Notes on the General Election

Abraham Lincoln once said “I am now the most miserable man living”. Well thanks to the choice put before us  ahead of the May 6th election, I’d like to stake my claim as Abe’s successor.

Should you enter this general election campaign with a sense of drift, conflicted as to how you should vote (the optimistic presumption being that you intend to do so) then I recommend something to you; I think you should turn off your Television, cancel any newspaper and magazine subscriptions and steer clear of any media, except this blog of course, until May 7th. The Political class will have nothing new to tell you between now and then, nothing of substance anyway and frankly if you’ve not been paying attention to the debate prior to now you should consider whether it’s prudent for you to vote at all. Someone with so little interest in the political process or the position of each party is under qualified to choose the next government. For God’s sake leave it to the people who’ve kept up with dispatches.

Seriously, sod off.

The forthcoming courting of the electorate is a spectacle it’s best to avoid. The media, which has emaciated itself using shorthand, superciliousness and a paucity of analysis, will pretend to interrogate the main parties while simultaneously regurgitating their fatuous drivel. During this part of the election cycle we’re introduced to each party’s narrative and the broadcasters, who treat each story like their book group’s choice of the week, discuss style and how successful each set of authors has been at communicating their message. This might be the future of the country but it’s little more than a curio for these commentators – gossip in the village hall. It would be rare, with a concentration on supermarket visits and Ed Balls speech to a hall full hall of pig-ignorant school children, for someone to break off and say “Well we must leave Ed Balls there, as we’re now going to chair a rigorous 3 hour debate on the last 13 years of Labour Education policy and invite you to contrast the analysis of these independent experts with the modest and indistinct promises of the education secretary.”

The first day of campaigning underlined the problem. Brown stood outside No.10 with his entire cast of grotesques bringing up the rear. The message was that a vote for Labour was a vote for the entire cabinet including The Prince of Darkness, Ed’s Balls and David Millibland; the experienced team. Holy shit, was that Yvette Cooper? In daylight? This was a high risk launch. Brown talked about anything but policy – his background, his values, as though we should give a shit what these may be. “How are you going to get us out of this mess Prime Minister?” The question that no one in the press pack bothered to ask. Instead we learnt the PM was an ordinary man. Just what the doctor ordered in extraordinary circumstances.

In contrast David Cameron stood alone outside London County Hall for his opening address. As the Tories had abolished the GLC in 1986 and made the building redundant (it now houses a f’king aquarium and a movie museum), it showed the leadership had a sense of humour, if not of history. The real reason he was there of course was to give photographers and broadcasters alike the opportunity to record him with the Palace of Westminster in the background – looking suitably prime ministerial. If only it were that simple, eh Dave?

Then there was Nick Cleggover, who may yet win the Election of 2028 as he’s been busy seeding a liberal generation over the last 18 months. He was there with Vince Cable – the Liberal you know, and consequently we were invited to contrast Clegg’s youth and dynamism with Cable’s experience – the dream ticket. Youth and Experience was also a song by Cliff Richard for younger readers.

So day one and you can see how all three party leaders were already using the media, the broadcasters being their willing accomplices, to retard the understanding and simplify the issues. They’ll be 29 more days of this. TURN OFF THAT FUCKING TELEVISION.

Oh and please don’t expect the Prime Ministerial debates to help you choose because if there was any danger of them revealing anything about the actual intentions of each party, you can bet your life they wouldn’t be happening.

If you made it to 4am on Election Night 2005 you were rewarded with this:

It’s worth taking stock of what we know about each of the main parties today, because it’s the past five and in the government’s case, thirteen years which matter, not the next four weeks when you’ll be told that black is white, up is down and would you mind forgetting about the last parliament as this is ostensibly a debate about the future?

Labour

Does Labour deserve to be re-elected, that’s an important question – almost as important as whether the Conservatives have earned the right to replace them, but we’ll come to that.

We don’t need to waste too much time talking about Labour’s three thumping majorities and the unprecedented power that’s given them in the commons; it’s only relevant to note how little they’ve done with it.

Tony Benn, the great Labour parliamentarian, delivered a devastating critique of Thatcherism when he stood up in the commons in 1990, following her resignation and the subsequent vote of no confidence in the Conservative “administration.”

“I don’t believe in scapegoats” he said referring to Thatcher’s iconic status as the personification of Conservatism in the 80’s, “Every member of the cabinet, every minister who’s trouped through the lobby night after night after night in support of these polices and every member of the public who’s supported them at the ballot box shares equal responsibility.”

