2014 European Parliament Election Analysis

I’ve decided to mark my dramatic return to the blogosphere with a couple of election analyses for both the European Parliament election and the UK local elections (coming in a later post) held in the last week.  The media in Britain has been awash with stories about a political ‘earthquake’ that has seen the emergence of a four-party system with the rise of UKIP.  Yet, from the way it’s being reported, you would think that the entire European project has been brought to its knees.  This is not the case.  The media, particularly the BBC, has failed to adequately report the Europe-wide picture beyond picking select examples of countries which have seen a dramatic rise in Euroscepticism.  There has been a growth in Eurosceptic feeling across Europe but, to be clear, the countries which have seen UKIP-style breakthroughs are in the minority.  I’m far from an expert in European politics but I will try to present the general picture as the dust settles across Europe and fill in the gaps that the mainstream media has missed.  I will also aim to take a balanced look at UKIP’s electoral victory and argue that why the results show that the major British parties would be wrong to seek to ‘out-UKIP UKIP’ on issues regarding Europe and immigration.

I’ll analyse the results from a progressively larger scale, beginning with Scotland and Wales, passing through the UK and ending at the European Parliament itself.

Scotland
The European Parliament election in Scotland has inevitably been analysed through the prism of the upcoming referendum on independence, it being the last electoral test for the political parties before September.  It would be inaccurate to pin the ruling Scottish National Party (SNP)’s electoral fortunes to support for a Yes vote, given that many SNP voters do not favour independence while several supporters of independence come from other parties.  Furthermore, the turnout of 33.5% is well below the approximately 80% expected for the referendum.  More accurate would be to view the election as a test of the SNP’s popularity after seven years in power.  Here are the results:

2014 European Parliament Scotland

From a result like this it is difficult at first glance to ascertain which party has ‘won’.  If we’re going simply by vote share then it proves to be yet another instance of the SNP topping the polls, yet I doubt that’s how senior strategists shall be interpreting it.  Since the Liberal Democrats entered into a coalition with the Conservatives in 2010, the SNP have consistently been taking significant shares of the vote from the Liberal Democrats in both elections and the polls, but that hasn’t happened here.  Where did the Lib Dem vote go?  You could argue that it’s gone to UKIP, however notice also the 7.04% lost by the ‘others’ – which in 2009 were primarily composed of anti-EU parties like No2EU, or the more extreme British National Party.  I’d imagine this would account for around half the UKIP vote.  Therefore the unavoidable truth arises that the former Lib Dem vote seems to have gone to Labour rather than the SNP.  That said, there is the not insignificant counterargument that the SNP has managed to remain in the top position of what is traditionally an anti-establishment election seven years into power.  This is a record neither Labour nor the Conservatives in the rest of the UK can claim within the last twenty years, nor most governments in Europe (Angela Merkel springs to mind as one of the other few exceptions).  The result may have been disappointing for the SNP, especially as polls suggested they might attain the mid 30%s, but it’s far from disastrous.

Perhaps a slightly more clear cut image emerges if we look at seats won.  The only change here is that the Liberal Democrats lost their only seat to UKIP, who saw David Coburn elected as not only their first MEP in Scotland but their first representative anywhere.  Both the SNP and the Greens had been hoping to snap up this third seat, and the fact it’s ended up going to UKIP – a party opposed to many of the SNP’s and Green’s values – will be a disappointment to both.  The Scottish Greens can take small consolation that their vote has increased for the four European election in a row, with 8.06% providing them their highest result ever in a national election.  We must also not overstate the scale of UKIP’s victory in Scotland.  Not only did UKIP receive the lowest vote share in Scotland of any of the UK’s electoral ‘regions’, but also the lowest growth of their vote share anywhere in the UK.  Given the national context, the big shock isn’t that UKIP finally broke into Scotland but actually that they still only managed to achieve fourth place.  Scotland is no longer immune to UKIP but it still remains well behind the rest of the UK in its support of the party.

In terms of the wider implications, it’s interesting to look at how these results might reflect Scotland’s views towards Europe – if we are to assume that the election results can tell us anything this detailed, of course.  70% of Scottish voters voted for pro-European parties (which can rise to 77% if we evenly split the Tories into pro-Europe and Eurosceptic positions).  This contrasts with the UK as a whole where the figure is only around 43%.  This will be welcome to supporters of independence, who can use these figures to argue that Scotland is less Eurosceptic than the rest of the country and that there is less demand here for a renegotiated relationship.  A less welcome figure would be the fact that the pro-independence parties, the SNP and the Greens, only achieved 37% of the vote between them, though in an election dominated by debate over the country’s place in Europe rather than independence it’s hard to view these results as any reliable indicator of voting intention come September, especially given the low turnout.

