on to suggest that there is neither a sound economic nor business case for British secession. A referendum would, as he put it, merely ‘take precedence’ over other, arguably more vital issues facing Britain today, not least the health of the health service. It might even irk a Scottish electorate still less than convinced of its commitment to the United Kingdom to vote for independence. Nor, Blair insisted, are the Conservatives on firm ground when they assert that a referendum is a necessary and welcome exercise in democracy:
I am aghast at some of the arguments used as to why having such a vote is ‘a great idea for democracy’. Apparently we should have a referendum because its 40 years since we last had a vote. That is seriously an argument for doing something of this magnitude and risk? A sort of ‘keeping us on our toes’ thing? So should we do the same for NATO? Or have periodic referendums not just in Scotland but all over the UK just to check popular feeling?
Of course, Blair here conveniently forgot his own party’s track record on referenda. It was, after all, the Labour party of the 1970s that committed Britain to its first ever national plebiscite – over the issue of British membership of the then European Community. And Blair himself agreed eleven years ago, almost to the day, to hold a referendum on the new constitution proposed for the EU. To be fair, as prime minister did so reluctantly and only in the face of strong opposition from within the party hierarchy – his trusted Health Secretary, John Reid, his deputy, John Prescott, and the then Foreign Secretary Jack Straw all argued that a referendum was necessary if Labour had any hope of performing well in either the 2004 European Parliament elections or the next general election. Weakened by the backlash to the war in Iraq, Blair had little choice but to submit the constitution to a vote. In the event, it was only a twist of fate – Blair’s commitment to a referendum compelled his French counterpart, Jacques Chirac, to hold one, effectively sealing the fate of the constitution – that saved Blair the embarrassment of having to go through with it.
Even so, the speech was doubtless Blair at his best, sharp in his analysis, cutting in his critique. It was also Blair on familiar territory. He developed a line of argument that he has preached many times before, even if he failed to practice it when he was in office. As he put it in his speech on Tuesday:
[E]ven as Britain declined in relative importance to the USA as a global power, we were able to maintain a position as one of the world’s leading nations. We kept our alliance with America strong. We entered the European Union partly to ensure our position. These are the two well-founded pillars of British foreign policy. And they’re mutually reinforcing. Through these alliances we exercise a power greater than our relative size would otherwise bring us. As one of the world’s traditional powers, this is a sensible strategy for us to pursue in order to be able to hold our position.
For Blair, EU membership has always been a pragmatic decision; a way of harnessing much greater influence than Britain can muster on its own in order to guide politics on a global scale. But Blair’s vision of twenty-first century foreign policy-making has also always used, and clearly continues to use, twentieth-century language: the notion of Britain leading Europe, exercising power and influence as a major actor in the international system and carrying weight in the likes of Beijing and Washington greater than it really should simply by virtue of geography and history. Blair’s Europeanism, like his foreign policy more generally, is conservative by its very nature.
Like him or loathe him, however, Blair’s speech was undoubtedly a landmark in the election campaign. That Blair is still espousing a global role for Britain is not in itself either noteworthy or new. But what is significant is the fact that a Labour politician today, or for that matter a politician of any political party, dared to mention foreign policy at all. For what has really marked this election campaign out has been the complete dearth of discussion about Britain’s role in the world, the degree and veracity of Britain’s international ambitions and the country’s place in an ever-changing and increasingly uncertain global environment.
Admittedly, foreign policy is rarely an election winner. Most recent works on the 1983 general election tend for instance to argue that, while the ‘Falklands factor’ did the Conservatives no harm, the war did not of itself propel Margaret Thatcher to a second election victory. It is also the case that discussions over certain aspects of British foreign policy have formed key moments in this election campaign. Take this week for instance, where the renewal of Trident was a major part of the Conservatives’ campaign. And, moreover, the EU itself has been part of the electoral battle, as it was most prominently in last week’s leaders’ debate.
