Thursday, 11 February 2016

The Nuclear Option - Why Moderate Labour MPs Should Vote For An Early Election

Toby Perkins, the Labour MP for Chesterfield, has raised the prospect of an early general election, noting:

In June, decades of Tory infighting are set to reach a crescendo with the referendum on membership of the European Union. The prospect of the Prime Minister standing down in the event of a vote to leave has been often mooted. However, I believe that the forces unleashed within the Conservative party are so great that, whether Cameron wins or loses, many of their MPs and activists will feel it is time for a change at the top. Cameron fired the starting gun on the race to succeed him when he announced that he will not fight another general election and, as Tony Blair can testify, once the lid is off the bottle it can be very difficult to re-seal it.

In the event that Cameron goes, I expect his successor to look very keenly at whether the Labour party is capable of fighting a snap general election. The new Conservative leader would, of course, insist this was nothing to do with naked political calculation. You can already imagine the argument, a new Tory leader arguing that “unlike Gordon Brown, I am not going to be an unelected Prime Minister”.

Many people assume that the Fixed Term Parliament Act would prevent the Tories from cutting and running but they are wrong. The Act, designed to hold the coalition together, does allow an early general election to be called if agreed by two thirds of the House of Commons. If a new Conservative leader demanded a general election it is impossible to imagine how Labour could refuse to go to the country.

Under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011, the dates of the next general election is 7 May 2020, followed by 1 May 2025 - as long as there is nothing that triggers an early election. As Perkins notes, one method is the two-thirds vote:

2 Early parliamentary general elections

(1) An early parliamentary general election is to take place if—

(a) the House of Commons passes a motion in the form set out in subsection (2), and

(b) if the motion is passed on a division, the number of members who vote in favour of the motion is a number equal to or greater than two thirds of the number of seats in the House (including vacant seats).

(2) The form of motion for the purposes of subsection (1)(a) is—

“That there shall be an early parliamentary general election.”

With there being 650 MPs (including the Speaker and 3 Deputy Speakers who only cast a vote in a tie, and 4 Sinn Féin ones who don't take their seats), 434 MPs need to vote for such a motion. Even in the Labour landslide of May 1997, it was 22 seats short of two-thirds. Apart from wartime coalitions, we have to go back to November 1935 to find an elected Government with over two-thirds the seats in the Commons (and, ironically, that was a Parliament that postponed the subsequent election).

Note that such a motion doesn't actually set the date for the early election:

(7) If a parliamentary general election is to take place as provided for by subsection (1) or (3), the polling day for the election is to be the day appointed by Her Majesty by proclamation on the recommendation of the Prime Minister (and, accordingly, the appointed day replaces the day which would otherwise have been the polling day for the next election determined under section 1).

Hence, it simply returns to the Prime Minister the power to set the election day - and interestingly, there is no time limit specified. Theoretically, there is nothing to stop the House of Commons voting today for an early election, and 312 years down the line using that vote to hold an election a few months early.

The Conservatives currently have 329 MPs - hence need the support of a further 105 MPs to trigger an early election. Where could this support come from?

The third largest group in the Commons is the Scottish National Party, with 54 MPs (2 of the SNP MPs elected in May 2015 sit as Independents). They have only 3 target seats:

Seat Swing needed Held by
Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale & Tweeddale 0.77% Conservative
Orkney & Shetland 1.80% Liberal Democrat
Edinburgh South 2.68% Labour

While it would be tempting for the SNP to go for an early election to try and get a clean sweep of Scottish constituencies - especially if the May election to the Scottish Parliament shows them still having momentum - there are risks of losing seats if the Conservatives and/or Liberal Democrats pick up support. Labour isn't really much of a threat to the SNP - the only seats where the SNP majority over Labour is less than 10% are Renfrewshire East (6.55%) and Edinburgh North & Leith (9.65%).

