20 May 2024
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Could British & Scottish PMs learn from Anthony Albanese?

Malcolm Mackerras
18 September 2023

Those who praise the multiculturalism of the United Kingdom often point to the fact that the UK (and England too) has a Prime Minister of Indian extraction whose religion is Hindu. They then go on to point out that the second largest British country, Scotland, has a First Minister in Humza Yousaf who is of Pakistani origin and is a Muslim. Anyway, both these men will soon come under intense pressure to perform as an election winner, Yousaf for the first time. I predict Sunak will be replaced by Sir Keir Starmer at the next British general election I expect to be held in October next year. Yousaf will go out of office at the next Scottish election to be held on the fixed date 7 May 2026.

Sunak has held his office since late October 2022 and is leader of the Conservative Party. He is the immediate successor to the foolish Liz Truss (who was PM for a mere 44 days, distinguished only by the chance fact that the Queen died while she was in office) but essentially Sunak is the successor to Boris Johnson who I described as “banished” in my 7 August article “Conservatives retain banished Boris Johnson’s old Commons seat”. Yousaf is the successor as leader of the Scottish National Party to Nicola Sturgeon. Yousaf has held both leader and First Minister positions since March 2023. Sturgeon was leader from 2007 until she retired.

As I explained in my above-mentioned article on Johnson’s old seat, Sunak’s Conservatives have enjoyed some very limited success so far. For that reason, I now turn to Yousaf and his Scottish Nationalists.

Before describing Sunak’s latest set of headaches, I ask myself why Yousaf is in trouble. The essential reason is that his SNP government is mired in scandal and corruption allegations. We learn from Scotland now what we learnt about New Zealand earlier this year. These successful female leaders (Ardern across the Tasman and Sturgeon in Scotland) get out amid favourable publicity when the going is good - and allow a male successor to lead the party to defeat. See my article “New Zealand will change its government in October” posted on 25 July.

There is a House of Commons constituency known as Rutherglen and Hamilton West. It is composed of a commuter population south-east of Glasgow. The seat was long regarded as safe for Labour until the May 2015 general election when it, along with 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats, was won by the SNP. The new member was Margaret Ferrier who served for a term from May 2015 until her defeat at the June 2017 general election. At the December 2019 general election these were the statistics, showing only the SNP winner and the defeated Labour sitting member:

Rutherglen and Hamilton West

Margaret Ferrier (SNP)                     23,775 votes          56.18%

Ged Killen (Labour)                          18,545 votes          43.82%

SNP majority                                      5,230 votes

Ferrier is a youngish-looking woman who is only 63 years of age. Why, then, a by-election? The answer is that she broke Covid-19 restrictions in September 2020, leading to her immediate suspension from the SNP. She had taken a train to London to attend Parliament. She did so while experiencing Covid symptoms, which were confirmed as positive. She then took a train back to Scotland, having lied as to why she cut her London visit short. She pleaded guilty in August 2022.

If Ferrier had been an Australian politician she would still be sitting as an MP but, obviously, would be defeated at the next election – or retired in expectation of defeat, as Senator Lidia Thorpe will do. But the moralising British in 2015 in the aftermath of an expenses scandal, thought up the idea of a recall petition. If, within six weeks a petition is collected with more than 10% of voters on the roll, then the seat is declared vacant. A recall petition can be triggered by several events, including an MP being suspended from the House of Commons for more than 10 days. Ferrier was suspended for 30 days.

There are 82,000 electors on the roll in Rutherglen and Hamilton West, the same as the UK average. The recall petition came to 11,900 signatures, being 14.5% when only 10% was needed. The seat was declared vacant late in July. (By the way, the average for Australian members of our House of Representatives is 115,000. So, if it be said that Australia has too many politicians that can also be said with greater force for the British.)

In the United Kingdom, the party holding the seat determines the date of the by-election. It will be held on Thursday 5 October. I confidently predict that the Labour candidate, Michael Shanks, will be the new member, easily getting the 6.2% swing required. He will be the second Scottish Labour MP, the other being Ian Murray, member for Edinburgh South. I predict that there will be 16 Scottish Labour members in the next UK term, an important part of the parliamentary party being the majority Labour government led by Starmer.

In the opinion polls, Labour is currently 20 points ahead of the Conservatives, but that is not the only Sunak worry. Recently, a certain Nadine Dorries, member for Mid Bedfordshire, resigned her seat. She was a disappointed Johnson supporter from his Brexit days of glory. She has no reason to love Sunak who refused her wish to go to the House of Lords. Anyway, the by-election will be held on Thursday 19 October. Remember, the date is determined by the party holding the seat! In Australia the two by-elections would be held on the same day. In the UK, these two by-elections will be held 14 days apart. Mid Bedfordshire is a massively safe Conservative seat, wealthy, more-or-less rural but with excellent transport connections to London. It has been safely Tory since 1931, surviving Labour landslide wins under Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair.

Here I need to give two sets of statistics, the two-candidate vote between Conservative and each of the other two serious parties:

Mid Bedfordshire - take one

Nadine Dorries (Conservative)                    38,692 votes           73.39%

Rhiannon Meades (Labour)                         14,028 votes           26.61%

Conservative majority                                  24,664 votes

Mid Bedfordshire - take two

Nadine Dorries (Conservative)                    38,692 votes          82.56%

Rachel McGann (Liberal Democrats)           8,171 votes          17.44%

Conservative majority                                  30,521 votes

It may sound odd to Australian ears, but the betting odds favour the Liberal Democrats to take the seat. That being the case I predict the Liberal Democrat candidate, Emma Holland-Lindsay, will be the new member for Mid Bedfordshire and will retain the seat in October 2024 at the general election. It will be the fifth gain by the Liberal Democrats this term of “safe Conservative” seats.

However, here I should be more cautious than usual. Looking at the statistics, one must suppose the possibility that Labour and Liberal Democrats will split the anti-Tory vote evenly between their candidates and allow the Conservative candidate to win with, perhaps, only a third of the vote. Such a result would illustrate the nature of first-past-the-post voting and counting of votes. In Australia or Ireland, the candidate coming third would have her preferences distributed between the leading two candidates.

Coming on top of this probable disaster for Sunak will likely come the Staffordshire seat of Tamworth. It is another safe Conservative rural seat held by a man called Christopher Pincher. Starmer describes him as “Pincher by name and pincher by nature”. His most recent majority was “only” 19,634 votes over Labour. Accused of inappropriate sexual misconduct he (and the Conservative Party) is likely to be yet another victim of modern British moralising. There is likely to be yet another recall petition, forcing yet another by-election very early in the new year.

Such a by-election could scarcely be more inconvenient for the Conservative Party. A nearby sitting MP in a marginal Tory seat has been chosen for “safe” Tamworth at the next general election. He would need to resign that seat to contest any Tamworth by-election, creating yet another by-election in Walsall North where there is significant poverty, low wages, low home ownership, and high unemployment. The Conservative majority in 2019 was only 11,965 votes.

However, the man in question, Eddie Hughes, has accepted the situation so would not contest any Tamworth by-election. Meanwhile, the Conservatives have found another candidate, an obscure local councillor by the name of Andrew Cooper. If elected, Cooper would serve only a few months in the seat and then retire.

I have written before in many articles about how the machines of big political parties in Australia and New Zealand design electoral systems to make life as convenient for themselves as possible. Caught up in their own moralizing, British parties must envy their Australian counterparts – and Sunak must envy Albanese whose misfortune extends only to the loss of the forthcoming referendum – from which loss he will surely recover easily.

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