Where next – thoughts on the 2010 election?
While we wait for the election results and the formation of a new government, it’s worth thinking about what might happen next. This election almost certainly marks the end of the Labour dominance of British politics. It’s unclear whether this marks the end of Labour government. For Greens it will hopefully mean the final breakthrough to the national parliament. This is not before time. The UK is the only country in Western Europe where Greens have never been elected to the national parliament or assembly.
It will be a disaster for the country if a Conservative led government emerges. Not only will Conservatives cut deeper, they will cut faster. This is nothing to do with ratings for national debt or economic recovery. It will be an ideologically motivated attack on the poor, designed to make the rich wealthier. The recession caused by big banking is proving the maxim: heads the rich win, tails the poor lose.
Behind a seemingly plausible set of critiques of the deficit, ‘broken Britain’ and the Big Society lies a set of solutions that cannot possibly solve these problems. It’s impossible to see how a series of tax breaks for the very wealthy and some cuts to back office workers is going to cut the deficit. No one believes that a tax break for married families is going to solve ‘broken Britain.’ There is scant detail as to how a Big Society is going to replace the big state, other than some proposals to allow parents to start their own schools.
The conclusion many will draw from the disparity between these critiques and the proposed solutions is that the Conservatives have another agenda. This may be a move to slash the state, targeting particularly provision for the poorest and most vulnerable, as they’ve done in Hammersmith and Fulham. No doubt this will provoke resistance on an unprecedented scale from anyone who cares about social justice.
Of course, the question of whether the Tories will have a majority will be important to this. I have every expectation that there will be a small Conservative majority. But if there isn’t, and they can’t tie up a deal with their fellow travellers in the Liberal Democrats then it may hamper their plans. In this scenario it will be interesting to see what kind of changes Tories choose to make.
If the Conservatives contrive to lose this election, especially if they win fewer seats than Labour, there will be major repercussions for the party. There will be a gigantic blame storm. The right of the party will accuse Cameron of losing it by being too cuddly. The Cameron wing will blame the right for scaring the electorate. There’s every possibility that the Conservatives could rip themselves apart over this. A realignment of the Tory right with UKIP and the Cameron wing with Clegg-led Orange Book Liberal Democrats could well happen. But this will only happen if Conservatives lose on votes or seats.
Cameron has already gone a long way to throwing this election away. I’m sure he must have been furious at the inclusion of Liberal Democrats in the TV debates. This robbed the Tories of their change message, and has resulted in them losing double digit poll leads.
Liberal Democrats Winning Here?
This brings us to the Liberal Democrats. While many will vote Liberal Democrat in the hope of serious electoral reform, I’m not sure that they will ever deliver on this. Nick Clegg is clearly desperate to form a coalition with the Tories, in the same way Paddy Ashdown was with Labour in 1997. I’m not sure he’ll be able to get meaningful electoral reform out of the Tories, and I’m not sure he’d want to. The opportunity to sit in a ministerial limo will be too much for him.
The Liberal Democrats are a party with three broad tendencies. There is a tradition, represented by the Beveridge Group, which combines social liberalism with a concern about poverty. Having been in the ascendant throughout the late 20th Century in both the Liberal Party and Liberal Democrats, they are losing ground.
There are classical liberals, like Nick Clegg. They have been trying to move the party to the right, with some success. This is reflected in the leadership victories of Ming Campbell and Nick Clegg against Beveridge opposition.
Localists comprise the third tendency in the Liberal Democrats. Liberals pioneered street politics, making MPs a focus of campaigning activity on planning issues, potholes and other local matters. Many of their MPs are most focused on what constituents want, and are relatively ideology-free.
The impact on Liberal Democrats of being shut out by a Tory majority will be similar to the impact of being shut out by a Labour majority for the past 13 years. There will be steady progress, they will continue to win seats slowly, giving up very few. The coalition of localists, classical liberals and social liberals allows Liberal Democrats to win seats from both Labour and Conservatives.
The impact of involvement in a coalition will be fascinating. Whatever happens this is likely to be bad for Liberal Democrats. In Scotland they succeeded in the 1999-2003 coalition by capturing the zeitgeist for free at the point of use universal services in personal care for the elderly and higher education. Now, emboldened by Vince Cable’s popularity, Liberal Democrats will doubtless engage in budget slashing of the sort they’ve engaged in Edinburgh.
I can’t see participation in a coalition that cuts spending on public services being popular with the Liberal Democrat’s voters. It’s not really a change from what would have happened without Liberal Democrats in the government. The Irish Greens have found out to their cost what it’s like to be the junior partner in an unpopular coalition. I’m not sure the Liberal Democrats will find it easy to hold the seats they’ve won over the past 30 years in places like Bermondsey and Eastleigh.
Labour still working?
It looks like Labour will come out of this election without a working majority. Indeed to stay in government would be a minor miracle. There is the very real possibility of an electoral meltdown – particularly if the Labour vote doesn’t turn out. Most people are disappointed by the 13 years of labour rule. Had there been small majorities and fiscal constraints the Labour record would look ok. But to waste all the goodwill and political opportunity that 6 years of government had built up on the Iraq war was a disgraceful betrayal of Labour voters.
With hindsight it is easy to see where Labour have strategically failed. By pandering to middle class voters and failing to build a movement Labour is now vulnerable in a way it should never have been.
The party is unlikely to implode under the pressure of a defeat. They may descend into the sort of infighting that damaged the Conservatives so much after the 1997 defeat, but as the problems at the top of the party are mostly personality not policy it should be easy to reconcile the factions behind a single leader. As Labour has tried to refloat the old economy, so they will try to refloat their party on the New Labour model.
In the long term this election looks like the election to lose. With uncomfortable decisions needed on tax and spend, no government will be popular. Were Labour to win and hold onto power, it may backfire spectacularly, like the Conservatives’ 1992 victory did. Labour may be better being out of power for 2 or 3 years while Conservatives and Liberal Democrats make themselves unpopular.
While many progressives in British politics have rallied behind Labour to stop the threat of Conservatives there is surely no long term future for progressives in the Labour Party. With the election of Green MPs on a strong left ticket surely the home for progressives must be in the long term the Greens.
The 2010 election marks the Greens’ first real opportunity to break through. The impressive result in Brighton Pavilion in 2005 opened the door to Caroline Lucas – we have to hope she will take the opportunity to enter the House of Commons. If she doesn’t win it will not be for lack of effort. Similarly, Adrian Ramsay will surely do well enough in Norwich South to be MP at the next election if not this.
If Greens don’t win in either of their target seats, it will surely only delay a Green breakthrough until the next election. The momentum gained in Brighton, Norwich, Cambridge, Lancaster and elsewhere will push the Greens to 2 or more gains at the next election. But this will require more focus and investment.
On the other hand if Caroline Lucas or Adrian Ramsay win a strong Green voice in Parliament may well result in a rash of Green gains in the next election in places like Hackney, Liverpool and Edinburgh. It will be a crucial moment for British politics.
So, Where Next?
Much of this will unfold over the next 24 hours. My prediction is that there will be a small Conservative majority. This will be due to lower turnout among Labour supporters. The Liberal Democrats will do well, but not well enough to break the 100 seat barrier. Nationalists in Wales and Scotland will hang on, with maybe the odd gain. But most importantly there will, at last, be a Green voice in the House of Commons.