In light of the recent Queen’s-speech-related twitchings of the corpse of our present government, I’ve been inspired to write a post about the forthcoming general election, and politics in general. No, wait, come back!
Ok, so the first thing to say to those few of you who are persisting with reading this is that the Conservatives do still have a mountain to climb. That maybe sounds like an odd thing to say, when a poll this week has found that they are on 42%, with Labour polling 29%. The reason the mountain exists is that, as things stand, Labour has a huge parliamentary majority. Comparing the 2005 election with the 2010 one, it would take a 7.1% swing to the Conservatives for them to have a parliamentary majority of one. A swing of 5.5% would make them the largest party in a hung parliament (and therefore, presumably, David Cameron the leader of a minority or coalition government), while a swing of 7.5% would give them a workable majority of 48. This week’s poll, when compared with the results of the election in 2005, suggests an 8% swing to the Conservatives. But all of these figures need to be put in context.
* – In the February 1974 election, both Labour and the Conservatives lost votes to Jeremy Thorpe’s Liberal party.
First of all, we can see that, in all the elections from 1945 onwards, there have only been swings of more than 7.1% (the swing the Conservatives need if they are to get a majority of one) on two occasions – once in 1945 (which is usually regarded as an anomaly, because there hadn’t been a general election since 1935), and again in 1997. The second point to note here is that both of these swings have been in favour of the Labour party. The highest swing the Conservatives managed to achieve over the 60 years and 17 elections between 1945 and 2005 was 5.35%, in 1951. In other words, if the Conservatives were to match their best ever performance in terms of swing, that would probably still not be enough for them to form the next government.
Another piece of information contained in the table is perhaps also worth noting. Margaret Thatcher’s sweep to victory in 1979, against the backdrop of the Winter of Discontent – with its unburied corpses, and electricity rationing, and mountains of uncollected refuse rotting in the streets – was the result of a swing of 5.2%. It seems to me that this suggests two related things. Firstly, it is perhaps something of a warning to the Conservatives not to rely on dissatisfaction with Labour alone to win them the election – is it really likely that the winter of 2009 will be as bad as the winter of 1978? Secondly, it also suggests that, even if public dissatisfaction with Labour were to reach the same pitch as it did in the late 70s, this wouldn’t, on its own, be enough to secure a Conservative victory in 2010. This is a point I will be returning to later in this post.
Of course, it’s probably a mistake to rely too heavily on historical data, especially at the moment. Everyone always thinks they are living though extraordinary times, and it’s only the more sober assessment of hindsight that can establish whether that’s true or not, but it does seem to me that the next election will be fought in fairly exceptional circumstances, for a number of reasons. Most significant amongst these is that it will take place against the backdrop of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. To be honest, the effect of this is a little hard to judge, I think. On the one hand, it seems likely that the electorate will want to punish the party responsible for the mess. On the other hand, economic crises tend to cause a shift to the left. This is what happened in both the UK and USA in the 1930s, and it’s already happened in America this time round. In the UK (well, OK, England – things are more complicated elsewhere), the ‘natural’ opposition to Labour, the Conservatives, are, of course, a party of the centre-right, which raises a question as to how inclined non-aligned floating voters may be to vote for them.
In many ways, the obvious result of this would be a significant shift to the Liberal Democrats – or at least it would be, if it weren’t for the fact that their leader, Nick Clegg, has taken the baffling decision to move them from the slightly-to-the-left-of-Labour stance that gave them an unprecedented 68 MPs at the 2005 election. In fact, they’ve shifted so significantly to the right that they now seem more enthusiastic about spending cuts than the Conservatives do. It seems more than a little perverse that, at a time when Conservatives feel they are members of a newly resurgent party and millions of disillusioned Labour voters are looking for a sympathetic new home, the Lib Dems have decided to try and recruit Conservatives instead of Labourites. I certainly find it hard to believe that it will be an especially successful tactic.
While Nick Clegg’s decision is the most extraordinary, the Conservatives also seem to have made some slightly odd choices. Up until the credit crunch, it seemed as though David Cameron had a fairly clear strategy to present the Conservatives as a radically different organisation to the party that had been in power in the 80s and 90s, one that was as ‘nice’ as Labour, but more efficient in the way it would administer government. In fact, he seemed to be deliberately picking fights with his grassroots supporters on issues like tax cuts to try and emphasise to the general public how radical his change of direction was. Since the credit crunch and its aftermath, that approach seems to have been entirely abandoned, even though it was what first began to rebuild public support for the Conservatives. To some extent, of course, the change in emphasis results from the fact that they are now, understandably, waging an all-out war on the issue of the government’s financial incompetence, but this seems to be part of a wider change. Specifically, the Conservatives seem to have fallen publicly in love with the idea of austerity, not just as a necessary response to lean economic circumstances, but as a virtue to be celebrated. It seems to me this may be an error.
There’s no doubt that ideas of government-imposed austerity play well with old-style Conservatives, who like to imagine that anyone who finds themselves in economic difficulties must have been irresponsible, and therefore deserves punishment. There’s also no doubt that a lot of people in the UK, whatever their political leanings, react with great pleasure at the thought of austerity being imposed on someone else, whether that’s bankers, or MPs, or single parents, or whoever. Despite this, there’s a risk with becoming too much associated with austerity, which is that, while people rather like the idea of it being imposed somewhere else, they’re usually less keen when it comes to having it imposed on themselves. There’s still plenty of time between now and the next election, of course, but I think the Conservatives need to come up with a more appealing message by then – certainly I think it’s quite hard to imagine ditherers putting a cross next to the Conservative candidate if what’s uppermost in their minds is that this is the party that wants to keep taxes high, drastically cut back on spending, and make them work longer before they can retire. ‘Responsibility’ and ‘austerity’ are all very well, but they’re not usually crowd-pleasers.