Wales
Wales is a very small ‘region’ for the European Parliament, electing only 4 MEPs.  If the four main parties manage to achieve very roughly similar levels of the vote then they will all gain a seat and, because of the way the system works (it’s fairly simple – you can see a guide here) there’s quite a large margin of votes which would produce the same result.  This is what we saw happen in this election.

2014 European Parliament Wales

As you can see, despite there being a rather dramatic trend to UKIP and a less so but still significant trend to Labour, the seat distribution is unchanged.  This does betray one problem of the European electoral system: the D’Hondt system of electing MEPs, although marginally favouring larger parties, will generally give a proportional seat distribution; however when there’s only four seats to distribute it’s impossible to do so in a way that’s completely fair.  The regional system the UK uses is essential in ensuring that parties which don’t contest ever seat get represented, otherwise Plaid Cymru would win no seats, the SNP be severely unrepresented while the national parties would be over-repesented.  I can’t see a solution to this other than increase the number of seats for each country – which would make the European Parliament a complete mess – but this should be kept in mind.  This will be a welcome result for Labour, which suffered a terrible defeat in its traditional stronghold in 2009, though it’s still failed to make up all the ground lost.  It’s more bad news for the Liberal Democrats, who have gone from being an already minor force in Wales to virtual wipe-out.  The result also confirms UKIP’s position as a major party in Wales.  UKIP has grown in Wales during the last decade but it’s always been a step behind the rest of the country, whereas now their vote share is almost directly in line with the national average.  But perhaps the greatest relief is for Plaid Cymru, which managed to hold onto the seat by the skin of their teeth after numerous polls suggested they’d lose it to Labour.  Nevertheless, this result is more evidence that Plaid Cymru is failing to tap into discontent with the major parties in the way the SNP has achieved up in Scotland.

If we then take our European lens to this result, we see that 51.9% of Welsh voters voted for pro-European parties (around 60% once the Conservatives are split) – not as high as in Scotland, but still above the national average of 43% and a clear majority.  Once more, this fact brings to light the limitations of the UKIP ‘earthquake’.

Northern Ireland
I won’t pretend to have anything resembling an adequate knowledge of Northern Irish politics (I don’t think any outsiders truly understand what goes on over there!) so I’ll just make up a pretty table and give some basic observations.

2014 European Parliament Northern Ireland

There don’t seem to be many big changes here.  Sinn Féin and the DUP have both reasserted themselves as the major parties of Irish republicanism and unionism respectively, at the expense of the UUP and the SDLP.  UKIP have failed to make particular inroads into Northern Ireland, presumably because there’s not the gap in political nationalism it’s managing to fill in much of England and Wales.  The overall nationalist vote was 38.5% (-3.7), the unionist vote 50.9% (+1.9) and the ‘other’ vote 10.5% (+1.7).  The unionists achieved a majority, though the politically neutral parties have also managed to make gains.  Given demographic trends I doubt the population is becoming more unionist in ideology, so I suspect any other trends are quirks of turnout and represent no real change in political feeling within Northern Ireland.  Once again, the problem of seat distribution is raised, given that unionist parties took 67% of the seats compared to just 33% for the nationalists, but I also can’t think of what would be an easy solution to this.

United Kingdom (excluding Northern Ireland)
Watching region after region declare spectacular gains and victories for UKIP would either have been an exhilarating or thoroughly depressing experience depending on your perspective.  There is no doubt that UKIP won the election, this being the first time neither Labour or the Conservatives won the most votes in a national election since 1910.

2014 European Parliament UK

In some ways, these results aren’t particularly surprising.  Both the coalition parties took the standard ‘anti-government’ hit to their vote, with the Liberal Democrats bearing the overwhelming brunt of this as usual.  The official opposition, Labour, picked up a strong anti-government vote.  UKIP soared ahead as polls predicted.  Yet it’s being portrayed by the media as a UKIP landslide, labelling every single other party’s performance as a defeat.  This isn’t entire untrue; as previously mentioned, this is the worst result for the major parties in a century, achieving less than half of all votes between them (though, despite the media narrative, their combined share actually increased by over 6 percentage points).  This is an unprecedented result for UKIP and leaves them in very strong stead for the general election.  The Liberal Democrats have been wiped out, barely clinging onto 1 MEP of 11; Nick Clegg’s position as party leader appeared tenuous at best the following morning and, while he seems to have partially secured his position since, there continues to be dissent within the party over the viability of his leadership.  Despite a strong improvement on their 2009 result Labour had hoped to do much better, beaten into second place and only slightly above the Tories.  This prompted panicking among Labour commentators and, I’m afraid, has increased pressure for the party to take an even harsher line on immigration in a foolish bid to ‘out-UKIP UKIP.’  The Greens will welcome their extra seat, and enjoy the prestige which comes of having triple the number of MEPs as the Liberal Democrats, but the drop is national vote share will surely be a disappointment.  Despite losing votes, David Cameron seems to be in the best position of all major party leaders.  If he can count on much of the UKIP vote returning to the Conservatives next year, this result indicates the party has a decent run at winning next year’s general election.

