Saturday, 9 May 2015

07 May, 2015: 1992 Returning – The UK General Election

There are quite a few parallels to be drawn between the situation we woke up to on the morning of 8th May 2015 and the morning of 10th April 1992. In neither case had the polls predicted a Conservative majority. In both cases Labour had cause to be quietly confident, but any such confidence proved to be illusory. In both cases Labour had a leader, who although a decent man, was flawed and ultimately didn’t convince as a putative Prime Minister. And David Cameron, with a majority of 12 would do well to reflect on how the Major government subsequently fared with its slender of majority of 21 – by 1997, after a string of lost by-elections it was down to one. In those five years, the Conservative party managed to repeatedly hit the self-destruct button. Not only did the events of ‘Black Wednesday’ seriously dent the perception that the Tories were a safe pair of hands as far as the economy was concerned, but a series of sex and corruption scandals continued almost daily to erode public confidence in the party. Meanwhile, the Labour Party, which was thought by many to be on the path to extinction, had found the leader it needed to re-invent and rebuild. If a week is a long time in politics, five years is an eternity, which should give some hope to Labour and Lib Dem supporters that there is a way back.

The final parallel I shall draw with 1992, is that in the lead up to that election most of the discussion was about the likelihood and implications of a hung Parliament. Many of us thought that the stranglehold which the two party system had had on British politics for decades was finally about to be loosened. The newly formed Liberal Democrats looked to be a rising force, and coalition government seemed to be a real possibility. In the event, the ‘first-past-the-post’ system put paid to that, just as it has done in 2015. The two-party system is firmly restored and coalition will most likely be looked back upon as a foot-note to history. In 1992 the Lib Dems got 17.8% of the vote, but just 20 seats. In 2015 UKIP garnered 12.6% of the vote but gained just one seat. The likelihood of the incumbent party weakening its own position by pushing through electoral reform is minimal, so we can safely assume that these anomalies will continue to be a part of UK politics for decades to come. Indeed, the only reform Cameron is likely to consider is to push ahead with boundary changes which will reduce the number of potential Labour seats in the future by ten.

So, what of the future? What sort of nation will we be living in when the next election comes round in 2020. Despite, Cameron’s claim to be a ‘one-nation’ Tory, a look back at the last five years indicates that Conservative policy, even when tempered by Lib Dems, has had quite the opposite effect. Britain is a divided nation. The division between rich and poor, haves and have-nots, employed and unemployed and engaged and disengaged has grown wider and starker. The turnout at this election was 66%. I suspect that the one in three who did not vote were, in the main, unemployed or on zero-hours contracts, the vulnerable, the disabled, living with parents or in substandard rented accommodation, and reliant on food banks. I suspect that this neglected underclass will grow in proportion to the total population. As the new Government continues to try to reduce the deficit by cutting welfare, it is they who will suffer the most pain. They will become more and more disaffected and unengaged. Politics and politicians seem have no hope to offer them. Sterile political debate and dogma does not put food on the table, or raise quality of life. Can we expect this section of society to remain silent and acquiescent? If they do not feel that they have a voice, if they cannot articulate their grievances, frustration could easily lead to violence and civil unrest. The riots of August 2011, may have been triggered by an act of recklessness by the police, but the speed at which they spread, and the associated lawlessness and looting, showed that there was bone dry tinder of many thousands of disaffected people ready to blaze. The wounds of 2011 have not healed and the possibility of a repetition is very real.

Meanwhile the rich will get richer. The super-rich typically double their assets in the life time of a Parliament of any stripe. But forget the super-rich for a moment. The dividing line between those who are comfortably off and leading the good life and those who are struggling to survive is becoming more and more marked. The sale of Housing Association houses to tenants will enable a few to cross the line, but the net result of this half-baked policy will be to destroy Housing Associations, and since the state has all but given up building social housing, the fate of those who are not in a position to buy will simply get worse.

Today middle class or comfortably off might be more accurately described as anyone with a salaried job who owns their own property. These people have come through the recession, battered and bruised, but in a position to take full advantage of the up-turn. They are likely to continue to thrive in the next five years, given a reasonable amount of sustained growth in the economy. They are the majority, the people who do turn out to vote and will have to be kept sweet with more tax breaks paid for by further savage welfare cuts.

What worries me most about the current situation is the disappearance of any substantial liberal/socialist movement in this country. Of all the systems of government available, capitalism is probably the best of a bad bunch; and inequality is a given in a capitalist society. In the past this inequality was tempered by the fact that the many people who were comfortably off had a conscience and a genuine streak of altruism that led them to care about and want to help more vulnerable members of society. Today, however, the number of people who think like that seems to be diminishing. It seems to me that the ‘I’m-alright-Jack’ mentality is more prevalent than it has ever been; and not only is there indifference to the plight of the less well-off, there is often open hostility. Accusations of scrounging and indolence are stoked by the establishment press, along with bigotry and xenophobia as we’ve never seen it before in this country, and which to my mind is thoroughly shaming. My suspicion is that this change in the national psyche has been engineered by one man – an Australian named Rupert Murdoch. The return of a Conservative Government was engineered by his newspapers, and his influence will continue unabated for the next five years at least. It is sobering to consider what this one man has achieved in this country. The words ‘socialist’ and ‘liberal’ have become pejoratives. The spirit of philanthropy is dead. Previously influential figures on the left who attempted to rouse the consciences of those who have the means to care for others have been silenced. When the Labour Party and Lib Dems start their rebuilding they must dare to confront and challenge this man once and for all.

David Cameron has painted himself into a corner with his reckless promise of an in/out referendum on Europe. There seems to be a consensus across the political spectrum and amongst business people and financiers that to leave the European Union would be disastrous for Britain, and yet it is well within the bounds of possibility, that when Cameron tries to pass of a few minimal concessions as a major realignment of Britain’s position in Europe, he will fail to convince the little-Englanders who will be numerous enough to vote us out. And, as Cameron’s majority starts to dwindle, as it surely will, the Scots Nats will be able to push through and gain their independence.

So by 2020, England, Northern Ireland and Wales could be left as an isolated, friendless rump stewing in its own bigoted and xenophobic juice and peopled by an uncaring, grasping population. I hope to God I’m wrong.

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