A FOOTNOTE TO THE BRITISH ELECTION OF MAY 7TH, 2015

British election result in parliamentary seats:

Conservatives 331 (27 more than in 2010);
Labour 232 (26 less than in 2010);
Liberal Democrats 8 (49 less than in 2010);
Scottish Nationalists 56 (50 more than in 2010);
United Kingdom Independence Party -UKIP 1 (a loss of 1 seat from the two they had);
22 others.

On the day following the May 7th election, an article appeared in the Financial Times written by the paper’s senior columnist Philip Stephens. Unfortunately for him, this piece had of course to be written before the result was known, although he doubtless thought the near-unanimity of the opinion polls put him on pretty safe ground. According to Mr Stephens, both main parties had “fallen under the spell of doctrinal zealots” and in particular Mr Cameron’s party had “shifted towards elderly activists who hanker for the world as they imagine it once was.” The Conservatives and the Labour Party were “staring into the barrel of shared defeat.” In most European countries the stalemate that Stephens assumed had occurred would, he said, lead to a grand coalition and an “intelligent prime minister would reach beyond the arithmetic of a precarious majority or minority government and head for [the]hard centre of politics”.[1]


The next day, with the election results all in, Mr Stephens addressed us again, admitting in one half of one sentence that his previous assumptions had been, er, a little inaccurate. Nothing daunted, he deftly switched the argument to nationalism and identity politics by contrasting the Nationalist party’s triumph in Scotland (where it secured 56 out of the country’s 59 parliamentary seats) with “an England that cleaved  to an increasingly parochial Tory Party.” Tory strategists, we were told, “were unabashed in stirringthe embers of English nationalism in order to neutralize the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and stoke fears among the undecided that a Labour government would ‘sell out’ to the Scots.”[2]With a stroke or two of the pen, those out of touch “elderly activists” hankering “for the world as they imagine it once was” had been transformed before our wondering eyes from faintly risible losers to unexpected winners, who in turn had to be re-demonised as English nationalists. Behold the liberal mind at work!

Mr Stephens is not untypical of “metropolitan liberal” commentators, who are always locating the “centre ground” of politics exactly where they have pitched their own ideological tent, which somehow also turns out in their eyes to be on the higher moral ground. Their writings, fluent and plausible, even when disingenuous, adopt an apodictic tone, which lesser mortals might easily mistake for judgements delivered “de haut en bas.” Their articles are well-informed and readable, and their conclusions mostly wrong. Only occasionally does the mask of magisterial cerebration slip and the ideological bias shine through. For example Mr Stephens himself once wrote an article in which he angrily labeled Viktor Orbán, the Prime Minister of Hungary, a “petty little tyrant”, as he proceeded to retail like a parrot every item of propaganda e-mailed to him by the Hungarian opposition.

In the case of the British election it is clear that Stephens and fellow metropolitan liberals were spectacularly wrong-footed. This is partly because they had become victims of their own propaganda. For example, Stephens states in the first of the articles cited above that the frustrated British electorate wanted “an open market economy as long as it sits alongside a decent state safety net” – as if neither Tory nor Labour were signed up to that. In reality there was very little in the programmes of either of the main parties (which he maintains had been subverted by doctrinal zealots) that contradicted this basic ideological framework. The Labour Party was certainly in favour of more social regulation of the market (e.g. freezing household energy prices for a period), while the Tories were keen to diminish regulation as much as possible; yet this was mostly a difference of emphasis. One of the reasons that the campaign debates often seemed petty and sterile was that both the two main protagonists tended to accuse the other of failing to match a shared aspiration. This led to some surreal disputes, Labour seeming to imply that, although they would make much the same amount of cuts to public spending as the Tories, since they were Labour cuts they were by definition more humane than wicked Tory cuts. Because neither side would be specific about what cuts they were going to make, the voters sensibly concluded that this type of dispute was both demeaning and pointless.