The parties will respond to this in different ways.  The Greens and the Liberal Democrats, assuming the latter doesn’t suffer a coup in the next year, will probably stick to their pro-EU, pro-immigration messages, and rightfully so.  The Conservatives have already made attempts to placate UKIP voters by offering an in-out referendum which, despite apparently failing to stem the rise of UKIP, will probably be the route they continue down.   Labour, in contrast, appears poised to take a much more UKIPesque line on various issues.  In the last couple of decades Labour seems to have become a party intent upon chasing the centre-ground rather than leading public opinion, and if it assesses that anti-immigration feeling is the current centre-ground I would fully expect the party to adopt such policies.  This would be a mistake.  I know you’re not supposed to agree with Tony Blair these days but he hit the nail on the head when arguing Labour should confront UKIP, not pander to it (while also correctly diagnosing the Lib Dems’ problems as being unrelated to their stance on Europe but instead a result of their lurch to the right within the coalition, something Labour strategists seem to have forgotten).

Here’s why.  Across the UK, 43% of voters supported pro-EU parties (55% when the Conservatives are split) compared to the 31% which is avowedly anti-EU (44% once the Conservatives are split).  Opinion seems to be divided in half across the country, though the pro-EU vote still has an edge over the Eurosceptics.  It is not true that a vast majority of the British public support withdrawal, and Labour should realise this.  Rather than join the side of the Eurosceptics, Labour should seek to dominate the pro-EU ground.  If it doesn’t, it should expect to see much more of its vote slip away to parties which do offer a counter to UKIP’s policies – most likely to the Greens. Over half of the UKIP vote came from former Tories, compared to just 20% from Labour; it would be foolish to seek votes from a group whose natural persuasion is not Labour.  Furthermore, this result cannot claim to be a fair representation of opinion in the UK with merely 34.19% turning out to vote – only just over half of the people who tend to vote in general elections.  Chances are, the majority of people who have strong anti-Europe, anti-immigration views would have turned out to vote for UKIP, but there’s still that whole 75% of voters who didn’t feel strongly enough to vote at all.  This is the group Labour should be targeting.  No matter how hard they try, they’ll never be able to take a stronger line on Europe and immigration than UKIP, but they can appeal to the majority of people who currently see no purpose in voting.

There is no doubt that the European Parliament has proved to be an anti-establishment vote in the UK, but that’s evident more from the dismal turnout than UKIP’s electoral gains.

European Parliament
It disappoints me that the greater picture of the European Parliament election hasn’t been adequately represented in British media.  The mainstream media, especially the BBC, have been intent on painting it as a great revolt against the EU, pointing to examples of countries which had a strong rise of anti-establishment parties such as the Front National in France and Syriza in Greece.  We hear less of Germany, where the ruling Christian Democratic Union dominated the election and kept the only significant Eurosceptic party down at 7%, or of Sweden where the Social Democrats and Greens, both pro-European, together came close to taking a majority of the seats.  Nor do we hear about the success of Europhile parties in eastern Europe, where attitudes towards the EU tend to be much more positive.  Here’s the overall result of the European Parliament election:

2014 European Parliament

Majority = 376 seats.

It’s impossible to deny that there has been a shift away from the four major pro-European parties, collectively losing 89 seats.  Many of these seats have gone to parties like UKIP and the National Front, though it’s worth pointing out that the group UKIP sits in only gained 7 seats (which is much less of an ‘earthquake’ than much of the media would have you believe).  This anti-establishment backlash has most greatly harmed the EPP and, to a lesser extent, the Liberals; the Socialists and Greens have more or less held their ground.  Although the EU will undoubtedly come under pressure from national leaders who faced domestic defeats, including David Cameron and Francois Hollande, it must be acknowledged that 69% of the European electorate voted for parties in groups with a positive attitude to the EU.  Yes, this is down from 80% in 2009, but given the scale of Europe’s successive economic crises in the last five years it’s remarkable the drop wasn’t greater.  The European people have not voted against the EU.

Therefore, the EU mustn’t let Eurosceptic national leaders seek to portray this result as a mandate for unravelling the European project.  This is already happening with the debate around who will be the next President of the European Commission (effectively, the European Commission).  A candidate for this position must be nominated by the Council of Europe, which comprises the 28 heads of government across the EU states,  which must then be approved by the European Parliament.  As of the 2009 Lisbon Treaty the Council of Europe have been instructed to take into account the democratic will of the people, as represented by the elections to Parliament, in selecting their nomination.  It is unclear exactly what this means, but as each political group selects their own candidate to be the new President (unless they decide to be awkward) I think the assumption is that the group with the most votes ought to have its candidate be elected.  In this case, then, the next President should be the EPP’s Jean-Clause Juncker.  However I see David Cameron already seeking to prevent him from achieving the Council’s nomination on the grounds that his policies are too  supportive of greater expansion for the EU.  I believe Francois Hollande has taken a similar position.  The collective leadership of the Council should not acquiesce to these leaders reeling from their own domestic humiliations when the democratic will of the European people is for a pro-European President, of which Juncker received the greatest mandate.