The next group to look at is the Unionist contingent from Northern Ireland (8 Democratic Unionist Party, 2 Ulster Unionist Party and 1 Independent Unionist). May 2015 was a good election for Unionism, with 2 seats being picked up from non-Unionists - the DUP gained Belfast East from the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland and the UUP gained Fermanagh & South Tyrone from Sinn Féin. However, these were both due to Unionist pacts, which may or may not be present at the next election, and in Fermanagh & South Tyrone there is the possibility of some of the remaining Social Democratic & Labour Party vote going to Sinn Féin to give them back a seat with a Nationalist/Republican majority.

The only targetable Nationalist/Republican seat is the interesting 4-way marginal of Belfast South, which a Unionist pact could win from the SDLP (which could backfire if - as at the May 2010 general election - Sinn Féin chooses to step down to help the SDLP, or UUP supporters prefer to vote for the APNI rather than the DUP).

And in the DUP seat of Upper Bann, the Unionist vote could split in such a way that - along with tactical voting by SDLP supporters - this seat falls to Sinn Féin.

At the moment, you can go from Northern Ireland's westernmost point to its northernmost or its easternmost with the entire journey in Unionist seats. For Unionism, the current position is as good as it gets.

Next are the Liberal Democrats, who are down to 8 seats:

Seat Majority Over
Westmorland & Lonsdale 18.29% Conservative
Ceredigion 8.20% Plaid Cymru
Norfolk North 8.18% Conservative
Leeds North West 6.70% Labour
Sheffield Hallam 4.24% Labour
Orkney & Shetland 3.59% Scottish National Party
Carshalton & Wallington 3.17% Conservative
Southport 3.00% Conservative

The Liberal Democrats stand on a precipice. Only their leader, Tim Farron, in Westmorland & Lonsdale, is safe. In 2015, there was clearly tactical voting in Sheffield Hallam, with Conservatives protecting Nick Clegg - at the time the Liberal Democrat leader and Lord President of the Council - from a Labour onslaught, but any reason to protect him has now gone. To be blunt, if an early election were held in the near future, then Clegg is out, with Labour winning all of Sheffield.

But, for the Liberal Democrats, there is a prize that could be won if they gamble on an early election. Just look at the seats they would win on a 5% swing:

Seat Swing needed Held by
Cambridge 0.58% Labour
Eastbourne 0.69% Conservative
Lewes 1.07% Conservative
Thornbury & Yate 1.54% Conservative
Twickenham 1.63% Conservative
Dunbartonshire East 1.97% Scottish National Party
Kingston & Surbiton 2.39% Conservative
St Ives 2.56% Conservative
Edinburgh West 2.93% Scottish National Party*
Torbay 3.42% Conservative
Sutton & Cheam 3.93% Conservative
Bath 4.06% Conservative
Burnley 4.08% Labour
Bermondsey & Old Southwark 4.36% Labour
Yeovil 4.67% Conservative
Fife North East 4.80% Scottish National Party

[* Michelle Thomson, the MP for Edinburgh West, no longer sits for the SNP]

These are all seats which the Liberal Democrats lost in 2015. Although they will be fighting against first term incumbents in most of these, the party would be able to argue that it has moved on from the days of the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition, and is under new management, and one that Labour supporters can vote tactically for. While it would not stand a chance of overtaking the SNP to become the third largest party, a credible fourth place is possible.

It will be the circumstances in other parties will determine what the Liberal Democrats will be in the next Parliament - in my lifetime they have gone from being a home for those on the left who felt Labour was too left-wing (the Liberal/Social Democrat Alliance era), to being a home for those on the right who felt the Conservatives were too right-wing (the Ashdown era), to being a home for those on the left who felt Labour was too right-wing (the Kennedy era) and then being part of a centre-right Government (the Clegg era).

Next is Plaid Cymru, with only 3 seats:

Seat Majority Over
Dwyfor Meirionnydd 18.20% Conservative
Carmarthen East & Dinefwr 14.21% Labour
Arfon 13.67% Labour

These are all quite safe seats, and there's only 2 seats which would fall to Plaid Cymru on a swing of less than 5%:

Seat Swing needed Held by
Ynys Môn 0.33% Labour
Ceredigion 4.10% Liberal Democrat

Even if a motion for an early general election received the support of all the non-Labour voting MPs, this still would not be enough for the two-thirds needed. Hence, there would need to be some Labour MPs willing to press the button and send their party into an election which not only would it not win, but would see it do worse than in 2015.

