The state of British electoral politics

By Alex Bryan

In the Observer today the ever-excellent Andrew Rawnsley has written an article exploring the north-south divide in Britain. He demonstrates that the divide transcends class, that it is entrenched in British politics and, most importantly, that the party which manages to bridge the divide (or at least best identifies ways in which to diminish it) will reap the rewards of doing so. Though Rawnsley is on the whole correct in identifying the nature of the problem, I think there are a few aspects to it which he does not mention but which are important to bear in mind.

Firstly, Rawnsley notes that ‘The divide has become self-fuelling. A Tory in Bradford who fancies being an MP has a choice: find another ambition or leave Bradford. That is why Eric Pickles represents a seat in Essex.’ This only tells half the story, and leaves out a key component; the party machine. Candidate selection for both Labour and the Conservatives revolves around maintaining the seats of existing MPs (especially cabinet or shadow cabinet members) and planting those in the ascendency in safe seats to ensure a swift route into Parliament. The seemingly interminable procession of Downing Street advisors moving into Parliament demonstrates this. David Miliband, for example, had little connection to South Shields before being parachuted into the constituency.

This relates to the north-south divide at a basic level, in that the desire to ensure the best candidates being fielded by the party in an election get elected means the party apparatus places the best candidates (or at least those most likely to go on to high profile posts) in safe seats. This leaves the swathes of seats where the party had little chance of winning anyway contested by first-time candidates, former councillors and those ultimately seeking to do well enough to be allowed to run in a more winnable constituency next time. This clearly reflects the reality of the north-south divide, but it also exacerbates it.

Rawnsley, as I mentioned earlier, also noted that whichever party makes the nation ‘whole again’ awaits a great prize, presumably a streak of electoral success. However, it seems to me far more likely that this effect be achieved through the fragmentation of the nation rather than a process of political reunification, whatever that might involve. The referendum on Scottish independence will be more significant for long term British electoral politics than any other election in the next 20 years. If Alex Salmond gets his way, the departure of Scotland from the United Kingdom will be the ultimate gift for the Conservative Party. The Conservatives only hold one seat in Scotland, whereas England is a sea of blue dotted with island nations of red or yellow. For Labour, Scottish cessation would be a disaster, and could feasibly mark the beginning of the end for the party as a genuine force in British politics. The north-south divide will linger, but the north will be considerably smaller. Elections, hence, would no longer be fought in the midlands, but in the south.

Scottish independence would essentially relegate the north-south divide from being a genuine division across the middle of the nation into a regional anomaly, a patch of red over an overwhelmingly blue backdrop. It is difficult to imagine how Labour could end up with a similar sort of advantage, though Conservatives have a point when they say the current  constituency map already favours Labour.

Rather than such structural chance, it seems the most likely way in which the divide might be bridged, at least temporarily, is through individual politicians who can appeal to the Other Half of the divide. As Blair reached out to southerners and Thatcher embodied the social mobility and no-nonsense attitude of the north, individual politicians are in general more capable of uniting the north and south into a workable electoral coalition than parties as a whole. Parties reflect their demographic base, whereas individuals can disguise theirs. From this, it seems unfortunately clear that, barring Scottish independence, the north-south divide is here to stay.