But this is not to say that foreign policy does not matter. In fact, an Ipsos MORI poll conducted late last year placed foreign affairs as the sixth most important electoral issue for voters, ahead of unemployment, taxation, care for the elderly, pensions and housing. If you combine foreign affairs and the EU, the stances taken by political parties were shown to be as important as education and schools in helping voters decide which party to vote for. And yet, where we have seen foreign policy mentioned in this campaign the discussion has been simplistic at best. Trident wasn’t about defence but about Miliband’s perceived character flaws. And issue of the EU has really been conflated with that of immigration and used by UKIP as a stick to beat the other parties. This is politics at its most crass.
This is a little surprising. For Labour, foreign policy is an obvious area on which to attack Cameron’s performance as prime minister. Since he entered Downing Street in 2010, Britain has fallen from being the fourth largest defence spender in the world to the sixth. Saudi Arabia now spends more on its military than the UK. While reduce expenditure reflects reduced ambition – an understandable position in a post-Iraq setting – the collapse in defence spending has reflected a more general decline in what Britain pays for its diplomatic service. And with fewer diplomats comes less diplomacy. Commentators have pointed to the failure of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to anticipate the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This is perhaps a little unfair – the FCO did not anticipate the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968, a time when the Cold War was still being fought and Britain’s diplomatic service was at its strategic apogee – but it is the case that whether over Russia, Syria or Libya, Britain’s influence has waned. This is not to mention the measurable drop in Britain’s standing in Washington, let alone in the capitals of Europe and the institutions of the EU.
For the Conservatives, meanwhile, foreign policy is one area where Ed Miliband is truly untested. The Labour leader’s foreign policy is essentially an anti-policy – he, apparently, opposed the Iraq War – but it is hard to fathom where the post-Blair Labour party stands on matters all things foreign. Iraq, moreover, remains toxic for the Labour party. The legacy of Blair’s decision to commit British armed forces to the conflict still has the potential to rip the Labour movement apart. This is one reason why Labour today is wary of foreign policy becoming an election issue. But if the Conservatives were to make it one, it would be very uncomfortable for Miliband.
Both sides, then, are ‘weak’ on foreign policy. But this is not a sufficient reason for the issue to be excluded from the campaign. Blair made the point that close relations with the United States and the EU are two of the central pillars of British foreign policy. Both, it seems, are now crumbling. It is only right that we debate what will replace them.
Politics is a fickle business. Labour started the week under fire for selling a mug that declared its support for controlling immigration, only for Ed Miliband to see his personal poll numbers improve for the first time in months. The Conservatives, for their part, seemed at the beginning of the week to be on the back foot, with commentators’ pronouncements claiming that the party’s entire campaign had lost its way. Fast forward twenty-four hours and Chancellor George Osborne had cause to delight, hailing aso-called economic ‘hat-trick’ of revised upward growth figures, increased real household disposable income and burgeoning consumer confidence.
Of course, the mug is just a mug, the opinion poll just an opinion poll. And economic figures only ever tell part of the story. But this is a general election. And the first week of the campaign proper has certainly been a dramatic one.
The highlight of the week was the leaders’ debate. After months of quibbling with the broadcasters, David Cameron finally took to the stage in a head-to-head contest. In contrast to 2010, however, the ITV special marked the onlybrawl of its kind in this election, the sole opportunity forCameron and Miliband to debate each other directly. Andthe Labour and Conservative leaders were far from alone.The prime ministerial hopefuls shared a platform with fiveother leaders: Green leader Nicola Bennett, the current deputy prime minister and Lib Dem chief Nick Clegg, UKIP’s Nigel Farage, the SNP leader and current Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon, and the leader of the Welsh nationalists, Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood.
Each agreed that the debate would consist of four main themes: the economy, immigration, the health service and the future of the UK. The discussion itself was wide-ranging in scope, if not in depth. The biggest losers were probably the viewers. The format seemed messy, a reminder that too many cooks really can spoil the political broth. The highlight for me was when, fifteen minutes from the end, a member of the audience – social worker Victoria Posser –went off cue and began heckling from the stalls.
By contrast, the biggest winners were almost certainly the nationalists: Wood scored the first audience applause; Sturgeon once again showed herself to be a relaxed, skilled speaker. Farage, meanwhile, seemed a little off his game, the point about AIDS patients being treated by the NHS unlikely to go down with well with most voters. Cameron was quiet. Miliband was resolute. And Clegg stood his ground where he had the opportunity to do so. If anyone struggled it was Bennett, still reeling from her ‘mind blank’ LBC radio interview a few weeks ago.
