Why nobody knows who will win
The UK election is such an arbitrary, unpredictable affair because this is the age of no-party politics – and no-politics parties.
What is going on in the UK election campaign? According to many of the bewildered experts and perplexed pundits, it is extraordinary, unbelievable, mould-breaking, history-making. If you were a Brit reading these headlines whilst stranded on the other side of the planet, you might imagine that somebody had stormed a palace or staged a coup back in Blighty.
In fact of course all that has happened to ‘make history’ is that three party leaders took part in a dull 90-minute debate on television, after which the third party Liberal Democrats have scored more than 30 per cent in about three opinion polls. This put them second ahead of Labour in several polls and first in at least one. The three main parties now appear to be running closer together than ever before, and all the party leaders agree that the election is ‘up for grabs’. The prospect of a hung parliament, in which no party enjoys an overall majority of MPs, has become the bookmakers’ odds-on favourite.
The sudden shift in the political landscape is certainly striking. But it is only incomprehensible to those many observers who are still trying to make politics today fit into the political patterns of the past, where Britain has a two-party system and power moves cyclically between Labour and the Tories.
If on the other hand we can grasp – as spiked has long argued – that the old cycles have ended, and that the old political parties have been dead for years in all but name, it becomes possible to understand this instability as the logical product of an election campaign without politics.
All the lazy poll-watchers now agree that the UK, for the first time in almost a century, has a proper three-party system. Yet look further and you see something quite different. At the time of the last election in 2005, I argued on spiked that we were moving into an age, not of two/three/multi-party politics, but of No-Party Politics.
We are now witnessing the next stage of No-Party Politics – and no-politics parties.
Political parties were formed as something more than electoral PR machines. They stood for distinctive principles and represented something real in society, with deep roots among particular classes, interest groups and constituencies. The reliable core votes and solid safe seats of the past were a product of political party loyalty, not branding and image manipulation.
None of the bodies contesting this election can be considered political parties by these standards. Instead they are rootless, empty shells that represent little other than themselves and stand for little more than their own re-election. We still have the parties, but without the politics.
The shifts in the polls today are not a consequence of any sudden rise of the Lib Dems as a mass movement but more of the long-term decline of the major parties. Both the traditional welfare socialism of the Labour Party and the empire/free enterprise politics of the Tories have long since been exhausted, replaced by nothing more than a new elitist managerialism on both sides. Their core votes and loyal constituencies have withered as a result. The public has become increasingly disillusioned with and distanced from the political elite, their feelings of bitterness embodied by the recent scandal over MPs’ expenses.
It is against this background that the Lib Dems have surged in the polls after leader Nick Clegg’s appearance on the first TV debate. One over-excited news presenter has hailed these developments as ‘Clegg-mania’. Yet more detailed surveys accompanying the polls confirm that relatively few of the alleged Clegg-maniacs know what his party’s policies are, and when they find out, even fewer are mad enough to support them. Instead Clegg has simply become Nick ‘None of the Above’, picking up support from those alienated from party politics by posing as the self-righteous outsider. In acting as a receptacle for public cynicism and anti-politics in this way, the Lib Dems are only building on what even smaller parties have attempted in recent elections. It is worth recalling that in last year’s European elections, for example, the United Kingdom Independence Party won more votes than the governing New Labour. The Lib Dems are now attempting to become UKIP-plus.
This is why those trying to take lessons from the last time Britain experienced a hung parliament, after the general election of February 1974, are drawing false comparisons. That indecisive election result reflected a stalemate between powerful opposing political forces in British society, locking horns at a time of major conflict. Against the background of widespread industrial unrest and another national miners’ dispute, Tory prime minister Edward Heath had called the election and asked the electorate ‘Who rules?’ – ie, the establishment or the trades unions. The result – with Labour emerging as the biggest party but without a majority – reflected the fact that neither side could yet break the deadlock between the opposing political forces and the classes they represented in society.
By contrast this election campaign appears neck-and-neck-and-neck, not because the parties are deadlocked with equally solid cores of political support, but because none of them have any core support or political dynamic behind them at all.
