And the losers are…
If the elections in England, Scotland and Wales provide a snapshot of British politics, it is not a pretty picture.
For many people in the UK, watching the results of Thursday’s elections must have meant about as much as the outcome of the presidential poll in France. The elections for English local authorities, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly followed campaigns from which most voters will have felt disconnected, conducted on planet media rather than the world where we live.
At the time of writing on Friday, all of the final results are not yet in. But it is clear that these unedifying elections have ended in suitably unsatisfactory fashion. The talk of confusion and chaos over the thousands of ‘lost’ votes in Scotland reflects rather well the confused state of politics in the UK. The term No Overall Control, normally applied to a local council, now seems to sum up the overall state of affairs.
More importantly, despite the pundits’ faux excitement over close-run polls and ‘knife-edge’ results, these elections confirm that there are no real signs of political life, movement or excitement in wider society today. Some may think that the state of the parties mean we are on course for a hung parliament at the next General Election. But today it is politics itself that seems to be in a state of suspension.
So, what can we make of the underlying trends in results to date? As with other recent elections, it is easier to spot the losers than the winners. The major parties’ attempts to talk up their results only succeed in revealing their low horizons. Thus, leading New Labour figures expect us to believe it was quite a good night for them, simply because they avoided total meltdown, won a projected 27 per cent of the vote in England, and did not do as badly as expected in Scotland or Wales. Meanwhile Conservative leader David Cameron crows about their ‘stunning’ results in the north, such as winning two new seats on Salford council, while his party gets overexcited about taking back a once true-blue town like Woking in Surrey.
Behind the talk it seems obvious that no party has any genuine dynamic behind it today, no hold on public consciousness. New Labour is collapsing in many places, yet nobody else is able to clean up. The Conservatives made some further gains in the south, but still ran into a wall across much of the north – there is not a single Tory councillor in cities such as Manchester and Liverpool. The Liberal Democrats have not sustained the momentum they claimed in earlier local polls. Even the Scottish National Party, expected to be the big winner this week, has seen its bandwagon falter. There is no decisive move for either Plaid Cymru or the Tories in Wales, while smaller parties from the Greens to the British National Party have not made the breakthroughs they dreamed of.
As I argued on spiked at the time of the last General Election, what we are witnessing in Britain at the end of the New Labour era looks less like a shift towards two-party, three-party or multi-party politics than a collapse into No-Party Politics. Core votes, safe seats and party activists are all endangered species, if not already extinct. Thus Labour lost Blaenau Gwent (again) in its historical Welsh heartland. And even on an allegedly good night for the Conservatives, the shallowness of their support meant the Tories still lost some key councils.
Perhaps the most striking statistic of all was that New Labour did not even contest around 40 per cent of the council seats up for grabs in England. Never mind getting out the voters – the UK’s governing party could not put up a candidate. It has all-but ceased to exist in large parts of the country, just as Tories disappeared from other regions a decade ago.
article continues after advertisement
These elections were fought not between competing political movements, but between rival media communicators. Even in Scotland, where the election was supposed to be hottest, the battle lines were drawn between those media outlets supporting the SNP and the ‘Murdoch press’ whom the nationalists depicted as their main enemy. There was nothing happening on the streets of Scotland to suggest the ‘historic’ struggle the headlines claimed.
So how many of the Scottish electorate felt inspired to turn out and actually vote in this ‘most important election ever’? With results in from 67 of the 73 seats in the Scottish Parliament, the answer was barely half of them – turnout had just crept up to 51.6 per cent. In Wales it was worse – after 56 of the 60 assembly seats had been decided, turnout was running (or jogging) at 43.7 per cent. When the figures for the English local elections become clear, the invisible election campaigns are likely to have galvanised fewer still.
That brings us to the shambles of the ‘lost’ votes in Scotland, where it seems thousands of voters mistakenly ‘spoiled’ their ballot papers. There have been countless attempts in recent years to raise turnout figures by making the electoral process more technical and ‘easier’, through promoting postal voting, internet voting, electronic ballots and so on. The attitude has been to try to raise the number of voters by any means. The result has been a series of scandals and fiascos. The Scottish debacle appears to be the latest such failed stunt, where the authorities staged different elections for the parliament and councils with different voting systems (some first past the post, others proportional representation) at the same time, no doubt in the hope of pushing up the turnout. The results proved predictably chaotic – another product of a desperate political system where the principle now seems to be ‘never mind democracy, just count the votes’.
If this week’s elections provide a ‘snapshot’ of the state of political life, it is not a pretty picture. For example, the focus on how often our bins should be emptied in the English council polls speaks volumes about the emptying out of politics.
Until the late 1970s and 1980s, council elections were generally not taken very seriously. They were seen as local contests between parsimonious Tories and rate-payers’ candidates that had little bearing on national politics. The change came when the Labour left, out of power on the national stage, retreated into the councils, and authorities such as ‘Red’ Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council or David Blunkett’s ‘Republic of South Yorkshire’ set themselves up as bastions of socialism in Thatcher’s Britain. Local elections became seen as a serious stage for national political debate.
Today, this parochial process has gone one stage further – national political debate has seemingly been reduced to the petty level of parish-pump politics. Thus the matter of domestic garbage collection, on which the dust ought to have settled for good when civilisation invented the weekly bin-round, has been elevated into a decisive issue. Leading politicians are literally talking rubbish – surely a sign that it is time their parties were consigned to the dustbin of history.
These were of course Tony Blair’s last elections as prime minister; he is expected to announce his departure date next week. No doubt spiked will have plenty to say about the ‘Blair’s legacy’ debate then. But for now, let’s just note that it would be wrong to see this week’s results across Britain simply as a ‘referendum on Blair’ as he prepares to retire. They could be seen more as a referendum on an entire redundant political class – and one in which no party should like what it sees.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.