It is safe to say the 2015 General Election was earth-shattering. Conservatives have a majority, Labour were heavily defeated, the Liberal Democrats were obliterated, the SNP took nearly every seat in Scotland, and the polls during the campaign were way off – leading to the nations’ jaws collectively hitting the floor on election night when exit polls were announced. As well as looking forward to Paddy Ashdown publicly eating his hat, public affairs professionals need to adapt to this new reality. Here are five ways public affairs has changed since May 7th.
1. Individual MPs matter more than ever
The Conservatives now have a majority. But it is slim – slimmer than that won by John Major in 1992, who by 1996 was running a minority government, due to resignations and by-election defeats. This could be where David Cameron finds himself sooner rather than later. That means individual MPs are now very powerful, and just a handful of them rebelling could see the Government lose crucial Commons votes.
Public affairs professionals therefore need to carefully develop and strengthen their relationships with Conservative Parliamentarians – their views will be heard by the Whips more than ever.
2. Watch the “Friends of Osborne”
Whatever you think of his politics, the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne is one of the nation’s canniest politicians. Even before the 2015 General Election, he was using his influence and power to nurture a group of loyal MPs. And with the Lib Dems now out of the way, he’s helped a number of Tory MPs get promotions and into Cabinet.
The “Friends of Osborne” were the clear winners in the post-election reshuffle. MPs like Sajid Javid, Amber Rudd, and Greg Clark were all given Cabinet level positions in the new Conservative Government. Robert Halfon MP, Osborne’s “campaigner in chief” was also promoted to Conservative Party Deputy Chairman and Minister Without Portfolio attending Cabinet. PLMR worked closely with Halfon and others on the Boost Bingo campaign and it’s clear he is behind the Conservatives’ recent rebranding to become “the party of working people”.
With Cameron having announced he will not be leading the Conservative Party into the 2020 election, any public affairs professional worth their salt will be watching the rise of Osborne’s allies.
3. Scotland matters
Despite how some sections of the media have reported the election, Scotland still returned the same number of Scottish MPs. They key difference of course that 56 out of 59 of them are from a single party – the SNP.
The new SNP MPs have two goals in Westminster – to get the best possible deal for Scotland, and to be a professional political party that can hold the UK Government to account. As the third largest party in Westminster they chair two select committees – Scottish Affairs and Energy and Climate Change, and are allocated two questions at PMQs every week. Despite this perceived power in Westminster, reports are that the new MPs are being heavily controlled from Holyrood.
This means for the most effective lobbying of the SNP, public affairs professionals need a presence both in Westminster and Holyrood, as PLMR have.
4. Labour are an effective opposition
Labour were roundly defeated at the 2015 election, and not just because of their collapse in Scotland. The Party failed to win a number of key seats they expected to pick up in England as well. Together with a complex number of reasons why they lost, from shy Tories, to Lib Dem-Conservative switchers, to UKIP taking Labour votes, the Party has a lot of thinking to do.
However, as shown throughout the 2010 Parliament, they can be an effective opposition. Together with the Speaker, John Bercow, they have used regular urgent questions to haul Secretaries of State into the Commons for answers to crucial issues. Labour also used Parliamentary procedural acrobatics to pressure the Government, as during the European Arrest Warrant debate. Here they used a rare Commons procedure that had Conservative MPs rushing back to Parliament from across London for a vote they didn’t think was happening – including the Prime Minister, who had to abandon the white tie Lord Mayor’s banquet in the City to vote in Parliament in his finery.
Public affairs professionals will know that if they want an issue debated and pressure put on the Government, Labour still have much to offer.
5. Liberal Democrats – down but not out
It is no exaggeration to say that the Liberal Democrats were utterly destroyed in the 2015 General Election. They went from having 56 seats and a number of Cabinet Ministers, to just eight MPs. They became the joint fourth largest party in Parliament – with the same number of MPs as the Democratic Unionist Party, who limit themselves to Northern Ireland.
However, as Yazz and the Plastic Population said – the only way is up (baby). The Lib Dems can hardly sink lower. Public affairs professionals should also not underestimate the local campaigning machine they had cultivated for years, meaning that they held onto constituencies even when their national poll rating was dire. This machinery has not just disappeared, and the Lib Dems will now be looking at how they can mobilise their ground forces once again and rebuild their Parliamentary Party. Those in public affairs shouldn’t discount the Lib Dems, they could be back sooner than we think.