PODCAST | UK in the throes of frantic last minute election campaigning

Nick Rowley interview with Mark Colvin on ABC PM, 6 May 2015 

MARK COLVIN: Politicians in the UK are in the throes of frantic last minute campaigning ahead of a general election in which the polls open tomorrow evening, Australian time.

The opinion polls, to put it bluntly, are all over the place, with the likeliest option being a situation in which no party has a majority.

The centrist Liberal Democrats have massively lost ground during their five-year coalition with the Conservatives, so they’re unlikely to be the kingmakers they were in 2010.

A few months ago the anti-Europe UKIP, led by Nigel Farage, was expected to do well, but it’s faded.

But in Scotland, all the polls suggest the Nationalist SNP, led by Nicola Sturgeon, will sweep the board.

Will they help make the Labour leader Ed Miliband prime minister?

University of Sydney Adjunct Professor Nick Rowley worked with Mr Miliband in Downing Street during the last Labour government.

I asked him about the accusations that Ed Miliband wanted to roll his party back to the pre-Tony Blair era.

NICK ROWLEY: Look I think that’s actually quite lazy. It plays into the sort of Red Ed line. But when I worked at 10 Downing Street, I felt that Ed Milliband actually had a very, very broad perspective on questions relating to the economy, he was no acolyte of the left or no acolyte of Gordon Brown.

He would actually think very creatively about what the interventions were in policy terms, whether they be economic policy or environmental policy, or indeed social policy, and really wasn’t beholden to any ideology at all.

MARK COLVIN: But when he beat David Milliband, his own brother, in the leadership contest, he did so pretty much on the back of a union bloc vote. That was what got him across the line. Is he a creature of the unions?

NICK ROWLEY: Well no, he’s not. I mean he’s not someone who’s got that background. I mean, like his brother, he grew up in north London, he went to a state school in Camden. He then went to Oxford University, and since then he’s really been part of the sort of new Labour political elite, as it were. And we can’t just say new Labour was Tony Blair and not Gordon Brown.

He was very close to Gordon Brown even prior to 1997, when he was very young. But certainly he is, in all the things he’s saying, he’s very proud of many, many of the I think key achievements of the Blair-Brown era.

MARK COLVIN: So what happens if he wakes up on Friday morning and he hasn’t got the largest number of votes, but he could make a coalition or govern in minority with the help of the Scottish Nationalist Party and maybe a couple of other minor parties. What kind of negotiator will he be?

We remember from five years ago the long days of negotiating that took David Cameron into number 10 – what kind of compromises is likely to be able to make?

NICK ROWLEY: Well, it’s very, very complex situation in the UK at the moment. At the end of pretty much all election campaigns post-1945, there’s been a pretty clear sense of who is going to be in ascendency and who is more likely to win. If you look at all of the polls this week, and indeed the polls from only yesterday, you have completely conflicting insights from the different polling organisations.

And not a single poll through this campaign has indicated that there will be a single-party majority government. Now, of course, that could still happen, but it looks highly likely that there’s going to be a very intense period of negotiation.

MARK COLVIN: And with this possible bloc of 50-something Scottish Nationalist seats?

NICK ROWLEY: I think it is pretty clear that that will be the key psephological outcome of this election is that the Labour vote within Scotland has collapsed, and been replaced by the Scottish National Party.

MARK COLVIN: What do you do if you’re a Labour would-be prime minister and you’ve got to negotiate with Nicola Sturgeon, who still seems to want, despite the referendum last year, Scotland to separate from Britain? From England?

NICK ROWLEY: Indeed, it’s the very purpose of the Scottish National Party. What an amazing situation. Potentially a government within the British parliament could be formed through a coalition involving a whole number of MPs who do not believe in the legitimacy of that parliament. I mean, that is completely uncharted territory.

But Ed Milliband has been very clear as he does not want to be part of a formal coalition arrangement with the Scottish National Party.

MARK COLVIN: But the alternative to a formal arrangement might be governing from vote to vote, with them holding a (inaudible) at every vote.

NICK ROWLEY: Absolutely. That could well be the situation, Mark, is that you have no formal coalition arrangement, you have no members of the Scottish National Party anywhere near the cabinet table, and yet you go from vote to vote and you wait.

You wait for the Scottish National Party potentially to bring down a Labour government formed with the largest number of seats compared to the conservative government. That’s a possible outcome, and it would lead to…

MARK COLVIN: Another election.

NICK ROWLEY: It would lead, I think, to probably… I don’t think that would be tenable for more than a year or so. And believe me, it would keep the chattering political classes very, very active, and journalists writing, writing, writing. Because it would be always, always interesting, because potentially you would be bringing a vote on almost any week that could bring on the fall of the government.

But that could well mean that if you… it could be a calculation by Ed Milliband that, “Once I can become prime minister, then people will see me less as the young man in a suit who can’t eat a bacon sandwich, but I can actually pull off the trick of being statesman-like, and to be a prime minister, and to then be the one who actually goes to the election as the incumbent.”

And if he does actually get on the other side of number 10 a few days after the election, then that also that the general momentum, and momentum is very important in these sort of negotiations, is that certainly the Tory party would view David Cameron as having absolutely failed.

That sort of dynamic is very important.

MARK COLVIN: And then the next election could be Milliband versus Johnson.

NICK ROWLEY: Yes it could be. It could be but look let’s see. We’ll wait for the votes to be cast – they’re the most important things. Up until then, really who knows? Who knows what’s going to happen?

MARK COLVIN: Can you remember a more unreadable, unpredictable election?

NICK ROWLEY: I cannot think of one anywhere in any liberal democracy over the last 30 years.

MARK COLVIN: Adjunct Professor Nick Rowley OF the Sydney Democracy Network at the University of Sydney, and also a former colleague and friend of Ed Miliband. And tomorrow night around this time, the Brit’s will be going to the polls, we’ll bring you reports from there, and on Friday night around this time we might have some results.

There will have been results overnight, but as you will have gathered from Nick Rowley there, there may not be a clear idea of who forms the next government.

Originally published on ABC PM on 6 May 2015