Philip Stephens’s proposed “hard centre” government would, we were told, “cut the deficit without making it a fetish” – although the Tory-Lib. Dem coalition has done just that over the last five years with (so far) quite satisfactory results for the macroeconomy. Moreover it has done so in the teeth of opposition from many MLs, who are mostly Keynesians, and who warned darkly of the disastrous consequences of ‘austerity.’ The International Monetary Fund itself had to apologise for having publicly berated the British Chancellor for pursuing policies which would, it claimed, lead to a ‘double dip’ recession; in fact they produced (or at any rate did not prevent) a recovery which is a great deal stronger than the rest of the EU has managed, with record numbers now in employment. In point of fact the Tory dominated coalition since 2010 has used the country’s good credit rating to borrow quite heavily at low interest rates and the national debt has risen quite sharply, while the deficit has been reduced somewhat. (There are some affinities with Hungarian policy here, although of course the national debt is a much bigger problem for a small country with a record of reckless misgovernment, which means it does not have access to ultra-cheap money on the international debt markets.)

One would have thought that the Keynesians would be pleased at the coalition’s opportunistic financing, which effectively cushioned some of the necessary “cuts” a bit. Left-liberals and socialists tried to portray the latter as a concerted, vindictive attack on the “most vulnerable people in our society” (so runs the mantra); but they were also aimed at reducing benefits for the well to do (e.g. child benefit for families in higher income brackets) and tackling welfare abuse (for example disability benefit which, in the UK as elsewhere, had become a dumping ground for the unemployed, because Socialist governments couldn’t devise effective policies that would help people back into work.) There were also swingeing levies on the banks, who were made to pay their due for having helped to get us into the economic mess, not to mention fines now pushing £40 billion pounds in total for the criminal misbehaviour of the same. (It is amusing that disciplining the banks is considered entirely appropriate in the EU, US and British context, while Viktor Orbán’s measures to do the same to the international banks operating in Hungary meets with well orchestrated abuse in the liberal press.)

Most of the measures I have described above were quite popular and propaganda from the opposition to the effect that the poor were being targeted did not greatly resonate when people who were struggling to make ends meet on low incomes discovered that some on benefits were getting more from the state than they themselves could earn after tax. To tackle that serious anomaly the coalition took two complementary actions: capping benefits on the one hand, but on the other sharply raising the thresholds at which people start paying income tax. The latter measure was long overdue and helped to blunt the opposition onslaught on supposedly heartless Tories. Indeed one might say that sticking largely to a grievance agenda (euphemistically described by the media as “concentrating on its core vote”) was one of the reasons the Labour party failed to widen its appeal. Aspiration, incentive and optimism are in the end electorally more appealing than trying to nurture and harvest the resentment vote (though it has to be said that the Scottish National Party adroitly combined aspiration and grievance.)

Most disingenuous of all is the ML accusation, repeated by Stephens, that the Tories were dangerously stirring up English nationalism and thereby contributing to the probable break-up of the Union. This claim combines the sour grapes at having called the election wrong with breathtaking dishonesty. The leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party repeatedly said her intention was to “lock the Tories out of Downing Street,” even if they won the election outside Scotland. The Tories, not unreasonably, pointed out that this amounted to a presumption that the Scottish Nationalists, combined with a defeated Labour Party, could dictate British politics without having a nationwide mandate to do so. (Ironically, this is the obverse of the Scottish National Party’s oft-repeated argument that a Tory government with no Tory representation in Scotland has no mandate to rule there.) The impression that this lock-out, or even “a coalition of losers,” was on the Labour Party’s agenda, was reinforced by comments from a former Labour cabinet minister (one who lost his seat) who implied that, even if Labour had as much as fifty seats less than the Conservatives, it could legitimately form a government with the support of other “progressive” forces (for which read the Scottish Nationalists.) Certainly the perception of unfairness that such proposals implied was played upon by the Tories with considerable success; but to claim that it is “nationalist” to resist the strident nationalism of a party with only 5% of the votes but 56 parliamentary seats is simply to embrace the sort of doublethink in which left-liberals specialize.

In fact the accusation against the Tories of stirring up English nationalism is even more fatuous than I have suggested above. The Tories, almost to a man, are passionately for the union. They have merely said (and so far as one can discern the muddled Labour position, it is similar) that one part of the union should not be able to enjoy budgetary and political privileges without there being a quid pro quo for the other parts. The present dispensation contains two anomalies: Scotland gets over £1,000 more per capita funding from the central budget than the rest of mainland Britain, and is free to spend much of that how it likes (e.g. it controls its regional National Health Service). Secondly, because of the devolution so far achieved, Scots MPs can vote at Westminster on measures affecting only England but the reverse is not true (this is known as the “West Lothian question” after the Scottish Labour MP from that constituency who first pointed out the discrepancy.)

