11th May 2015
The election campaign and depressing results have finally provoked me to rise from my torpor and blog. Yes, the blog has been away, AWOL for months, due to working to finish a book and the grind of daily employed work, and the getting out of the habit frankly.
The election provides an imperative to blog. How can you not?
The key question came from an old mate: “Oi, Grrr, who should I vote for? Can't decide between Labour and the Greens - former, I always vote for but am not happy about their stance on the SNP and Ed's pandering to mentalists about them”.
Dear lass is in an invidious position, a Scot, proudly left-wing, working in the school-sector of education, stuck in a Tory landscape in the deep-blue south-east of England. Who to vote for wasn’t easy, but she did choose the most obvious option. Few others around her did likewise, however.
The Conservative Party managed 36.9% of the vote, and received 331 of 650 seats (the first of many oddly British electoral statistical quirks), with only an extra 0.8% of votes from 2010. Labour increased its votes by 1.5%, but lost 24 seats (while the Tories gained 26). Their biggest losses were in Scotland, where they lost more than 40 and retained only one. The SNP wiped them out, a reward for siding with the Tories (and Lib-Dems) against independence, even though most Scots also rejected the SNP’s bid for freedom. So what was Labour punished for? Not clear, but it seems for a sense of betrayal by a leadership that banked on Scots votes without seeming to understand or care to try to understand them. From Ramsey MacDonald to Gordon Brown the Labour Scottish leaders have an impressive lineage, and even Tony Blair was a part-time Scot, but this obviously isn’t shared in spirit by Miliband and his strangely unconvincing, anaemic campaign. The SNP managed to take 56 of the 59 Scottish seats, leaving the ‘big three’ with one each as consolation prizes. The SNP managed to get less than 1.5 million votes, but 56 seats. The Lib-Dems got a million votes more, but 48 seats less, the same in fact as the DUP in Northern Ireland, who received a whopping 184, 260 votes. The lowest effort required to gain a Westminster seat was that of the SDLP of Northern Ireland, who didn’t manage 100,000 votes but got one MP, while poor old UKIP had to drum up over 3.8 million votes for their single MP. (http://www.bbc.com/news/election/2015/results )
Now, UKIP were easily the least likable people in the election, even despite the fact that the Tories, Sinn Fein, and other avowed nationalists were receiving votes and seats, a party characterised by the visiting, interested, and always insightful PJ O’Rourke: “from what I could tell by speaking to UKIP supporters, the party is, basically, a protest against modernity.” And that from a man who pronounced his basic political identity on the UK spectrum as “a Countryside Alliance Tory bog-trotter.” He also noted that Nicola Sturgeon, SNP leader, “bore a strong resemblance - not least in the demands she intended to make on Ed Miliband - to my ex-wife's divorce lawyer.” (http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-32657761 )
So, why this result? Did Britain go barmy in early May? Lose its senses? Do people really desire fiscal responsibility and cuts over services and social compassion? Do people really think that present levels of public service (education, health, welfare etc.) are all basically fine or even excessively lavish? The Tories’ campaign was basically ‘vote for us for cuts and an EU referendum, vote Labour to give the SNP control, vote Lib-Dem and they’ll just dither, vote UKIP and we’ll have a massive crisis.’ It worked. The negativity paid off, for Scottish independence and EU membership are not big voting factors in England, but fears whipped up of Sturgeon leading Miliband by the groin through Parliament was an image that the tabloids sold and middle England swallowed.
What was perhaps most astonishing for those of us who live outside of Britain was the almost complete absence of any discussion of foreign, security, or defence policy, other than UKIP wishing to cut foreign aid and leave the EU. The Tories are always keen to don the flag and defend the nation, but were rather hampered by their massive defence cuts that have even prompted public questions from the US. No party was seen as a defence advocate, but few even wanted to talk about any form of security policy. The Greens and SNP were against the Trident or any other UK nuclear deterrent, and the others were more or less in favour of keeping it, with Cameron using that as another Scot-whipping stick to beat Miliband: the SNP would force labour to give up Trident. But no-one talked about Afghanistan, Syria, ISIS, Saudi Arabia, NATO, or the US Alliance.
The latter should have been a big point, as Britain is facing similar issues to Japan on free-trade matters, with the TPP in Asia-Pacific matched by a the TTIP across the Atlantic. Not a peep. Nor anything about the things that the US is worried about regarding Britain: EU membership, UK response to ISIS, UK eagerness to join the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in the face of very strong US opposition. Nothing.
