A landslide that signifies nothing
'This is the age of landslide-lite, when you can have an avalanche in the virtual world of parliamentary politics that leaves life pretty much untouched in the real world below.'
Tony Blair’s election victory on Thursday threatens to be the first-ever landslide that fails to make the Earth move.
As we enter the last week of the general election campaign, it appears that the only issue left to talk about is how big New Labour’s win will be on Thursday 7 June. The pundits and pollsters speculate about an overall majority ranging anywhere from 140 to 200-plus seats, while the Tories warn of the dangers of what Margaret Thatcher calls ‘elective dictatorship’.
The Conservatives’ argument that a big Labour majority would be bad for democracy is silly. The essence of democracy is ‘the tyranny of the majority’, and the democratic process is about trying to win as much support as possible for your beliefs. The Tories also seem to have remarkably short memories, given the way that Thatcher used her own large majorities in the 1980s to ride roughshod over parliament and everybody else (leading a top Tory lord to accuse her of…elective dictatorship).
But far more importantly, the whole discussion about a Labour landslide is missing the point. However big Blair wins on Thursday, it will represent nothing of substance. There might well be a landslide at the polls, but it will not reflect any seismic shift in society.
As Frank Furedi argues elsewhere on spiked today, the election has illustrated nothing so clearly as the isolation of the political class from the public (1). This is the age of landslide-lite, when you can have an avalanche in the virtual world of parliamentary politics that leaves life pretty much untouched in the real world below.
The isolated, inward-looking character of the Whitehall/Westminster elite is evident from media coverage of the election. One study now suggests that the ‘election process’ – the ins and outs of how the campaign itself has been run by the party machines and discussed by the media – has taken up 36.7 percent of all coverage, almost four times as much as the next most talked-about issue, Europe (another thing that ‘ordinary voters’ are not interested in).
So the public reaction to another Blair landslide is likely to be ‘so what?’. Ask people what they think New Labour stands for and you will probably be met with a shrug of uncertainty or indifference. This is hardly surprising, given that New Labour has sold itself as the most competent, conservative managerial team, free of any ideological roots.
A large part of Blair’s attraction this time, as in 1997, is based on the negative observation that he is not a member of the Tory Party. If Labour buries its opponents beneath an apparent landslide, it will be largely because the Conservatives have kept digging a deeper and deeper hole in which to inter themselves. When the inquest begins the day after the election, the Tories seem likely to make the Nepalese royal family look well-adjusted.
The fact that Labour’s victory represents nothing real might not seem to matter on Thursday. But it will be important in post-election politics. As we argued here last week, beating the pathetic Tories is far from the same thing as winning authority over society (2). Despite Blair’s claims to the contrary, New Labour will not have any proper mandate for a bold, radical programme. It will have to spend the next few years trying to consolidate its authority – no easy task given its familiar modus operandi that combines far-reaching rhetoric with the politics of opportunism, instability and spinelessness in practice.
We are all bored of hearing people say that this is the most boring general election in living memory. But after Thursday, politics could be about to get more interesting. While the Tories disintegrate, Blair faces the problem of how to keep his rootless coalition of little cliques and personality cults in line, without any ideological cement to hold them together as a party.
It is already becoming clear that Blair’s post-election priorities will be internal matters, like reshaping the responsibilities of government ministries and reshuffling his cabinet. Meanwhile, the future direction of British society under a government with a big majority but no mandate remains up for grabs.
When things have reached the point where even the Lib Dems can start claiming to be the ‘real opposition’ to New Labour, it ought to be obvious that there is both a pressing need and an open space for some new critical thinking. Watch this space.
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