Sunday, 10 May 2015

A tale of two elections

"My God, what have we just done?"

I'll be upfront about it: that was my immediate, instinctive reaction when the exit poll was published at 10 PM on Thursday night. At that point, I wasn't looking at the Tories and Labour's share of seats. They barely even registered on my radar, so convinced was I by the media narrative that there would only be a handful of seats between them either way. All that mattered to me at that point was to see how well the SNP were set to do, and when I saw that number -- a projected 58 out of 59 seats -- a shiver went up my spine as it hit me how seismic this event was. To put it bluntly, the swing was so extreme that it scarcely seemed possible and the challenge to the accepted orthodoxy so brazen that I half-expected divine retribution (or whatever the atheistic equivalent is) to be imminent.

I'll turn to the not so little issue of the UK-wide results and their implications later. For the time being, to hammer home just how truly remarkable the death of Scottish Labour and rise of the SNP is, take a look at this graph showing the share of Scottish seats in every general election since 1955:

In the space of a single night, Scotland has done to Labour what it took 40 years to do to the Tories. We've routed the bastards almost completely, reducing each of the three main unionist parties to a single MP each (meaning that the exit poll WAS slightly out, if only by two seats). We now inhabit a reality in which the heartland of Labour in Scotland is Morningside. BLOODY MORNINGSIDE.

This election was always going to be fought in the shadow of the 2014 independence referendum, hence why, in a previous post, I emphasised how disastrous Labour's decision to campaign alongside the Tories was. Not everyone who voted for the SNP on Thursday was an independence supporter, and vice versa, but the referendum has essentially hardened political thought in Scotland along pro- and anti-independence lines. Between 30 and 40% of Labour's voters voted Yes last year, and from where I was standing, it almost seemed as if Labour actively went out of its way to insult, belittle and alienate these people. (It's telling, I think, that the bulk of Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy's "high command" is made up of former Better Together staffers, among them odious unreconstructed Blairites like Blair McDougall and John McTernan.) As the results came in thick and fast, with seat after seat falling to the SNP on swings of up to 40%, my jaw was on the floor. In many ways, it felt like long-overdue payback for the night of 18th September 2014, and like many of my fellow Yes voters, I adopted an attitude of "enjoy the schadenfreude tonight, worry about the bigger picture in the morning." MP after MP fell by the wayside in both the Labour and Liberal Democrat camps: chinless wonder Danny Alexander, Labour's sanctimonious campaign director Douglas Alexander (toppled by the brilliant 20-year-old Mhairi Black), thug in a suit Ian "bayonet the wounded" Davidson... and perhaps the sweetest and most unexpected victory of all: the decapitation of the snake himself, Jim Murphy.

And of course, south of the border there was the unexpected spectacle of Ed Balls -- the man who stood shoulder to shoulder with George Osborne and Danny Alexander this time last year to tell the Scots they weren't entitled to use their own currency -- losing his seat to his Tory challenger. This is a crucial point. It wasn't just that the anti-independence parties were saying "Here are the bad things that will happen to you if you vote Yes." They were saying "Here are the bad things WE WILL DO TO YOU if you vote Yes," and then months later expecting those they threatened, bullied, lied to and cajoled to neatly fall back into line and vote them into power again. By mid-morning, when the results for the Balls constituency were declared, the overall picture was looking so bad that I was desperately hoping for as many English Labour MPs as possible, but I was prepared to make an exception for the odious Mr. Balls.

"The Scottish lion has roared," declared Alex Salmond after winning the Gordon seat, and though he's often given to grandiose, poetic turns of phrase, in this particular case it doesn't seem like too much of an exaggeration. The nation perhaps didn't "speak with one voice" (just under half the electorate voted for a unionist party of one hue or another), but those looking for a better, fairer future did succeed in (mostly) uniting behind one banner and kicking the liggers, troughers and assorted criminals of the political class so hard in the ghoulies that they'll be singing falsetto for years, if not decades, to come. I used to think the SNP's victory in the 2011 Holyrood elections, where they achieved a majority in a parliament built on proportional representation, would be the high point of the party's electoral fortunes. On Thursday night they smashed that record. The joke used to be that Scotland has more pandas than Tory MPs. Already I've seen memes on Twitter and Facebook presenting a new variant on the joke in which Edinburgh Zoo's two pandas are "Scotland's second largest political party."

The political landscape has been transformed utterly. Deadwood politicians who for years and decades coasted on the belief that they had a job for life are out on their ear, and Scotland now has 56 MPs who will speak up for it, who won't simply sit on their hands as a hostile government enacts destructive policies designed to punish the most vulnerable in society...

