Westminster Watch

With the General Election date fixed four years ago, the attention of all at Westminster is now on May 2015.

Mark Hatcher reports on the parties’ plans.

Thanks to the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011, all eyes and ears in the village of Westminster are fixed on 8 May, the day after the UK General Election. The likelihood that there will be a clear outcome that morning is looking remote. This will be a six-party race. The smaller parties which previously occupied the fringes of UK politics, representing single issues and nationalist concerns, will continue to increase their challenge to the three main political parties’ core supporters.

UKIP’s leadership are privately speaking of winning up to 10 seats, with the Conservatives likely to lose out more than Labour. Alex Salmond, the former Scottish Nationalist leader, has his eyes fixed on a return to Westminster whilst the SNP looks likely to make a number of gains in Scottish constituencies, perhaps as many as 25-30 seats, at Labour’s expense. In Wales Labour is vulnerable to gains by Plaid Cymru while the Greens have announced plans to put up candidates in three quarters of constituencies.

Building a coalition at Westminster is unlikely to take as long as Belgium’s 535 days but we could easily see several days of political uncertainty and a re-run of the sort of horse-trading witnessed in 2010. And the possibility of a second election shortly afterwards cannot be ruled out.

But Ed Miliband might have some reason to feel confident, at least to judge from past statistics. Only three Parliaments since 1945 have run their full five-year term and the subsequent general elections in 1964, 1997 and 2010 all resulted in a change of government. Then again, the same could be said of David Cameron. Only one Prime Minister since 1945 who served the entire duration of a Parliament failed to win a second term and that was Edward Heath, following the miners’ strike. No leader since 1945 who became Prime Minister at his first attempt has failed to win if he stood to win for a second time.

Since everyone has known for the last four years when Parliament will be dissolved (30 March), campaigning has begun even earlier than usual. The six key issues on which the Conservatives want to fight the election are the deficit, jobs, taxes, education, housing and retirement. Labour, which currently holds a small lead in the polls, has jeered at this focus for failing to include the NHS or immigration among their top themes.

Neither of the main parties has identified justice as an agenda item. Either way, the smaller parties could hold the balance of power and in the aftermath of a Miliband or Cameron-led Administration taking office there could be very little room for manoeuvre for either leader. As for the Liberal Democrats, their prospects look bleak. They could lose half their seats in the Commons.

All the leading politicians are engaged in a conspiracy of silence about the main economic decisions ahead. As the country reaches the half way mark in a decade of planned austerity, there is no way that cuts to public expenditure will become lighter after the 2015 election, whichever party (or combination of parties) is successful. If the Conservatives maintain current levels of spending on education and health, their plans to cut £7.2 billion of tax cuts in the next parliament cannot leave defence, local government or the justice system unscathed. The independent Institute for Fiscal Studies considers that unprotected services would face an average cut in real terms of a third between 2010 and 2020.

But Labour has declined to outline  what cuts it would impose if it stuck to its slightly more relaxed deficit reduction plan. Introducing a wealth tax or bringing back a 50p rate of tax, while electorally popular with its core voters, will make little impact on the deficit. The Conservatives will position themselves as capable managers of the economy and put Ed Miliband regularly on the spot as to whether (and, if so, where) he would be looking for savings or raising taxes after the election. This approach will resonate with the Conservatives’ assessment that the public has doubts about Miliband’s prime ministerial appeal and Labour’s economic credibility.

As the current Parliament draws to a close in a couple of months’ time the definition of “electioneering” in Brewer’s Dictionary of Politics will be apt: “the production, not necessarily in an election, of arguments and stunts which have more to do with getting elected than with a constructive approach to the problems of the moment.”

Before Parliament is dissolved there will be the usual scramble to finish select committee reports. The Justice Committee’s inquiry into the impact of changes to civil legal aid under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Off enders (LASPO) Act 2012 heard evidence on 10 December last year from the Legal Aid Minister, Shailesh Vara and Director of Legal Aid Casework at the Legal Aid Agency, Matthew Coats. This was the final in a series of oral evidence sessions in which the committee heard from the Master of the Rolls, Lord Dyson, the President of the Family Division, Sir James Munby and the Senior President of Tribunals, Lord Justice Sullivan, as well as the Chairman of the Bar and the FLBA Chair together with representatives of solicitors and law centres.

Much of the evidence given by an impressive array of experienced and well-informed witnesses supported the findings of the Bar Council’s One Year On report into LASPO, published last September (found at www.barcouncil.org.uk). This highlighted the significant increase in litigants in person, especially in the family courts, as well as the increased delays in courts and additional burdens on already stretched resources. It also reported increased and unsustainable pressure on frontline providers of free legal support, advice or representation and a growing reluctance of practitioners to take on complex, low value litigation thereby in practice denying many access to justice. The Justice Committee’s report, which is in the course of preparation and is expected to be published by mid-February, should be hard-hitting and provide much food for thought among the justice teams contending for office.

Another report which will be referred to increasingly in the coming weeks will be the Cabinet Manual, a guide to the laws, conventions and rules on the operation of Government, which was published by the Cabinet Office for the first time in 2011 (www.gov.uk). In the run up to what looks like the onset of a period of considerable political uncertainty, this manual will be a key work of reference for everyone working in, or with, government, and in particular for the permanent politicians in Whitehall.

Author details: 
Mark Hatcher

Mark Hatcher is Special Adviser to the Chairman of the Bar. After working at the Law Commission and in the House of Lords, he became Head of Global Public Affairs at PwC. He is a Bencher of Middle Temple, as well as being a priest. He is Reader of the Temple.