Some Thoughts On The Coming Election

With a week to go until the General Election, the polls have settled into a stubborn flatline, at least in terms of the relative positions of the two main parties. Thus, superficially, it would seem that everything is still to play for. However one basic truth has been set in stone, probably since the immediate aftermath of the last election, but certainly becoming ever clearer. That is that there is vastly unlikely to be a continued David Cameron premiership after election day. The reason for this is a fundamental but long unremarked upon shift in the polls arising out of the formation of the coalition: the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote, primarily benefiting other parties of the left and centre left, including Labour.   The evidence of this in Lord Ascroft’s marginal polling demonstrates the depth of the problems facing the Conservative Party.

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The road to government, either alone or with other parties, consists of three steps. Firstly, and most fundamentally, the leading party must be able to survive a vote of no confidence. On paper this requires 326 of 650 seats, reduced to about 323 by Sinn Fein’s policy of abstentionism. Next, a Government has to pass a budget.   Finally, any functioning government will want to pass legislation. The preponderance of polling evidence suggests that the Conservative party will not be able to muster this level of support, even with the support of the likely handful of returned UKIP MPs; even with the support of unionist MPs from Northern Ireland that received wisdom suggests would naturally fall in line with the right (in reality this is far from certain and Northern Irish MPs of all stripes have pursued an anti-austerity approach during the last parliament). In practice the Conservative party would be reliant on the loyalty of most if not all of the rump of Lib Dem MPs, many of whom lean stubbornly to the left, even to vault the first hurdle of maintaining the confidence of the House, let alone put forward a workable programme of government with this rag-tag coalition of, often, implacably opposing political forces. To make matters worse one of the major remaining variables is how the Liberal Democrats hold up in Conservative facing marginals, with the answer seemingly being, “much better than anywhere else.”   Exactly how this breaks down, will determine how much of a silver lining there is for each party, one way or the other, but it really is a zero some game in terms of coalition forming.

The realisation that these factors have put majority Government out of the Conservatives’ reach, possibly permanently, is reflected in the increasing desperation of the Conservatives’ and their proxies in the press. Yesterday’s Telegraph front page splash of a CCHQ originated open letter from “small business people” many of whom with obvious links to the party, and which fell apart almost as soon as it was published, is but the latest example of this. Private Eye magazine discovered that a Sun front page excorciating Ed Miliband for his performance in the first leaders’ debate, was written before the debate even began. The Independent reported a visit from Rupert Murdoch in which he urged his papers to go even harder on Ed Miliband, if such a thing were possible, and vocalised his fears that a functioning Labour lead government could, and most likely would implement press reform. Print media in all quarters have thrown aside any pretence of objectivity in an arms race of naked partisanship.   The level of vitriol against an opposition leader would not look out of place in Russia or Venezuela, demonstrating the lack of practical difference between a state owned media and a state and media owned by a set of common interests.

It would be easy to scoff at all this, as obvious as it becomes, and with the waning influence of the mainstream press and the rise of online media, but I believe this would be a mistake, not least as it would underplay exactly how much difficulty the Labour Party has faced in even getting to this point. Even as the Miliband ogre portrayed by the media begins to unwind in the face of reality some of the the residual miasma left by the power of the truisms created remains. This will have some effect, especially as most of the populace will not read social media debunkings of each corporate press intervention. There’s also the negative benefit to the Conservatives of soft playing their embarrassments. Take the rather muted coverage of the Grant Shapps scandal. Read this article by Marina Hyde and ask yourself, what if it had been Gordon Brown in 2010?

In addition David Cameron has played the hand that he has about as well as could be expected. Aided by the weakness of the broadcasters in making concessions to him, he has largely sabotaged the election debates; limiting Miliband’s exposure to a mass audience outside of his high ground of the Conservative loyalist media owned platforms, in a format that would be attractive and widely viewed. The Paxman interviews were too dry to excite widespread public interest and the two proper debates themselves were reduced to what Paddy Ashdown described as a “ ludicrous, seven-sided, bite-sized squabble-fest” in which Miliband was under pressure from his left, and Cameron wasn’t even present in one of them to draw fire. The greater exposure of these parties has shaved vital percentage points of Labour’s vote share, exactly as Cameron intended. The impact of this week’s “Question Time” event remains to be seen.