Turkeys need a very strong motivation to vote for Christmas. So, why would a Labour MP do this?

Firstly, it could stop Momentum's momentum. As the Daily Mail notes:

Labour is done for a generation. If the Corbynites are successful in their efforts to seize control of every aspect of the internal machinery, to deselect non-hard-Left MPs, and to turn a potential party of government into a puritanical protest movement, Labour is done for good.

A snap election would be before this scenario has played to completion. Constituency Labour Parties would have to find candidates as short notice. Any Corbynite group wanting to deselect their MP would suddenly find they had a much shorter timescale in which to get their plans together, and would be wrong-footed. A generation ago, Labour MPs knowing the hard Left would deselect them had nothing to lose by defecting to the Social Democrats. In this generation, Labour MPs knowing that Momentum will get them deselected in time for 2020 have nothing to lose by forcing an election in 2016.

Secondly, and associated with this, Corbynism will have faced its test at the ballot box - and have been rejected. Just as the June 1983 election result made Labour realise it had to move back towards the centre to win, losing the next election would tell Labour the same.

And, connected with that is the third reason - it brings the next Labour-led Government forward. At the moment, Labour clearly will not win in 2020, and will be back in office at the 2025 election at the earliest. But the 2011 Act has timetabling rules:

Date of next election Scheduled date of following election
Up to 28 April 2016 7 May 2020
5 May 2016 to 27 April 2017 6 May 2021
4 May 2017 to 26 April 2018 5 May 2022
3 May 2018 to 25 April 2019 4 May 2023
2 May 2019 to 30 April 2020 2 May 2024

Naturally, there is not going to be an early election before May this year, but if a snap one were held post-referendum, this would bring the subsequent one forward to May 2021. Labour has to experience defeat before it comes to its senses.

But I have to say that - despite seeing Labour's opinion poll rating going south since he became Leader of the Opposition - Jeremy Corbyn is an asset to Labour. He has played a significant role in uniting the Left, and bringing politically passionate people into Labour who were disillusioned during the Blair/Brown Government. The challenge for his successor will be to win back the types of voters who gave Labour its landslides around the turn of the century without alienating those Corbyn has brought back. If he or she does that, Labour's biggest electoral successes lie in the future. One of the first acts of the next Labour leader should be to make Corbyn the Labour Party Chairman.

The fourth reason is that due to a clause in the Electoral Registration & Administration Act 2013, the Boundary Commissions will present their reports to Parliament in September 2018, and these will be the new constituencies used at the 2020 election - or at any early election after late 2018.

And these are likely to be bad new for Labour. There should be provisional boundaries produced soon, giving parties a more specific idea of how the changes will impact them. It would be in Labour's interests to get the next general conducted on the current boundaries - and hence, out of the way before the new constituencies are formally approved.

The fifth one might sound - at first - to be an odd reason. Namely, it will reinforce the Anglicisation of the Labour party.

During the Blair era - and especially the Brown era - there were the predictable Daily Mail stories that we had a Government dominated by Scots. For example, take the sextet of senior members of the Government that took office in 1997:

  • Prime Minister - Tony Blair (born in Scotland)
  • Environment, Transport & Regional Affairs Secretary - John Prescott (born in Wales)
  • Lord Chancellor - Derry Irvine (Scottish)
  • Chancellor of the Exchequer - Gordon Brown (Scottish)
  • Foreign & Commonwealth Secretary - Robin Cook (Scottish)
  • Home Secretary - Jack Straw

Out of the six, only Straw would be English enough for the Daily Mail.

Although it has to be said that it was North East England - rather than Scotland - dominating that Government. In addition to Blair (representing Sedgefield), there was South Shields's David Clark as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Redcar's Mo Mowlam as Northern Ireland Secretary.