The argument, that the party and the public who supported them should bare the shame for the state of the nation, is no less pertinent today when applied to New Labour. That isn’t the interpretation Brown would have liked you to draw this morning as he stood there with what’s left of Labour’s talent but that’s the informed view of history.

This is a government that was re-elected in 2001 despite introducing a market into higher education, emasculating the civil service and compromising its independence, reneging on its commitment to constitutional reform, weakening the Union in hoc to a narrow separatist interest within the PLP, and ceding powers to Europe without a democratic mandate to do so. Parliament was sidelined, so that legislation introduced, not least that which referred to criminal justice, was some of the least scrutinised new laws ever committed to the statute book.

Labour was re-elected in 2005 having become, in its approach to the judiciary, the most right wing government in 50 years. It ended the automatic right to jury trial, enshrined since the Magna Carta, it supported the flouting of the United Nations Charter, committed the country to an illegal war and again failed to introduce any significant constitutional reform.

Now in 2010 Labour is once again whoring for a mandate. What will they do with it? Well since 2005 the evidence suggests they will react to events rather than attempt to shape them – a sure fire indicator that there’s no strength of purpose driving policy. Labour’s ideological vacuum, a former socially democratic party trying to fit the square of it’s old doctrine through the circle of Neo-Thatcherite market based capitalism, has bankrupted the country and destroyed any realistic chance of changing the political outlook of the nation. This was before a penny was spent on the re-capitalisation of the banks incidentally, the private finance initiative had scuppered our future prosperity long before that.

There’s little point in being committed to investment in public services if you’re not prepared to raise direct taxes to pay for it. Tricking the public in doing it by stealth and hiding the extent of the public’s liability with off balance accounting tells you that the government thinks you’re imbeciles and worse, they’re happy to patronise you, telling you can have something for nothing.

Labour have told us that they don’t want to raise the taxes you do notice because that punishes aspiration (a nod to the atomistic culture we now take for granted) but actually, the government is terrified of middle England voters. Why do these voters have such a disproportionate hold over the political agenda? The reluctance to reform the electoral system will have had a lot to do with it. Because they haven’t done this as a government is it clear, to borrow that corrupted phrase, that they have no interest in change and every interest in maintaining the status quo with a few adjustments – by definition, that’s conservatism. The government believes that all marginal voters are Tories you see and so they must govern that way in order to retain power. It doesn’t even matter that because of this trap they can’t do anything they’d want to do with that power, else they’d lose, it’s just been enough to have it these past 13 years.

The 2005-10 parliament has been illuminating. That may have been due to leaks rather transparency but we’ll take what we can get. Any political commentator or indeed member of the public could have picked up a book or turned on the internet and learnt about the Additional Costs Allowance if they’d been the slightest bit interested. The ACA was hardly a secret. The reason this hasn’t been an issue at previous elections, nor reform of the Lords, nor Parliament’s sovereign power over the European Parliament, nor attempts to curb and perhaps abolish the Royal prerogative, nor the state’s role in industry, nor radical reform to the tax system, nor how you increase spending within your means rather than doing it on the never never, is because these issues, which have real currency when it comes to effecting the way government is run and so how effectively it can introduce change, is buried in favour of what we’ll call tinkering arguments.

This is a discourse about managerial approaches within the existing system – who’s going to put a penny on income tax, should VAT go up to 18%, should a benefit be cut by 1% or not at all? – all of which sounds very important and is, on a micro-economic level, but is also a guarantor that radical reform will be kept in its box. Consequently wasteful or self-defeating trends in governance are perpetuated, reinforced and ultimate recycled. You can blame the government but when people are canvassed on Television in marginal seats – politically illiterate people mind, and tell you that their concerns are child care provision or VAT or tax cuts, you can understand why there’s no political will to patch up the gash in the Titanic’s hull, merely to rearrange the  deck chairs. Lack of electoral reform is a self-inflicted wound for the political parties.

The government stands before us again and asks for another term in which it promises to do everything it said it would do in 1997 – a change to the voting system which might pull off the trick of appearing to be fairer while simultaneously stripping some of you of your right to elect a direct representative. Does the alternative vote producer a better result? Possibly, but for whom? Not for the electorate, who won’t have any greater power to hold MPs to account, only the superficial satisfaction of knowing that MP numbers may be slightly better weighted in line with the national mood. It’s a cosmetic change and doesn’t get anywhere close to reforming what Brown calls “the contract” between the state and its citizens. There’s more on the Alternative vote here if you’re interested.