The result of this election campaign without politics is that all support is shallow, and all the parties are adrift on the shifting waves of daily public opinion polls. This gives the general election a more arbitrary character, with the results less predictable than previously. A new contender can suddenly emerge from nowhere for no particularly good reason, whilst all that is seemingly solid can melt into air. The apparently wide differences between different opinion polls carried out at the same time confirms how little they really represent. There have been many media metaphors this week about how the Tory and Labour planes have all been grounded by a volcanic eruption of support for Nick Clegg etczzz. But dust clouds can of course blow away almost as quickly as they appear. All that is certain today is that there will be no return to the old stable politics in any meaningful way.
This also explains the reactions to that over-hyped leaders’ debate. When Gordon Brown insisted defensively afterwards that it was not an X-factor or Britain’s Got Talent-type show, he had a point of course; there have been no performing dogs as yet, although the contestants do all have the potential to burst into tears. The man from ITV took a different view, however, effusing about how ‘As we know only too well at ITV, a closely fought contest in front of a live audience for a big prize that only one person can win makes for terrific television’. And there is a similarity in the way that a wave of euphoric support for some unknown contender can appear overnight, in response to one performance; in this sense perhaps Clegg really is less Winston Churchill (as bizarrely claimed this week) than Susan Boyle. That support can prove just as meaningless as a vote for a reality TV star. This is not because the electorate are all like fickle texting teenagers, but because the alternatives offered by the parties are almost as empty as those staged TV sing-and-dance-offs.
Throughout the run-up to the election spiked has suggested that we should not accept the predictions of any easy victory for David Cameron’s cardboard Conservatives, and that in the era of no-party politics any precise combination of results remained possible – except a majority for Brown’s New Labour. Right now it is hard to see anybody winning a majority of seats. All manner of scenarios are being speculated about and bet on, including the absurd possibility of Labour winning far fewer votes than the Tories yet gaining more seats, which could plunge the parliamentary system into internal crisis. There remain the possibilities of further elections and even rushed electoral reforms in the months ahead, which will keep the pundits excited if not the electorate.
But amid all of the current confusion and uncertainty, it is still possible to take a step back and be clear about the important things. First, whoever claims to have won the election or however the exact arithmetic works out, in political terms the UK was always on course to have an indecisive ‘hung’ parliament (see Whoever wins, Britain will have a hung parliament, by Mick Hume). None of the empty parties today offers any clear vision of the future or principle on which to build the good society. In the absence of political leadership, even an overwhelming parliamentary majority would not lead to decisive government. If parliament is hung in fact as well as effect, it will simply accelerate the trend towards anti-democratic managerial government by accountants. In that context it is worth noting that Vince Cable, the Lib Dem economic spokesman and alleged ‘people’s politician’, wants to form a committee of the great and good to run UK capitalism and assuage the fears of international bankers.
The other clear thing is that, whatever the ups and downs of the election campaign, we will remain cast as passive spectators of a contest fought out entirely in the media. The overwhelming focus on the leaders’ TV debates captures well the fact that voters are seen not as actors, but as unattractive coach potato voyeurs who have to be counted in the viewing figures and opinion polls (preferably conducted at distance by phone or the internet), but otherwise should be neither seen nor heard. We are left to watch the daily polls as if they were weather forecasts, shaping a political climate which we apparently have no ability to influence beyond perhaps joining in a media-run campaign for Clegg or some other SuBo. Whatever the result of such an election, democracy – let alone ‘people power’ – will not be the winner.
With the English premier league also nearing a hard-to-predict climax, there have been plenty of football metaphors, too, in recent election coverage. It is rarely wise to mix the two. But ignoring my own advice, I might tentatively suggest another comparison: both contests are close because neither the big parties nor the big teams are really much cop, and nowhere near as big or as clever as they think they are. That might make the uncertain end of a poor football season appear ‘exciting’. But an unpredictable election without politics in which there are no principles at stake is not inspiring at all. It might well be, as Brown and Cameron have both admitted, that the election is all ‘up for grabs’ now – but sadly that is because there is nothing of substance to play for.
Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large.
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