So far from being roused to nationalist fervour by these anomalies, the English electorate has been remarkably phlegmatic hitherto; but just as German voters will rebel in the end against bail-outs to an ungrateful Greece, so English voters will eventually demand some responsibility to go with the Scottish power to extract financing. At present the Nationalist Scottish government can spend, or misspend, a large amount of money that comes from Westminster. If something goes wrong, or there is not enough money for some pet project, they can (and will) always blame the government in London. Such grievance-mongering leads to a political fairyland where Scottish politicians can make unrealistic pledges, but not take the responsibility for failing to deliver on them. The only logical solution is to devolve full fiscal responsibility, so that those who spend the money are accountable to those from whom they raise it. On the day that this happens, the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies calculates that the Scottish government would be staring at a hole in its finances of approximately nine billion pounds by 2020 – that is, were it actually to enjoy full fiscal autonomy.[3]

The spectre of English nationalism, the default “go to” alarmism of liberalism and the left, is almost entirely fabricated. In electoral terms, nationalism outside Scotland retreated from recent highs in the European elections and subsequent by-elections. UKIP lost one of its two MPs and its charismatic leader failed to win a seat (although it did markedly increase its vote – see below.) The racist British National Party got 564,000 votes in 2010, but precisely 1,667 this time (less than the Cannabis Is Safer Than Alcohol Party). In Wales the nationalists managed to increase their support by a barely perceptible 0.8 per cent; moreover there are now 11 Welsh Tory MPs, which is three more than in 2010.

Even in the case of Scotland it should be stressed that the Scottish National Party (as some pedants have pointed out, it is not in fact called the ‘Scottish Nationalist Party’), recently defeated by a margin of ten percentage points in the independence referendum, was not standing on a platform of independence – or even of a demand for a further referendum. There may be a sense in which this liberated many Scots to vote for it who had voted for the Union in the referendum. Since the party’s programme is primarily one of old-fashioned tax and spend, it was effectively the most left-wing party standing at the election. It is perhaps not surprising that many Labour voters who thought Blairism had taken them for granted voted for a party they now regarded as authentically to the left.

Rather than froth about English nationalism, if our liberal commentators were concerned about democracy, they should ponder how it is that an entirely legitimate UKIP, which is now the third largest party in terms of votes, can get just under 13% of the national vote but win only one parliamentary seat, while the Scottish Nationalists received only 4.7% of the national vote and were rewarded with 56 seats.  To put it another way, the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party and UKIP combined have only ten parliamentary seats for their 7.5 million voters, while the Scottish Nationalists have 56 seats for their 1.5 million voters. That is an accident of our majoritarian electoral system – but it is undoubtedly also an accident for democracy, since several million of those who voted are left without parliamentary representation. However we have become used to MLs being rather selective in their democratic indignations. A cynic might say their lack of enthusiasm to tackle such an anomaly is not unconnected to the fact that UKIP came second in 120 constituencies, a very substantial number of these being Labour seats. Not untypical was a former Labour voter in a northern seat where Labour’s majority was slashed by UKIP, who said that her vote had been taken for granted for far too long. Led largely by metropolitan intellectuals whose experience outside politics was generally minuscule to non-existent, the party tended to speak at the potential voters. Both UKIP and the Scottish Nationalists, the most successful destroyers of the Labour vote, had at least managed the appearance at least of speaking to the voters. Elections are won or lost on the difference between these two approaches.

Finally a thought about the pollsters who all seemed to have persisted in error, right up until the exit poll carried out jointly by the BBC with ITV and Sky first alerted us to the fact that we had been sold a pup. Throughout the campaign the polls showed a dead heat between the two main parties (allowing for the usual margin of error), though occasionally one party edged slightly ahead before falling back again. The actual result however showed the Tories 6.5 points ahead on 36.9% of the vote to Labour’s 30.4%. In modern parliamentary democracies, where the main parties subscribe to substantively similar ideologies, that is a substantial lead.