Although Clark was dismissed in the July 1998 reshuffle, out of the four new members of the Cabinet, only Margaret Jay - as Lord Privy Seal, Leader of the House of Lords and Minister for Women - was not an MP for North East England (actually, she wasn't an MP for anywhere), with Newcastle-upon-Tyne East & Wallsend's Nick Brown becoming Agriculture Minister, Tyneside North's Stephen Byers as Chief Secretary to the Treasury and Hartlepool's Peter Mandelson as Trade & Industry Secretary.

Even Mandelson's resignation in December 1998 didn't reduce the North East contingent, as Byers replaced him and was, in turn, replaced by Darlington's Alan Milburn.

Mowlam being moved to Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in October 1999 and replaced by a returning Mandelson brought the number of Cabinet members sitting for North East constituencies up to 6 - which was over one-quarter of the Cabinet from Great Britain's smallest region.

However, the perception remained of the Government being dominated by Scots - and, when we look at elections, we can see why Scotland would punch above its weight in Labour Governments:

Election Labour MPs % from Scotland
UK Scotland Labour MPs All MPs
July 1945 393 37 9.41% 11.09%
February 1950 315 37 11.75% 11.36%
October 1951 295 35 11.86% 11.36%
May 1955 277 34 12.27% 11.36%
October 1959 258 38 14.73% 11.27%
October 1964 317 43 13.56% 11.27%
March 1966 363 46 12.67% 11.27%
June 1970 287 44 15.33% 11.18%
February 1974 301 40 13.29% 11.18%
October 1974 319 41 12.85% 11.18%
May 1979 268 44 16.42% 11.18%
June 1983 209 41 19.62% 11.08%
June 1987 229 50 21.83% 11.08%
April 1992 271 49 18.08% 11.06%
May 1997 418 56 13.40% 10.93%
June 2001 412 55 13.35% 10.93%
May 2005 355 40 11.27% 9.13%
May 2010 258 41 15.89% 9.08%
May 2015 232 1 0.43% 9.08%

I should clarify what the percentages are. The first one is the percentage of Labour MPs that were elected for Scottish constituencies, and the second the percentage of all MPs that were elected for Scottish constituencies.

If the first percentage is in bold, then it is an increase from the previous election's. And what we see is that, as Labour support falls, normally this leads to the Scottish section of the Parliamentary Labour Party increasing its numerical influence in the PLP - with a peak at the 1987 election when the Conservatives losing around half their Scottish seats to Labour meant that 21.83% of Labour MPs were representing Scottish constituencies.

For most of the post-war period Scotland (and, indeed, Wales and North East England) have been areas where Labour is entrenched. However tough it gets elsewhere, these are places where Labour keeps on winning. Hence, during the low points for Labour, these areas carry the load and hit above their weight.

But now Labour has lost Scotland. In the polling for the Scottish Parliament election it is tying with the Conservatives, which would lead to a close battle for second place, when you run the results through the Scotland Votes website:

When we looked at the Liberal Democrat target seats, we saw that Dunbartonshire East and Edinburgh West would fall back on less than a 3% swing. Third on the Conservative target list is Berwickshire, Roxburgh & Selkirk, which needs just a 0.30% swing. However, as I noted earlier, Labour needs a swing of 3.28% to have a second Scottish seat - and is at risk of losing the one it has.

Picture then, a general election which sees Labour - if it has any Scottish MPs - reduced to being Scotland's fourth party in terms of Westminster seats. Gone would be the days of the Blair/Brown Government, where there was the perception that Labour was favouring Scotland above England. Instead, it would enable voters in England to see Labour as a quintessentially English party.

In addition, Labour support in Wales is falling, and the boundary changes will hit Wales more than anywhere else in the United Kingdom, as it would lose around one-quarter of its seats.

For Labour, things will just get worse as this Parliament continues. The best thing for their long-term future is an early election - however damaging that will be in the short-term.

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