Monday, 11 May 2015

Election reactions

So, it turns out that my election predictions were way off-base.  But hey, whose weren't?!  The exit poll, which everybody thought was so whacky and out-there it couldn't possibly be true, actually turned out instead to be rather too conservative (by which I mean not Conservative enough – note the capital 'C'), and the hung parliament which was 'a given' never materialised.  Instead, the Conservatives achieved the impossible overall majority which everybody said would never happen.

It was a fascinating result – and rather a strange one.  This posts details a few of my thoughts on the result, and the immediate aftermath.

One of the big stories of the night was the total collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote; although leader, and former Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg hung onto his seat in Sheffield Hallam, many high-profile Lib Dems defending large majorities were swept aside by a tide of truculent, ill-informed popular opinion.  In all, the party lost 49 of its 57 seats in the House of Commons, leaving a total of just eight Lib Dem MPs.

It is a particularly odd phenomenon, when you consider that at the last general election the Liberal Democrats had a 23% share of the popular vote – the party's highest ever percentage, in its current guise.  We voted for the Lib Dems, and the policies they espoused, in record numbers in 2010 – and then acted shocked and hurt when we actually got Lib Dems in government, enacting their policies into law.

I found it especially strange that so many of the Liberal Democrat losses were gained by the Conservative party.  This suggests that the Lib Dem losses don't represent a dissatisfaction with the record of the coalition government of the last five years overall – otherwise, the Tories would have lost seats too – but a peculiar desire to 'punish' the Lib Dems for some perceived personal slight.

The Tories, on the other hand, ended up gaining seats on their 2010 total.  An endorsement of their record in government, it would seem – but not one extended to their hapless coalition partners.  Is this, as some pundits suggested, a result of the Lib Dems' attempts often to distance themselves from the achievements of the coalition government, and to appear as if they are 'holding their noses' to work with the Conservatives?  No, I don't think so.  It is much more likely to be the result of an electorate casting about for the most convenient scapegoat to turn into this election's unfortunate whipping boys.

The future of the Lib Dems remains uncertain.  It is true that, since the election, several thousand people have joined the party – but I think this means much less to most people than those in 'the political bubble' think it means.  I think the party will survive, though.  It may take time to rebuild, but democracy this country has always had a 'liberal party' of some sort, and the Lib Dems will pick back up again, in time.

The other big shift of the night was from Labour to SNP in Scotland.  The Scottish Nationalists took almost all of Scotland's Westminster seats, toppling some of the Labour campaign's biggest names in the process.  I'm no fan of the SNP's policies, but I do not object to their presence in the House of Commons, when that is so clearly the will of the Scottish electorate; however, I think it's important to remember that the 'legitimacy' argument works both ways…

During the wrangling of the campaign, Tory scaremongering tactics involved 'warning' voters of the 'danger' of Labour forming a government propped up by the SNP – even if the Conservatives were the largest single party in the Commons.  It was claimed that this government would have no mandate, and would 'lack legitimacy', but this was, of course, nonsense.  The general election is a UK-wide affair, and any government which can command a Commons majority is 'legitimate' – as the Nationalists were quick to point out!

The reverse is also true, though – claims that any government not including SNP ministers would 'lack legitimacy' in Scotland are similarly ludicrous.  The makeup of the House of Commons reflects the will of the entire UK electorate (to an extent!), the government formed from which then has a mandate to govern the whole of the UK.  If an English constituency returns a Labour MP, and it is then the Conservatives who form a government, the voters in that Labour constituency may be a bit miffed, but they don't have the right to turn around and refuse to recognise the 'legitimacy' of the national government, based on the overall national vote.  The same is true of SNP voters in Scotland.