If Brown were serious about ATV why did he block the recommendations of the Jenkins report back in 1998? Why has no one in Westminster asked the question of how you develop a system that maintains the link between the vote and the directly elected constituency member while simultaneously abolishing safe seats? If we’ve little hope of getting rid of an MP because of the deferential/tribal voters within a constituency who’d vote for the local Labour or Conservative politician regardless of how they voted in the commons, which polices they supported or whether they’ve stuck to their campaign promises, then why have an election at all? Millions of us have been pissing in the wind for decades. At this point I’d also make a plea to deferential voters in safe seats. Please don’t vote simply because you want to cock block the opposition. If you no longer support your party’s position or are underwhelmed by their record, stay at home. It may make a difference in some seats. Don’t skewer our election result with your token votes. If you’re not interested then we’re not interested in your party political loyalty. We certainly don’t want to live with the result for five fucking years.

Ask a Labour MP what the government has achieved in the past 13 years and its less a tome’s worth of achievements, rather a two page pamphlet. They might talk about the minimum wage or devolution – first term actions and only one of which is uncontentious in its claim to be an achievement. They might talk about redistribution of wealth through the tax system but how serious is a government about helping the poor when it introduces a lower tax band for “modest earners”, i.e. poor people, only to abolish it for a quick headline on the basic rate being cut to 20p ahead of an aborted general election? In fact any Labour MP who wasn’t totally cynical would have to concede that the government had achieved very little over three terms. He or she might argue this is a result of bureaucracy, events dear boy, events or lethargy at the top of government in opposition to an aggressive media but the truth is that the Labour Party of the Nineties and Noughties operated in service to Tony Blair’s vanity and Gordon Brown’s ego. Astonishingly these proved ineffective as a driver for change. What was missing was an ideologue – an ideology, a progressive agenda, any sort of strategy for introducing one or the political will to push it through. The Labour party itself, impotent for so much of this period, was content to go along with it provided it kept winning. Why vote for a party that only stands for its own re-election? That’s a tough one isn’t it?

The Conservatives

It used to be said that you could only be sure with the Conservatives. If only that were still true. 1997 was a truly horrifying election for what used to be the natural, i.e. deferentially selected, party of government. Most of the moderate base within the party was wiped out that night and that’s an affliction that has blighted them right up to the present day. Cameron’s adoption of the triangulation strategy following three defeats in which the party articulated its beliefs and was duly murdered, succeeded in softening the parties rhetoric and making them less repulsive to the centre left voter but it was also an empty bit of strategising. This is because the public is acutely aware, and by public I mean those which aren’t natural Tory supporters, that the advocacy of big tent politics is a principle free, catch all movement which produces large amounts of nothing. We know this because it was New Labour’s programme of government for the first 10 years. We have our metric.

So we know that Cameron would like a more representative party – more Blacks, Asians, Women, Cats and Homosexuals. Great news but what about the policies? The Tories could be the most liberal facing organisation on Earth but without a programme for government they’re a protest vote.

Cameron’s four and half years as leader has given the party a period of stability and a more friendly face but it’s also been a great period of timidity. Once thing we do know, despite their best efforts to hide it, is that The Conservatives have polices on just about everything. How? Because they commissioned 18 month long policy groups on social justice, public services, quality of life and national and international security. It’s been their bad luck that the main issue during this parliamentary term has been the economy and their policy group reported prior to the collapse which made all their growth based projections redundant. They may know exactly what they plan to do on the economy but the combination of a weak Shadow Chancellor, the wretched George Osborne and the realisation that the Economy is wrecked and so any decision taken is bound to rival colon cancer for vote winning potential, has caused them to retreat into a netherworld of vague pledges and half-hearted attacks on government spending plans.

So what about those other polices? Why not share them with the nation if they’re fully defined? I don’t know about you but the only reason I’d hide my polices from the electorate is if I thought they ran contrary to the perceived liberal bias in the media whose job it would be to present them to the voters. Sure, I can argue “we’re Conservatives, what do you expect?” but Dave’s strategy has focused on getting us to forget the Conservatives are Conservatives. Every time we remember we’ve voted for someone else.

So should you vote Conservative? Even they don’t know.

