Seven misconceptions about that election
Everybody in British politics seems to have joined the SDP - Self-Delusion Party.
A week after the dullest UK General Election in memory, it should be time to move on and start debating the future. However, it is difficult to do that while there are so many misconceptions and wrong assumptions about the election result and its aftermath clogging up the agenda. So let us try to settle some arguments about what happened and why, to clear the decks for a constructive post-election debate. Here, briefly and in no particular order, are some of the more prominent misconceptions about the election.
- ‘The election campaign was a turn-off because it was too negative.’
Wrong. There was certainly too much petty personal abuse rather than political argument. But when people complain about ‘negative campaigning’ these days, they tend to mean anything that involves attacking or criticising somebody else. In that sense the campaign was not nearly negative enough. Laying into your opponents and discrediting their case is a central part of any political campaign worthy of its name. It is how you clarify differences and highlight what the contest is about. By contrast, this election campaign was characterised by a spineless refusal to put forward critical arguments about everything from Europe to immigration. We need much more criticism and crossfire, not less.
- ‘Iraq was the key issue in losing New Labour support.’
Wrong. As we pointed out on the eve of the election, there was no debate about the war in Iraq during the campaign (see Iraq still isn’t an election issue, by Brendan O’Neill). Tony Blair’s opponents talked endlessly about irrelevant side issues such as the technical legality of the war, and gossiped about who might have lied to whom about what. But nobody questioned the principle of Britain and America launching a war of intervention against a sovereign state. Instead, Iraq became a symbol of something else. Far from being a political issue in its own right, it became a focus for anti-political cynicism directed at ‘Tony Bliar’. It was grimly ironic to see the grief-stricken relatives of dead soldiers turning on Blair, using the same appeal to emotionalism that he has deployed so often. But that has nothing to do with political criticism of the war.
Wrong. The whole notion of giving Blair a bloody nose, rather than creating a political alternative, sums up the low horizons of most of his opponents. Worse, Blair was attacked for all of the wrong things. This most managerial of governments was criticised for ‘playing politics’ – ie, for being too ideological. And Blair, a politician devoid of firm convictions, was most fiercely criticised for attempting to stand his ground over Iraq and refusing to apologise. Whatever one thinks of Blair or his Iraqi war, this is the one issue where he has tried to take a stand and show some leadership (although even here, his defensiveness is his downfall). And that attempt to appear resolute is what he is hated for most in an age when, as Blair himself as often demonstrated, ‘leadership’ is supposed to be about empathising, apologising and feeling others’ pain. There is little healthy or progressive about this sort of self-indulgent anti-Blair sentiment.
Wrong. In terms of a share of the votes, the Tories are almost back where they were four years ago, and in terms of parliamentary seats, they are further back than the Labour Party was at its electoral nadir in 1983 (see An election that nobody won, by Mick Hume). Some recovery. More importantly than the statistical stagnation is the political death of Toryism. They proved incapable even of articulating a clear policy on traditional Conservative issues such as Europe or the economy. And when they did try to play what we might call ‘the Tory card’, as in Michael Howard’s dalliance with the immigration issue, it probably lost them as many votes as they won. The election proved that the middle-class voters the Tories are seeking no longer want to be associated with anything that smacks of distasteful lumpen racism. Indeed, many younger voters, feeling alienated from New Labour, seemed prepared to countenance voting for just about anybody except the Conservatives. A few fresh faces in the shadow cabinet is not going to overcome this party’s political exhaustion.
Wrong. In one sense, since the election Britain appears to have become a one-party state, as everybody signs up to the SDP – Self-Delusion Party, and peddles their own self-serving version of events. In another sense the election results showed Britain heading towards an ‘as-many-parties-as-you-like’ system, as millions of people cast protest votes in a promiscuous and arbitrary fashion, against whatever they dislike today but in favour of nothing very much. The Liberal Democrats became an all-purpose receptacle for alienated New Labour voters, and the left-wing alliance Respect became a focus for alienated Muslim voters in some inner-city seats while winning less than one per cent of the vote in other areas (see Respect: ‘the fourth force in British politics’?, by Neil Davenport). None of that amounts to creating a new party political system. In fact, it would perhaps make more sense to talk about Britain becoming a no-party system. The lifeless election campaign, almost invisible apart from media events focused on a few marginal seats, confirmed that the political parties have been reduced to empty shells without roots in society. Without the new sackloads of postal votes to collect, it is hard to see what the remaining few party activists would have had to do in most of the country.
Wrong. New Labour has presided over a generational change at the top of the political class and the seemingly terminal decline of the once-mighty Tory Party. But that should not be mistaken for establishing its authority over society, or a durable and dynamic base of support. New Labour is as much a rootless entity as any other party today (see Why does New Labour stand for nothing?, by Josie Appleton). It is perfectly possible to see it atrophying as the Tories have done. Many Labour ‘strongholds’ are political backwaters where nothing (including the local MP) has changed for years. When something does begin to stir, New Labour is likely to find it is standing on sand. If you want to see a future nightmare for New Labour, look at what happened in Blaenau Gwent, the government’s ultra-safe Welsh seat, where a 19,000 Labour majority was turned into a 9,000 majority for an outspoken local independent.
Wrong. Some of the grizzled old rebel MPs might give Brown less aggravation than they do Blair. But they are not the cause of the political paralysis that is likely to afflict the third-term New Labour government. These problems are due, at root, to a far broader disorientation and loss of purpose within a political class that no longer has a clear vision of the society it wants to create or of how to go about achieving it. To see how this problem is now afflicting governments across the West, look to America. Remember how, when President George W Bush was re-elected with a clear majority last November, there was all that talk of a more assertive regime pushing through a new, more radical agenda with little opposition. A few months down the line, and the Bush administration appears to be bogged down just as badly as Blair on almost every domestic and international issue. A Brown government would face the same problems, even if it had a bigger majority or if the Iraq war had never happened.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
spiked-issue: Election 2005
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