Election: up for grabs, but nothing to play for
As Gordon Brown launches the General Election campaign, the one certainty seems to be that we won't be offered any political choice.
As the papers announce that ‘Brown signals start of bitter election campaign’, many of the politics watchers of Britain are looking a little confused.
For a couple of years they have been living off the lazy assumption that the opinion polls prove the Conservative opposition is heading for an easy victory in next year’s General Election. Then New Labour wins a parliamentary by-election in Glasgow last week, and suddenly it seems all those safe bets are off, with talk of a ‘tremendous’ Labour revival, and of seemingly doomed prime minister Gordon Brown now ‘bouncing back’ with a raft of pre-election policy announcements in this week’s Queen’s Speech to Parliament (when the government lays out its legislative plans for the next parliamentary session).
So what’s really going on? It is worth trying to situate the polls, and particularly that by-election result, in some wider political perspective. Behind the bare statistics, these snapshots of political life reveal that there is no party today with any solid support or reliable constituency in British politics. New Labour is widely loathed, but the new Tories are not trusted either. Indeed there are arguably no real political parties in Britain today, in terms of political movements with roots in society that represent clear interests, rather than simply PR operations and election machines. The traditional core votes of both Labour and the Tories have corroded, and the floating voter – or perhaps more likely the floating non-voter – is now king.
This makes electoral politics a more arbitrary, unpredictable affair, where sudden swings of fortune are possible for no very good reason. The uncertain underpinnings of the parties’ support means that any combination of results at the next election still seems possible – the one exception being another New Labour majority. This ought to make the election campaign interesting and engaging for the electorate, with everything being up for grabs in terms of the precise make-up of the next parliament.
Yet the opposite is the case – the public are less engaged with politics than at any time in living memory. This is because, although all is apparently up for grabs in narrow electoral terms, in political terms there is nothing real to play for, nothing at stake, no battle between competing visions of the future of our society. In the midst of the economic crisis, we are facing a political crisis. That is why this looks like being the worst election on record.
Look at the Glasgow North East by-election that caused all the excitement among the small band of Westminster-watchers last week. The election was caused by the resignation of the former Commons speaker and Labour MP Michael Martin, forced out as a consequence of the expenses scandal. Labour won with 12,231 votes (59 per cent), easily beating the Scottish National Party (SNP) on 4,120 (20 per cent). The Conservatives trailed in a very poor third with just 1,075 votes (5.2 per cent), barely beating the British National Party (BNP) (1013 votes, 4.9 per cent).
It is a sign of how bad things have become for the government that New Labour should get so excited about managing to hold onto one of its very safest seats in one of Britain’s most deprived constituencies – the sort of seat any previous Labour leader could have afforded to take for granted, but which Brown flooded with party loyalists after losing neighbouring Glasgow East to the SNP last year. Had that humiliation been repeated here, as The Times (London) noted, ‘it would have meant there was hardly a safe Labour seat anywhere’. And we can take out the ‘hardly’ from that statement. However, avoiding humiliation is not normally considered the same thing as a ‘tremendous’ reversal in fortunes.
The Glasgow result showed that New Labour is down to its rump of support even in its old heartlands. That does not exactly augur well for its prospects in the marginals. Its national poll rating has scarcely touched 30 per cent in a long time, and it has even been reported that the party’s own private polling suggests it might be left with as few as 120 seats in the new parliament, barely a third of the 356 won at the 2005 general election. It will take a lot more than holding onto the poor end of Glasgow to suggest any sort of national fightback is underway.
If Glasgow North East gave Brown & Co a glimmer of hope, it was only because it confirmed that the opposition parties have serious problems of their own. The SNP suffered a terrible result in one of its target seats. The Scottish Nationalists, of course, are now the governing party north of the border, after they won the largest share of the votes in the Scottish Parliament. Having risen to that lofty position as the non-Labour opposition party, the SNP now finds itself suffering its own anti-government backlash in response to the crisis, with nothing distinctive to offer.