Nevertheless, the Conservatives know well that they can no longer win. Hints of this have been apparent for some time: leaving little policy boobie traps behind, such as the help to buy bubble inflation, which they know they won’t be held to account for if and when they blow up; the desperate abandonment of their appearance of fiscal responsibility in favour of wildly throwing out spending promises at the same times as promised tax cuts. This can only be the sign of a party that knows it won’t be in the position of having to follow through. The centre piece of the Conservatives’ “salt the earth and burn the granaries” endgame, has been in their response to the second event that stands to have a defining impact on the election outcome: the aftermath of the Scottish independence referendum, followed by Johann Lamont’s sudden resignation as Scottish Labour leader, leading to a huge SNP surge at the expense of Labour.  As put succinctly in this Huffington Post interview with Liberal Democrat MP, Nick Harvey:

“In an interview with The Huffington Post in November 2013, Harvey predicted that Labour would win the election with a majority, unless there was a “game changing event”. That event happened. And it happened in Scotland.”

For all their rhetoric about being the only hope of the English people against SNP induced chaos, they know that there’s little to no realistic prospect of delivering this while there remains some possibility of Labour forming a government with Lib Dem support, not directly beholden to the SNP.

Instead, chaos is the Conservatives’ last best hope. They hope, firstly, to maintain a plurality both in terms of votes and seats. This won’t enable them to form a workable government, but does allow them to delegitimise a Labour led alternative (in fact the SNP following through on their clear and open promise to “lock out” a Conservative government is far more attractive, democratically, than the past five years of Conservative led government dependent on the Lib Dems’ complete reversal of the platform they went to the public with). Some parts of the press are already laying the ground works for this.   In addition the Conservative party would very much prefer that any Labour lead administration was short (an early election would favour the Conservative party, which has a much bigger war chest), or even better lingers on but causes maximum long term damage to the Labour Party. Every additional Conservative MP instead of a Labour or Lib Dem one, while not likely to get the Conservatives’ over the finish line, increases this prospect of this. It is not irrelevant, in this context, to note that the Sun has been boosting the SNP in Scotland, while using them as a bogey man in England, doubtless calculating that a weakened Labour administration would be less likely to be able implement Leveson and a smaller, nationalist,party might be more easily co-opted.

Turning to Labour, the SNP and Lib Dems, as their fortunes are now intertwined for better or for worse. The SNP look set to make astonishing gains, predominantly at the expense of Labour. This poses some real dangers for Labour and the wider left, beyond the immediate blow of those lost seats.   At best many on the left, including myself, nurture the hope that the SNP will act as a progressive force, encouraging Labour back in a leftwards direction. Others warn that the SNPs two main imperatives of humiliating Labour and re-litigating the referendum issue stand fundamentally opposed to those of good governance and working together in good faith. In this light, perhaps Ed Miliband’s seemingly bizarre dredging up of the 1979 confidance vote, heralding the election of Margaret Thatcher, in the “Challenger’s Debate,” makes more sense, as a warning to Nicola Sturgeon not to cut up too rough after the election. Even if the SNP resist the temptation towards wielding their new found influence in a divisive way, the Conservatives’ supporters in the press will inevitably use Labour’s perceived reliance on them to delegitimize a Labour minority government, as cynical as treating Scottish MPs as second class representatives would be.   One silver lining is the complete humiliation of the Labour right, who, along with their supporters in the press establishment, vigorously assured everyone that Jim Murphy was electoral gold. I thought at the time that they wouldn’t be too devastated by major losses in Scotland depriving Labour of a convincing victory, as Ed Miliband would surely be blamed, hopefully defenestrated and the Blairite faction could re-assert themselves. However the losses look likely to be so total that the embarrassment will be impossible to hide from. Imagine a scenario where Jim Murphy’s left wing rival Neil Findlay had been elected instead and his platform had been popular enough to relegate the losses to severe rather than catastrophic. We would be doubtless be hearing no end of how Scottish Labour’s failure to pick the “credible” candidate had cost their party the election.