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Okay, reaching 3,000 words is usually a good place to stop.  I’ll finish with another disclaimer that I’m not an expert on anything I’ve written about; these are simply my responses to both the election result and the way it’s been portrayed in the media.

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Review: My 2013 Predictions

Last year I wrote a list of predictions for what I expected to occur across the world stage in 2013.  I’ve been looking through it over the year, pleased with some predictions, while despairing as other world events swept passed my expectations.  Here I’ll review each prediction, one by one, and tally up my score to see whether I should become a professional psychic or not.

UK Predictions

  1. Our next Holy Monarch of Divine Highness to Rule Over Us All Forever blah blah will be born.  Everyone will go nuts and the republican minority will grumble.
    Prince George (‘of Cambridge’) was born on the 22nd July 2013 in good health.  The BBC and other broadcasters had around the clock coverage; he was on virtually every newspaper front page; and we republicans did indeed grumble.
  2. The coalition will continue on its path, though plans to create individual identities for the parties will become clearer in preparation for its end.
    Economically the coalition government has continued to assault the country with austerity upon austerity.  Just this month, chancellor George Osborne announced another billion pound cuts from government departments.  The economy does seem to be improving, at long last, however Labour leader Ed Miliband is rightfully bringing to attention a ‘cost of living crisis’ (perhaps because he has few other policies worth discussing).
    In terms of party politics, there doesn’t seem to be the separation of identities between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats I’d expected.  The Liberal Democrats have been highlighting their key policies of this government, such as raising the income tax threshold for low earners and pushing free school meals.  Yet, if anything, they’ve seemed to me to be moving further to the right.  When Nick Clegg stood in for David Cameron during a recent Prime Minister’s Questions, he sounded more and more like a Tory with each passing question.