The SNP, however, have a rather dangerous habit of conflating their party with their country.  In many Nationalists' minds, the SNP is Scotland, and Scotland is the SNP.  Not only does this lead to a rather nasty characterisation of Scots who vote for other parties as 'quislings' or 'traitors' (although a full 50% of Scots didn't vote SNP), but it allows Nationalists to paint criticism of the party as criticism of Scotland itself – of an entire population.  This is sure to be a factor in the way the party positions itself in Westminster; any refusal to acquiesce to SNP demands will be seen as an insult to the people of Scotland.

Any attempts by the SNP to fan the flames of nationalism by claiming that not giving policy concessions to the SNP is tantamount to discrimination against, or disdain for, Scottish people in general on the part of David Cameron and his government will be as dishonourable as Cameron was being during his election campaign by stoking English nationalism in the hope that fear of the SNP setting the agenda would win him a majority in England.

I understand the temptation of this way of thinking.  But, despite the scale of their victory, the SNP contingent at Westminster do not speak 'for Scotland' – they speak for the SNP, and for its (admittedly many) supporters.  Rejection of SNP policy is not 'anti-Scots'; it is simply a disagreement on a point of policy.

This is especially true when you remember that SNP MPs are not allowed to deviate from the party line.  The Nationalist MPs represent a particular, narrow political viewpoint, not the totality of Scottish opinion.

As for the SNP's supporters…  Well, there may be many of them – but there aren't quite as many of them as you might think.  Certainly not as many as there were UKIP supporters, and yet UKIP only returned one MP (the hugely impressive Douglas Carswell in Clacton).  As a result, the 'political earthquake' promised by so many UKIP activists failed to materialise, with even leader Nigel Farage missing out on his specially chosen seat in Thanet South, sitting MP Mark Reckless losing in Rochester and Strood, and other key UKIP targets also falling to the Tories.

The response to this from the UKIP movement has been anything but gracious, however!  Party activists have gone into overdrive to try and prove that the Thanet South election was 'rigged' to prevent Farage getting into parliament.  Just look at the hashtag #thanetrigged on Twitter.  To me, this shows a distinct lack of maturity from the party; for all that OfCom might have granted UKIP 'major party' status, they can't seem to shake off their mentality of always seeing themselves as 'victims' of 'the establishment'.  For a party with only one MP, this stunningly naval-gazing attitude is simply not sustainable.  After last year's European Election victory, Farage claimed that we 'hadn't heard the last of' UKIP; however, after this disappointing showing, I rather think that we have.

Not that I think we have 'heard the last' of Farage himself!  He may have stood down as UKIP leader, and failed to win his seat, but I feel he will have an important rôle to play yet in the next parliament.  The Conservatives' promised referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union is yet to come, and I have a feeling that those pushing for an 'out' vote will want Mr Farage to play a prominent part in their campaign.  Don't be surprised to see him back in the spotlight in a year or two, debating against David Cameron (who will, of course, campaign for 'in') on television in the run-up to the referendum.

It was not a good night overall for the ungracious, self-absorbed demagogues of British politics.  Nigel Farage's seat was not the only one which was supposedly 'a fix'; the British electorate, it seems, does not take too kindly to bullying – and the Respect party lost its only MP, the divisive firebrand George Galloway.  After fighting a dirty, underhand campaign in Bradford West, Galloway lost his seat to Labour's Naz Shah; he may be miles from UKIP on the spectrum of political views, but the two have much in common when it comes to axe-grinding grievance-mongering.

Having first demanded a recount on the night (despite the result not being even remotely close – the Labour majority was over 11,000 votes), Galloway now says he will sue following his electoral defeat.  For someone who positions himself as a champion of those oppressed by unbending, despotic régimes, Galloway is sure behaving himself like one of those despots.  Unable to accept that he simply no longer has the support of the majority of people in Bradford West, there must be some shady underhand conspiracy to unseat him, and he remains determined to cling to power by any means he can find.
The worry now is not that Galloway's legal challenge to his election defeat will gain any traction – I doubt there are many people who won't see through this desperate attempt to sidle back into Westminster through the back door – but that he will now pop up somewhere else (rumours suggest this could be at next year's Mayoral elections in London) completely undeterred, ready to try the same poisonous, scare-mongering smear tactics.  That is not what democracy in the UK needs.

