As anyone who reads the news will know, last Thursday there was a general election here and on Friday morning we learned that the Tories had gained an absolute majority of the seats, which means we have a Tory-only government without a Lib Dem coalition. The Lib Dems lost all but 8 of their seats (there is a full list of MPs who lost their seats at Wikipedia here); they are left with only one seat in London (Carshalton and Wallington) and none in their former south-western heartland. The Scottish National Party won all but three seats in Scotland, the Lib Dems, Labour and Tories being left with one seat each. The Tories now intend another £12m of public service cuts and have already earmarked the Access to Work scheme, which assists disabled people in finding work (so, it’s not an out-of-work benefit), for cuts; they also intend to press ahead with boundary changes which, according to the Telegraph, could “lock Labour out of power for a decades (sic)”, and to extending state surveillance powers, both of which they were unable to do while in coalition. They are also committed to a referendum on leaving the EU by 2017 and to abolishing the Human Rights Act. (More: Looking for Blue Sky, Lenin’s Tomb, Islamicate.)
There’s no doubting that this was a right-wing result: people keep repeating that the Tories ‘only’ won 36.9% of the vote, but forget that UKIP won 12.6% despite that translating only into one seat because of their wide distribution of votes. That’s a total of 49.5% of the vote, and that’s UK-wide — in England and Wales the figure would have been well over half (UKIP got around 10%, sometimes more, in several west Welsh seats although they won none). So, at least in England, there is now a clear democratic mandate for at least a referendum. David Cameron says he is in favour of remaining in a “reformed EU”, but we all know that the reforms are not going to happen. He is likely to pitch up with a series of “transitional demands” (meaning ludicrous ones) which he knows the other major EU states will reject, then go home and say “he tried but failed” to reform the EU. There are firm economic and social reasons for staying in, but supporters of the EU have a huge fight on their hands, especially given the numerical strength of UKIP, which could (depending on the credibility of its next leader, which could well be Douglas Carswell) attract more Tory defectors. Those demanding withdrawal must know that they will not have the consent of the people of Scotland or even Wales, however decisive the result in England.
The Tories won this with the help of major failings by both the Labour party and Liberal Democrats. The Lib Dems’ failures I have already mentioned on here, as our local MP in Kingston and Surbiton was a Lib Dem until the last Parliament. Now, we have a Tory who was elected with 39.2% of the vote; Ed Davey’s result fell 15.3% to 34.5%. Not a total collapse, and the Tory (James Berry) gained by only 2.7%, but he won and the Lib Dems lost anyway. Labour’s vote went up 5.1% to 14.5% and the Greens also increased to nearly 4% from less than 1% last time. UKIP’s vote went up by 4.8% to 7.3%. This shows that the Lib Dems’ tactic of threatening voters “Labour cannot win here” does not work if their sitting MP has lost the trust of his voters. In some areas, like Cambridge and Norwich South, Labour took Lib Dem seats in middle-class provincial areas, which shows that they indeed can win if they make the effort. (In other areas, particularly in the south-west, there was a decisive rightward shift to both the Tories and UKIP, not a split progressive vote, which is perhaps a legacy of Cameron’s “we’re a rich country” response to the 2014 floods.)
As with before the election, the Lib Dems and their friends in the media claim they have no regrets and do not admit that they did anything wrong. For example, their former leader Menzies Campbell, who lost the seat of North East Fife to a Scottish Nationalist, said in a TV interview this morning that he did not regret going into the coalition “in the national interest” and mouthed the usual nonsense about clearing up the mess Labour made. Simon Hughes, who lost the seat in south-east London he had held since the 1980s, blamed the voters, saying “people were voting Labour because they wanted to get of a Tory government. They got rid of the MP, and ended up with a Tory government.” (In his case, however, they elected a Labour MP, as did two constituencies in north London.) Simon Hughes held an inner-city seat that should have been Labour for 30 years, and his is another case of years of hard work building up the trust of local people being thrown away for five years enjoying the privileges of office. They seem to think they made personal sacrifices, when what they sacrificed was public services and the needs of poor and disabled people.
As for Labour, it seems the timidity that has been their hallmark since the days of Kinnock has proven their undoing. Both in power and in opposition, Labour has always been cowardly when dealing with powerful actors, whether it’s the Tory media or an angry American president on the warpath. They only display a bit of muscle when there is a powerless, unpopular enemy on the floor to kick, often a recalcitrant left-winger in a local party somewhere. When the Daily Mail manufactured a scandal in 2006 about the low numbers of ‘foreign criminals’ being deported after completing their sentences, the Home Office put out a dragnet that caught many people who had lived in the UK a long time (often long enough to apply for citizenship) and who had already served their sentences, which were often for minor crimes. Labour had 13 years in office to reform the electoral system and ownership and control of the media. They did neither, because they were one of the two entrenched interests that benefited (sometimes) from First Past the Post, and because the Sun then supported them. This is why they ended up competing against an almost entirely hostile press and broadcast media in 2015.
I saw an article warning about the “delusions of the defeated”, one of which is to conclude that the party “isn’t left-wing enough”, harking back to the early 1980s Labour party which took away precisely this lesson from the defeat of 1979, and were defeated even more soundly (with a bit of help from the Social Democratic Party defectors) in 1983. The problem is that defending the last Labour government’s economic record or the public services they didn’t destroy is not left-wing; New Labour ran a mostly centre-right government. It’s not a question that they weren’t left-wing or right-wing enough; they were not courageous or forthright enough. They did not challenge the prevailing myth that Labour left the economy in a shambles; they allowed themselves to be strong-armed into accepting an economic strait-jacket; they dithered on the matter of a coalition with the SNP, which they could have resolved by insisting that there would be no referendum on independence in the next Parliament. (The SNP when in power in Scotland is not that left-wing, something they could also have stressed.) Exposing the lies peddled by the BNP, some of them given credence by the popular press, was key to sinking that party; the same must be done with UKIP’s tabloid-friendly lies. The next leader does not have to be a left-winger; he or she has to have a backbone.