 World Predictions

  1. The war in Mali will see some form of conclusion: Northern Mali will return to government control.
    Correct!  In January, following an Islamic rebel advance upon the south of the country, when it looked as though the capital Bamako itself might be under threat, France began a military campaign against the rebels on 11th January.  In one of the more successful Western interventions of recent times, the rebels were driven out of most major settlements in the north by February and had returned to government control.  Violence is persisting but the government remains in control with the help of French and African Union peacekeepers.  Elections came soon afterwards, during which Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, former Prime Minister from 1994-2000, became the President.
  2. The Assad regime will fall.  Failing that, the rebels will increasingly control Syria.  I expect them to receive more support from the West and the government to lose Russia’s backing.
    Uh, no.  No.  And no again.  News stories coming out of Syria during 2013 and have been getting more and more depressing, with no prospect of change coming soon.  The Assad regime did not fall; in fact, it looks stronger than at any other point during the course of the war.  In May, Lebanese Shia armed group Hezbollah entered the war on the regime’s side.  Its fighters flooded across the border and helped the government seize control of the strategic city of al-Qusayr and the surrounding countryside.  The rebels have also made gains, however more and more militias have been swearing allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an al-Qaeda linked Islamic fundamentalist organisation which has been making advancements against more moderate rebels in what’s described as a ‘civil war within a civil war’.  The death toll continues to mount: in September France estimated 120,000 people to have died, while the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights currently puts it at 160,000.
    In terms of international support, Western powers have continued to supply non-lethal equipment to the rebels, while in June US President Obama announced military aid would be supplied to the rebels, although it’s unclear how much ever arrived.  Recent developments concerning the rise of Islamists have caused even this aid to be suspended.
    Meanwhile, Russian support of the regime has only strengthened.  This became clear following the increased reports of chemical weapon use across the country.   Both sides blamed each other, of course, but after particularly horrific attacks in the Ghouta area of Damascus the international community seemed to demand action.  It looked as though Western nations – primarily the USA, UK and France – were preparing to launch military strikes against Syria to send a message to Assad.  However, when the UK Parliament voted against action and Obama looked close to defeat in Congress, this never came to be.  At the last minute, Russian President Putin came to the aid of both President Assad and Obama by proposing an operation to rid Syria of its chemical weapons.  Despite difficulties accessing all the chemical weapons depots, some in contested areas of the country, the process of destroying them seems to be going successfully.  This has had the effect of restoring legitimacy to the Syrian regime, which is seen as an equal partner in these negotiations, and the West effectively giving up on Syria.
  3. Obama’s next year as President will not be dramatic.
    In hindsight, it’s probably a bad idea to predict anything won’t be dramatic.  Alongside the aforementioned Syria crisis,  he’s had to put up with threats of war from North Korea, the failure of his proposed gun law reform, the shutdown of the US government after political gridlock in Congress, a botched roll-out of his key ‘Obamacare’ policy and, perhaps worst of all for Obama, massive leaks about the level of the National Security Agency’s surveillance of US and international citizens by whistleblower Edward Snowden, which has brought international condemnation and affected relations with countries including Brazil and Germany.  He’s probably very glad for a new start next year.
  4. A war will not start over Iran.
    Correct!  There’s actual much cause for optimism over out future relations with Iran.  Everything seemed to change with the election of the moderate Hassan Rouhani in June.  Though far from a radical – he’d never have been allowed to run otherwise – the fact that so many Iranian voters opted for the least conservative candidate has sent a clear message to the ruling elites that they want change.  Perhaps this is why Rouhani has been given something of a free reign to pursue his policies.  He held a phone call with President Obama in September, the first time the presidents of either country have spoken directly since the 1979 revolution which brought the current Iranian regime to power.  Then came a historic agreement in which Iran finally agreed to curb its nuclear activities in return for the easing of sanctions.  There’s much progress to be made, but also reason to be optimistic.
  5. Angela Merkel will be re-elected in Germany.
    Correct.  Merkel achieved her best ever result in September, gaining 41.5% of the vote and nearly achieving a majority in the Bundestag, ensuring her a third term as chancellor.  After months of difficult talks, her Christian Democratic Union agreed to enter into a ‘grand coalition’ with the opposition Social Democratic Party.  Merkel certainly seems to be bucking the trend of European leaders being brought down by the financial crisis – she’s in a stronger position than ever.
  6. Libya will finish its transition into democracy on paper with success.
    Um.  Not really.  Kind of?  Well, Libya has avoided descending into complete anarchy, but there are still many incidents of armed militias operating outwith the control of the government, the most frightening case being when Prime Minister Ali Zeidan was abducted from a hotel, although he was safely returned.  A timetable for national elections still hasn’t been established, but it’s hoped that Libya can have its first post-revolutionary government by the end of next year.  So really, I suppose, it’s too early to say on this one.
  7. Egypt will head down its route of democracy with a very Islamic tint.  Morsi will bring stability to the country – at long last.
    Hahaha, oh, how wrong is it possible to be?  Unfortunately not.  To save me repeating the dramatic events of the 3rd July, you can read the post I wrote about it at the time.  Since the coup, things have only got worse.  Protests have continued from both sides, pulling Egypt down into further instability.  This culminated in a horrific massacre where dozens of protesters were killed by security forces.  The ruling military regime has since strengthened its hold on power, imposing curfews and recently branding the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Morsi’s party, a ‘terrorist organisation’.  The country is appearing more and more to be under the grip of a General new to the scene, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, currently appointed as Deputy Prime Minister.  Elections are expected for next year, which Sisi is widely predicted to run for.  In short, I couldn’t have been more wrong about Egypt.
  8. Berlusconi will not be elected in Italy.
    Well, technically, Berlusconi was elected to the Italian Senate, but if we assume I meant elected as Prime Minister then I got this correct.  Italy’s election this year left no party in a position of power, meaning multiple parties had to come together to form government, including his People of Freedom party.  However, the Prime Minister of this unstable government turned out to be Enrica Letta of the Democratic Party.  Berlusconi himself has been involved in continuing scandal after scandal, being recently convicted of tax-fraud and sentenced to four years in prison (none of which he’ll actually serve due to his age), and barred from political office for six years.  Subsequently, he was expelled from the Italian Senate.  I wouldn’t underestimate Berlusconi, but I can’t imagine his career recovering from this.
  9. The Afghanistan campaign will appear more and more hopeless.  Peace talks with the Taliban will develop.
    Pretty much.  I haven’t been following this in too much detail, but I’m aware of various talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government being on, off, on again, off again, and so on.  Really not much seems to be happening in the run up to NATO’s withdrawal next year.
  10. I expect more crises from North Korea.
    Yup.  There was that strange period last April when North Korea threatened war against South Korea, Japan and the USA which I referred to earlier – I don’t think anyone knows what that was really about.  Needless to say, that came to nothing and North Korea soon quietened down again.  I imagine it was an attempt by Kim Jong-un to create a warlike atmosphere within the country to further entrench his rule – nothing increases loyalty like giving people a common enemy.  Then, even more shockingly, earlier this month Kim had his very own uncle executed as part of a wider purge.  I wrote about it here.  Nothing which has yet threatened to spiral out of control from the perspective of the West, but erratic and worrying behaviour nonetheless.
  11. Iran’s economy will continue to plummet under sanctions.  Possibility of something dramatic happening.
    Pretty much.  I largely covered this earlier.
  12. This is a completely wild one: Robert Mugabe will no longer be in power in Zimbabwe by the year’s end.
    Unfortunately, Mugabe is still President of his long-suffering nation.  My reasons behind this prediction were Mugabe’s age, having turned 89 this year, and the fact an election was due to be held earlier this year.  However his health seems to be as strong as ever, while the election this year re-elected him in very fraudulent conditions indeed.
  13. There will be at least one coup.  And likewise, at least one country considered a dictatorship will become more democratic.
    I’d consider events in Egypt earlier this year to be a coup, so got that one right.  I think Mali could count as having become more democratic, having achieved mostly free and fair elections after a year of chaos.  I can’t think of any other standout examples, which is a shame, but Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2014 report (due to be published fairly soon) might shine a light on this.
  14. Burma will continue down liberalisation and democratisation.
    This is really impossible to say.  Again, I await the Freedom in the World 2014 with great interest.  I’m going to take the lack of any particular evidence to the contrary as evidence that Burma at least isn’t backsliding.  Aung San Suu Kyi did recently announced that her National League for Democracy plans to contest the 2015 general election – widely hoped to be Burma’s first free election – even if the constitution isn’t amended to allow her to run for the Presidency.  Which seems to be a good sign.  Hopefully.  I really don’t know.  I think I’ll give myself this one…
  15. Hugo Chavez: difficult to predict.  I’m gonna throw this out there and say his health improves and he’s able to continue as President.
    Nope – President Chavez of Venezuela died of cancer on the 5th March, later to be succeeded by his Vice-President, Nicolas Maduro, who seems to be carrying on his divisive legacy.
  16. Al Shebab will be almost completely pushed out of Somalia.
    Despite continued advances by Somalian and African Union forces against Al-Shabab, they’re far from having been cleared from the country and still control much territory, particularly in rural areas.  So wrong on that one.
  17. More than two Arab countries will see increased protests and violence.  Potentials: Syria, Bahrain, Iran, Kuwait, Sudan, Egypt, UAE, Jordan, Lebanon.
    This was unfortunately a pretty safe bet.  As I wrote earlier the death toll in Syria continues to mount; there have been continued protests and unrest in Sudan, though not coming to much; Egypt has had what were tipped to be the ‘largest protests in history’ which deposed President Morsi; April was the deadliest month in Iraq since 2008; Libya’s been having increased issues with militias, as I indicated earlier; and Lebanon has had increased bombings, assassinations and clashes as the Syrian Civil War continues to spill over.
  18. Julia Gillard will no longer be Prime Minister of Australia.
    Yes.  She was ousted earlier than I expected, having her position as leader of the Labor party usurped by Kevin Rudd, former Prime Minister.  The Labor party was then met with disaster in the September election, losing 17 seats and its tentative majority to Tony Abbott’s Liberal-National coalition, ending 6 years of Labor Party rule.
  19. Putin will consolidate his dictatorship in Russia.
    To be honest, his dictatorship was rather consolidated anyway by the end of 2012, but it certainly hasn’t weakened.  He’s continued pressing forward in policies such as the ‘anti-gay laws’, infringing the rights of LGBT people.  Things have become more interesting in the last month in the run-up to next year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi: Putin granted an amnesty to many high-profile political prisoners, including Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the remaining two members of Pussy Riot and the ‘Arctic 30’.  Perhaps this is a big to improve Russia’s standing among the international community.  He must have been shaken by two bomb attacks in the last couple of days in Volgograd, which might be part of a continuing campaign by Cechen rebels.  But nevertheless, his authority in Russia seems pretty powerful.
  20. The Mars Curiosity Rover will make more discoveries which fail to interest the public.
    Yeah, I’ll give myself that one.  There have been many discoveries on Mars, including pretty strong evidence that it once had running water.  That’s more interesting than I expected, but I don’t suppose it’s something the majority of people noticed or continue to think about.
  21. Netanyahu will be re-elected in Israel.
    Yes!  Sorry, that explanation mark makes me sound more enthused about this than I am.  See more here.

