The strange affair of the election that never was
'Public support for cancelling the election amid the foot-and-mouth crisis was always an expression of the anti-political mood of our times.'
So Tony Blair lost his bottle in the end, and postponed the general election before he had even called it. Many of us may not much care whether polling day is in May, June or whenever (although a good few would probably prefer it to arrive when they are abroad on holiday). Yet the strange affair of the election that never was does offer a revealing snapshot of the state of public and political life in the UK.
It is classic New Labour. First, the government invents an empty ‘principle’ that nobody else cares about, and insists that it must be adhered to for the national good. This is Blair’s idea of radical and resolute government. Then it does not have the nerve to see its phoney crusade through. As we have noted before in this column, in order to have the courage of its convictions, New Labour not only needs to find some courage; it also needs to discover some genuine convictions.
Just last week, the prime minister was insisting that local elections (and by implication the general election) must go ahead on 3 May, come what may, to show the world that, despite foot-and-mouth, Britain was open for business. (Some cabinet ministers were still repeating this ‘we will vote for them on the beaches’ message over the weekend, while Downing Street was preparing to climb down.) Now it is all off, for the national good of course. The danger for Blair is that, having once made that concession, he may find it hard to stick to his new principle of a June election if the problems continue throughout May.
Not that the Tories have much to celebrate. The polls show them still languishing far behind Labour. Tory leader William Hague’s schoolboy antics of the past few days – first demanding that the government postpone the election, then accusing Blair of ‘dithering’ when he did so – will have won him few new admirers. Just when you think that the Tories can stoop no lower in their desperate bid to exploit everything from law and order to foot-and-mouth, Hague somehow manages to plumb new depths.
Whistling past the cemetery, some commentators suggest that Blair’s postponement of the election might actually do New Labour some good, by making him appear more statesmanlike in the public eye. In fact, this whole charade is far more likely to confirm people’s cynicism about politicians and the games that they play. The system has been paralysed by a debate about when the election should be, yet nobody has any clear idea as to what this election is supposed to be about.
Public support for cancelling the election amid the foot-and-mouth crisis was always an expression of the anti-political mood of our times, reflecting the feeling that politics has little to do with solving the problems of everyday life (1). The fact that the government itself now appears to have endorsed this view is unlikely to challenge public disaffection from the political process. As Brendan O’Neill reports on spiked today, this reaction stands in stark contrast to the last major foot-and-mouth outbreak in 1967, when people were too busy debating issues from devaluation to Vietnam and voting in by-elections to allow an animal disease to bring the country to a standstill (2).
Whenever the election is held, the turnout seems certain to be the lowest since before the Second World War.
In itself, that is nothing much to worry about; how could anybody be blamed for not wanting to support these politicians? But the lack of interest in politics does indicate a broader problem: the loss of faith in our ability to control events and change things for the better.
And perhaps it is here that the ultimate significance of the election postponement lies. It shows how the culture of fear and insecurity in society has now reached the point where our entire national life can be consumed by the outbreak of an animal disease. That exaggerated sense of things spinning beyond anybody’s control is a far bigger issue than the incidental question of election dates. It needs to become the subject of a proper public debate, before the second Blair term becomes bad enough and boring enough to make people look back on the current national nervous breakdown with a sense of nostalgia.
Read more on the Foot-and-mouth issue
(1) See An outbreak of anti-election fever by Mick Hume
(2) See When foot-and-mouth didn’t make the front page by Brendan O’Neill
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