I’ve been compelled to write this piece by a friend who said, though admittedly only in my imagination, ‘I’m avoiding election talk like the William Hague because I don’t know what to think. Ed, can you tell me what to think?’ Well I’m a good pal to my friends, especially the idealised ones I’ve invented, so here’s a commentary on the choice that faces us all on May 7th, designed to rummage around your brain so thoughts may break free. You may not have two political opinions to rub together but now you don’t need them, you can use mine instead.
The election-scape’s a minefield, so to allow us to navigate it like a fleet footed and counterfactually breathing Princess Di, I’ve divided this one sided discussion, which you’re not invited to be a part of, into two, representing the likely blocks of parties that may form the next government. A postscript imagines the worst of all worlds, a shy Tory vote breaking free of its cocoon on Election Day and delivering a majority Conservative government – a phenomenon known to psychologists as 1992 syndrome. But first…
Prologue: The Electoral System
This is a difficult election for those, like me, who believe that the electoral system should be informed by principle, rather than being tailored to reflect current voting patterns. First Past the Post, the system that’s fingering the grenade pin now smaller parties are fragmenting the vote in much the same way satellite television broke the old broadcasting duopoly and diluted quality back in the ‘90s, is predicated on the simple but, I think seductive idea, that you earn the right to represent a constituency if you win more support than your opponents. The plural’s important. If you and your friends conduct a vote on where to eat you’d have a problem if the minority who made their arm erect for the Clapham Grill had to be accommodated. You just accept the reasonable principle that a simple majority vote is fair. To those that say, “but if we add the hands for Ciao Bella to those for the Clapham Grill we get more votes than the winning option”, that’s true, but those hands, though forming an anti-Chicken Cottage block, weren’t united around one option. The Chicken Cottage Principle works well in all life’s snap elections yet weirdly, champions of democracy like Nicola Sturgeon still think a loser’s coalition should be given first refusal on governance. The SNP have never been ones to take the will of the people lying down.
It could be that this election, if it results in a hung parliament with a government composed of three of more parties, or a minority dependent on small pockets of MPs to get votes through the commons, could spell the end for FPTP. It’s ironic there’s a political consensus supporting localism, yet its proponents vie to abolish its purest manifestation: the simple constituency election in which the national debate is tempered by local concerns. Green leader Natalie Bennett leads the Doublethink tank on this point, telling voters to look at their local candidates and vote for what they believe while simultaneously declaring FPTP to be a failed system and advocating proportional representation.
In the brave new world that may exist post-2015, with smaller parties hoping to gerrymander the system to up their representation without increasing support, the general election could become a simple show of hands on the national issues for the first time. All votes count of course, because they inform the result – if you vote, you’re enfranchised, but soon they’ll “count” in the sense oft used, i.e. they’ll directly determine the stripe of the government. Hang on, you say, that sounds like direct democracy – yes, but it will forever change the character of governments. It won’t be necessary for parties to field a comprehensive manifesto anymore. Lobby groups will be able to inform policy making, instead of issues being considered in the round, as now. The result, surely, would be a government vulnerable to narrow sectional interests. What’s that, they already are? Well okay, but let’s not formalise it, eh.
The point is that under the current system, political parties must offer a broad and inclusive programme, in tune with different swathes of the electorate, to coax a majority. This is healthy and sensible. If the Tories and Labour are languishing in the mid-30s, that’s because they’ve forgotten the necessity of inclusivity; they’re stuck in a rut because they’re courting their core vote. They’ve become minority parties. Contrast their fate with that of the SNP who have been so successful in deluding enough Scots into thinking they represent “one nation” politics (having peddled the lie that Scotland is a culturally autonomous part of the UK) that they’re set to win a majority of the vote there, turning our Tartan neighbour into a one party state.
First Past the Post may look archaic to those who’ve been conditioned to think that vote share and representation should be aligned, regional concerns be damned, yet once again it looks set to reflect the national mood with uncanny precision. Scotland’s in thrall to the cult of nationalism, assuming, fallaciously, that you can cherry pick the parts you like, post-referendum, without it necessarily leading to separation, while the rest of the UK’s unconvinced by any one party, content to register their support for fringe interests such as climate change and disillusion with the EU, keeping these high on the agenda, without indicating they’d return parliamentary candidates who’d champion those causes. Deterministic, you say? Well maybe, but consider that in 2010 the country had had enough of Labour but weren’t convinced by the Tory modernisation project and dealt the parties a hand that made a Conservative/Liberal coalition the most durable outcome. In fact, pick a post war election, nail it up and the only election that would stand out as incongruous would be 1992; a campaign where many voters, Toryshamed, lied to pollsters.