Overall, I seem to have actually fared better than I expected, having been more or less correct on 65% of the issues!  Tomorrow I’ll publish my list of predictions for 2014 – watch this space.

Tuition Fees (And Why I Love the Scottish Government)

I just want to make a brief post in which I gush at how grateful I am towards the policies of the current Scottish National Party administration within the Scottish government which allow students studying for their first degree to be excempt from paying tuition fees.  Yesterday I received a letter from the Student Awards Agency for Scotland in which they promised to pay the roughly £1,800 yearly fee to study at Edinburgh University.  I have to apply again each year, but over the course of four years this will have saved me £7,200.  And the fee of £1,800 is incredibly modest! (I can’t help wondering how much a student from south would have to pay).

Compare this to the system in England and Wales: yearly tuition fees which can be up to £9,000 a year, after the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition as Westminster introduced them a couple of years ago.  Over a standard three-year course (it’s generally four years in Scotland) this would leave many students up to £27,000 in debt.  It’s abhorrent, and I deeply pity everyone subject to this hopefully temporary measure.  I can understand why the Scottish government has decided to make tuition fees apply to students from England and Wales – otherwise Scottish students would likely lose out as our universities would become understandably swamped – but I certainly wish there were another way.  It’s as if the young people of England and Wales are being punished for having the misfortune to have simply been born where they were. 

