This column, written first, appeared today in the Canberra Times . . .
A POLITICAL EARTHQUAKE ‘OFF THE RICHTER SCALE . . .’
Less than two minutes after polling stations closed across the UK, excitement turned to confusion. For months opinion samples insisted the parties were running neck-and-neck; now, suddenly, an extensive exit poll taken as voters left the ballot booths insisted the conservatives would cruise to victory.
A sudden buzz surged around the Cambridge Union as everyone spoke at the same time. “It’s not right - it can’t be”, one Labourite insisted. Startled, uncomprehending eyes blinked - the media got it wrong again. “Look”, insisted one emphatic woman who’d been busy handing out leaflets all day. “I’m absolutely certain we’ve taken this seat off the Lib-Dems (the Liberal-Democrats, the party governing in coalition with the Conservatives). The country wants change!” She repeated herself, a little less sure now, but still desperate to will the poll away. “It demands change.”
A couple of hours later, as the champagne fell flat in its glass, it had became quite evident that even if the country needed change, it certainly wasn’t getting it. Instead of continuing to lead a minority government, Prime Minister David Cameron would rule in his own right. Labor had been eviscerated. By the early hours of the morning a subdued Ed Miliband appeared on television screens to claim his own seat. He was silent about the party’s prospects, even though just hours earlier he’d been preparing for a victory spin around Hyde Park while driving to Buckingham Palace. His speech sounded empty; a dirge rather than a trumpet’s He knew what was coming. triumphant blast. Within hours he’d resign the leadership of a shrunken party. The Lib-Dems, Cameron’s erstwhile partners, had also been routed - utterly. A political earthquake had ripped across the land.
So what happened? Two facts, and one prediction.
First, evidence. The Scottish National Party swept all but four of the seats north of the border. Labour’s Glasgow East fell with a swing of 39.3 percent. A twenty-year old woman (studying politics at university) defeated the shadow foreign secretary, becoming Britain’s youngest MP since 1667. But the revolt against the options served up by the main parties didn’t stop at the Tweed. In England, although UK Independence Party Nigel Farage lost his own seat and the party will struggle to secure two MP’s in Westminster, even though it did win almost four million votes (12.6 percent of the total vote). Compare that to the SNP’s 56 seats (out of 49 in Scotland) for 4.7 percent of ballots. In constituency after constituency UKIP are now the third, even second biggest party. Plaid Cymru in Wales only picked up three seats, but Northern Ireland remains seemingly locked forever in local, regional identities: it hasn’t adopted broader UK ones. The local is the new (political) reality.
The promised benefits of trickle-down economics aren’t there. Inequality is growing dramatically, and with it the insistence that somehow globalisation has sets this in stone. “You must accept this”, runs the refrain. Well voters, people, won’t. They know there are choices out there and if the main parties won’t offer them they’ll vote for someone who will. Someone local; someone ‘connected’. A party that’s prepared to listen to their seething anger at the way things are going and their feelings of disenfranchisement. People want more than just another colour television; they want to be listened to. Labour’s pathetic offerings didn't match their aspirations, so they voted instead for parties that possess imagination, even if the way forward remains murky and uncertain. Now the protesters are finally been heard. Identity is everything.
The second lesson? Voters despised Labour’s attempt at a small target strategy and its defence of the Blair/Brown government thrown out so enthusiastically just five years ago. At a delightful dinner party I’d bought up Blair's name between the remove and the roast. The hostess, Lady X (a good, solid, ideologically left-of-centre person) was horrified. Out of nowhere she quickly conjured up a new topic for conversation . . . the weather. It was as if I'd attempted to place excrement on the table.
The opposition failed to account for the squandered opportunities and mistakes that surrounded its last time in office. Labour didn't so much offer the electorate a narrative as a promise that everything would be just the same only somehow better; a story that was reassuring instead of being true. Labour, however, wasn't the real loser despite its worst result since the late-80’s. The Lib-Dems had their worst result since the early-80’s as blood gushed from the party that had seemed to promise a "nicer, better" way could be found. Nothing could staunch the haemorrhaging. The party lost 46 seats watching itself dissolve into a small, irrelevant puddle.
John Howard’s former advisor Lynton Crosby was derided as nothing more than a Svengali as he pushed the conservative cause, yet his messages were heard. They ‘bit’. That’s because they engaged with the real concerns of real people. Perhaps these prescriptions way aren’t best; perhaps many people are being left behind and perhaps they do sow division. But at their core they obviously distill an internal truth that resonates in the electorate.
The economy has surged over the past two years and so it's easy to dismiss the result as nothing more than a reward for economic growth. That would be wrong, and this is the listen, or prediction, for Labor in Australia. The benefits aren't being shared out equally and the concept of community is falling apart as people strive to make more money at the expense of others, however there’s not much sympathy around for those who are missing out. Welfare will be slashed, yes, but that money will be channelled into health. Apprenticeships will be increased and there's money for business start-ups. Housing commission tenants will be able to buy their homes. The policies are simplistic but the underlying principle, reward for work, is appealing. It's a policy that will leave the Devil to take the hind-most, but if you're out in front that doesn't matter.
Labour didn't offer a plausible alternative. The result wasn't pretty.