The Liberals

The default position for those that loathe the listlessness of Labour and the feckless Tories is to support a hung parliament in which The Liberals could have a controlling interest. As a natural liberal supporter, in as much as my instinct has always been in line with the social liberal tradition which the party has represented since the 1980s, I’m seduced by this idea but conflicted on several points.

First and foremost I’m opposed to a coalition for reasons I’ve already alluded to, but primarily because it’s anti-democratic in the sense that no one voted for it on election day. It’s the one aspect of this result that makes me highly uncomfortable.

The public can’t know what a fusion of the Liberal and Conservative or Liberal and Labour manifesto would mean for the economy or housing or health or education, and consequently it’s not a programme which anyone, including Liberal voters, will have endorsed so where’s the mandate? Secondly, proportionality, the price of coalition, leads to it becoming a permanent fixture, which results in weak government and a rolling programme of broad tent politics within the political class. It’s an institutional straitjacket which formalises the kind of centralisation of ideas we’ve seen over the last 13 years. So the Liberals gain some seats? So. Fucking. What? What’s been lost is the ability for a Liberal party to be radical – the reason you vote for them in the first place. Only a majority Liberal government can be truly radical and that won’t happen unless there’s a huge shift in their support.

We might watch with some amusement as Liberal activists talk about the similarities between the two main parties. It’s a perfectly valid criticism of course but reasonably intelligent voters will have already worked out that the Liberals will not get to govern alone and so will be forced to join with once of these clones if they’re serious about government. That begs the legitimate question of which side they favour, which policies they’d be prepared to ditch in a coalition government and where they’d be prepared to compromise. It’s a different game for the Liberal politician and the Liberal voter alike, so the pretence that a party with 20% national support may win outright under first past he post is intellectually and politically dishonest. Liberal voters are entitled to know, prior to Election day, where Clegg’s potential affiliation lies and how the coalition would function. Don’t think about turning on that TV in the hope of finding out though, that’s a decision for a time when public involvement has safely passed. The problem for the Lib Dem supporter who may be certain that the party is on the right side of the key arguments is knowing what they’re actually voting for. That’s the elephant in the election studio this time around. It may also stick in the gut of some of you that the Liberals could drop seats and end up in the Treasury or the Home Office. Personally speaking, if there’s one ministry I’d want a Liberal Democrat in, it’s Transport. What hope?

This may sound as though I don’t want Liberal support to be recognised within government but this isn’t the case. 20% of the electorate have their votes ignored at each election and that has to be addressed. The acknowledgement must also extend to the media whose open contempt for Liberalism is astonishing. If you doubt that the media and political class are closely aligned then you only need watch the BBC’s politics coverage when an election isn’t on and there’s no legal obligation to give the three parties equal billing, to see that 6 million votes doesn’t buy you a lot of screen time.

It could well be that only a period of coalition, plagued though it is by questions of legitimacy, may be the solution to the Liberal question. A sort of interim parliament which forces both Labour and Conservative to reassess how they might re-gain popular support to form a majority administration might be good for the country – not to mention the politically disenfranchised. A real period in government would give Liberal Democrats a substantial foundation upon which to fight the 2014/15 Election, assuming they succeeded in implementing a progressive agenda. It would even be possible for Nick Clegg (or his successor) to explain away any dilution of the manifesto as the cost of coalition. As there’s never been a Liberal government within the lifetime of a single voter, the notion of a Liberal government remains abstract. Here’s the opportunity, within the existing parliamentary system, to show what Liberals would do with power. The problems will be many, however. Could they resist the temptation to re-align with Labour, were they successful as a centre left government? Would the machinery of power and being accountable to the entire electorate, rather than your own support base, stultify their ambitions as it did with New Labour?

Whatever happens, changes will be afoot. They’ll be 144 new MPs in the new parliament, regardless of the vote, because of those that couldn’t bare a life under full public scrutiny. Bless their hearts, they didn’t actually expect to be accountable between elections. No party will enjoy the power and political advantage that Labour squandered over the past 13 years. In short, there will be a huge intake who will be facing circumstances which will be a world away from the 1997 intake’s land of rainbows and moonbeams.

So what do you do on May 6th? For what it’s worth I recommend you vote with your conscience and your intellect. If you have neither I suggest you vote Conservative.

Advertisements

The URI to TrackBack this entry is: https://edwhitfield.wordpress.com/2010/04/07/notes-on-the-general-election/trackback/

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: