NC/DC – Music to your ears?

The 2010 General Election – What the fuck happened:

On Election eve I was comfortable on Horace, a lovely old chair that my backside slots into like an ipod to its docking station. I tapped away and speculated that a toxic cocktail of fear and culturally transmitted deference may push the Conservatives to outright victory. We know that didn’t happen but what did occur suggests that my reading of the national mood may not have been misplaced.

I’ve heard of a lot of pious talk in the last few days about what a great result this is for democracy and how we’re all finally heading toward more representative government after the political dark ages of the 19th and 20th centuries. Before everyone encircles my biscuit and unleashes their load, it’s worth taking stock.

In almost any other election David Cameron’s performance would have brought him outright victory. The 2010 election is a final correction in respect of Blair’s monster 1997 win. That result skewered the commons seat tally so badly that it’s taken all of this time to bring the chamber back into balance – well that and the Conservatives’ suicidal right wing lunacy. Cameron, thanks to the dreadful performance of his predecessors Hague and Howard, had to leapfrog over Jungfrau in order to scrape a majority. On the night he achieved swings and gains (100 no less) that would have done nicely had he not had to start from such a low base. It’s an even better result when you consider that the Tory vote is so inefficiently distributed. What’s beyond dispute however, is that the direction of travel was all toward the Tories. They were the only main party to make gains and those numbers were significant. You could legitimately ask why Cameron didn’t win outright, as many Tories think he should have done. I’d argue that the lack of definition in his campaign – a necropolis for policy detail and concise messages, probably frustrated his ambitions.

He fought the right campaign – one based upon himself as an agent of change, he simply chose the wrong election to deploy it. Blair’s strategy worked well in 1997 because the economy was in good shape and the emphasis was on “steady as she goes” politics – nothing to spook the horses. When there’s that little at stake it IS enough to trade on the unpopularity of the tired and long serving government but this time, that made the opposition parties look like wannabes on amateur night. What about expenses you say? Hard to gauge their effect as it was a curse on all Hazel Blears’ houses. My suspicion is that very few people thought about it when umming in their polling both, aside from an abstract ‘they’re all bastards’ notion, which has always been a popular myth anyway.

The much touted Labour rout didn’t materalise, primarily because Labour voters sensed there was a risk of being spit-roasted and turned out in large numbers – especially in Scotland, to protect their candidates from being violated. This is good news for Labour, because although they were comprehensively beaten – so much so that Anthony Crossland could have written a book on the poll, they’re still very much in the game next time around and have all of their big hitters returned. Ed Balls won his seat too.


Those cynical bastards that said that Clegg was nothing more than a diet version of Cameron have, er, certainly had their comeuppance. It’s easy to sneer of course, which is why I’m doing so – I’m lazy and very tired having just returned from holiday in Switzerland. Few doubted that the Liberal leadership contest of 2007 was a battle between the left and the right of the party. Nicholas Cleggover’s victory, by a paltry 512 votes, suggested that the Dems were a much broader church of political opinion that Charles Kennedy’s left of centre branding implied. Some said that Clegg was very happy to put his hand up the skirt of the Conservatives, but it won’t do to make centre right pronouncements at Cowley Street, especially when your electoral strategy is predicated upon the idea of replacing Labour – a party you imagine to be on the verge of implosion, as the centre left party of British politics. Such is Blair’s decimation of that territory – a land where ideas can no longer grow and in which the odd fertile patches are irrigated with clear blue water, that it was a nice safe place to be – you just make social democratic noises and insert the word “reform” or “new” into every other sentence.

Whatever the polls were telling him in the early days, Clegg probably imagined that the direction of travel was toward an outright Tory victory. His strategists also imagined that the same poll would decimate the Labour party. If they suffered a defeat on the scale of the Conservatives in 1997 and the Liberals picked up seats, which surely must have been the expectation, then Clegg could be within 60-70 seats of Labour and the election after that, who knows? So for the last three years Cleggover has directed more of his synthetic ire at the Conservatives, positioning himself as opposition leader in waiting. Who knew that the electorate would fuck all that up?

I don’t think it’s being disingenuous to Clegg to suggest that he’s probably delighted with this coalition – not just because he’s a professional politician and he’s gained power beyond his wildest dreams but because once a hung parliament was a realistic possibility, it’s the only deal that would have made sense in his mind. The speed and efficiency with which negotiations were concluded indicates how much preparation must have occurred prior to polling day and worse, destroys the illusion of political difference that apparently existed between the two parties. The sticking points would have analogous to nothing more than differences in managerial approaches. It’s much easier for an ideology free outfit like the Liberal Democrats with a Tory sympathiser as leader to do a deal with the actual Conservatives than commentators suggested and the public imagined.

It’s also worth remembering that what we call the centre of the political spectrum is further to the right than it used to be. Edward Heath (remember him?) would be considered left of centre by today’s standards but in 1970 they called him a centrist. Thatcher’s legacy is that the political furniture has all been moved a bit to the right. This means that belonging to a centre left party isn’t the boast it once was. In fact, assuming that you imagine yourself to be on the left, you’d do well to remember that radical reform is the province of a group of politicians, which thanks to the success of Thatcher and her successors, no longer have any role to play in the contemporary house of commons.  Feel better now motherfuckers?

Democratic Deficit Reduction:

So is the new government a twack to the electorate’s cheeks or the best of a bad situation? Well let’s consider shall we? The first point to make is that vote share is irrelevant. As long as the party with the largest share of the vote also has the largest share of the seats, then they have “won” and the system, broadly speaking, works. The general election was 649 (and one pending) competitions, each driven by varying combinations of local and national interests. It’s always irritated me that people talk about national vote tallies in respect of seats allocated, to rubbish First Past The Post, when the competition is national only in as much as it is being held across the country. This wasn’t a presidential vote. The “popular” vote in this instance, means very little. For me, the one clear message that can be extrapolated from the result is that there was no vote for electoral reform. In the first instance it was very low on the list of voter priorities and in the second, it would be dangerous to assume that every Liberal voter agreed on the form it should take. I’m a Liberal voter and I don’t want proportional representation. But assuming all other issues – the economy, immigration, the economy…and all those other things people allegedly vote about were swept aside, the result has the main advocates of reform polling third with no significant increase in their support. The party that went to the country saying “no change” came first.

The coalition compromise – a vote which will be on reform and reform alone, is the right way of addressing this. The Alternative Vote, or AV, isn’t a bad replacement for FPTP as it happens, as it crucially retains single member constituencies but guarantees that the elected member has 50% of the votes in each…in a round about sort of way. Crucially it doesn’t dismantle the principle of direct representation and single member accountability and it isn’t a formula for permanent coalitions, meaning that the form the government takes can still be decided by us and not by our MPs once we’re safely out of the way.

This brings me on to my next point about the government, namely in the event of it being popular and doing a good job, how do we return it? This raises the problem with coalitions, namely that this is a government no one voted for. What’s that you say? It has 59% support? No, because that 59% are the total votes added together from separate competitions in which two sets of voters, cast their ballot for what they imagined to be two different parties. As the parties have not formally merged we can’t vote for the government next time around, except of course to boost the cumes of one party or the other, in which case the Tories, now only 20 seats short of a majority, would probably have enough to govern alone and would safely cast their coalition partners aside. On the positive side it enfranchises more people – some 17 million in total, and allows the Liberals to flex their governing muscles, but is that what the country wanted? It’s hard to know because one thing we absolutely do know about the electorate is that they don’t ring their friends in hundreds of constituencies across the country on Election Day and co-ordinate their efforts in order to produce a certain result. This is where trends and uniform swings begin to matter. On that basis, it’s all Conservative on the night. Liberals may weep but the truth is that the very system they’ve always loathed has given them a disproportionate amount of power, contrary to what appears to be the wishes of most electors. (You can play the total up the vote game and say that 77% of voters rejected the Liberals – hence why all this obsession with national percentages is a hiding to nothing.)

That hasn’t stopped sanctimonious scribe Johann Hari from doing just that in today’s Independent. Hari is furious with the coalition, as no one voted for it. He of course, advocates proportional representation, which will lead to, er, permanent coalition. His beef is that the WRONG two parties got together – wrong in his eyes but that’s the problem with these situations, we don’t get to choose who buddies up to whom – it’s all about the arithmetic. “55 percent of us voted for parties of the (relative) centre left” he wrote, ignoring the fact that a 91 seat loss for the Labour party is a defeat for the incumbents, not an endorsement. If you want to play this pointless percentages game, then again, 71% of the country didn’t vote for Labour. Yet Hari would have liked to have seen them back in government. So much for democracy, eh Johann? Incredibly the odd effect of this coalition is that once again, FPTP has delivered a result which is broadly reflective of voter’s wishes. They wanted change after all – no one argues with that, so to have a flip in which the opposition parties are now in government and the rejected incumbents have been consigned to opposition, seems about right. Voters on all sides of the spectrum may whine but none of the other coalition alternatives where in keeping with voting trends that manifested themselves on the night.

Perversely, you could go further and say that the Liberals’ agreement with the Tories is a tacit acknowledgment that they accept the basic truth of the Conservatives’ argument – namely that strong government is essential. Why then oppose the only system which guarantees such a result? We may consider that we were lucky on this occasion – Clegg and Cameron could do a deal, but what if they’d failed? Would a Clegg and Brown minority government have given us five years of good, strong government? When a finance vote is on a knife edge would you have wanted to rely on the SNP or Caroline Lucas to get it through? The new government may pour urine onto the maris piper wedges of the electorate but given the rare set of circumstances that lead to the hung parliament, it was the only sensible way forward. We now, for better or worse, have a government with a notional majority of 80 plus, which is just what the Doctor ordered. “We are about to face years of a ConDem coalition we didn’t vote for and don’t want” said Hari, speaking for most of the electorate. The voters didn’t seem to want Labour or electoral reform either Johann, so what’s a parliament to do?

I have to say I’m quite pleased with this ungodly fugue. David Cameron, who we all took for a fool, has been extraordinarily lucky in his defeat. Since 1997 there’s always been too many right wing loons within the Tory party. All the moderates were slung out on that night, inverting the electorate’s intent. If Cam’s modernisation hasn’t rung true it’s because it isn’t true – most of his old MPs were unashamedly old school. What failing to gain a majority has done, is allow Cameron to do in 5 days what he couldn’t do in 5 years and lead a government with a social democratic bolt on. Clegg may be on the right but many in his party are not and consequently, bound together as they are, they can now be the moderating influence – the social democratic double lock on policy, which could not have existed had the Tories won a thumping majority. Cameron may exist in a world of doublethink, being both a moderate in his own mind but ever the flirt with the right, but nevertheless, he’s now the head of a quasi-liberal government, which is precisely the trajectory he mapped out for his own party in 2005. Will he govern that way? Who knows. One thing we can be sure of is that Cameron’s smiles are not staged. He knows he’s pulled off something unprecedented and politically astute. I can hardly wait to see what happens next. It could make the liberals or kill them – invigorate Labour or make it irrelevant by out reforming the reformers. It’s an odd time to be alive.

Brown and history have some talking to do:

On the night Brown stood down – finally accepting defeat some five days after the rest of the country had delivered its verdict, there was an outpouring of sentimentality across the web. Twitter and Facebook were alive with talk of a dignified speech, a touching scene and more from the playbook of sentimental cliché. Another curious message that popped up a lot was “History will be kinder to Brown than the media have been” or about gazillion variations thereof. This struck with me with some surprise, in that it seemed a remarkably hasty prediction, given the amount of detail we still don’t know about Brown’s obstruction of Blair – the man who’d been legitimately elected both leader of the Labour party and Prime Minister. To argue we’ve misjudged the former PM seems unusual – particularly when we consider how much we already know about his record.

For instance:

  • That he abused his position as Chancellor to obstruct Blair’s reforms, contrary to the mandate the party had received at the ballot box
  • That he is, by accounts from all sides of the house, in addition to well placed Westminster journalists – paranoid, socially retarded and self-regarding to the point of blind arrogance
  • That he put self-interest ahead of the national interest when he effectively “abstained” from any intervention on the Iraq War, hoping it would finish Blair and fast track his own ascension to the premiership.
  • That he attempted to remove the Prime Minister from office, again, entirely motivated by ambition, rather than any one of a gazillion legitimate reasons he could have chosen
  • That he was crippled by self-consciousness and a deference to the media and news agenda which made Blair seem indifferent. Thatcher famously remarked that any PM who cared whether they were popular or not would be incapable of taking tough decisions and providing strong leadership…and so it proved
  • And that on every question relating to his much touted principles, he failed. His time in the Treasury and No.10 saw the poverty gap widen, no significant reform of the tax system, no constitutional reform and an irresponsible borrowing regime which – both through PFI, off balance accounting and the banking crisis – a problem exacerbated by the threadbare regulatory system he promoted, has lead to the largest deficit in peace time history. So much for sound financial management.

It may be fair to suggest that if the media concentrated on more superficial elements – his personality, his facial ticks, his lack of media savvy – then he’s got off fucking lightly. History, I suspect, will make the picture look a lot worse, not better. We don’t yet know the half of it.

Cut out and creep guide to the new cabinet:

Who doesn’t love a new cabinet? Here’s a run through of the key appointments.

Prime Minister Cameron:

An inconsistent, opportunistic charlatan in opposition who manifestly failed to reconcile his modernising rhetoric with his Thatcherite breeding. However, times change and so does the make up of your government. Now the public relations phase is over we can but hope that steel, conviction and a sense of purpose grip our new leader. He’s playing the long game by signing up to this deal, which is the first sign that he’s not New Labour in disguise.

Nick Clegg – Deputy PM:

Victory from the jaws of defeat for the luckiest man in British politics. He lost seats but managed to broker the best deal for his party in 70 years. He’s always been on the right so will he now govern that way? The coalition could make him or break the back of the liberal party at the next election. Nick, tread carefully and try not to touch anyone’s breasts.

George Osborne – Chancellor:

An oily, imbred tick with nigh on zero economic awareness. The good news is that the coalition partners him with David Laws and Vince Cable – two men who do know what they’re talking about. In bastard terms, it’s therefore budget neutral. He’s being mentored by pros.

William Hague – First Secretary of State/Foreign Secretary:

No reason to think he’ll be anything other than solid. A natural sceptic on the Anglo-American relations front, he’ll be more cautious than Labour – i.e. a little.

Dr Vince Cable – BIS:

Mericful Joy – the teacher is back in the class room. What could go wrong? Only everything but in Vince we trust.

Ken Clarke – Justice:

Not the job he expected but he’s easier to sack from here, should he go off message. A uniformly good secretary of state – experience, wit – a good appointment.

Theresa May – Home:

Not the department it once was so it’s safe to put May in it. She’s fully on side when it comes to cuts, capping immigration, etc. As for her role as Minister for Women – well, she’s genetically predisposed toward doing her best. Surely?

Jeremy Hunt – Culture:

STRANGER DANGER – Hunt’s soundings on the future of the BBC have been very negative. With luck the Olympics and England’s 2018 world cup bid will keep him busy for the next few years but lovers of the licence fee and its fruits should keep an eye on him – he’s a bad man and he’s probably a Sky subscriber.

Chris Huhne – Energy:

513 more votes and he might have been Deputy Prime Minister but Huhne is a good politician, despite his blind drive for the STV. Should do well in this brief, even if he does commission more nuclear power stations on orders from the DPM’s office.

Douglas Mackenzie – Scotland:

The democratic dodge. The Tories won a single seat in Scotland but the Libs bagged 13, meaning MacKenzie, a Liberal, is a good appointment. It’s a bit of a non-job these days anyway, but hopefully he’ll handle the SNP with kid gloves and diffuse some of their xenophobic bullshit about an anti-democratic Westminster conquest.

Andrew Lansley – Health:

A strong advocate of the NHS – he’s a good, solid choice. The system should be pretty safe in his hands.

Dr Liam Fox – Defence:

A right wing patriot through and through, he’s a natural friend of the armed forces. They want tanks, nukes, pussy? Dr Fox will provide.

Michael “hand in” Gove – Education:

He’s a clever bastard but there’s no way of knowing how this will go. Radical changes may be afoot but whether it’s a return to selection and less choice for poor, academically wanting sprogs, is the big question mark. More autonomy for schools, reform of exams and changes to Teaching powers are all on the cards.

IDS – Work and Pensions:

Duncan-Smith, the man with two names, has done a lot of work on social care in opposition. What does this mean for benefit dependants and the long term unemployed? Listen hard, the quiet man is on the case.

Now, who’s up for a long journey abroad?


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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I recognise that line about Brown. Not sure from where. It rings bells.

    I’m not sure whether my feelings towards Brown are best described as a soft spot, or a blind spot. Maybe it’s something like a soft, blind spot. Either way, I find him much harder to hate than most of the population seem to be able to muster.

    Although, it’s worth adding that I feel much the same about Campbell and Mandelson. They’re not people you hear the population piping up for very often, but they’ve certainly made politics a more intriguing place to dabble over the last few years. They’re like the bad guys in some poorly produced soap opera with wobbly sets. And what’s politics if it’s not a huge soap opera that sometimes, often inadvertently, has far-reaching and devastating influence over your life?

    • Heheh, well I must have read that Brown line 20 times on Tuesday, so you weren’t alone. I can’t say I hate the man but if his appearance fails to fill my heart with joy, then it’s on account of his record and certainly none of the other bullshit – i.e. his dourness, his discomfort with the public, etc.

      Campbell and Mandleson may have made the picture more intriguing but they’ve also done enormous damage in terms of the way political discourse in conducted in this country. Their influence on the last government was appalling.

      For all that, I half-liked Mandleson, in the sense that he was, as you say, something of a panto villan. As an odious, manipulative, perfidious creep – in fact he’s a gift for thesaurus sellers, you expect nothing less from him and consequently it’s impossible to be disappointed. I suppose a lot of people did expect more from Brown – they imagined he’d been stifled by Blair and was a real labour man – and he nurtured that myth in order to facilitate his takeover. I think that’s part of the reason why he’s so disliked – it isn’t several unflattering Sun front pages.

  2. I think my feelings towards Brown are just a microcosm of my feelings towards politicians in general really. I mostly feel pity rather than anger towards them. It’s a horrendous job. Atrocious hours, almost no social life at all, relatively low pay, especially compared to the responsibility and commitment, and your entire career could come crashing down at any moment due to a massive array of factors. Frankly, anyone that makes it through for more than a year or two without destroying either something important or themselves deserves a great deal of respect.

    As where Brown fits into that, it’s true that there are a fair few failures chalked up against his name, but alongside that, he increased funding for schools, the NHS, and tried to give money to the disadvantaged. Now, with the latter of those especially me may not have been entirely successful, but I do believe he did it because it was the right thing to do. He’s a man who’s had more of his faults paraded on the national stage than anyone would be likely to cope with, and although it might not have seemed possible at many points along the way, has come out of it with scraps of dignity intact. That in itself is some sort of an achievement…

    • I agree that being a politician is a highly stressful job, not aided by the fact that your employers don’t know what you do, have little understanding of how hard you work and then lambast you for not doing your job properly. However, you’ve got to temper that observation with the public’s legitimate right to hold these people to account and expect openness, transparency and consistency from those they elect. I don’t pity them personally, because it’s a life they’ve freely chosen and they know the score. They must consider the benefit to themselves to outweigh the hardship – or see the latter as something manageable, else they’d be earning better money on the boards of companies or perhaps whoring their skills within the media, which these days is a cousin of the Westminster village. Relatively low pay is also three times the national average and for most MPs, the majority of whom aren’t ministers. That’s a fair wage in my view.

      Regarding Brown’s achievements, well, it isn’t quite as simple as that. No one would argue with his aspirations to increase health funding or redistribute wealth – my problem is the method he’s used to do it. His tenure at the Treasury and later at No.10, is underwritten by one assumption – namely that the public are fundamentally selfish and can’t be trusted to support a tax and spend agenda – the bugbear of previous Labour governments. So rather than doing the responsible thing and paying for the NHS out of general taxation – clear and upfront – he could even have called it an NHS tax rather than added to income tax, Brown does it on the never never. He borrows extraordinary amounts of money and gets into bed with the Private sector, meaning capital projects cost three times what they would were they directly paid for out of the public purse. So we’re billions in debt before we’ve even got to the bank bail outs which are in part necessary because of his lax regulatory regime. I don’t say he’s fully responsible but allowed it to happen. You and I will be paying this money back for decades. If you have sprogs, they’ll be paying too, and all because Brown was frightened of middle England.

      As for redistribution, again, why not simply stick to your principles and raise the higher rate of tax or reform the tax system for low earners. What does Brown do? Introduce a complicated system of tax credits which very few people understand. In fact, many people haven’t claimed their full entitlement under the scheme because it’s deliberately convoluted. Why do it this way? Again, because you don’t trust the electorate to support anything that looks and feels like social democracy. In fact most of Brown’s polices suggest that he believed in the opposite – sucking up to the city – axing the 10p rate for a easy headline – i.e. cutting the basic rate to 20p – just taking the voters for idiots, which I’m sorry to say is what I believe he thinks of us. Bigotgate wasn’t much of anything in itself but it did suggest an attitude toward voters, which I think you can see in his management of both the economy and the country overall.

      As for dignity, well, the only bit of that I saw was in his final address outside no.10. A little late you might think.

      • Not sure I’d really argue with any of that. I don’t blame him as much for the crisis as many do. He certainly fell for the bank’s wish for removing regulation, but he wasn’t alone in that. I guess that’s not enough of an excuse, but I wonder how well a policy of further regulation, and an attempt to reduce the amount of personal borrowing people were allowed would have gone down.

        Granted, some of the time it’s down to a government to enforce on people things they really don’t want. And they didn’t shy away from that in some areas (ID Cards, war in Iraq etc etc), but I still find it rather difficult to put all of the national debt at his feet.

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