Devolved Elections 2016 - Europe and the race for second place

3 May 2016

 

There is a school of thought which argues that frequent elections and regular referendums are not in fact conducive to a healthy democracy but instead lead to a phenomenon known as voter fatigue, where citizens disengage from the political process because they feel they are being pestered too often. One of the peculiarities of the British system is that citizens in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have twice as much democratic representation as their neighbours in England do. Just seven weeks before all Britons will have their say in the EU Referendum, voters in these three nations are already heading to the polls. The widespread sense that the results are a foregone conclusion can only exasperate voter fatigue.

 

 

Yet just a few short years ago, following the independence referendum, there was heady talk of a "democratic renewal", even revolution, in Scotland. It will be interesting to see then, when this odd campaign finally comes to an end, if this revolution has any staying power. I say odd because, in a bizarre twist on the Tears for Fears song Everybody Wants to Rule the World, in Scotland in 2016 everybody wants to be the opposition. Labour, the Tories, the Greens and the Lib Dems have all argued that they will be best at holding the government to account, thereby implicitly accepting that Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP will be returned as the government after 5 May.

 

 

Donald Trump once said, in his typically immodest style, that nobody remembers who comes second, but Scottish Labour will have had a good election if they manage to keep their silver medal at the end of it. They want to avoid at all costs the humiliation at being beaten into third place by the Conservatives. Also hoping to usurp Labour are the Scottish Greens, led by Patrick Harvie. And this is without considering the Lib Dems, or UKIP, or a new pro-independence socialist alliance - RISE (Radicalism, Independence, Socialism, Environmentalism), whose members take the view that Nicola Sturgeon is not living up to her own radical rhetoric. They may well be onto something.

 

 

It cannot be said then that the Scots are not spoiled for choice, although some colour and excitement in this campaign wouldn’t have gone amiss. The best there is on offer by way of entertainment is the likes of Tommy Sheridan, a former socialist MSP and – if the tabloids are to be believed – connoisseur of prostitutes and cocaine, now attempting to relaunch his career after being convicted of perjury five years ago. I once asked him over a Facebook Q&A whether it was true that, seeing as he was prepared to lie to a court of law, he would presumably have no compunction about lying to the electorate. He didn’t reply.

 

 

All this will become irrelevant, of course, when Sturgeon is re-elected. Her charisma and self-confidence masks an insecurity about the very issue that drives her, the “beautiful dream” of Scottish independence. You would be mistaken, however, if you thought the fervour around the SNP had helped spark an upsurge in nationalism over in Wales. Whilst Leanne Wood, leader of pro-independence Plaid Cymru, has seen an encouraging boost in her ratings during this campaign, she can nevertheless only dream of basking in the levels of popularity enjoyed by her friend Sturgeon. More significantly, support for Welsh independence lags well behind that sentiment in Scotland.

 

 

Instead, Labour has dominated the assembly in Cardiff since its inception, a trend which looks set to continue after the election. Labour First Minister Carwyn Jones is known not to be much of a Jeremy Corbyn fan, believing division and uncertainty in Westminster is weakening his party’s chances in his home nation. In response to this, Jones has argued that Welsh Labour is “autonomous", with no interference from London -a status Scottish Labour is also inching towards. The Additional Member System of voting may push Labour into a minority in the Assembly, while at the same time bringing a new party into the chamber. UKIP believes the debate over the EU is giving them a boost in support. It is the Kippers that have provided Wales with a Sheridan-style opportunist candidate of their own in the form of Neil Hamilton, an English ex-Tory MP now hoping that the good people of the Mid & West Wales region will not recall the 1990s “Cash for Questions” scandal when they cast their votes on 5 May.

 

 

In all three nations, the EU Referendum is overshadowing proceedings. The SNP has made it clear they will not allow Scotland to be dragged out of Europe “against its will”, while in Wales party leaders are divided on the issue. It is in Northern Ireland, however, where the question of leaving Europe is causing the most concern. The policy of “breaking down the borders” between European member states has always been a controversial one, to say the least, but it has had unquestionably positive consequences for the people living on the dividing line between Northern Ireland and the Republic. With much of the potency of that border removed, the sectarian conflict that was fought over it only began to look more ridiculous than it already was. Of course, saying that the EU would create a “second Troubles” would be scaremongering, but the border carved through Ulster would indeed become more prominent once again, and leaving Europe would also hit the region economically (see Thomas Chambers’ excellent article from 23 April). Needless to say, the super-patriots like Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage have not considered the fact that if they get their way over Europe one of the UK’s four nations may see a recrudescence in sectarian tension, while another may decide to leave Britain altogether.

 

 

As for the Northern Irish elections themselves, it is also the case that very little looks set to change. After the last election, the two largest parties in the assembly, the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) and Sinn Fein, together with the UUP (Ulster Unionist Party), SDLP (Social Democratic and Labour Party), and the Alliance Party were all entitled to control ministries within the power-sharing executive. At least four of those parties look likely to hang on to this status. So predominant is the executive’s representation in the 108-seat Assembly that there are very few MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly) free to oppose its actions, aside from a small rump of minor parties and independents. For years, there has effectively been no official opposition at all, although the power struggles within the four/five-party executive have usually given the parties outside of government plenty of opportunities to prevent legislation from passing. The Fresh Start initiative, outlined last year, seeks to introduce an “official opposition” and generally make Stormont more accountable. Although, as is the case with everything in this election season, these changes are incremental and uncertain, and not without their shortcomings.

 

 

To many an observer, it seems that the vote on 23 June will be more consequential than any of the elections taking place on 5 May. Meanwhile, the tedium of this year’s devolved elections is unhealthy for democracy for many reasons. Some parties, such as the Lib Dems, are struggling to justify their existence, while the sense that the results are already known has given some dubious past-their-prime types a chance at a second career. All things considered, it is easy to sympathise with any citizen who has detected in themselves the subtle but unmistakable symptoms of voter fatigue. 

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