I had an article in the Scotsman yesterday, about Murdo Fraser’s plans to establish a separate right-of-centre party if he is elected as Scottish Conservative leader. I’ve previously discussed these issues HERE and HERE. The article is available from the Scotsman‘s website here, and the copy I submitted is below – my title is different to the one they chose, of ‘Involved voters like devolved parties’. (The paper also added a sub-head which I didn’t write, referring to ‘separatist’ systems – which would not be my preferred adjective to describe a multi-national state.)
Murdo Fraser’s new party: not so much breaking a mould as adapting to reality
Murdo Fraser’s announcement that, if elected as the new Scottish Conservative leader, he would disband the existing party and create a new centre-right one operating only in Scotland has created a good deal of excitement. If the aim was to get the Scottish Conservatives back into the news, it has emphatically succeeded.
What Fraser is proposing – two geographically distinct parties occupying much the same political space, and collaborating in state-wide politics but otherwise ploughing their own furrows – is very reminiscent of Germany. The Christian Social Union in Bavaria is separate from the Christian Democratic Union in the other Länder (states), but they occupy similar political space, don’t campaign in each other’s territory, share a single candidate for Chancellor at federal elections and co-operate in the Bundestag in Berlin. The CSU dominates Land elections in Bavaria (it did poorly in the 2008 elections, and only won 43 per cent of the vote and 49 per cent of seats), where it takes a more pro-welfare approach than the CDU elsewhere, but is also more socially conservative and respectful of Catholic social teaching. Historically, that is what Bavarian voters have wanted.
The Sanderson review of the Conservative Party in Scotland considered but rejected the ‘Bavarian’ option. Fraser, by contrast, thinks the Scottish Conservatives need to change the game, or they will remain doomed to being no more than an isolated minor party, despite having a significant base of potential support.
Comparatively speaking, the UK is very unusual in maintaining three Britain-wide parties in a substantially decentralised, multinational state. Some federal systems maintain single party systems: Australia, the United States and (largely) Germany are cases in point. But these are not multinational systems. Multinational states like Canada, Belgium or Spain have all developed fragmented party systems, where parties operate only in parts of the territory of the state, not across the whole of it. Belgian parties operate only in the Flemish or French-speaking part; while they may have sister parties in the other territory, there are no organisational or other links, and each party looks to that region/community, not its ideological relations. Spain has a very distinctive system in Catalonia; there, the Catalan Socialists compete with Convergència i Unió, the bourgeois nationalists. ERC, the radical secessionist nationalists, and the Spain-wide conservative Partido Popular are minor players. The PP is also only a third player in elections in the Basque Country, where the real competition is between the PNV, the Basque nationalists, and PSOE, the state-wide socialists.
Canada goes further than anywhere else. There, quite separate parties contest federal elections and those at provincial level – so vote-splitting is not something voters choose to do, but something they have to. Only the social-democratic New Democrats operate as an integrated party in all parts of the country and both orders of government. There are extensive links between provincial and federal Conservative and Liberal activists and donors in some provinces, particularly Ontario, but the parties remain organisationally distinct. In Quebec elections, the key cleavage concerns constitutional matters, between the federalist Parti Libéral du Québec and the sovereigntist Parti Québécois. Both parties draw support from the political left and political right, but are kept together by their constitutional positions – and their voters have to choose from a different range of parties in federal elections.
By contrast, the UK’s party system has not changed despite devolution. The three major unionist parties operate in most of the state, much as they did in the 1980s. Constitutional change meant that there have been three distinct political arenas since 1999, though. The existence of nationalist parties Scotland and Wales means that those political systems work in different ways. The dynamics of competition between parties in them is very different from that in England, though for Labour in particular, it has been masked by a tendency to see Holyrood elections as less important and a pattern of vote-splitting that benefits Labour in Westminster ones (but the SNP in devolved ones). Scotland already has a distinct party system, and all three Britain-wide parties need to adapt to that if they are to have a chance of succeeding in Scottish elections. The Lib Dems think their federal structure already does that. Labour has just adopted the recommendations of its review led by Sarah Boyack and Jim Murphy, which go a little further than Sanderson suggested for the Conservatives but not so far as to create a separate party.
The argument that maintaining a single party is key to preserving the unity of a state and preventing break-up or secession is a questionable one, at best. The factors that create a single party system or several are largely the same as wider territorial differences. State-wide parties do not so much maintain a state as reflect the lack of significant political differences within it. If the concern is to maintain the Union, then what is more important is the policy of the party than how it is organised. To win elections and exercise political power, parties must compete effectively in the immediate electoral arena – not stick to some formula that condemns them to lose. Preserving a single party structure and ‘brand’ for the sake of it means they are likely simply to yield ground to parties better able to respond to the conditions of that environment. Those will usually be nationalist ones.
Indeed, the preservation of basically unitary party structures since devolution has not done the unionist parties many favours. It has inhibited their ability to respond to the Scottish (or Welsh) political arena, while also making life a good deal easier for nationalist parties. The SNP can respond more nimbly to Scottish concerns and does not have to balance concerns of the Scottish and UK-level parties in the same way Labour and Conservatives do. This is as much to do with internal power structures and ingrained habits of mind about how the party should behave or operate, as formal party structures and constitutions, but the latter give a powerful lead. Encouraging some of the most promising candidates to look to Westminster rather than Holyrood for their political careers also weakens unionist parties.
The SNP will be the most likely losers if a right-of-centre, pro-devolution, clearly Scottish party emerges from the shell of the present Scottish Conservatives. That party will compete for votes that presently go to the SNP, and it will be much freer to form alliances or coalitions with all the other parties as well. Labour will have to challenge the policies of such a party too, not just point to ‘nasty Conservatives’. Both parties have an interest in minimising the importance of Fraser’s proposal, and in trying to block it.
The big challenge for any unionist party is to show that it is unequivocally committed to the concerns of voters in the Scottish arena, and is not putting their interests behind those of the party elsewhere in the UK. Murdo Fraser clearly understands the range of problems affecting the party. This is not just a ‘toxic’ brand, which stops people who support Conservative policies from voting for the party. It is also the need to keep in step with the party in Westminster, meaning it cannot adapt to the demands of competing in the Scottish arena. Fraser sees the need to change the rules of a game which doom his party not just to doing poorly in elections, but remaining isolated from government as well. Politics, like evolution, is a battle for survival of the fittest; this is an attempt to make a pro-union party of the centre-right adapt rather than become extinct.