An election that nobody won
It looked less like a vibrant contest than the night of the living dead.
So Tony Blair’s New Labour government was re-elected, as we expected. But the most striking result was that nobody really won the 2005 UK General Election. The results reveal a political system in stasis, with no sense of dynamism in any direction, and no idea that anybody could seriously change things. It looked less like a vibrant contest than the night of the living dead.
New Labour was returned with an overall majority reduced from 167 at the 2001 election to 67 this time. In other circumstances such a majority might be claimed as a triumph – it is considerably bigger than Margaret Thatcher’s first victory in 1979, for example. But today it is seen more as evidence that Blair’s authority is shot and that the illusory New Labour ‘project’ has been exposed.
The crisis of political legitimacy is illustrated by New Labour’s shallow base of support; at 36 per cent, it won the lowest share of the popular vote of any government on record. And with turnout at 61.3 per cent (barely creeping above 2001’s record low of 59 per cent), New Labour received the votes of little more than one-in-five potential voters this time. Little wonder that the celebrations of Blair’s historic third consecutive victory – an unprecedented achievement for the Labour Party – have been so muted.
The manner of Labour’s electoral defeat of its Westminster opponents has only confirmed its lack of authority over society at large. This is not, as many claim, all about Blair or Iraq. It is about a broader sense of drift and directionlessness in a party without principles or social roots that no longer knows what it exists for, other than to win elections. It is about the crisis of authority and legitimacy that now afflicts the entire political class. Any New Labour leader would face the same intractable problems.
The remarkable thing is that New Labour’s lack of authority has been exposed without any genuine pressure from the opposition parties. They cannot seriously claim to have triumphed at the polls either. Conservative leader Michael Howard might say that the Tory results mark ‘a real advance towards our recovery’ (not, note, the recovery itself). But even that half-hearted boast sounds hyperbolic. The Tory vote remains stuck at 32.3 per cent – up little more than half of one per cent on 2001. They won a few more seats this time around, but are still short of the 209 that Michael Foot’s Labour Party won when it was hammered by Thatcher in 1983 – a result seen as the nadir of Old Labour. The Conservatives, one-time party of Nation and Empire that dominated twentieth-century politics, have been confirmed as little more than an anachronistic rump, effectively alienated from whole swathes of the country and an entire generation of younger voters, especially in urban areas.
Perhaps the Liberal Democrats can most plausibly claim to have had a good election. Their share of the vote increased to 22 percent, about two per cent up on 2001, and their tally of seats reached 62, the highest since the old Liberal Party heyday of the 1920s. But that still falls some way short of the national breakthrough they must have hoped for, especially at a time when the Tories appear dead in the water. Indeed, the Liberal Democrats failed to make serious inroads against the Conservatives in many of their target areas – their most spectacular gains were against New Labour, in contests where Charles Kennedy’s party became an all-purpose depository for protest votes against the government. That looks less like Kennedy’s claimed birth of ‘three-party politics’ than the rise of anti-party politics.
The electoral disappointments of all the parties provide a snapshot of a moribund British and wider European political culture in which it seems that nobody wins elections any more. Of course governments can still lose elections, but usually in response to unforeseen external events – such as the ERM crisis that destroyed the credibility of the Tory government in 1992, or the Madrid bombings that precipitated the fall of the Spanish government last year. There are no dynamic opposition movements marching towards victory, only paper-thin parties waiting quietly to pick up the pieces when the government trips over events. This is the electoral side effect of the demise of any sense of humanity’s history-making potential in our society.
It was rather depressing to sit up through the election results on Thursday night/Friday morning, watching the various television channels trying to inject some ersatz excitement into proceedings. ITV even brought on celebrities, some of them on the London Eye, and turned the results into a child’s game of snakes-and-ladders. But such song-and-dance acts are no substitute for a genuine political struggle. Thus the pundits were reduced to reading huge significance into any local shift of votes – although few went so far as Friday morning’s election edition of the London Evening Standard, where a report of the Tories and Lib Dems winning a few seats from Labour in the capital was headlined a ‘London revolution’.
