Thursday, February 16, 2006

Election 2005

At least we can wave good bye to pager clones - those doggedly on message New Labour MPs have gone the way of the device that used to deliver the ‘line to take’. Many of the most ardent Blairites were massacred on Thursday night. Labour is now more like the party it was in the 1970s. The stage set for a conflict between a leader who has lost credibility and a party which wants its ball back.
Two images sum up 2005. Stephen Twigg, the infant hero of Labour’s 1997 ‘people’s revolution’, biting his lip as he lost the seat he stole from the Tory minister, Michael Portillo eight years ago. His rueful expression summed up the feeling that the new Labour project has come full circle.
Second image. Victorious George Galloway, the former Scottish Labour MP sacked for his opposition to the war, lambasting Tony Blair like an old testament prophet, “All the people you’ve killed and the lies you have told have come back to haunt you”. Not for the first time, Galloway had found the words to wound. It was the sound-bite of the night - and he duffed up Jeremy Paxman too.
This was a defeat for Tony Blair wrapped in the cloak of victory. It was a triumph for the very people power that originally helped put him in Downing St. Up and down the country people used a kind of stealth voting to deliver maximum damage on Tony Blair while avoiding the defeat of a Labour administration they believed to be essentially sound.
By calculated defections and tactical voting, a disillusioned electorate cut Blair’s majority by a hundred seats, from a domineering 166 last time to a timid 66. From Putney to Na h-Eileanan an Iar; from Bethnal Green to Dunbartonshire South, voters held the Prime Minister to account in a concerted and finely targeted withdrawal of consent.
Even in seats Labour retained, like Edinburgh South, the voters delivered a message. They accepted that Nigel Griffiths, probably deserved to stay on - after all he is a confederate of Gordon Brown’s and supported congestion charging in the city - but just to make sure he understood they slashed his majority to 400.
This was a remarkable achievement for the British voters. ‘Labour on a reduced majority’ didn’t appear on any ballot paper. The Prime Minister warned that tactical voting would only benefit the Tories. Not so. The Conservatives did not have a good night, winning fewer seats even than the hapless Michael Foot achieved in Labour’s annus horribilis, 1983.
Through a kind of electoral telepathy the British people managed to overcome the vagaries of our increasingly anachronistic electoral system to achieve what the outcome wanted: Tony Blair stripped of that huge majority which fuelled his hubris.
The PM will not be starting any more wars in a hurry with his new precarious majority. No more riding shotgun for George Bush as they rid the world of bad guys. Tony Blair, so long he remains leader, will be looking over his shoulder at a depleted Labour backbench.
In some respects, this was similar to the voter revolt we saw in 1997 when the Tories were slaughtered by a country which had had enough of sleaze. Now in 2005, the country has rebelled against a political leader many believe has betrayed the spirit of ‘97. Not just over Iraq, but over things like house arrest, variable tuition fees, ID cards, Alastair Campbell.
If this was the revolt of the Shiraz and Chardonnay set, then it has found its voice and it is drinking well. New Labourites had resorted to a kind of class envy in their efforts to dismiss the concerns of the thinking middle classes about Iraq. Blue collar workers supported the war, we were told, and the anti-war plonkers would be shown to be irrelevant.
Well, now they know. Principle can carry a punch. Brian Sedgemore the former Labour MP, called on voters to give Tony Blair “a bloody nose”. They decided gave him a couple of black eyes as well.
And there is no doubt that the war and trust were the key issues of the night, and indeed of the entire campaign. Too many voters had simply had enough of what they believed to be Tony Blair’s high-handed and dishonest handling of the war in Iraq.
Of course there were other factors in the mix. Immigration played a strong role in eroding Labour’s vote, especially in English constituencies where the Tory “dog whistle’ was heard loud and clear. Many people have become fed up paying higher taxes while still waiting for real improvements in the NHS. This is especially so in Scotland where cracks are beginning to show in the machine of Labour domination.
Tony Blair was probably right to say in his victory address that people are fed up with yobbery and the decline of “respect” - though in Bethnall Green and Bow, he got rather more of that than he wanted. But the PM was badly advised in trying to suggest that what the electorate wanted was yet more Blairism. If it hadn’t been for the stabilising influence of the Chancellor Gordon Brown, Labour might well have lost its overall majority.
This election, we now see, really was a very close call. That opinion poll collapse that happened in the first week of the campaign, when Labour’s overall lead was cut to one percentage point in the poll of polls, was no statistical aberration. The polls have proved extremely reliable in this election. If Labour hadn’t presented itself as a two leader party, if Gordon Brown hadn’t offered himself as a human shield, Tony Blair might have been negotiating with the Liberal Democrats for a coalition this weekend instead of putting the finishing touches to his third administration.
The winners lost and the losers won - though there was clearly disappointment in the LibDem camp that they didn’t do better. With 62 seats, the party is bigger than at any time since the days of Lloyd-George. But this wasn’t the mould-breaking result some had forecast. This was essentially an anti-Labour, or rather anti-Blair vote rather than a fundamental and irreversible swing to Liberal Democracy in Westminster.