It certainly seems to me that there are a few signs that things may not be entirely rosy for the Conservatives. In all the consternation over the success of the BNP in the European elections, one thing a lot of people overlooked is that the Conservatives got only slightly more of the share of the vote in 2009 than they did in 2004, and received the backing of little more than a quarter of those who voted. This is, on the face of it, quite a surprise. We had a government embroiled in an unpopular war, responsible for an appalling economic collapse, and staggering on an almost daily basis from one self-created crisis to the next. Really, if the main opposition party can’t improve their share of the vote at a time like this, when can they? Certainly, it is hard to imagine how much more unwillingly helpful Labour could be to the Conservative cause. Of course, there are other issues to consider.
For a start, and for all they only secured 28.6% of the vote, the Conservatives nonetheless won the election, and by a fairly broad margin (the second-placed party, UKIP, got 17.2%). Then again, Europe is the single most divisive issue for the Conservative party, and in an election focussing specifically on Europe, it’s possible that the more eurosceptic of party supporters might choose to vote for UKIP, but return to the Conservative fold in a UK election. (The problem with this line of argument is that disgruntled Labourites are also more likely to vote against their party in a Euro election, but revert back in a general.) Another point to consider is that the Euro elections were fought in the immediate aftermath of the expenses scandal, and the Conservatives were as badly damaged by that as Labour were. I think most people would probably agree that, since the scandal broke, David Cameron has done substantially better at rebuilding his and his party’s image than Gordon Brown has.
That said, it still seems to me that there is a general perception around at the moment that the Conservatives don’t really have to do anything because the 2010 election is already won. As I’ve already pointed out, there are two potential problems with this argument. Firstly, the last time we were crawling towards the fag-end of a desperately unpopular Labour government, in 1979, the public dissatisfaction with Labour was enough to produce a strong swing to the Conservatives – but the size of the swing wouldn’t be enough to put them in government this time around. Secondly, the evidence from the European elections suggests that, while people are unquestionably frustrated with Labour, they don’t seem to be switching en masse to the Conservatives.
Mid-term elections of whatever type – local, European, by-elections – tend to be treated as a referendum on the government. In general elections, on the other hand, people are more likely to vote positively; that is, for a party they like, not against a party they dislike. In other words, for a party to do well in a general election, it’s generally thought that they need to have policies of their own that attract the electorate, instead of relying on the unpopularity of their rivals. Certainly, in the run-up to 1997, Labour made a conscious effort to set out their own ideas, rather than relying on the unpopularity of the Conservatives to win them the election, as they had pretty much done in 1992. I’m not sure that the Conservatives have yet achieved the same thing this time around. So far, they’ve been very effective in getting across the message that Labour have failed, but they seem to have been less successful in getting across how they will manage to succeed.
Two final points before I stop lecturing you and go away. (Sorry, I can’t help myself – I’m a politics geek.)
Firstly, if you are a Labour supporter, I think you should be hoping for them to lose. I know that seems backwards, but the thing is, there’s no way they’ll win a 5th general election. If they lose now, there is a chance that the Conservative majority will be narrow enough that future elections will still be up for grabs. On the other hand, if they win in 2010, Labour will be absolute electoral poison by the time of the next election, and will lose it at least as badly as the Conservatives lost in 1997. If Labour were to win in 2010, it would pretty much guarantee that a lengthy period of Conservative supermajority would follow. No, if you’re a Labour supporter, you ought to be hoping they lose – just not too badly.
Secondly, I ought to finish this post by telling you what I think – which is that we urgently need electoral reform. This version of political life in Britain – where support reliably and predictably seesaws between a massively powerful Conservative government and a massively powerful Labour government – is a fantasy that bears no relation to anything that’s real. By 2010, it will be 40 years since a government last secured the support of more than 44% of those who chose to vote – neither Margaret Thatcher nor Tony Blair ever won an election outright, despite both of them being in a position to impose their will on the country. For more than half a lifetime, the electorate have consistently voted for consensus-driven coalition government, but have been met with two lengthy periods of parliamentary dictatorship instead. This is really a shocking thing. There have been many controversial and far-reaching policies introduced in that time – the annihilation of much of the UK’s industrial capability (and with it, the destruction of the social fabric of large parts of the country), the privatisation of British Rail, the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the massive expansion of state surveillance of law-abiding citizens – and all of them have been imposed without the consent of the people. This can’t be allowed to continue, not if we want to call ourselves a democracy.
Yes, of course, electoral reform would produce some effects I wouldn’t be thrilled by – Nick Griffin would almost certainly become an MP, for example – but the fact that we might disapprove of the way some people use their votes isn’t a valid argument for restricting democracy. (And, in any case, the far-right would remain a tiny minority, and would be balanced-out by new MPs coming from the left – or at least they would, if the left-wingers ever managed to stop arguing among themselves long enough to fight an election campaign…) It’s the wholesale abrogation of meaningful democracy that lies behind the disengagement from politics that every politician claims to deplore. Electoral reform isn’t an optional extra, a might-be-nice-one-day cherry on the top of everything else, it’s the necessary first step to building effective politics. Fundamentally, we have no right to use the word ‘democracy’ to describe our system of government, not when it works in such a way that the leader of the largest political minority gets to rule like they secured a landslide majority.