After the ordeal, the results of four snap polls conducted to decide who emerged as the ‘winner’ were announced – andeach delivered a different response. The truth is that these debates still mean little in British politics. At best theydecide the nature of the campaign, not the result.
Beyond the debate, the economy and British membership of the EU really defined the political narrative this week.Launching its business manifesto in the heart of the City of London, the Labour leadership was at pains to stress that, as it saw things, the biggest threat to the economic recovery was not a Labour-led government but a Conservative onetaking Britain out of the EU. The party quickly reiterated the point by placing an advert in the Financial Times, quotingvarious business leaders to emphasise their point. The reaction was not quite as expected and both Siemens and Kellogg’s expressed concern about being drawn into a political debate, although the managers of CM Direct and the investment group Redbus were more supportive of Labour’s sympathetic stance on the EU. Responding to Labour claims, Grant Shapps, the Conservative chair, once again reiterated the line that if the British people want a referendum on the EU, they should have one – ignoring the fact that, when asked, the public tend to support holding a plebiscite on any area of government policy.
But what struck me more than anything about this week was the very real sense of déjà vu.
Picture the scene. The British economy staggering out of recession. The prime minister struggling to unite a fissiparous party divided once again by the issue of ‘Europe’. The electoral landscape politically splintered, withminor parties hoping to make major political gains. The opinion polls equivocal as to which party will enter office, instead pointing towards a messy election result with a hung parliament the likely outcome.
Such a summary neatly surmises the situation today. But is also aptly describes the political environment in February 1974, when Edward Heath and Harold Wilson fought over the keys to Downing Street. It even captures the scene in 1992, when John Major faced his first election as Conservative leader against the revitalised Labour party then led by Neil Kinnock.
Needless to say, the February 1974 vote – the first of two that year – was fought in very different circumstances, theperiod characterised by the 1973 oil crisis and the on-going three-day week. And the 1992 election was the first electoral test for the Conservatives following Margaret Thatcher’s departure just two years earlier. But there are clearly anumber of lessons that we can draw from both elections.
For a start, in both 1974 and 1992 the opinion polls were extremely close – and ultimately wrong. Talk about a hung parliament in the lead up to both votes was, it is certainly true, widespread. In 1974, however, most expected the Conservatives to edge ahead in the days leading to the February vote, whereas in the event Labour emerged as the single biggest party but with fewer seats. In 1992, by contrast, Labour was marginally ahead in most polls, only for the Conservatives to secure a majority of twenty-one seats. It is a reminder that we should take any opinion poll with a hefty dose of salt.
Second, in both elections the SNP played an important role. In 1974, the party emerged as the fourth largest party in the Commons. In 1992, it increased its vote tally by 50 per cent.Today much is made of the SNP and the power that the party might wield after the forthcoming election. But history tells us that the SNP’s influence in Westminster politics is nothing new. It is the ability for the SNP to sustain this pressure on the larger parties that will be of longer-term significance.
Third, both elections were a portent of things to come with regard to party divisions over ‘Europe’. The 1992 vote for instance did little to soothe discussions within the Conservatives over the Maastricht Treaty. But the 1974 vote is perhaps more pertinent to today’s debate. Soon after the February election the Labour party set about renegotiating Britain’s membership of the then European Community. The reworked package, which in reality was nothing more than a window dressing exercise to placate a vociferous section of Labour MPs, did little to change the terms of British membership. But it was an ‘agreement to differ’, whereby Cabinet ministers were able to dispense with collective responsibility and disagree openly with one another and vote as they saw fit, that in the long-term caused problems for the Labour movement. Anti-Community ministers immediatelyrefused to accept the positive referendum result, an approach that really set the scene for the battles that would seal the party’s electoral fate in 1979. The whole process of agreeing a new settlement with Britain’s Community partners was, then, a palliative, mitigating rather than solving Labour’s deep ideological and political wounds. It is in this sense thatDavid Cameron should take note: in the long-run renegotiations and referendums do not solve deep-seated party political problems.
