James Forsyth: Elections? What Elections?

By Forsyth, James | The Spectator, April 30, 2016 | Go to article overview

James Forsyth: Elections? What Elections?


Forsyth, James, The Spectator


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Britain goes to the polls next week. Yet this has barely registered on the media radar. These aren't the forgotten elections; they are the ones nobody's bloody heard of. This is surprising, because they have real political significance. North of the border, the Scottish parliamentary elections will almost certainly result in another overall majority for the SNP. But we might also see something no one would have predicted even two years ago: the Tories beating Labour into second place. In Wales, the assembly elections will reveal whether Labour can hang on to power, but also whether Ukip can establish itself as a political force there. In England, the local elections will be Jeremy Corbyn's first big test. And across England and Wales, the police and crime commissioner elections will show if the public can be persuaded to engage with genuine localism.

The main reason for this lack of attention is that the EU referendum is consuming Downing Street's attention; one No. 10 staff member has taken to remarking: 'I work on domestic policy, so I am feeling a bit lonely at the moment'. Right now, it is also the dominant story for the political press; the lens through which everything else is seen.

But there are other, more subtle reasons, too. When the Blair government first introduced its devolution plan, it was assumed that elections to these bodies would be mid-term verdicts on national government. But Scottish politics is now so distinct from Westminster that few will attempt to draw lessons for the rest of the UK from the results there. This distinction is, in many ways, an inevitable consequence of devolution.

What is more worrying is the lack of coverage of the Holyrood elections down south. Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and John Kasich have garnered far more column inches and airtime than Nicola Sturgeon, Kezia Dugdale and Ruth Davidson in the past month or two. For the Union to survive in the long term there needs to be a broad awareness, both at Westminster and among the public, of what is happening in every part of it.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the Scottish campaign is how managerial the SNP's pitch is. You will look in vain in its manifesto for a big new idea. Instead, it is full of small, technocratic policies. In this respect it is very much reminiscent of New Labour's 2005 manifesto. The main focus of the SNP is the First Minister. It is her face on the cover of the manifesto and she has appealed to voters to elect her on her personal mandate. All this suggests that we might be past 'peak SNP', as the laws of political gravity will soon start to apply again.

The real Scottish battle is for second place. The Tories, particularly those close to the leadership, are strikingly optimistic about their chances of beating Labour. This explains why they are so frustrated that the national government is making things more difficult for them -- from the travails of the Budget to Iain Duncan Smith's resignation, to the row over child refugees. As one ally of Ruth Davidson complains: 'Every time London opens its mouth, it makes it more difficult for us.' Indeed, Davidson is running a campaign that is almost completely independent of the UK party: David Cameron won't even be going to Scotland. …

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