The Lib Dem’s are in dire straits throughout the country and their strategy, on the face of it seems to reinforce their slide into obsolescence. Back in February, Tim Farron told the New Statesman:

“I think the same thing will be the case this time round, almost certainly. We will not have a choice. We will be presented with an arithmetic by the electorate and all parties must be grown up enough to accept it and not say, ‘well, thank you for your opinions, we didn’t like it, tough’. Whatever the electorate give us through this fruit machine of an electoral system that we have, we have to be big enough, grown-up enough to make sure it works.

“The fundamental promise we must make to the electorate is that we will respect the outcome of the electorate and we will ensure, do everything in our power to ensure, stable government straight after the election, whether we are part of it or not.”

This has a kind of superficial internal logic, but begs the question, if the Liberal Democrats’ primary role is to ratify the most popular result among people who didn’t vote Liberal Democrat, then why vote for them? What are they for exactly, beyond being mere place holders or wild cards? Nick Clegg has more recently reinforced this position, telling the BBC that “that the party with the “greatest mandate”, even if they have not won a majority, should be given the first chance to form a government.” He makes the same point in an interview with the Financial Times:

“The Lib Dem leader also argued that any coalition with the party that finished second in the election — on most current projections Labour — would lack “legitimacy” with voters, who would question the government’s “birthright”.”

He further stated:

“I totally rule out any arrangements with the SNP — in the same way I rule out any arrangements with Ukip — because there is no meeting point for me with one party that basically wants to pull our country to bits and another party that wants us to pull out of the EU,” Mr Clegg said.
“I would never recommend to the Liberal Democrats that we help establish a government which is basically on a life support system, where Alex Salmond could pull the plug any time he wants. No, no, no.”

It’s far from clear that Nick Clegg will remain in a position of influence after the election and even some of the most loyal Lib Dems have expressed dismay at setting up this kind of hostage to fortune. But the thought occurs that this also makes a kind of tactical, if not strategic sense. He’s sending out a warning signal to supporters of both the main parties that the numbers matter. That every MP of the opposing party, or an SNP MP in Scotland, elected at the expense of a more versatile, place holder, Lib Dem does severe damage to the prospects of their party returning to Government. Reducing his party to the strategic pawns of first past the post might seem cynical, but it’s a perfectly viable survival strategy, at least in the short term.

The aftermath of the referendum has fundamentally changed the relationship between Labour and the Lib Dems. Before, scorned Labour supporters wanted nothing more than a symbolic humiliation of the Lib Dems even at the expense of a few more Tories and, even more so, SNP.  Now they need them, and not just to hold off the blue and tartan tide. Scraping enough combined Labour and Lib Dem seats even to stagger across the 323 finish line would be a significant gain for the Labour Party. It wouldn’t preclude them working with the, likely larger, SNP group (any kind of formal coalition is unlikely in any case), or indeed anyone else, but it would buy them some valuable political breathing space, reduce at a stroke the chance for frank SNP mischief making and increase their perceived legitimacy. From there on in, they might have to take a more consensual and pluralist approach, but gathering together enough votes from wherever they can be found to pass a budget and pass legislation would be a much lesser hurdle. The one thing standing in the way of this, ironically, could be voters scared into believing that only the Conservatives can protect them from the tartan menace.

As a coda, the big winner or loser (depending on your viewpoint) of the election could well be first past the post. It is to be hoped that one of the first mines a new Labour government would jump on, along with press reform, would be instituting a less cynical electoral system.

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