With that in mind let’s look at the post-election clusterfucks on offer.
Block A: Tories! Liberals! UKIPers! DUP!
With less than a fortnight until voting opens it’s probably just dawning on David Cameron that his para-fascist election guru, Lynton Crosby, may have misread the mood of the nation. It turns out that managerialism and monetarism aren’t inspiring to an electorate, hungry for the vision thing and new ideas to solve old problems, like social inequality.
Cameron, conceived by the Tories as a sequel to Tony Blair when the brand was long bust, has never transcended his knock off status to emerge as a leader and statesman that a substantial chunk of the country could get behind. There are superficial reasons to suspect he’s politically hollow – the way he’s debased PMQs with his sneering, personality fronted politics and cardboard rhetoric, an example, but observers know it goes deeper than that. Cameron’s sop to his hardliners on Europe, his blatant short termism – never worse than the hurried and divisive reaction to the Scottish referendum result; a response that undermined the unionist principle central to Conservatism; his regurgitation of Thatcherite policy, with socially binding ideas dropped once the votes had been counted, has shown the Tory folly of choosing a leader who cannot lead, locked in an ideological timewarp, whose programme for the future is shapeless and measured in employment figures not social advancements.
His only hope of retaining power (probably – see Postscript) is a new alliance with the equally vapid Liberal Democrats; a cabal of Orange Book liberals who’ve tried to disguise their innate conservatism with so-called progressive tax measures, not any of which are remotely redistributive. On the evidence of 2010-15, more from these partners would mean social and political stagnation. Nick Clegg’s grand lie, that he shackled himself to the old enemy in the national interest, could only be peddled by a man who shared the PM’s contempt for Joe and Jolene Public. How else to explain the policies he didn’t fight: the Health and Social Act, rushed and punitive changes to benefits – including the bedroom tax (or Spare Room Subsidy), tuition fees trebling, cuts to humanities funding, the Help to Buy scheme (or House Price Inflation Engine), Free Schools (or Abdication from Remodelling Education Initiative), abolition of compulsory pension annuities (or the maintain the orthodoxy of courting the old while fucking over the young doctrine), and of course wide ranging cuts to public expenditure that depressed the economy for 3 long years. Next to that, raising the personal tax allowance seems like painting the front door to a burning building.
But current polling suggests the old friends won’t be able to govern alone. The Tories can count on their DUP cousins to provide 10 seats but where to find the rest? The only cabal that remains, though mercifully it should, thanks to FPTP, be very small indeed, is UKIP; that blob of reactionary bile, Daily Mail movie giveaways and human mediocrity, whose presence on the bill guarantees a government push for a no vote in a European referendum and a hardening of Conservative policy across the board.
Block A, though they may lack the numbers to form an absolute majority, would represent the part of the electorate that’s wedded to self-interest and social division. It would also, assuming it could govern, accelerate our exit from Europe and kill the Union stone dead. The latter may be inevitable of course, thanks to the mistakes made in the last parliament, which brings us on to…
Block B: Labour! The SNP! Greens! Plaid Cymru!
Sensing that anti-conservative forces are about to overwhelm the British body politic like a particularly pernicious virus, David Cameron’s doubled down on his strategy of scaring the shit out of English voters – the only ones he can hope to reach – with the spectre of the SNP becoming parliamentary kingmakers. Cameron’s right to flag the danger but he’s the worst man alive to deliver the message. The SNP, like the Thatcher government they helped into office, are lucky in their enemies.
Nicola Sturgeon’s constitutional saboteurs, to be lead in the commons unofficially but most emphatically by Machiavellian bullshit factory and one note provincialoid Alex Salmond, will not be coming to Westminster to build bridges with their ostensibly left-of-centre brethren. The nationalists, naturally, are separatists and their interests, Scotland’s be fucked, are not furthered one jot in demonstrating that the mother of all parliaments can open its blouse and offer a dug to a Scottish electorate hungry for change.
