Saturday 9 May 2015

Reflecting on the election

“China will go capitalist. 
Soviet Russia will not survive the century. 
Labour as we know it will never rule again.” 
Arthur Seldon, The Times, August 6, 1980

A couple of hours before the polls closed on Thursday night I had a conversation with a friend who was asked me to imagine people looking back with amazement on the wave of mass hysteria that led them to believe that Ed Miliband ever had a serious chance of becoming Prime Minister. He decided to put £25 on a Tory majority at odds of 25/1. The exit polls came out two hours later. The rest, as they say, is history.

Regrettably, I didn't join him in his bet. I had already put £100 on a Tory majority nine months earlier (at 3/1) with a further £100 on a hung parliament (at 6/5) as insurance. The one thing I have always been sure of over the last five years is that Labour wouldn't win a majority under Ed Miliband, and by Thursday the betting market firmly agreed (it was 100/1 the night before the election).

For five years I have been saying that the Tories could sneak a win if (a) the economy recovered by the time of the election, and (b) if Ed Miliband remained leader of the opposition, but by Thursday night I had accepted that this wasn't going to happen. The opinion polls were unanimous. The Conservatives had, in my opinion, run a campaign so lacklustre that it was hard to tell if it had ever begun. The leaders' debates had moved the Overton window dramatically to the left by including the nationalist parties and the Greens. It seemed that the public really had swallowed the fiction about so-called austerity being an ideological choice rather than a modest attempt to get the country living within its means. They had, perhaps, even fallen for the perennial lie about the NHS being privatised.

David Cameron had already failed to beat Gordon Brown, the worst Prime Minister of my lifetime, and it now seemed certain that he would fail to beat the worst candidate in a generation. If he couldn't beat Miliband, it was hard to see the Conservatives ever winning a majority again.

We now know that the leftward shift in public opinion was a chimera. The polls were so wrong that few people will ever take them seriously again. But it was the polling that was shocking, not the result. There is nothing shocking about a centre-right party winning a slim majority against a weak opponent in a growing economy. If, in 2011, you gave the following information to anybody who is familiar with how the British electorate has voted for the last 40 years, they would have correctly predicted the result:

1. The Liberal Democrats are unpopular and are no longer a protest vote.
2. The economy is doing well and the Tories are perceived to be tackling the national debt.
3. Ed Miliband is the leader of the opposition.
4. Lots of people are determined to vote UKIP.
5. There is a huge swing to the SNP.

All of these facts were well established by the time people went to the ballot box. The only question was where the UKIP votes would come from and where the Lib Dem votes go. Even now, the answer is not fully clear, but overall the Tories benefited from the decline of the Lib Dems and UKIP damaged Labour more than it damaged the Tories.

For all the talk about the SNP, the simple truth is that their landslide in Scotland had no impact on the final outcome. The Tories would still have a majority if Labour had held every one of their Scottish seats. Labour was not defeated by a wave of nationalism, as Miliband has implied. The battle was won and lost in England. Insofar as the SNP had an influence on the result, it was by making people vote Tory out of fear of a Labour-SNP pact, but even this aspect of the election has, I think, being overhyped.

With hindsight, it is obvious that the Lib Dems would not merely lose half their seats, as the conventional wisdom had dictated, but would lose nearly all their seats. Why did we ever buy into the nonsense about dozens of Lib Dem MPs clinging on because of their local popularity? Because the opinion polls said so.

As for UKIP, it does not even require hindsight to see that they were never going to win the dozen or even half-dozen seats that were predicted after they won the European election. The logic of first past the post made this impossible. My own prediction was two or three seats, and most people I spoke to thought this was unrealistically low. In the end, they got one. Is it unfair that a party which received four million votes has only one MP? Arguably so, but everyone knew how the voting system worked before the election took place and UKIP themselves set themselves the more realistic goal of coming second in many seats as a springboard for 2020.

So much rubbish has already been written about Labour's failure to win. I'll tell you in six words why they lost: England is not a socialist country. The only Labour politicians who have won elections in the last 60 years are Harold Wilson and Tony Blair, both of whom were on the right of the Labour party and both of whom could have comfortably joined the Conservatives. Wilson's government was considerably more left-wing than Blair's, I grant you, but that only goes to show that Britain has become less left-wing over time.

The opinion polls led us to believe in a fantasy. All of the political chat of the last few months—nay, years—was based on an illusion, an illusion that many people were eager to believe. You could see it on Twitter, on Newsnight and in the pages of The Guardian. The illusion of the progressive consensus. The illusion of the leftward lurch. The illusion that inequality, not growth, was the defining issue of our time. It was an illusion that ultimately guaranteed Labour's defeat because it prevented the party from doing the one thing that would have given them a chance, ie. getting rid of Ed Miliband.

Looking back, there were two moments in the campaign which illustrated the clash between fantasy and reality. The challengers' debate provided the fantasy. By sheer force of numbers, three leaders—Bennett, Sturgeon and Wood—portrayed Miliband as something akin to a right-wing fanatic because he was not deemed to be sufficiently 'anti-austerity'. What an extraordinary sight this was, this amen corner of socialist utopianism in which money fell out of the sky and government solved everything. This was political debate as seen from the coffee shops of Islington, where the centre-ground lies somewhere between the left and the far-left. In this company, the risible, economically illiterate quasi-Bolshevism of the Green party was taken more seriously that the views of Nigel Farage, whose party would go on to win more votes than the SNP, the Greens and Plaid Cymru combined.

That was the fantasy. The reality came later when the leaders faced a Question Time audience in Leeds. This time the real questions were asked. Did Labour overspend? How can Labour be trusted on the economy? How are you going to cut the deficit? Do you understand, let alone support, business? After stumbling in front of this audience, Ed Miliband must have been relieved when the media focused on him merely stumbling off the stage. The lefty Twittersphere erupted with complaints about the supposed right-wing bias of the audience. Another fantasy. It was simply the English electorate.

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