According to many, what democracy in the UK does need is proportional representation.  The 'Fair Votes Now' campaign is gaining traction on Twitter, and with the sort of angry Facebook 'activist' who spends all day posting 'memes' of David Cameron's face captioned with "I'm going to have my  woodburner modified so it will burn the limbs of poor people instead of firewood!"

I think there is a good case for reexamining the arguments for and against proportional representation.  This election has thrown up some of the biggest discrepancies between voteshare and seatshare in a long, long time.  It bears discussion.  But unfortunately, even after this result, I simply don't think there is an appetite for electoral reform.

We had a referendum on moving to a more proportional voting system in 2011; a move that was comprehensively rejected by the electorate.  I doubt it will happen (there's already one referendum scheduled for this parliament, remember!) but I think it would be interesting to see a re-run of an electoral reform referendum within the next few years.

Unfortunately for the erstwhile electoral reform campaigners, however, I think the result would be very similar to the result of the 2011 plebiscite.  The ordinary British voter has very different priorities from, and nowhere near the same zeal as, the sort of person whose life's work seems to be sharing shouty, aggressive posts from 'Another Angry Voice' on Facebook.

The reaction to the result on social media has been quite startling.  Those disappointed with the results have gone way beyond just being disappointed with the result.  Comments such as "we have woken up in Dickensian Britain" (which I saw on Facebook) are patently rubbish – even if you do believe that the Conservatives are intent on remaking the sort of country depicted in Oliver Twist (which they're quite clearly not), that sort of change would take years to manifest itself.  It wouldn't happen overnight.  To suggest that you looked out of your window on the morning after the election to see soot-blackened factory chimneys belching out smoke, and barefoot street urchins clad only in scruffy rags wandering the streets is nothing short of hysterical.

These generalisations, however, can be (deservedly) ignored.  Far worse is the much more specific nonsense about public services.  "Go and make an appointment to see your doctor while you can – in five years you won't be able to!"  Right.  So, in five years, doctors will simply cease to exist?  I doubt it.  There will always be hospitals, and there will always be schools.  The way they operate and the ways in which they are funded may change with time – and those changes may or not be a good thing, that is a separate debate – but they're not just going to disappear.  This ridiculous hyperbole does nobody any credit.

For many who oppose the Tories, the NHS is sacred.  Privatisation (of anything!) is a bogeyman which should be avoided at any cost, and fought at every opportunity.  This dogmatism – this simplification into black-and-white, 'us' against 'them' – is not how politics should be.  Rational arguments should win the day, and so far I have seen very few of those.

The trouble with rational arguments, though, is that they need to be substantiated.  Unquantifiable platitudes – heavy on emotive rhetoric, light on any actual evidence to support their claims – are far easier.  In 2020, when we have our next election, the NHS will still exist – it may be very different from how it is now, but it will still be there.  And yet it will be almost impossible to hold to account all those who said it was sure to disappear entirely, because of the inherent vagaries of their amorphous, scare-mongering approach.

No, instead of rational rebuttal of Conservative policy, there have been protests and riots.  There has been bitterness and shouting.  There has been the desecration of memorials to women who fought for freedom in World War II.  None of this achieves anything.

The arguments of the protesters (insofar as they are putting forward any coherent arguments at all) are as follows:  1) the Conservative government has no legitimacy, and does not reflect the sovereign will of the British people, because they were elected on only 37% of the total national vote share, and the makeup of the House of Commons is therefore unrepresentative of the views of the public; 2) the Conservative government will pursue policies which will be unfair, and may even be harmful to many people.