Yet ignore the shouting and take a more sober look at the political map, and the overwhelming impression is of nothing much happening. Of a total of 646 seats, a mere 63 seats changed hands from one party to another. More than 90 per cent remained the same. Indeed, in many parts of the country it was as if the election had not happened at all. The parties only really campaigned in a handful of key marginal seats. The rest of the electorate might have seen the odd news report (although audiences for almost all news programmes fell during the campaign), but otherwise the election can hardly have touched their lives. Heated debates on the bus or in the bar were certainly noticeable by their absence.
The only spark of life came from the emergence of large-scale tactical voting in some seats. In line with the general negativity of the election, this trend reflected a lashing-out at the government, a fairly arbitrary act that could result in the election of just about anybody, from George Galloway of Respect in Bethnal Green and Bow to independent Peter Law – who quit Labour in protest at all-women shortlists – in the ultra-safe Welsh Labour seat of Blaenau Gwent.
The Liberal Democrats were the most frequent recipients of these tactical votes, especially among young people and students in big-swing seats such as Cambridge or Manchester Withington, who wanted to give Blair the finger but would not dream of voting Tory. Iraq often appeared to be the big issue in these seats; but as we have often argued on spiked, that has less to do with the war itself than with the way it has become a focus for public cynicism about ‘Tony Bliar’ (see Iraq still isn’t an election issue, by Brendan O’Neill).
Above all, as Frank Furedi discusses elsewhere on spiked, the election has confirmed the isolation of the political class from society (see None of them knows what we’re thinking). One of the most frequent remarks heard from pundits and even politicians over the past few weeks must have been ‘I don’t know what is happening in this election campaign’. Without the old parties and networks to gauge the mood of an atomised and disengaged society, they were reduced to sending out an endless stream of opinion pollsters, like probes into an alien planet, to find out what we were thinking. When even political leaders and opinion-makers can appear as such passive spectators of an election, nobody should be surprised at the parties’ failure to move the electorate.
The dismal turnout figures are the most obvious reflection of this problem. Despite all the party tricks and postal votes offered to induce us to put a cross in a box, around four out of 10 voters declined to do so – getting on for twice as many as voted for New Labour. But as in 2001, if anything these grim statistics underestimate the scale of public alienation from the political class. What has to be understood is that many of those who did vote are just as disengaged as those who did not.
The response of many politicians to this problem is essentially to blame voters for being too apathetic or unintelligent to understand the issues. They seem increasingly to fear and disdain the electorate, especially the white working class whom many appear to view with contempt as a racist pogrom waiting to happen. Just after the polls had closed on election night, but before a single result had been announced, government minister Margaret Beckett was the first to come out and blame ‘the immigration issue’ for losing Labour votes among the ignorant masses.
So we are left with a wounded New Labour regime limping into its third term, which Blair has promised will respond to its setback ‘sensibly and wisely’. Many have already concluded that this will mean a less radically Blairite government. In fact, this is likely to mean an even less bold or decisive government than we experienced during the stumbling second Blair term. The one exception will probably be an area almost entirely absent from the election debates – what New Labourites have dubbed ‘the new politics of behaviour’, the interventions on personal health and lifestyle issues. The cross-party consensus on these issues means that we can expect to see even more government initiatives on public smoking, binge drinking or junk food, as one area where New Labour still feels able to assert some moral authority. We have been warned.
Of course, against this background, the 2005 election cannot be seen as a win for those of us who want to see far-reaching political transformation, either. An anti-political atmosphere in which there is little belief in people’s capacity to change the government, never mind the world, is hardly conducive to the creation of a meaningful alternative, regardless of whether or not some radical-sounding candidates manage to capture a protest vote.
But understanding the decrepit state of the political class can at least give us a start, in the crucial debate that we need now about politics in the third Blair term and life after the night of the living dead.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
spiked-issue: Election 2005
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