A retrospective thing

It’s been a weird campaign.

If I were a Conservative voter, I’d be really worried about the state of the party. For as long as I can remember, it’s been a good rule of thumb that when Labour were in trouble, the Tories would be the first to benefit, and vice versa. Ironically, during the only period when this wasn’t true – the Alliance surge of the early 1980s – the electoral system made it true anyway, converting Labour losses to the Alliance into Tory gains. This time round, it looks rather different. The campaign began with the Tories and Labour more or less level for a week or so, after which there was a small but definite shift away from the Tories and towards Labour. And there it stuck. Even when Iraq and Goldsmith became major issues for Labour, towards the end of the campaign, the Tories didn’t capitalise; support for Labour did flake away in the last couple of weeks, but support for the Tories stayed just as low or even fell a little more. In 1983 Tony Benn declared that Labour had actually had quite a good result: 28% of the vote was an unprecedentedly high level of support for an explicitly socialist programme. (Well, yes and no – or rather, ‘maybe’ to the second statement and a definite ‘no’ to the first.) Michael Howard and Lynton Crosby achieved something similar: they mobilised a core ‘Right’ vote, representing around 30% of the population, and absolutely nobody else.

We know about the approach which led to this result – the focus on ‘dog-whistle’ issues, which is to say, on unreasoning prejudice (against foreigners, against idle public-sector employees, against thieves and yobs and louts, against Guardian-reading middle-class liberals… but mainly against foreigners). This, of course, wasn’t the product of a personal reversion to Garnetto-Powellism on Howard’s part, still less a worked-out political programme. It was more like Labour’s grovelling after the Sunday Express vote in 1997 (the union jacks all over the place were bad enough, but the bulldog?). But where that was shameful, cynical and gratuitous, this was shameful, cynical and rather sad – unlike Blair and Mandelson (who really didn’t need any votes gained by those means) it seemed that Howard and Crosby actually had nowhere else to go. The increasing salience of racism as the campaign wore on was significant; most of the other issues which were supposed to press Tory buttons turned out to be themes New Labour was quite happy to appropriate, just as it had appropriated law and order and value for money and extending choice and decent working people. (Guardian readers? We certainly know what New Labour think of them. And we know what the Guardian thinks of Blair: it thinks he’s lovely, and he only says those things when we’ve provoked him, and he cares about us really…)

In this election we’ve seen New Labour’s triumphal achievement: reducing the Conservatives to their current state. It may even be irreversible: all they need to lock themselves into the downward spiral is to appoint yet another leader who plays well with the grass roots (whatever they amount to these days). Broadening the party’s appeal has to mean going the other way and outflanking Labour on the Left – if not on public ownership or workers’ rights, then on social tolerance and individual liberties. But I’m not sure who would be willing and able to take on that kind of repositioning operation. Certainly David Davis, the front-runner, is a ‘dry’ of the old school. (Can we skip a leader and go straight to Boris?)

New Labour isn’t in a much better state; it’s had very few other triumphs. This may seem like an odd judgment to pass on a party which has just won a third consecutive election, but take another look at the campaign. The Honourable Fiend’s summary is, if anything, too kind. Firstly, the shift from positive to negative campaigning started weeks ago. The leadership realised quite early on that they weren’t winning any votes by talking about being ‘unremittingly New Labour’, sidelining Brown, Cook and points leftward, and making policy commitments that revolved around selling off everything that’s not nailed down. They also got the message that a lot of Labour supporters were still quite peeved about Iraq, and quite willing to vote Lib Dem as a result. In short, they couldn’t rely on their core vote; they couldn’t sell the programme they wanted to sell; and they couldn’t hide the issue they wanted to hide. Their response to this negative feedback, rather than a reversion to Labour core values, has been an extended fit of pique. (I’ve speculated before about why Blair doesn’t appeal, even cynically, to Labour core values. I think the simplest explanation is that he doesn’t know what they are.)

