Final verdict: We know who lost, but who won?Final verdict: We know who lost, but who won?
The election shows the irrelevance of the Tories and the isolation of the new political elite.
First published on spiked on 12 June 2001:
After the general election of 2001, it would be easy to conclude that nothing much has changed in British politics.
In the last election, in 1997, New Labour won 419 seats and 44 percent of the vote for a majority of 179 seats. This time Tony Blair’s party won only slightly less easily, taking 413 seats and 42 per cent of votes cast, leaving Blair with a majority of 167. Plus ça change…?
In one sense it is true that the election results do not matter. As we argued on spiked even before polling day, Tony Blair’s victory is the landslide that failed to make the Earth move (1). New Labour has won a landslide in the virtual world of parliamentary politics, but it signifies nothing in terms of a seismic shift in society. There is no sense of the nation throwing its weight behind a new political project, as there was, by contrast, when Labour won its landslide in 1945 on a platform of creating the welfare state.
However, beneath the surface the election does provide a snapshot of some significant developments that will play a major part in shaping politics after the election. There are two developments I want to focus on here. First, the implosion and irrelevance of the Tory Party. And second, the isolation of the political class from society – otherwise known as the debate about apathy and the record low turnout.
The Tories today are in an even worse position than they appear to be. They might have won one more seat (166) and two percent more of the vote (33 percent) than they did in 1997. But this election marks a far more significant defeat. Last time they could pretend that people were simply ‘fed up’ and ‘felt like a change’ after 18 years of Conservative government. This time there are no such excuses. The Tories are supposed to be well into the recovery phase, and yet William Hague won some 40 fewer seats than Michael Foot did at the Labour Party’s nadir in the 1983 general election.
In real terms this was the worst ever result in the Tory Party’s long history. They did worst in the seats where it mattered, the marginals they were trying to win back. And if the turnout had been higher, they would have done worse still, as the marginalisation of their remaining support would have been even more apparent.
Since the election, there has been a widespread tendency to underestimate what has happened to the Tory Party. Leading Conservatives and media commentators have discussed how the Tories to need to ‘appear more in touch with people’, as if all they needed was a more popular leader and a better PR agency.
The fact is, however, that the Tories have been damaged to the point where they are now entirely irrelevant to what happens in British politics. Nobody should underestimate the extent to which they have been destroyed as a political force. Nor should we underestimate the historic shift this represents in British political life. To appreciate the significance of what has become of the Tories, we need to remind ourselves of what they were.
For much of the past two centuries, the Conservative Party was the political machine of the British ruling elite, the most effective political party anywhere in the Western world. Its authority rested on close links with the institutions at the heart of British society. Just as the Church of England used to be described as the Tory Party at prayer, so the army top brass were the Tory Party at war, the BBC was the Tory Party on air, and so on, everywhere from the universities to the civil service. The Tory Party was in government, either alone or in coalition, for around 70 years during the twentieth century. Its reduction to an irrelevant rump marks a major departure in the twenty-first.
The Tories have not, unfortunately, been defeated from without by the power of new ideas. They have imploded, losing all coherence as the exhaustion of their old politics becomes apparent. In this election, the Conservatives were deserted by many of their traditional establishment supporters. Even the Daily Mail could not bring itself to publish the words ‘vote Tory’ (2).
On the eve of polling day Business for Sterling, a coalition of anti-Euro businessmen that Hague’s Conservatives must have seen as natural allies, announced that they wanted ‘nothing to do with the Tories after this election’. When, during the campaign, leading Tories looking for a law-and-order headline were barred from entering a police station, it symbolised their loss of influence within the institutions of the state.
The demise of the Tories marks the end of the old order in British politics. There seems no reason to assume that they will recover. Some have pointed out how, back in 1983, when Margaret Thatcher won her second term with a landslide, many said the Labour Party would never win another election ‘and look at them now!’. But the Labour Party that lost in 1983 never did win another election. By the time Blair was elected 14 years later, the party had been not just spruced up a bit, but transformed into an entirely different kind of organisation, with different principles, policies and personnel. It is far from certain that the derelict Tories (average age of party members: 68) will be able to pull off any such transformation over the next 14 years.
Nobody with an eye to the future need mourn the end of a Tory Party rooted in the past. But the Conservatives’ collapse also puts New Labour under pressure. It will be far harder for Blair to hold his disparate coalition together without the spectre of the Tories to unite against. Note how the appearance of Thatcher in the election campaign united and galvanised Labour’s forces more than anything Blair’s team did or said. It will be far harder for the prime minister to rally his troops for a crusade against the menacing ‘forces of conservatism’ when that threat is exposed as illusionary.
After the election it was interesting to hear one Tory belatedly conceding that the problems went much deeper than image, to the way that the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of communism over a decade ago had robbed the European right of its focus. New Labour now faces a similar problem on a smaller scale. Just as the demise of the ‘Red menace’ forced the right to justify itself, so the collapse of New Labour’s Tory opposition will now raise the question: What is New Labour for? The answer is uncertain. While the end of the old order is now official, exactly what replaces it remains far from clear.
Without the Tories to unite against, New Labour is likely to be exposed for what it is: not a political party in any conventional sense, but a collection of cliques and careerists lacking the ideological cement to hold them together. Former Labour minister Peter Mandelson’s remarkable election-night speech in Hartlepool gave a glimpse of what New Labour looks like when the mask slips.