The Conservatives, meanwhile, made no impression at all in Glasgow despite the intervention of several high-profile party figures. This may not have been natural Tory territory. But the dismal failure of their campaign does point to a wider problem. David Cameron is still coming up against the firm limits of Conservative support, not only in Scotland but in other key places such as north-west England, where the party still does not have any councillors in the cities of Manchester and Liverpool. Even in more traditional Tory heartlands, Cameron’s support is much softer than would once have been the case and remains vulnerable in places to a challenge from the toothless Liberal Democrats.
And with fewer than 200 seats at the last election, the Conservatives are starting from an historically low base. A couple of weeks ago, it was estimated that their rating of 39 per cent in a national poll would give Cameron an overall majority of just two seats next year. That may underestimate the scale of bitterness felt towards the New Labour government. But the Conservative leader is not yet on course for any effortless Tony-Blair-in-1997-style landslide.
If the Glasgow North East result was not great news for any party, the arguments and attempted explanations that followed it exposed the dire state of political debate. The SNP offered a couple of excuses for its defeat – which, whether they are true or not, revealed quite a lot. First, the Nationalists complained that New Labour had run a wholly negative ‘grudge and grievance’ campaign against the Scottish government, and warned Labour that in a UK General Election, the boot would be on the other foot. In other words, all any opposition party can offer today is an attempt to connect with the bitterness and cynicism people feel towards those in power. Whether in Glasgow or London, elections are likely to be lost by governments, not won by opponents.
Then the SNP added a further explanation – that the Labour Party had profited in Glasgow from the ‘Don’t vote for the BNP’ campaign, which had whipped up fears of a far-right breakthrough to get out the traditional left vote for Labour. If that were true, it would not only show the SNP itself up as a fringe party that can be marginalised by an anti-extremism campaign. More importantly, it would confirm, as we have argued on spiked before, that the only thing New Labour and the other mainstream parties have to offer in terms of a positive vision today is that ‘We’re no Nazis’. That is a dismal enough state of affairs to make many people feel like voting BNP.
Little wonder after all this that we are left with one other telling fact about the Glasgow North East result: the turn-out, which at only 33 per cent of the electorate, was the lowest ever recorded for a Westminster by-election in Scotland. Conventional wisdom has it that this was a response to the expenses scandal. But public disaffection and alienation from the political class have been growing for years, long before MPs’ duck houses and cleaning bills became an issue. At the 2001 and 2005 general elections, the ‘Apathy Party’ of non-voters was easily the largest group. It is normally assumed that the more unpredictable an election appears, the larger the turnout is likely to be. Hence the grey Tory John Major received more votes than any other British prime minister in history at the closely-fought 1992 election. But it seems hard to imagine anything stirring such public interest this time around.
Yes, the exact balance of power in the next parliament may yet be up for grabs. But in a more important sense it is already clear that the election is a no-contest. There is nothing at stake in terms of genuine choices about the future of society. This week we are promised that the Queen’s Speech will mark the start of New Labour’s election campaign, as Brown sets out policies designed to demonstrate the clear differences between him and Cameron. The policies themselves are bad enough, yet more political intervention in the education system, for example – just what schools need. But what lies behind them is worse still.
Even leaving aside the spectacle of a government turning an entire legislative programme into an election leaflet, this is a pathetic excuse for democratic choice. These are proposals made-up on the hoof simply in order to look different from the Tories, as an end in itself. They do not represent any genuine clash of principles or interests between the parties. Each side might just as well pledge to wear different coloured party hats so that we can tell them apart.
Brown is apparently pinning his hopes for the General Election on an economic recovery, the promise of which he claims has already won Labour that by-election. No doubt things are already booming on the famously run-down housing schemes of north-east Glasgow. In reality, the UK economy remains in the doldrums, with zero-to-low growth set to be the New Normal. Yet even that economy seems pretty vibrant compared to the depressed and bankrupt state of political debate on all sides of parliament.
Time to start re-enfranchising the electorate before it’s too late. Join the spiked campaign and Vote for Politics in 2010.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.
Previously on spiked
Brendan O’Neill saw in the backlash against MPs expenses the self-destruction of the House of Commons, and discerned tyranny in the ‘clean politics’ agenda. He also warned of the anti-democratic forces taking advantage of the expenses scandal. Mick Hume felt that the crisis of New Labour went far deeper than Gordon Brown, and asked could this be the worst election ever? Or read more at spiked issues British politics and MPs’ expenses and the political crisis.
To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.