University is expensive.  As I’ll be moving to Edinburgh I will also have to worry about the costs of accommodation and also just the costs of living independently without a stable income.  I’m in the fortunate position of having some money available to me for university and I will never take this for granted, but I know so many other students will find it a financial struggle.  Abolishing tuition fees for a first degree massively reduces this struggle, therefore working to break down the class barrier and, within a generation, improving the skills of the population as a whole.

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2013 UK Local Elections Analysis

A day or so late with this, but here are the results of Thursday’s local elections:
[PNS = Predicted National Share]

2013 local elections

The news has been reporting these elections as the final breakthrough of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) into British politics; BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson described it as “The day UKIP emerged as a real political force in the land.”  And when you look at the results, there is no denying how well the party has performed.  If every party had stood candidates in every council ward and the votes spread across the country evenly, UKIP is projected to have won 23% of the total vote.  That’s about the same the Liberal Democrats won in the 2010 General Election.  There is no denying Nigel Farage’s claims that UKIP “is here to stay.”  However, lets get these results into perspective.

There is always a party which wins a spectacularly large amount of votes during midterm elections for a government – often referred to as the “protest vote”.  This would normally be the Liberal Democrats, who in 2009 [the last time these seats were up for election] won 28% of the vote.  This went down by 5 percentage points for the following year’s general election, indicating that voting for council seats and voting for the next government are two very different things.  With the Liberal Democrats in coalition with the Conservatives, and Labour still generally quite unpopular, UKIP have begun to vacuum up these disillusioned votes.

Secondly, there seats are generally recognised to be in very right-wing areas.  This is generally to the benefit of the Conservatives, but now have begun aiding UKIP.  Labour traditionally perform poorly in these seats, so the fact they are leading in the votes, even with only 29%, should not be played down.  These UKIP results, considering this and the protest factor, should be seen as the party’s maximum potential under its current level of popularity.  It’s looking very likely that UKIP will elect its first MPs in 2015, but how many?  Even if it does manage to attain a respectable percentage of the vote, it’s going to suffer from the same problem which has blighted the Liberals for decades: our First Past the Post electoral system.  Even for the local elections, despite UKIP achieving 9 percentage points more of the vote than the Liberal Democrats, they won 200 fewer seats.

Reactions to this result within the Conservative Party have ranged from Cameron’s calm resolve of winning back voters to blind panic and demands to hold an EU referendum before the next election.  My fear is that politicians of all parties will begin tripping over themselves to declare harsher and harsher immigration policies i an attempt to stem to flow of voters to UKIP – not something I would like to see.  However Labour, at least, has little to fear from UKIP.  I read a statistic earlier suggesting that Labour didn’t lose a single seat to UKIP, whereas the Conservatives must have lost at least a few good dozen.  Indeed, with Labour retaining David Miliband’s South Shields seat in the by-election and replacing the incumbent mayors in Doncaster and North Tyneside with Labour candidates, this has been a good week for Ed Miliband.  At first glance UKIP would appear to be the true winners of these elections, but upon further inspection I would argue that this title goes to Labour.

(I am a little bit sad the Greens didn’t perform very well, but at least they managed to win a few more seats).

2013 English Local Elections

Hello followers!  Exam cycle has begun once more, and it’s a long one, dragging from now until very early June, so I may be distracted for some time (though, frankly, my most important exams will be done by the 20th).  I would make a detailed comment on this year’s local elections, except firstly I don’t have the time, secondly I live in Scotland – so it’s not really any of my business – and thirdly, polling expert Anthony Wells has summed it up infinitely better than I could.  So I’ll give you that link, and summarise his points:

  1. The seats up for election are very much ‘Tory seats’.  Considering how well they did in 2009, during Labour’s “rock bottom” period the last time these seats were up, they’re almost certain to lose councillors.  This isn’t necessarily a suggestion of ailing support for the Conservative Party.
  2. Most of the Liberal Democrat candidates will face their greatest threat from Conservatives, who they typically do well against, so there may be fewer losses here than the party has become accustomed to.  Nick Clegg may finally have a good day.
  3. UKIP will undoubtedly see an increase in voting share, but it is uncertain how this will translate into actual seats.  This could be a test for the growing party.

Changes to the Minimum Wage (2013)

Good news, everyone!  The UK government has announced that the minimum wage shall increase!  For over 21s it shall increased from £6.19 to £6.31, and for 18-20s from £4.98 to £5.03.  The minimum wage was introduced by Tony Blair’s Labour government in 1998, and has virtually put a stop to any exploitative employment which may have been seen previously, by ensuring all workers earn a decent rate.  It has been criticised for being too low, so, surely, this is good news?

