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Welcome to Europe’s most left wing Parliament

Welcome to Europe’s most left wing Parliament

by Andy Maciver, first commissioned by the Sunday Times

We in Scotland like to see ourselves as being in the mainstream of European politics. We believe that our tendency to vote for political parties of the left makes us more European than the rest of the UK; that England is a right wing outlier.

That perspective always struck me as a jaundiced one. And so it proved. My full study of lower houses and unicameral parliaments across the EU shows that the composition of the Scottish Parliament not only falls outwith the mainstream of EU legislatures, it is the outlier Parliament, with a dramatically higher percentage of left wing politicians than anywhere else.

87% of our MSPs are from self-identifying left wing parties, with only 13% from the right. The next highest, the Italian Chamber of Deputies at 73%, is perhaps not a country whose politics or economics we would wish to emulate. Even the Hellenic Parliament of Greece has only 63% of its representatives from left wing parties.

Among Scandinavian countries, so well regarded by Scottish nationalists, Denmark’s Folketing is 50:50, Finland’s Eduskunta has 54% from the left and the Swedish Riksdag has only 40% of its members from the left. Although not in the EU, the left occupies just one-third of the Norwegian Storting and the Icelandic Althing. The Prime Ministers of Iceland, Norway and Denmark are all right wingers, the Finnish Prime Minister is a centrist, and the the left wing Social Democrats in Sweden recaptured Sager House only because a huge rise in support for the right wing nationalists cost the centre-right Moderates victory.

The average proportion of left wing politicians in legislatures across the 28 EU states is 48%. At 47%, Westminster is the mainstream. Holyrood is not.

Why has caused this? And what can we do about it?

Let’s dispel the myth, firstly, that the 9:1 ratio in favour of the left is reflective of Scottish society. It is not.

Recent Scottish Social Attitudes Surveys show, for instance, that 52% of people believe benefits for unemployed people are too high and discourage them from finding a job, with only one quarter believing they are too low. 54% want to keep taxes and spending on public services the same, or reduce them. Double the number of people believe the Scottish Government’s top priority should be helping the economy grow than believe it should be crime, health or education. Significantly more people think the performance of our health and education systems had decreased than think it has increased. Even our semi-religious NHS had only a 56% approval rating.

One reason for this yawning gap between the views of our people and those of our politicians is our ongoing constitutional wrangle. Political debate has centred on independence and devolution for decades, crowding out political debate on bread-and-butter issues.

However, our broken party system also plays a role. With hindsight, we should not have expected the inheritance of a party system based on first-past-the-post with no nationalists to work for a parliament elected by proportional representation and with a substantial nationalist element.

The combination of these – the constitutional debate and the party structure – has led to the democratic disaster we now see; an effective one-party state created by the nationalist party turning swiftly left to swallow Labour. If this was the private sector, the Competition and Markets Authority would have called a halt long ago.

In chaos, however, lies opportunity. I cannot think of any other developed country where the gap for a party of the radical centre (or centre-right) is so vast. The party which Scotland needs in order to provide balance and competition for the SNP is federalist, internationalist, radically reformist, and localising. It needs to believe in traditional Scottish values of free markets and entrepreneurialism, a social conscience, rewarding effort and aspiration and putting power in the hands of people

Who can fill the gap? The Liberal Democrats or the Conservatives?

Willie Rennie understands where the gap is. Rennie, a strategic thinker, has talked a good game on being a radical, liberal centrist and correctly sees Jeremy Corbyn as widening the gap in the centre. But his party may simply be in too weakened a state to be able to execute the solution. Furthermore, the membership and remaining voter base appear to think left, instinctively.

Ruth Davidson heads a party which is electorally and financially stronger, and she performs exceptionally as its figurehead. Her welcome intervention on education and her low tax agenda meet the aspirations of hundreds of thousands of Scots who do not currently vote for her party, and her enlightened speech on Europe this week will have been well received by the business community. But it remains unclear whether the toxicity with which her party is viewed can ever be resolved.

These parties, on their own, may never provide the strong opposition and eventually alternative government which would bring Scotland into the mainstream. Strategically, perhaps the best long-term option is a new party formed from both existing parties’ centrists. Strategic political realignment happens across the developed world, frequently. Why should Scotland be any different?