An issue which has been given some attention since the election is that there may be another vote on whether fox hunting with hounds should be legalised. While I do not support re-legalising, it does not come close to the importance of preventing further welfare, disability or legal aid cuts, the privatising of the NHS, the abolition of the Human Rights Act, to name but a few threats we are now faced with. The Tories are not guaranteed to get this through Parliament as there were always Tory opponents of fox-hunting (e.g. Alan Clark) and there is a generation of young adults who do not remember when it was legal, and may be more concerned about the disruption hunts caused, as well as the danger to animals other than foxes (the turning point last time was when the hunt killed someone’s cat in an Essex village). So by all means write letters to your MP if he or she is a Tory (the others will most likely vote against), but don’t let it distract you from the big issues. Human beings, after all, aren’t vermin.
The Human Rights Act is something we have a fight on our hands to preserve. Again, this will not be a walk-over for the Tories as they have some MPs left who are not securocrats or Little Englanders, such as Dominic Grieve (former attorney general, member for Beaconsfield) and David Davis (for Haltemprice and Howden in east Yorkshire); they are likely to be the older, long-serving ones who associate the European project with keeping the peace in Europe. If we win this time, we can expect this to come back in the next, or next-but-one, Tory-dominated parliament as the old guard retire and the Tory party and press blame the HRA for everything they cannot do. (See earlier entry for why the HRA is important and why the arguments against it are unsound and heavily based on appeals to racism and white privilege, and this one on why the Magna Carta is no substitute. Abolishing it in Scotland would be a more complicated matter than in England.)
Why did the Tories win? Did years of campaigning against the Bedroom Tax, of highlighting the suffering caused to people, especially chronically ill and disabled people, by the coalition’s social security cuts, to say nothing of the young people who cannot find stable or meaningful work and cannot get housing, have no effect on people? The truth is it probably didn’t, partly because the public has been subjected to a drip-feed of propaganda about the billions lost through ‘fraud and error’, the need to ‘make savings’ to ‘fix Labour’s mess’, news reports and entire TV series about people living high on the hog on benefits (large families being housed in expensive London town-houses at public expense and so on, which would not be happening if the council houses had not been sold off), and this has been in the papers and on TV and the supposedly impartial BBC (fearing a licence fee cut) goes along with it rather than challenging it.
However, it seems the majority in Middle England really do not know (or think they don’t know) anyone affected by the cuts; their children aren’t the ones paying huge rents in tenancies that could end any time, or living in mouldy/damp/rat-infested properties and threatened with eviction if they complain (particularly outside London; there was more of a shift to Labour in the cities). And when you tell people that there is real suffering, they shrug: life isn’t fair; you only know one side of the story; it’s just the way of the world. The platitudes we all heard from adults when we were children when we said their decisions weren’t fair. The number of people who are doing OK, whether thanks to the coalition’s policies or not, clearly outweighs those who are suffering. However much we explain that living and working with disability costs money, most people will not ‘get it’ unless it affects them or their families directly, and in some cases (but not others) people’s generosity makes up for the lack of state support. And the threat of a “SNP chokehold” on a minority Labour government without the option of a Lib Dem coalition, however baseless that fear, may have driven many swing voters into the Tory camp.
The Tories themselves, it has to be stressed, really don’t give a toss. In Saturday’s Daily Mail, Max Hastings brushed away the evidence of impoverishment. “Privately, especially after watching those awful TV debates — obsessed with food banks, welfare claimants and the NHS — I feared the worst.” (Later on, he does call for the party to “present themselves as standard-bearers for a fair and decent capitalism, not the smash-and-grab kind”, but that’s always tomorrow for the Tories, never today.) David Cameron especially does not care about disabled people who are survivors; he appears to resent them, and answers any plea about the impoverishment of disabled people and their families by reminding them of Ivan. Iain Duncan Smith answers such pleas with a snigger. Some are too wealthy to care, and for some it’s all a game.
The Tories have played the ‘England card’, with the help of a partly partisan and partly sycophantic or cowed media, and won. This means that, for the next five years at least, there will be no let-up on welfare or disability support cuts, no proportional representation and no reform of the housing market. Preventing the repeal of the HRA, exit from the EU and the re-legalisation of fox hunting remain possible; we must also be vigilant for voter suppression, a common tactic of the American right who know that making it difficult to vote benefits them, and support whatever makes voting easier in future, such as making election day a public holiday. The Tories are committed to maintaining the United Kingdom and some of them are committed to dragging us out of the EU; however, they must realise that they cannot do both, as Scotland will not consent to an exit from the EU and, likely, neither will Wales. Even the Mail on Sunday today conceded that most people in the UK do not in fact want to exit, although around 18% are undecided. However, an English vote to leave the EU followed by an illegal secession by Scotland could have dire and bloody consequences, something I believe that many Tories (and some others) would not go out of their way to avoid. Anyone thinking of moving to Scotland to get away from Tory rule should bear that in mind.
Image sources: Wikimedia. 2010 map public domain. 2015 map uploaded to Wikipedia by Italay90 and re-coloured by Cryptographic.2014, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike International 4.0 Licence.
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