GE 2015: Defying Analysis
May 8, 2015
by Martin Odoni
Has all this been real?
Right from the moment the BBC announced the outcome of the Exit Poll at 10pm, I have had to convince myself repeatedly I am not having a horrible dream. How has this happened?
How has David Cameron gone from only managing to form a coalition Government as a successor to the deeply-unpopular Gordon Brown – the Prime Minister of the Credit Crunch – to getting an outright majority, after five years of leading the nastiest, cruellest, most bumbling administration in living memory?
How had all the opinion polls that pointed to another Hung Parliament with Labour and the Conservatives neck-and-neck managed to be so hopelessly wide of the mark, while still predicting the fates of the other parties with a reasonable degree of accuracy?
How has Ed Miliband, who looked like he already had one foot in the door of 10 Downing Street about three weeks ago, ended up with a net loss of at least twenty-four seats, and of his job?
How has all the backlash against the Austerity program been aimed at Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats, whose presence in the House Of Commons has been slashed to single figures, while the Tories, who were the creators and driving force of the program, appear to have been rewarded for it by an increase of over twenty seats?
How did an anti-progressive party that has run the most puerile, fear-mongering and negative campaign in British electoral history manage to get a majority from a public that keeps screaming out for a ‘genuine alternative’ to old-style politics?
How did a governing party that has lied about the public sector deficit, a governing party that has lied about deaths caused by welfare cuts, a governing party that has lied about the consequences of the National Debt, a governing party that has lied about the causes of the National Debt, a governing party that has lied about top-down reorganisations and privatisation of the National Health Service, managed to win more trust from the country than they had five years before?
How did a governing party that missed its target to wipe out the public sector deficit by country miles win most public approval for their handling of the economy? How did a governing party that insisted its success or failure should be measured on whether they kept Britain’s AAA credit-rating intact, and then saw it break, be seen as successful?
How did both Miliband and Clegg, who on individual levels both performed remarkably well during the Election campaign, easily surpassing expectations, both end up resigning their leadership roles, while David Cameron, who was largely aloof, hostile and anonymous throughout the campaign, has ended up with a slim-but-clear overall majority and mandate to govern for five more years?
How did such an anti-progressive Election result go hand-in-hand with an increase of women MPs of about thirty per cent?
How did so many unionists in Scotland apparently become convinced that the best way to prevent a Tory majority was to vote against the other big party at Westminster, handing a regional landslide to the party that wants the full independence that is anathema to unionism?
I could make jokes about how David Cameron looked for most of the election campaign like he wanted to lose, and yet when it came to the crunch he could not even get that right, but frankly I am in no mood for jokes. Last night’s outcome was overwhelmingly depressing, but doubly so in that it is so hard to grasp why it happened, making it more difficult to stop it happening again in future. The 7th of May 2015 defies analysis.
Well, maybe that is not entirely true; some of the shift is partly explicable. I did warn last month that, if the Tories did not change approach from the endless wave of insults hurled at Ed Miliband, their campaign would implode completely, and in fairness to them, they did start trying to be a lot more positive in the days that followed. (No, I am not implying that I played some role in that, they had worked it out for themselves – it was difficult to miss.) Most of the promises they were making, such as an un-budgeted extra eight billion pounds for the NHS, did sound very unconvincing and panicky, but not everyone was as skeptical as I was, it seems.
It irritated me this morning to hear veterans of Labour’s ‘Blairite’ era, such as Kate Hoey and John Reid, and the most free-market-loving pseudo-‘leftist’ in the British media, David Aaronovitch, all seemingly arguing on the BBC that Miliband had taken the party too far to the left. The argument makes little sense. The bulk of Labour’s losses went to the Scottish National Party, whose rhetoric (though not so much their deeds) has long been the rhetoric of the left, and of anti-Toryism. Miliband’s modest, very cautious attempts to move Labour leftwards have merely ceased the party’s post-Tony-Blair status as a ‘clone-in-a-red-tie’ of the Conservative Party, and therefore have not really carried things far to the left at all. Given the runaway success of the SNP, had Miliband decided really to go all out and to endorse re-nationalisation and reversing Austerity – instead of merely stopping privatisations and watering Austerity down – he would probably have retained far more seats in Scotland. He also would have come across as far more of a genuine alternative, and so might not have lost so much English support to the UK Independence Party (who are still seen by their new support base as something ‘new’ and ‘different’, entirely because they have no experience of what UKIP would be like if they ever got into Government). Moving the Labour Party properly to the left requires courage, because it will always lead to hysteria in the right wing media, but it is a courage that Miliband needed to find, and he never quite managed it, offering only compromises instead that his famous father would probably have sneered at; more attempts to ‘civilise’ capitalism instead of to implement an alternative to it. This ‘Austerity-lite’ approach was simply swept aside at the polls by the explicit ‘anti-Austerity’ talk of the SNP. However, you must pardon my skepticism over whether the SNP’s actions will ever match the progressiveness of their words. They have seldom done so since the Nationalists took over Holyrood in 2007.