Unfortunately, these arguments don't stack up, for several reasons.  The Conservative government may only have got 37% of the vote – but that is still more than any other party got.  You might not like it, but that is actually how our system works; if you don't like that, that's not the fault of the party who won this election, or the party who won any other election in the era of universal suffrage.  As much as you might try to dress it up as being 'angry with the system', there weren't any riots after Labour won the 2005 election with only 35% of the vote share.

Claiming (as I have seen several people on Twitter do) that David Cameron 'lost' the vote by 37% in favour to 63% against is wilful idiocy – it assumes that the only choice was 'David Cameron' or 'not David Cameron', and that everyone who didn't vote Tory can be treated as one homogeneous bloc.  I have already explained why this is a very wrongheaded way to view an election, but to summarise that argument again it implies that all parties who aren't the Conservatives are the same, simply by dint of not being the Conservatives, and that the only options open to the British electorate were 'Tories' or 'not Tories'.  This was not the case, and the argument falls down.

Not only that, but the argument about representation is also something of a smokescreen.  Protesters claim they are angry that the makeup of parliament does not accurately reflect the electorate – however, the numbers strongly suggest that a truly representative parliament would actually be even more right-wing, based on the numbers from the vote.  I doubt most of the protesters shouting 'Tory scum!' in front of Downing Street would be terribly happy about that.

(It is also interesting to note that there have been no such protests about the SNP, even though they have gained unfairly from the First Past The Post system to an even greater extent than the Tories have.  The Nationalists won 50% of the vote in Scotland, but 95% of Scottish MPs are from the SNP; and yet nobody is calling this 'illegitimate' – or questioning Nicola Sturgeon's claims that Scotland voted 'overwhelmingly' for the SNP, pointing out that a 50/50 split is not 'overwhelming'.  Similarly, few protesters are demanding more UKIP MPs in the House of Commons – even though, proportionally, they ought to have many more.  No, this ire is reserved for the Conservatives alone; these protests are not about representation!)

What really puzzles me about the protests, though, is how thoroughly unproductive they are.  It is all noise and vitriol – there are no alternatives being offered.  One of the slogans of the protest has been 'Tories Out Now' – which is rather short-termist.  No one has been able to tell me what happens next (and I have asked).

What if the protesters got exactly what they wanted?  The Tories out.  Right now.  David Cameron holds a press conference this week saying he has listened to the anger of the protesters, and the arguments they've made, and he is resigning.  What happens then?  There are two options: a) another Prime Minister and another government are summarily imposed; or b) a second election is held.

Option a) is fundamentally undemocratic.  Who would the replacement government be?  The Labour party?  For all that you can (disingenuously) claim that the Conservatives 'lost' the election with only 37% of the votes, the Labour party 'lost' even more badly with just 30%.  But who else is there?  However slim the Tory government's mandate is, it is still larger than any other party's.  Furthermore, who gets to decide?  If another election is not to be held, who is it who gets to decide who replaces David Cameron and the Conservatives?  Why does that person, or group of people, get so much power to make such an important call?  As I say, it is undemocratic – and completely unworkable.

Which leaves us with option b), the second election.  That would certainly be democratic – but whether held using First Past The Post as a direct re-run of the 7th May vote, or using a more proportional system, it would quite likely turn up exactly the same result (Conservatives as the largest party).  What would the protesters do then?  Would they finally accept that this is the sovereign will of the people?  Or would they continue protesting?  Would they demand a third election?  Once again, this doesn't seem workable.

The point about policies brings me back to what I was saying earlier.  If you believe that Tory policies are bad, and will make Britain a worse country to live in, you need to explain why.  Win people over. A lot of people – eleven million of them, in fact – said on 7th May that they liked what the Conservatives were offering.  Convince them they were wrong.  Calling Conservatives voters 'scum', 'murderers', and other meaninglessly hyperbolic invective only serves to alienate them more from your cause, and further entrench their Toryism (not to mention blunting the true meaning of those words, watering-down their meaning for when they truly are appropriate).  How is that going to help your cause?

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