(For a comparison of the US and relations with Japan and Britain, an interesting article by Peter Tasker: http://asia.nikkei.com/Viewpoints/Perspectives/Is-Japan-the-new-Britain )
So, what indeed was this election about?
Immigration seemed to be important, but when the results are analysed areas such as Redcar on Teesside had relatively high UKIP support (despite being solid Labour), but it has the lowest proportion of immigrants in England. Perhaps more important was not the economy itself, which the headline figures show is ‘healthy’, but which deeper analysis illustrates is massively unbalanced, structurally towards retail, housing, and financial services in the City of London, and geographically towards the huge doughnut around that Emerald City of London. The more important point was public perceptions of themselves within that economy.
Some may like the sense of crisis through which they can relive the 'Dunkirk spirit' of sacrifice and misery with a joyous, stoical air. Others love the fact that the rich will get richer, but we may have hit the point of social prosperity whereby the majority (or at least 37%) believe they are on the right side of 'wealth' and they must protect it. Accompanying this sense of prosperity is a belief that most (or 37%) of us are now free from the dangers of penury, that no matter what we will never be forced onto benefits, which wasn't the case even in the mid-1990s. The country (England, that is) has become truly middle-class, not in wealth alone, but in expectations, aspirations, and standards by which others are judged. This has bred contempt for those who are on benefits and a nastiness about cuts that is quite stunning. Cutting funds for the pensions is unthinkable (and avoided by all parties) as it raises more hackles than cuts to disability benefits, as pensions are seen as ‘our right’, while disability is strangely associated with poverty. Oddly, however, those with an enhanced sense of wealth-care appear not to have minded the massive rise in university fees due to the Conservatives in 2010 (and the Lib-Dems buckling), which they would have to pay, as their kids are far more likely to go to uni than kids from Stockton or Redcar. Much the same is true of the NHS. Wealth care over health care, perhaps?
The life expectancy of a child born in Stockton, next to Middlesbrough and Redcar, is the shortest in England at 67, whereas it is 91 in Belgravia, London. Even within Stockton there is a 16.4 year difference in life expectancy between central Stockton and one of its wealthy suburbs, such as Yarm. That should surely make people as mad as hell, but those wealthy suburbs (South Stockton) returned a Tory, as they did in 2010, even on Teesside! You can't help but wonder what it is that people are prioritising.
It seems that the only people who are getting what they want are those who voted Conservative and SNP, and this is in a UK election immediately after independence was rejected. The Tories appear to regard Scotland in the Union as a missile base, an oil-processing plant, and a Labour-seat-reduction device, and seem willing to give anything to the SNP as long as those three elements can remain intact and of utility.
The new government will have its work cut out and may well rue the day it wished for a majority. Its programme is to cut away at public spending, reduce the size of the state, and then the private sector will pick up the slack and make everyone richer. If it works, many will be happy, but it does rather smack of gambling. The pledge on a referendum on EU membership was considered vital for the Tories for one big reason: it has no EU policy. Since the 1990s when the party ripped itself apart on the issue between the proto-UKIP Luddite Euro-sceptics, and pro-business, neo-Liberal Euro-philes, it has been impossible to have one position. However, the party has learned from its errors and will not repeat those mistakes. But the problem will come if the vote goes against EU membership. What does Cameron do then? Leave the EU in the face of business opposition? The party of commerce? Does it announce a period of ‘wait and see’, with possibly another vote? What would that do for business confidence? It could, of course, result in a vote for the EU, but by such a narrow margin that hope arises in those Little Englander hearts that they are close to winning if only they can try again, only harder. The only positive result would be for a united campaign for the EU, by all parties (other than UKIP), and a resounding 80% victory. But the one lesson Cameron has learned from this election is that joining up with your enemies against some of your oldest, natural friends is a recipe for future electoral disaster.
One hopes that all those that voted Tory are feeling truly proud of themselves, and shall continue to do so.
I keep being reminded of a woman I met in Bosnia. She left Sarajevo as a teenager during the siege, made a new life in Britain, but then wanted to go home and rebuild a life in Sarajevo with her kids. Turned out she couldn't register for anything as her nationality wasn't recognised: Yugoslav was no longer acceptable, she had to be Bosniak, Croat, or Serb, so she left. Without the war, siege, and kids, that might end up the case with some of us British.