In 2010 I ran a series of short pieces on these pages about the General Election (and the image is from the 2010 result). Back through no popular demand at all… some thoughts.
This election will have four main head-lines on May 8th, and a big mess of two significant minorities to hack about trying to form a government:
1) The SNP wiped the floor with Labour in Scotland.
2) The LibDems melted down
3) UKIP were second in over 100 seats, but gained only 5 seats, and thus – ironically – have become the new LibDems…
4) Both the Conservatives and Labour can mathematically form a minority government, and that leaves the Queen with a somewhat large constitutional headache.
So, let’s start with Scotland. Lovely place, one day I will live there. Well, Nicola Sturgeon (leader of the Scottish Nationalists) was the stand-out winner of the televised debate of all seven main party leaders. Indeed, the people I watched it with (who all live in England, and aren’t known for socialist tendencies) all wanted to vote for her by the end of evening. This was partly because she sounded competent (‘knows what she’s doing’), and partly because didn’t seem as ‘male and smug’ as the other ones. So, on an unscientific poll in the Midlands, the leader of a party no-one could vote for, had a clear majority. In more scientific polls, she is set to lead (despite not standing for a Westminster seat herself) an absolute drubbing for Labour north of the border. For Labour’s chances of forming a majority government this is catastrophic. Well, it has ended the chance of a majority. For Jim Murphy (the Scottish Labour Party leader) this will be – if it comes about – a disaster, which is a shame because he is both a competent politician and by most accounts a decent man too. So, whilst the SNP has been making strides to dominate Scottish politics for a good number of years it is the catalysing effect of the Scottish independence referendum that is catapulting the party ever higher in the polls. The notion that the independence referendum was the end of the matter ‘for a generation’ seems fanciful. The mode of exit for the Scots seems painfully clear: the 2017 EU referendum provides them with the perfect opportunity to jump a Brexiting ship. Expect to see to Nicola Sturgeon looking very pleased on May 8th, and her former mentor Alex Salmond restored to Westminster and full of the joys of holding someone over a barrel.
The LibDems are having what is known in cricketing circles as ‘a total mare’. There appears to be nowhere in the land that they are currently safe – bar Eastleigh – according to an aggregator poll yesterday, and the lack of local support (their traditional strength) will be particularly concerning for them. The LibDems have – by dint of their internal constitution – always been very close to their membership, but they seemed to forget this during Coalition and frankly didn’t spend enough time saying how they had held back the Tories from doing whatever it is we assume they would have done if given free rein. And that’s the LibDems problem in a nutshell: what did they provide the Coalition, short of bodies to form a majority? If Clegg is lucky he’ll be offered a seat in the European Commission, a job he’d do fabulously well. As for those LibDem MPs that survive next Thursday, theirs might be a cosy and lonely existence. Back to the drawing board, and the sort of localism that saw them as ‘the’ party of local government for 20years.
UKIP and the irrepressible Farage will be disappointed on 8 May. They’ll be disappointed because – ironically -we don’t have a European system of voting. If we did, they’d be laughing. Nige would be all over the papers guzzling warm beer and basking in the joy of 1953 (cards on the table: as a europhile, I’m not a fan, but I do think he’s a nearly-brilliant politician). So, in line with the Ashcroft polling, I’m also happy to think that UKIP will come 2nd in over 100 constituencies, but fail to win outright in many. The act of coming second in a large number of seats (although they’ll feel like it’s a cup of sick) is actually a very strong result, that they’ll need to work hard, and more coherently, to build upon. For me, the really interesting point is who they are taking votes from: I had assumed years ago that they were the militant wing of the Conservative Party, but there’s good evidence that they’re taking working class Labour votes (which will see Tory MPs saved) and I’ve heard a number of LibDems in the midlands saying they’ve switched to UKIP too (which is interesting, when you compare the platforms). What Farage does very well, is tap into the concerns of actual voters. Not the issues that the mainstream think we ought to be bothered about, but what the ordinary voter is actually bothered about. That makes him a bit of a mystery to people.. well, like me. But after May 8, if he can actually build a party machine and match populism to policies that don’t get automatically shredded by the majority of the press, he’ll cause electoral chaos.
It’s been noticeable that defence and security have been almost totally missing from the election debates. There was half a day on trident, and the debate centred on 4 boats, 3 boats, no boats, and what is trident? But by lunchtime, it was as if all the parties had come together and agreed that trident and defence in general was a bad topic for all of them, and it was better not to talk about it. What I took from this is that defence is going to suffer further irksome cuts after the election no matter who wins, and none of them wish to point out the emperor has his fundamentals dangling in the breeze. We must surely be at the point where the next SDSR needs to have a strong element of public engagement – we are moving from full-spectrum to limited spectrum capabilities and the public are only just beginning to wake up to it. Miliband’s attempt to engage on foreign policy – at Chatham House – was met with howls and protests, and the modification of what went out from the Labour press office the night before rather indicated that the language had been loose. It would have made for a more interesting foreign policy debate if Miliband had gone for the strongest interpretation of what he said – the debate around interventionism and isolationism (a false dichotomy in my view) would have been worth having. But all the parties decided this was bad karma for them too. Even the debate on economics has swirled around, with Cameron’s job’s miracle not landing properly, nor Labour’s swipe at zero-hours jobs and food banks misfiring – you’d have to wonder what carnage Blair and Campbell would have caused with this.
So, on May 8th (and then for probably a month) we’ll witness the moving of the chairs as two credible minority governments vie to actually form the government. Who’d be the Queen in those circs: unenviable! Cameron has seemed – unfairly, so he keeps saying – disconnected and without gusto. But he’s done the job as a Chief Exec rather than a vision thing, whilst Miliband – in not setting fire to anything or falling over in public – has exceeded popular expectations. His brand of geek-immunity from social pressure allows him to rock up with Russell Brand and not be intimidated by the coolest kid in the playground, whilst meandering into a hen party and looking appropriately geeky. Weirdly, Miliband is becoming the Labour party’s secret weapon… six months ago, you’d have laughed to see it written.
This election of disengagement and the race to the deadheat of 33% makes me almost nostalgic for the crushing certainties of electoral domination of the 80s and early 00s. Almost….