Lesley Riddoch: Election exposed weakness of political system

As Westminster prepares for an uncertain future, it is time to review the whole system, argues Lesley Riddoch.

Britain's main opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. Picture: OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images

As the election fallout continues, it’s clear every party leader is left with massive challenges. The one facing Theresa May is surely insurmountable.

The only reason she’s still Prime Minister is the unpalatable nature of her wannabe successors.

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Brexit talks loom as a nightmare where she, not Jeremy Corbyn, will walk “naked”.

Britain's main opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. Picture: OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images

Beyond that looms the problem of commanding a majority on domestic issues without the support of her new Scots Tory cohort or erstwhile allies in the DUP, thanks to English Votes for English laws.

Of course, the Tories hold 297 of 533 English seats, but the foolish, stop-gap, short-termism of EVEL will soon be thrown into even sharper relief.

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Nicola Sturgeon must pay attention to the election results and open up internal debate on domestic policy, writes Lesley Riddoch. Picture: John Devlin


Ruth Davidson’s success in re-motivating Scottish Tory voters is tempered by the knowledge that the “Mother Ship” is in serious peril and Westminster control can only be maintained by a deal with Democratic Unionists whose illiberal views are completely at odds with her own – a factor limiting her chances of succeeding Theresa May, if she is so inclined.

Jeremy Corbyn has gained enormously in stature, but leads a parliamentary party that opposed and undermined him at every turn – until Friday’s stunning result.

Inconveniently, one such doubter leads the Scottish Labour party. Last-minute converts can be hard to handle – cowed for the time being but surely nursing their wrath in preparation for his first mistake.

So Corbyn must decide if he should turn a blind eye to disloyalty in the interests of party unity or force his MPs to face re-selection before any new autumn election – a fate they only avoided this time because of the rush to meet the snap election call.

Britain's main opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. Picture: OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images

Nicola Sturgeon is fortunate the Conservative’s calamity is larger, more significant and closer to the doorstep of the London press and media than her own.

The party recorded its second biggest tally of MPs – larger than all the other parties combined – but its share of the vote dropped by 13 per cent and the SNP lost 21 MPs including former leader Alex Salmond and Westminster leader Angus Robertson.

In truth, the SNP hit a near perfect storm last week as Brexit-supporting Yes voters abandoned the party, the two party-race developing across the UK encouraged a return to pre-2015 Westminster voting patterns and the SNP was punished for demanding a second independence referendum while health and education outcomes faltered.

Unquestionably, the indyref2 demand riled many voters, including some supporters of independence who simply think the time isn’t right.

Nicola Sturgeon must pay attention to the election results and open up internal debate on domestic policy, writes Lesley Riddoch. Picture: John Devlin

But opinion polls still suggest most voters want to remain in the EU single market – possible for an independent Scotland but nigh on impossible for the UK – and support a final Scottish vote on the Brexit deal.

What would that vote be if one option is not “going it alone?” Meanwhile, the Tories’ success in opposing a second referendum north of the Border actually confirms the primacy of the constitutional question in Scottish politics.

But clearly the case for independence is not yet built – neither is co-operation and communication across the entire independence movement.

Nicola Sturgeon must pay attention to both, open up internal debate on domestic policy direction and reverse the polarity of the party’s topdown attitude to power and policy before snatching at the next moment of Westminster weakness.

No, the only winner of this election was Professor John Curtice whose exit poll accurately predicted the final outcome – again.

But perhaps the biggest losers were us – the papers, commentators and pollsters who generally miscalculated yet another test of public opinion. Hot on the heels of failing to forecast Brexit, Trump and Macron, the Press didn’t see any sign of Jeremy Corbyn’s resurgence or dissatisfaction with the SNP.

Three miscalls in a row.

That must raise questions about pollsters, pundits and newspaper editors who live in a hermetically sealed bubble in which opinions of the right wing Press dominate, old fashioned ideas of leadership are given too much weight and the ability of voters to identify their own interests is routinely dismissed.

From the minute Jeremy Corbyn kicked off the election campaign with the promise of a living wage, he had the full attention of the low paid, if not the media. Of course, the Leave vote and subsequent demise of Ukip meant millions of English voters were at last free to focus on domestic issues – but only Jeremy Corbyn was shrewd enough to build a manifesto on domestic policy issues that could appeal to distinct sections of the voting public.

Students picked up on his pledge to scrap tuition fees, southern voters heard his commitment to renationalise the railways.

Suddenly, voters suffering daily misery found someone willing to validate and tackle their experience.

Living in a farming community, I suspect the late-payment of farm subsidies by the Scottish Government had a similar under-rated impact on the SNP vote in rural seats.

In many ways, last week was a series of mini-elections not a single one.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. The whole UK political process is screaming out for modernisation.

If we had a system of proportional representation, the prospect of an autumn election would be much more remote.

The business of reaching compromise would be built into our expectations, not reached for as a sign of collapse and chaos when the single largest party finds itself held hostage by one that represents just 270,000 souls.

But the Big Two will doubtless hang onto first past the post voting, in the forlorn hope that the days of sizeable majorities will return – meantime subjecting the electorate to constant elections and considerable instability.

Voters are getting wise though – picking up on policies that reflect their own interests, forcing compromise and co-operation on parties that prefer to operate in a quasi-Presidential manner and wrong-footing the Press and pundits at every turn.

The media should indulge in a bit of post-election soul-searching every bit as profound as the party leaders – future election coverage needs rebalancing to properly scrutinise policy, to reassess what makes a “strong leader” and to encourage a wider set of views than those that preoccupy the political class and the punters selected to act as a collective echo chamber for the stacked questions their reporters pose.

This election has exposed the weakness of a creaking British political system.

Is there any hope of change before we do it all again this autumn?