Well, no.

These increases (1.9% for adults) are well below the current national inflation rate of 2.8%.  Sure, wages are increasing, but the cost of living is rising faster.  If we assume that poor, working people are not the government’s greatest priority (it’s been obvious for quite some time), this doesn’t even make economic sense.  The economy is not going to get moving unless we increase the spending power of the population as a whole, but the government seems set on boosting the wealth of businesses and the upper middle-class, over the misguided belief that making it easier for the wealthy to become even more wealthy will cause some of their wealth to ‘trickle down’.  These ideas were first majorly implemented by Prime Minister Thatcher and… well… The figures really speak for themselves.

Wealth has been getting progressively more concentrated since Thatcher’s Conservative government was elected in 1979.  Labour, to their shame, did little to reverse this concentration, and the current Conservative-led government is clearly, day by day, continuing these disastrous policies.  Look at that chart.  Very soon, if not already, we’re going to be back to Victorian levels of inequality – unless someone does something about it.  Cameron and Clegg certainly don’t seem particularly bothered.

Liberal Democrats win Eastleigh By-election

Yesterday’s by-election in Eastleigh, while perhaps lacking great strategic importance, seems to have summarised the state of British politics, half way into our experimental coalition.  The results were as follows:

Mike Thornton (Liberal Democrat) 13,342 (32.06%, -14.48%)

Diane James (UKIP) 11,571 (27.80%, +24.20%)

Maria Hutchings (Conservative) 10,559 (25.37%, -13.96%)

John O’Farrell (Labour) 4,088 (9.82%, +0.22%)

Danny Stupple (Independent) 768 (1.85%, +1.56%)

Dr Iain Maclennan (National Health Action Party) 392 (0.94%)

Ray Hall (Beer, Baccy and Crumpet Party) 235 (0.56%)

Kevin Milburn (Christian Party) 163 (0.39%)

Howling Laud Hope (Monster Raving Loony Party) 136 (0.33%)

Jim Duggan (Peace Party) 128 (0.31%)

David Bishop (Elvis Loves Pets) 72 (0.17%)

Michael Walters (English Democrats) 70 (0.17%, -0.30%)

Daz Procter (Trade Unionists and Socialists Against Cuts) 62 (0.15%)

Colin Bex (Wessex Regionalist) 30 (0.07%)

I’d expected to be wrong in my prediction that the Conservatives would win for the last week or so; I had underestimated the local popularity the Liberal Democrats possessed, Eastleigh being one of the few councils where they have managed to cling on to power since entering government.   I also underestimated the importance of individual candidates.  Still, you live and learn.

This is certainly good news for Nick Clegg, who I imagine will sleep easier with the relief of these results.  This is the first piece of good news in a long list of blows for the Liberal Democrats.  Whether this will become a turning point in their fortunes remains to be seen, although I highly doubt it.  Eastleigh is something of a stronghold for the Liberal Democrats – their greatest threat was to be dislodged by the Conservatives, who performed around 7% behind the Lib Dems in 2010.  Clearly, this never happened, but the Liberal Democrats’ share of the vote has significantly decreased, all the way from 46.5% to 32.06%.  This drop of 14% is, in fact, slightly greater than their decline in national polls since 2010.  So while a victory for Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats, they must not be complacent.  They have shown that oblivion might not be on the cusp of their political horizon, but let there be no doubt that an incredible uphill struggle lies ahead if they seek any respectable result in 2015.

The real victors, in my opinion, have been UKIP, who won their greatest ever share of the vote in an election.  This will undoubtedly provide evidence to Nigel Farage’s narrative that UKIP are a rising political force and, I have to admit, I’m wondering whether he is right.  A large proportion of UKIP’s vote is due to the protest factor, with the Liberal Democrats no longer the traditional ‘protest party’.  This phenomenon was seen in last year’s Bradford by-election, in which Respect’s George Galloway won with a significant majority.  Nevertheless, UKIP has established itself as a party with wide support.  If it maintains its current popularity in 2015 there is a good chance is will win its first MPs in the House of Commons, although it will suffer the same vote/seat ratio difference which has plagued the Liberal Democrats as a result of our First Past the Post voting system.  Nigel Farage will be very happy just now.

The two losers of this election, it gives me some pleasure to type, are the UK’s largest political forces, Labour and the Conservatives.  The Conservatives did respectfully, but David Cameron could really have used a victory to help his ailing popularity levels within his own party.  He will also probably be despondent that his declaration to hold a European Union referendum if winning the 2015 General Election has done nothing to stem the growth of UKIP.  Labour likewise should not be too discouraged, due to having a lack of a base to build on.  I’ve read analyses stating that less popular parties often tend to be marginalised in by-elections, which I’d imagine to be the case here.

Most political commentators have stated that by-elections are not of great overall importance, which is true, but they’re still very exciting to examine and pore over.