Secondly, I don’t recall ever being begged not to vote Lib Dem; I’ve been hectored, reproached, subjected to emotional blackmail and lied to shamelessly, but not begged (let alone persuaded). The tone has got more aggressive and the lies more blatant as the campaign’s gone on; for that reason alone, I’ll be quite glad when it’s over. Because (thirdly) the target hasn’t only, or even mainly, been the Lib Dem vote; it’s been the protest vote. This is what’s been most shameless, and most insufferable, about the Labour campaign. It’s aimed squarely at former Labour supporters who now feel disillusioned or angry or betrayed, and its message is: we know how you feel, but don’t act on it. Vote for us anyway – the other lot are even worse, and if they get in it’ll be your fault. Perhaps, on second thoughts, there is an undertone of pleading – “we know how you feel, but for God’s sake don’t act on it! for pity’s sake, you could ruin everything!” I’m flattered that they think my vote is so important – but I’m incensed that they’re campaigning on the basis of, essentially, offering to take my vote away from me. (“Yes, we know you’d rather give it to those other people. Look, we’ve gone through all this – they’re no good for you. You’re upset, you’re not thinking straight. Just hand it over, eh?”)

But what could make a party campaign like that? Obviously, they were running scared – but they obviously weren’t scared of anything like losing the election. They were and are scared, I think, because New Labour is running out of road. The leadership’s loss of trust over Iraq is irreversible, and it’s having a multiplier effect: more people are looking more critically at New Labour policy in a whole range of areas, from control orders to nuclear weapons to PFI. To be New Labour has always meant being against much (if not most) of what Labour has historically stood for, and trusting in the leadership of the New Labour clique to deliver in ways that Old Labour supposedly couldn’t (setting aside odd little achievements like the NHS). New Labour, in other words, was always a battle within the party; and, given the roots of the support the party depended on to get elected, it was a battle which could never quite be won. Within the party as well as outside it, a lot of people are starting to wonder which side of that battle they’re really on. (The debate over when, rather than whether, Brown will take over from Blair is a sign of this rethinking – or rather, a sign of incipient damage-limitation.)

The Lib Dems did some good campaigning, with reasoned policies and un-repellent personalities; by the end they were genuinely starting to make an impact, albeit more at Labour’s expense than the Tories’. They could have done with another week to campaign in. (Mind you, they could have done with not losing the focus on Iraq, and that was partly their own doing.) What they really wanted was something like the 1983 28%/26% result, but with the Conservatives in second place rather than Labour; unfortunately that wasn’t going to happen without the party positioning itself firmly on the right on at least one of the possible axes, and that wasn’t going to happen while there were anti-war Labour votes to collect up. Which way the party jumps now will depend on which of the other two parties’ bases disintegrates faster; I’m not placing any bets.

Nothing to say about Respect, for the moment. Well, maybe just a few things. Firstly, Galloway is truly ghastly, and I wouldn’t trust John Rees and Lindsey German to run a cake stall, but on balance I think the win was a Good Thing for the Left – better than a win for Labour, anyway. Secondly, the idea seems to have got about that Respect are a bad thing because, unlike Labour, they’re a ‘communalist’ party (i.e. they’re relying on the mosque vote). At the very least, this is clearly a somewhat… selective view, let’s say. Thirdly, they may not have had a hope of getting anyone but Galloway elected, but they’re certainly not a Galloway-only operation; I’ve seen some very energetic leafletting going on, and I don’t think anyone in South Manchester has a vote in Bethnal Green and Bow. (Maybe a postal vote?) That said, in terms of the overall vote they didn’t do much better than the Socialist Alliance of blessed memory; a bit of rethinking is going to be needed if they are intending to be around in five years’ time.

Nothing much to say about the Greens; I voted for them, but the candidate only got 4% and lost his deposit. (He was never really a runner in this constituency; the only Green literature I’ve seen anywhere was the leaflet that came through the door). Shame about Brighton Pavilion; still, 22% is not bad for a fourth party. It should give them something to build on. Who else is there? Nothing to say about the BNP, except that they’re not going to go away (unassisted). And nothing at all to say about UKIP or Veritas, except perhaps “ha ha ha”. Voters of Thanet and Erewash, we salute you.

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