But it could be the beginning of the end for the Scottish coalition in Holyrood. With eleven seats, the Liberal Democrats are fed up not being taken seriously. They think they could take Labour, and Labour might be minded to let them try. There’s a lot of bad blood around.
The Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond has also been vindicated. Gaining two seats from Labour is a good result in a campaign where they were all but excluded from view. But it was SNP’s lowest share of the vote, 18%, since 1987 and they will need more than an able leader to halt their long-term decline.
The Scottish Tories had another near death experience, losing their shadow Scottish secretary, Peter Duncan, and gaining a slightly bewildered looking David Mundell in DTC. There’s some doubt about who came out best in Scotland from this election, but whoever it was, it wasn’t the Scottish Conservatives. They are in danger of becoming a political irrelevance in Scotland, consigned to the same historical wheelie-bin as the old Scottish Communist Party.
Blairism may be going the same way. The Prime Minister’s problems will begin the moment he returns to parliament and sees the empty spaces where many of the Blair loyalists used to sit, like Lorna Fitzsimons of Rochdale, or Melanie Johnson in Herts. With some thirty or so inveterate rebels, like Paul Flynn, Bob Marshall-Andrews and Jeremy Corbyn back in parliament Blair is going to have serious problems pushing through his reform agenda. It only needs a rebellion of 34 Labour backbenchers and Blair loses.
He can forget identity cards for a start, and the house arrest powers will surely go when the Prevention of Terrorism Act is renewed. Marketising the national health service is going to be a lot more difficult as is welfare reform and the forthcoming asylum and immigration bill.
University top up fees would never have happened in the last parliament, had it not been for Scottish Labour MPs, who rode to the PM’s rescue against a backbench rebellion. Blair may find that he is calling on their services more often in future. Which could pose some interesting constitutional questions. We all wondered what would happen if the West Lothian Question became a reality. We could be about to find out.
Britain is becoming Balkanised. The Tories won the majority of votes in England. If Tony Blair starts pushing through a lot of legislation on devolved issues like crime, health and education by relying on Scottish Labour MPs, that long awaited English backlash might actually happen.
Jeremy Paxman has already raged against the Scottish “Raj”. He hasn’t seen anything yet. Poor old Paxo could find himself hosting the next general election campaign with three Scots leading the UK political parties - Gordon Brown for Labour, Charles Kennedy, Liberal Democrat, and Malcolm Rifkind - the former Tory Scottish Secretary - as Tory leader.
The sudden departure “sooner rather than later” of Michael Howard was one of the unsolved mysteries of election night. Why go and plunge his party into a leadership contest when it should be congratulating itself for winning thirty seven seats?
But the truth is simply that he realised that the Tory revival was not real. They gained thirty odd seats but are still flat-lined at 33%. The electoral system is hugely weighted against them because their support is concentrated in the South East of England. This means that the Tories need 44,241 votes to elect an MP, whereas Labour requires only 28,858. For the Liberal Democrats it is much worse. They need 98,484 votes to elect an MP.
This was the most grotesquely unfair election in British history. Labour won a lower share of the vote than any government in history. Even in October 1974, Harold Wilson won 39% of the vote, and that left him with a majority of only 3 seats. This time, Tony Blair has won an overall majority of nearly 66 on 36% of the vote. With only 3% more than the Tories, Labour won nearly twice as many seats.
How long can we continue with this profoundly undemocratic system? It is assumed that Labour will reject calls reform because it has won another clear majority. But that may not be so certain. If Tony Blair is worried about leftism stalking his back bench, perhaps he might be more favourably disposed to those 62 Liberal Democrat MPs. Despite the war, there is really very little ideological difference between Labour and the Liberal Democrats. There is a danger that the Tories could make a comeback next time if Labour and the Liberal Democrats split the progressive vote as they did in the 1980’s and 90’s. Under PR they would be in coalition, but they could lock the Tories out for another couple of elections at least.
Anyway, the British electorate is no longer content with winner-takes-all-elections. Across the country, smart voting took over, as people defied uniformity and voted in all sorts of eccentric ways in marginal seats. Like 2003 in Scotland, Thursday was a vote for diversity against ideological uniformity; for individualism against party tribalism; for intelligence against pledge-card cretinism.
People simply refuse to be taken for granted any more. Refuse to be stuffed by market researchers into insulting and patronising categories like Worcester Women and Mondeo Men; Do It All dads and School Gate mums. The party chiefs will have to invent entirely new categories.
Lefty greys with bees in their bonnets; wine-quaffing Labour slap-heads for Kennedy; sort of Tories who really aren’t nasty; promiscuous last-minute floaters; anoraks for anyone with half a brain.
The people want their politics back from the political machines. On Thursday the fight back began.

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