Conspiracy theorists like to argue that “metropolitan liberals” among the pollsters are again to blame, this time for projecting their leftist preference onto voters unconsciously. That is unlikely. More probable is that voters have become more canny and more dignified. Telephone interviews are arguably unreliable – the Pew Forum, a not-for-profit polling organization in the USA, has been the only such body to reveal the “response rate”[4] of their attempted telephone polls, which is all of 9%! (You can see why British pollsters won’t reveal this ratio as it applies to their own efforts.) Then again, people may wish to conceal their preference (after all, whose business is it but their own which way they vote?) Or they may even intentionally mislead out of a sense of mischief and irritation at yet another cold caller. Or they might, on this occasion, have been “shy Tories”, since leftist propaganda to the effect that the Conservatives are the “nasty party” has undoubtedly had some effect among the less self-assured type of voter. Online interviews suffer from another possible defect – the respondents may well be mostly younger people, since the oldies (who it is assumed, rightly or wrongly, will be more likely to vote Conservative) may not be very computer literate. There is also a potential problem with the way the results are “weighted” to try and give a picture across age, class, income etc. The exit poll mentioned above was both wildly different from all the others carried out even on polling day itself and amazingly accurate, perhaps because its sample was many times greater than the average pre-election poll – and of course the people interviewed had actually voted. What is refreshing is that clearly the pre-election polls did not influence voting much, if at all.

The puzzle remains as to how the pollsters failed to pick up such a wide lack of enthusiasm for Labour. That party’s spokespersons kept saying on election night, as the catastrophe unraveled, that the polls “did not reflect” the enthusiasm their teams had met on the ground. This suggests that leaders and strategists were living in a bubble of their own making. Nor were they fully prepared for the meltdown in their traditional heartland of Scotland, where they lost all but two of their 40 seats, often to gigantic swings of up to 36% and huge SNP majorities – for example in former Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s seat, once considered amongst the safest for Labour in Britain.

The truth is, Labour had made the same mistake as the Tories in the Thatcher era, treating Scotland as a political backwater, a tendency only intensified when the most able Scots politicians invariably took off to make a career in the south. It used to be said that Labour voting was “in the genes” of voters in the south-west industrial belt around Glasgow, which indeed produced large majorities for the party for decades. Some colourful characters were returned to Parliament in the glory days, including Clydeside Communists and an urban revolutionary from Glasgow who was rumoured to have killed a man in street demonstrations in 1919, but himself lived to be 101 on a diet said to consist almost entirely of porridge and whisky. However, by the start of the 2015 campaign, democratic decay had taken its toll. One commentator writes that the Labour high command descended on Glasgow from London to find constituencies where half those on the party membership roll turned out to be dead and another quarter in Barlinnie jail.

I cannot resist making a few comparisons with Hungary’s recent election by way of conclusion. The Labour leader, rather a decent man, rang Prime Minister David Cameron as soon as the result was clear and congratulated him on his win. In 2014, when Fidesz won a second two-thirds majority in Hungary in an OSCE monitored election, the leader of the Hungarian Socialists pointedly refused to congratulate Viktor Orbán. The British Labour leader also immediately resigned, together with the leader of the Liberal Democrats. Hungarian political leaders are not so keen on resigning – Orbán himself has lost three elections and won three. The Labour Party has immediately admitted that its programme lacked electoral appeal and has settled down with considerable professionalism and dignity to work out why that might have been. Hungarian liberals and socialists, on the other hand, seem more inclined to blame the voters. Indeed one well-known elderly academic and professional Orbán hater said that the election result showed that the Hungarian people were “servile.” Apart from the fact that, of many adjectives that might be selected to describe Hungarians, “servile” seems possibly the least appropriate, what can one say of intellectuals who loudly protest their democratic credentials, but when their side is rejected by the voters, can find nothing better to do than insult the electorate? A great deal of what needs to be remedied in Hungarian democracy, preferably very soon, is symbolized by that one remark from a metropolitan Marxist academic.

[1] Financial Times, 8th May 2015: Philip Stephens: “Broken Parties that may break Britain.”

[2] Weekend FT, 9th – 10th May 2015: Philip Stephens: “An ever more fragile union.”

[3] “Full fiscal autonomy” implies fully funding government spending through its own tax revenues and borrowing.

[4] The response rate tells us how many of the attempted calls to the targeted demographic are successfully carried out.

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