Returning 50 MPs to the old place puts them, to their delight, in an invidious position. Their entire narrative is based on the idea that the Palace, with its arcane traditions and debate society dynamic – you know, the stuff that gives it life, atmosphere and vitality in an increasingly homogenised world – cannot serve Scotland in any meaningful way, that it’s a relic from Britain’s imperial past. Yet, if Nicola’s wreckers prompt a race between the SNP and Labour to see who can offer Scotland the most goodies, Ed Miliband’s party eying a 2020 revival north of the border, this impression may dissipate and the separatist cause could lose momentum. Consequently the only option open to the SNP is to strong arm Labour into making concessions it knows will foster resentment in English seats. That’s right, if you can’t win independence democratically, be wilfully divisive, play the martyr (though your social liberal credentials be suspect), claim the system doesn’t work, then invite voters on both sides of the border to conclude that separation is the only way to break the deadlock.
Ed Miliband, for his part, has been trapped in this parliament by the necessity of having to appeal to a far bigger and more politically diverse electorate than the one enjoyed by Sturgeon. He’s watched as his Scottish enemy has spun his defence of the union as an ideological alliance with the Tories. The success of that brazen lie, halving the Labour vote in Scotland, has demonstrated how well the SNP have conditioned Scottish voters into accepting their “them and us” mantra, the psychological precondition for independence.
Miliband, forced to be timid and supress any radical rhetoric, lest he scare Middle England and hand victory to Cameron’s custodians of village idiot politics, would therefore, if elected as head of a minority government, be faced with the least propitious circumstances of any Prime Minister for decades. He faces the appalling prospect of not having the numbers to make lasting changes without the SNP, who’ll claim credit for the radical polices that get through with an eye to grooming their constituents back home, the message being – “see, now imagine what we’d do in an independent Scotland!”, while vilifying Labour for every concession they’re forced to make to shore up their English vote.
If the challenge for a Cameron-led government (or whoever picks up the broken baton) would be resisting change and rolling back those he’s never quite cared for, Miliband’s will be making them in a way that brings the whole country together and convinces enough wayward voters to empower him to go further in 2020, preferably with a majority. Alex Salmond showed it could be done (and that other parties could be airbrushed out of the picture in summing up) but his was a polity that fought on the same side of the fence. Miliband will start life with half the electorate and every vested interest in the country against him, plus a ten percent chunk of voters mulling over breaking away altogether if they’re not satisfied (2020 will see a Scottish Parliamentary Election as well as the next General Election under the idiotic Fixed Term Parliaments Act).
Deep down Miliband must know that the only way to win outright is to change how people think politically, à la Margaret Thatcher. Half the country not only accepts but prays to the Thatcherite consensus. That block must be broken, like the proverbial trade union. The way through is to be bold and make changes that foster social cohesion and make the majority of the nation feel good about itself, positioning the losers, for there are always losers, an irrelevance – yesterday’s yahoos. In other words he must be seen to lead any progressive alliance, shaping it so that voters both north and south of the border want to stay on board in 5 years’ time. If he can’t, the country as we know it will be finished and the Labour Party finally, definitively, irrelevant. Block B’s therefore a massive punt – the kind of place-all-your-chips-on-red gamble the electorate weren’t prepared to make in 1992. Oh, speaking of 1992…
Postscript: 1992 and all that
Despite all the polling evidence we have there are still many, some of them at Tory Party HQ, who expect the Conservatives to defy the odds, as John Major did, and win outright on May 7th. Whether they can do this or not hinges on the big question: is there an army of shy Tories out there ready to tow Cameron over the line? Major won because enough people, who knew deep down it was a vote for self over national interest, so were ashamed to register it, came to his rescue at the 11th hour – frightened that Kinnock and Company (a rejected Disney concept) would roll back the changes they’d done well from, thank you very bloody much.
Well, under Cameron there are fewer winners and fewer ideologues, which means this Tory party can’t rely on the same swell of covert support come Election Day. Ultimately the contest will be decided by how fearful a people we are. If, as Cameron hopes, we succumb to his apocalyptic rhetoric and look no further than our front door, his party have a chance of retaining power. My hope is that the voters take that punt on the opposition. It may usher in five years of political insanity, just as they claim, or it could signal a sea change in the nation’s politics. I for one would like to find out which.