Mandelson screeched about how wonderful and strong he was, and how dreadful were his enemies (by which he meant members of Blair’s cabinet), for several minutes before he mentioned that Labour had won the election – and even then, only in order to claim credit for the victory. The real New Labour stood up, and effectively told its comrades to go screw themselves.
Expect to see much more of this kind of backbiting and personal infighting in the big debates ahead over everything from health reform to the Euro.
The other development highlighted by the election is the isolation of the political class from society, as reflected in the lack of interest and enthusiasm in the campaign and the historically low turnout.
Many have noted how, at 59.2 percent of the electorate, the turnout figure was the worst in Britain since 1918. But that unique election, held weeks after the end of the First World War, with the country in chaos and a hundred MPs standing unopposed, should not be used for comparative purposes. Leaving aside 1918, the 2001 general election had by far the lowest turnout of any since 1885, when most adult males first had the vote.
This was the first election when the ‘Apathy Party’ received more votes than the party that won. In 1997, New Labour won the support of about 32 percent of the total electorate, compared to around 29 percent who did not vote. This time, Blair had the votes of just 25 percent of the electorate, while 41 percent did not vote – a real landslide.
Many commentators have tried to play down the significance of the abstentions, for example by claiming that people did not vote because the election was a foregone conclusion. Yet if anything, a turnout figure of 59 percent is a gross over-estimation of popular involvement in the political process. Not only is the act of voting now a more passive, consumerist one than ever before, as symbolised by the rise of the postal vote. More importantly, a good number of those who turned out did so in order to cast their vote, not for any particular party, but against politics itself.
The good performance of the Liberal Democrats, winning 52 seats and a 19 percent share of votes cast, can to a large extent be understood as an anti-political vote. Charles Kennedy’s boring-but-honest Lib Dems defined their campaign by disparaging the two major parties’ reliance on ‘spin’ – a boo-word that can now be used to describe not just PR stunts, but any kind of political argument. They won the votes of many in the anti-politics camp.
A more spectacular example was the victory of the independent candidate Richard Taylor in Wyre Forest, where the ex-doctor standing on a platform of defending local hospitals trashed a junior health minister by 17,630 votes. Taylor is to 2001 what Martin Bell was to 1997 – a focus for people’s rejection of politics. Four years ago, Bell’s stand against disgraced Tory MP Neil Hamilton captured the mood of voters who saw politicians as tainted by sleaze. This time, Taylor won the support of many who believe that politicians put spin before public services.
Taylor’s victory is all the more remarkable because, unlike Bell in 1997, he did not have the support of the national media or of the opposition parties. The anti-political mood has clearly intensified over the past four years of Blair’s government.
Landslide or no, this represents a big problem for New Labour. As we argued before polling day, it is one thing for New Labour to win an election against the useless Tories (3). It is something else entirely for the new elite to consolidate its authority over society. The new elite lacks the kind of social roots and institutional links that its predecessor could rely upon. Although Blair enters his second term with an even bigger majority than Thatcher started hers, he enjoys nothing like the same authority over society that she did in 1983, backed to the hilt by the traditional ruling class.
This helps to explain why, when electoral victory was never in question, New Labour leaders still looked nervous and defensive throughout the campaign. Getting the half-hearted support of a quarter of the electorate does not amount to a mandate for the kind of far-reaching changes necessary to consolidate their authority. That is also why Blair used every cheap trick and form of moral blackmail available in the last few days of the campaign, in an effort to get more people to vote. Inevitably, this only made things worse. When politicians lacking public legitimacy start lecturing the public about its responsibility to vote for them, this is unlikely to inspire people to turn out.
The isolation of the political class, so graphically illustrated by the election, is set to be a preoccupation of the new Blair government. Acknowledging the dangers of the low turnout, newly appointed home secretary David Blunkett stressed the need for the government to recreate civil society. Expect to see New Labour more assiduously courting consumer activists and anybody else that can sustain the illusion that they are ‘connecting’ with people. And look forward to many more initiatives designed to instil the ethic of the active citizen into the populace, by effectively introducing lifelong citizenship lessons.
We are all bored of being told how boring the election was. But politics could be about to get much more interesting. As New Labour seeks to force through the measures necessary to consolidate its authority, in the unusual circumstances created by the Tories’ historic collapse, everything is genuinely going to be up for grabs.
There is a crying need for some fresh thinking in the debate about Britain’s future under Blair’s second term. We need a new agenda that can step outside of the increasingly narrow confines of the old parliamentary politics, without falling into the ever-deeper pit of cynicism about all things political.
spiked covered the election under the banner ‘Politics is important, voting isn’t’ (4). We published a series of spiked-proposals to show that, with some creative, critical but un-cynical thinking, it is possible to come up with practical and positive proposals to improve our lives (5). Over the next period, as the political battles to decide the shape of the future begin, we hope these will form the basis of spiked’s campaign for a kind of politics that might be fit for people in Britain to support.
spiked election special
(1) A landslide that signifies nothing, by Mick Hume
(2) What the papers say before polling day, by Brendan O’Neill
(3) See Blair wins – so why is New Labour so nervous?, by Mick Hume
(4) See Politics is important – voting isn’t, by Mick Hume
(5) Read the spiked-proposals
To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.
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