Overall, while the recent leadership debate was very excitingand the quality of political discussion in this election impressive, many of the issues that are under discussion now are by no means new. Politicians today would certainly do well to study those of yesteryear. Politics, much like fashion,is not invented but reinvented. History provides the perfect opportunity to understand the significance of these issuesand to learn from them.
On Thursday, 7 May the people of Britain go to the polls in what promises to be one of the most exhilarating and tense elections in recent memory. With 41 days to go, over the next few weeks we will chart the highs and lows, the pitfalls, the gaffes and goings-on during the campaign. From the inevitable pictures of party leaders hugging unsuspecting children through to the point where one leader will, hopefully, be invited by the Queen to form a government and drive into Downing Street to announce as much, each week we will explore the issues that have dominated the campaign and, perhaps more crucially, provide analysis so as to place events in their wider historical context.
Officially, the campaign period does not begin until Monday. Yet in reality it has been underway for some time. Take, for instance, this past week, where we had two dramatic developments that each in their own way will come to set the scene for the rest of the contest. The first was the surprise announcement by David Cameron during Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Questions that the Conservatives will not raise VAT if re-elected. The announcement was notably curt for a politician, even more so for a prime minister. And Cameron’s admission was all the more remarkable because it seemed to catch the incredulous looking Labour leader, Ed Miliband, completely off guard. The Chancellor, George Osborne, had after all just the day before refused to completely rule out a rise. Unwilling himself to dismiss rumours of a similar hike in National Insurance during the exchange, Miliband’s Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, was then forced to do a round of media to do exactly that. Having now dismissed the principal revenue-raising measures available to government – which, along with income tax account for early two-thirds of all government tax revenue – both leaders will be under even greater pressure to explain quite how they will deal with Britain’s still considerable structural deficit.
The second significant development this week was the appearance of Cameron and Miliband in the first of a series of TV broadcasts. I say ‘broadcasts’ because this was not a debate – the Conservatives had long made clear that the prime minister would not share a stage with Ed Miliband and debate him head-to-head. Instead, each faced individual questioning by Jeremy Paxman, interjected with audience question and answer sessions chaired by Sky’s Kay Burley. Like opinion polls more generally, the view of who ‘won’ on the night was pretty evenly split. A ComRes poll announced immediately after the broadcast gave Cameron a slight edge, but it was by no means convincing. And some opined whether the whole process was balanced against the ‘gloomy’ Labour leader. Like everything, it is a matter of personal taste – for me, Cameron seemed to perform better in the Q&A segment, Miliband remarkably better in the interview with Paxman. Either way, the remaining debates promise to become key moments in the campaign.
And yet, although Parliament has only just formally been dissolved, an enduring theme of this election has seemingly already emerged: that this is a highly unpredictable election, and that the result is more uncertain than any vote in recent times. Unlike previously, so the story goes, simply no one knows what the state of British politics will be on 8 May. This, it is doubtless true, is not 1997. For at least a year before the New Labour landslide Tony Blair managed consistently to poll impressive double-digit leads over his rival, Conservative leader and prime minister John Major. Nor indeed is this 2001, when a New Labour victory was so widely expected that the popular vote fell below 60 per cent for the first time. In fact, this is not really a repeat of 2010, when Gordon Brown’s unpopularity made a Conservative victory of some kind more likely, even if the end result was by no means an overwhelming vindication of ‘Cameronism’.
All that said, I take some issue with this notion of unpredictability. To be clear, I am a historian – I am in the business of examining the past, not predicting the future. But the opinion polls do give us a glimpse of what will likely happen in early May.
There is, then, a good deal more certainty than many argue. At the very least, the polls tell us the likely parliamentary arithmetic come 8 May. But needless to say, anything could change between now and polling day. The interesting thing for me is not so much who will emerge as king but rather who the king makers will be, the concessions they demand for their acquiescence and the type of system that they employ to support the new monarch. And the polls are unable to show this. It is, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, therefore more a matter of known unknowns than complete unpredictability. Whatever the result, it promises to be an interesting one. And we hope you will join us for the ride.