Back on the subject of UKIP, there are bound to be a lot of loud-mouthed ‘Kippers out there today suddenly going very quiet. There were frequent, arrogant declarations over the last year since the European Elections that UKIP would today have seats in double-figures in Westminster, perhaps even be the party that would hold the balance of power in the House Of Commons. Instead, last night was a big disappointment for them, perhaps even a humiliation. They went into the General Election with two seats (both actually won by the Tories in 2010 and then transferred to UKIP more or less by default when the MPs defected), and came out with only one… and their leader failed to win the seat in South Thanet that at one point he was very confident of winning. Mark Reckless really did prove to be well named given his demise, and as for Nigel Farage? Well, his nasty-edged rhetoric about Europe and HIV-sufferers makes his embarrassed concession speech, at the end of which it was noticeable that he could hardly run from the hustings quickly enough, very satisfying and even amusing. The feeling that Farage has simply had his comeuppance at yet another General Election is a real silver lining for British progressives – especially in the Hope Not Hate movement. We can sympathise with one aspect of UKIP’s frustrations though, namely that the absurdities in our obsolete electoral system are laid bare when the party that got the third-best share of the popular vote wins only a single seat. But at the same time, UKIP are far from the only party to have ever suffered for that, and it is also tempting to think that First-Past-The-Post has for once delivered an imbalance that was richly deserved, even if that does not constitute much of a defence of the system.
Either way, it is another aspect of the Election that makes it very dizzying to analyse. How did a party with the amount of over-sympathetic over-exposure UKIP have received in the British media over the last seven years come away with only a single seat in Parliament?
I myself voted for the Green Party – postal ballot paper was sent last weekend – after a lengthy spell mulling over whether to support them, to support the TUSC, or take the easy way out and vote for Labour. It was a good night for the Greens from a narrow party perspective. Even though they did not add to their single seat in Brighton, with all the troubles the local council has given Caroline Lucas there, retaining the seat with an increased majority was a happy event in itself, as was the general increase in popular support around the country. But looking beyond the narrow party politics to the overall situation in the Commons, the anti-Austerity Greens will be no happier than Labour to see Cameron with an actual mandate now. Yet another paradox.
And no, before the likes of Sue Jones start raging at the treacherous outcome of giving allegiance to the Greens ahead of Labour, that is quite emphatically not what caused Labour’s downfall. Even if all the Green supporters around the country had voted Labour instead, the difference would have been about three extra seats. With Labour about a hundred behind the Tories, that would make no significant difference. Come to that, had all the SNP voters supported Labour as well, that still would not have been enough. Another dizzying paradox; how did a night of achievement for anti-Austerity parties herald five more years of brutal public spending cuts?
Nick Clegg’s speech when he announced his resignation as Liberal Democrat leader contained a lot of the usual platitudes, but it also contained several crucial nuggets of insight. The most important one was his description of the Election as a triumph of “the politics of fear over the politics of hope.” Nationalism and fear are not the same thing, but the one is often where the other leads to, while also provoking an equal-and-opposite reaction in other people. During last year’s Independence Referendum in Scotland, it was noticeable that many in England became hostile towards the process and to people in the Yes campaign. Then, in the late weeks of the General Election campaign, the SNP surge in support revived the ill-feeling. Too many people in England seem to be taking the idea of Scottish Independence personally, as though it is an insult to England to advance the identity of Scotland. (In all fairness, many a Scotsman habitually makes a similar mistake; during the years I lived in and around Glasgow, I quickly noticed an enduring and irritating feature in the Scottish character to see any compliment paid to success or merit in the English as being a personal affront to the Scots.) The Tory press and party cynically exploited the distrust of Scottish Nationalism south of the border, warning of the ‘threat’ to the integrity of the UK from a Labour/SNP coalition – despite Labour being a very explicit unionist party. Although the fear-mongering did not transfer that much support to the Tories, it still caused a significant split in the English Labour vote; precisely as we have been warning ex-Labour ‘Kippers for several years, those who transferred their allegiance to Nigel Farage in the hope of getting something ‘new’ and ‘different’ have in fact opened the way for the very anti-progressive, neoliberal, more-of-the-same Conservative Party to get a better result than in 2010. (To say nothing of the reality that UKIP is an even more anti-progressive, neoliberal, more-of-the-same conservative party.)
The suspicion and fear felt by many thousands south of the border has brought the country another five years of pointless suffering. It is painful to reflect just how much the Conservatives have been allowed to get away with, purely because of the myth, as Neil Kinnock was calling it last night, that the right is wiser and sounder-minded than the left. This is folly. As I have pointed out more than once before, if the UK economy does not get a drastic change of course immediately, there will be another banking sector crash, probably within a couple of years.
There is a way that Labour could interpret last night as a blessing in disguise. Not only does it give them an opening to reject Austerity completely, and to find a more convincing leader than Ed Miliband, but if the course of the last five years is maintained as the Tories have insisted it should, then the ensuing banking crash could end once and for all that history-independent myth of Tory ‘economic exceptionalism’. But an awful lot of people are going to experience horrible suffering before it happens, and probably even worse after it happens too.
In the long run, that myth does need to be broken, but the price that is currently being extracted for it seems depressingly higher than it should be. It is already quite depressing enough that a price should have to be extracted for it at all.