Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Reviewing British politics

A pair of articles in the April 20th edition of The Economist seem to have been written with comparative politics exam-takers in mind. Recognizing the concepts and understanding how they are applied to what's going on politically in Britain would be great review techniques. This first one is a short op-ed piece. The second is a longer analysis. Both reflect the magazine's center-right, free-market biases, but students ought to recognize those as well.

The politics of north and south: Britain’s great divide
Britain’s north has long belonged to Labour and its south (outside London) to the Conservatives, but the political divide is deeper than ever. Of the 197 MPs representing the English south beyond the capital, just ten are now Labour. The Tories hold only two seats in the north-east and one in Scotland…

This schism can partly be explained by economics. Mrs Thatcher did indeed oversee a collapse of northern manufacturing (though that process neither began nor ended with her), as well as a financial-services boom that was mostly felt in the south-east. Then Tony Blair and Gordon Brown presided over a surge in public spending, which benefited the north disproportionately. Now the Conservative-led coalition is cutting back. So the impression has taken hold that Labour squeezes the south to feed the north; whereas the Tories do the opposite…

Geography now trumps both social class and employment. Indeed, Policy Exchange, a think-tank, has worked out that northerners from the highest social class are more likely to vote Labour than are southerners from the lowest social class.

The north has wealthy suburbs, like South Wirral, west of Liverpool. They vote Labour. The south has impoverished pockets, like north-east Kent. They vote Conservative…

Most obviously, it is much harder for one party to secure a strong political mandate. Both main parties will concentrate on the Midlands, where loyalties are less entrenched, and on picking off Liberal Democrat seats; but the Tories need to win some northern seats to get a majority. Worse, the growth of regional political monocultures has a desiccating effect on national politics. Parties learn about people’s concerns by representing them. The Conservative Party now has scant direct knowledge of the northern cities. Labour is similarly clueless about people living in southern towns. And the parties sometimes take their heartlands for granted: Labour’s neglect of Scotland is one reason the Scottish National Party is thriving.

Since a large part of the problem is straightforwardly political, so must the cure be. The parties could be cannier when it comes to building a presence in hostile territory: perhaps starting with a beachhead in local government, then fighting for MPs, as the Liberal Democrats have done. More devolution would help, with local politicians being responsible for taxes as well as spending. Elected mayors, provided they have real powers, can break the monotony of regional party machines…

Britain’s first-past-the-post system for electing MPs is also a barrier. Yes, it is simple and can create strong governments, but it saps the will of parties to fight in places where they have no chance of winning. To encourage parties to contest the whole country, some MPs—about 20% would be ideal—could be elected on the basis of proportional representation by region…

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