Which brings us to the thorny issue of England, and why I titled this post "A tale of two elections." For as elating as the results in Scotland were, the results in England were truly catastrophic. While in Scotland a progressive, centre-left party standing on an anti-austerity, anti-Trident, anti-House of Lords ticket was sweeping the board, south of the border the Tories romped home in such increased numbers that they confounded (almost) all expectations and secured a majority, albeit a very narrow one. I think the dichotomy is brutally but perfectly encapsulated in John Harris's comments in his video for the Guardian, reporting from Glasgow: "I've got to go back to England now, and we haven't got any source of hope there."

Make no mistake, what happened on Thursday night can't be blamed on Scotland for voting SNP, despite the predictable shrieking of those in the Labour ranks. (And the Lib Dems too -- unless I'm completely misunderstanding what he said, Vince Cable appeared to even blame the SNP for the loss of his Twickenham seat.) Even if the whole of Scotland had voted Labour, the party would still have ended up woefully behind the Tories (once again reinforcing the old complaint that Scotland is powerless to determine the outcome of UK general elections). Indeed, had Labour done better in England, a clean sweep of SNP MPs in Scotland would actually have been more useful to them than a simple re-run of 2010's results, since the SNP not only decapitated Labour but also the Tory-friendly Lib Dems. No, the only people to blame for the Tories' success are the people who voted for them.

And why did they vote for them? I think it's important that we try to understand this. It's too simplistic to simply say that these people are cruel, heartless sociopaths (though many undoubtedly are). There's a good piece at Bella Caledonia by Dougald Hine (which, incidentally, is well worth being read by progressives in England, since it offers some useful suggestions for the way forward) which I suspect hits the nail on the head:
We need to understand the amount of fear in the equation. Miliband used to talk about the “squeezed middle”, but it turns out the Tories can still count on the worried middle. As I’ve said before, there aren’t enough people doing well in Britain to deliver a Tory majority, but there are enough people who are worried, who hope the brittle prosperity of the housing bubble will sustain their way of living a little longer, who hope that what happened to the poor, the young and the disabled over the last five years won’t happen to them. The puzzlement I see in the despairing posts of friends on Facebook over the past twelve hours comes, I think, from the difficulty we have in understanding this. Somehow, we need a space for conversations where people can speak honestly about their fears, their disillusionment, their lack of belief in the possibility of change for the better – without trying too hard, too quickly to convince them they are wrong. Presenting big ideas or retail policies is no substitute for this.
(Emphasis in original article.)

Why were the electoral fortunes of these two countries so diametrically opposed? In part, because there simply isn't a party of the left in England with sufficient power to challenge the might of the Tory machine and its ability to set the agenda. The Labour Party is without direction, purpose or principle, and I fear that the left won't be able to make any real headway until it stops attempting to use that party as a vehicle for progressive change. The Greens are there, along with initiatives like the National Left Action Party and Left Unity, but I fear it'll take years, decades or more for them to build up the sort of power base required to achieve meaningful results, particularly when faced with an awful, archaic voting system designed to squeeze out smaller parties. Remember that it took a century for the SNP to reach their current dizzying heights. They spent most of that century as a tiny fringe party dismissed by their opponents as single issue crackpots. Now they run the country's devolved parliament, have achieved a near wipe-out in a general election, and are led by a woman described by the Daily Mail as "the most dangerous woman in Britain" (a badge I imagine she wears with considerable pride).

The point I'm trying to make is that change is possible, but it takes time, and combating voter apathy and despair are going to be the biggest hurdles. The good news is that we have weapons at our disposal that the SNP didn't have when they were still languishing on the margins of Scottish politics, the most powerful of which is undoubtedly the internet. It's given ordinary people a voice and allows them to organise, strategise and share information in a way that was unthinkable even a decade ago. So to the English, Welsh and Northern Irish left I would say: do not despair. Tighten your belts, get organised and get ready to continue the fight, and those of us north of the border who want the same things as you -- equality, justice, peace, prosperity -- will do everything we can to help. For now, you can start with something as simple as signing some of the petitions highlighted by Mark, my friend from St. Helens.

Apologies if the above comes across as muddled, pretentious or overly grandiose, but I wanted to set down my thoughts on the highs and lows of the last few days while they were still reasonably fresh in my mind. I'll leave you with a look at the new political map of the UK:

A united kingdom? Less so now than ever, in my opinion.


  1. Not muddled, pretentious or grandiose at all, a great and personal read actually.

    Wow that graph really does speak a thousand words doesn't it?

    I said all the time last year how utterly disheartened I was by Labour's decision to have an opinion on the referendum. Anyone with any sense whatsoever would know the best thing to do was keep your lips sealed and let Cameron stand in the firing line. If he 'lost the UK' then all well and good, because if that occurred there was no way he'd have got in again last week - there'd be too many disgruntled buggers with the view he'd failed miserably. If, as we saw, Scotland remained in the UK, then let him take the credit but at least Scottish Labour would have continued to be secure and Miliband's counsel would have been appreciated up and down the land(s)

    From Red Clyde to Morningside eh? Who'd have thunk it?

    Did you catch the ghastly Norman Tebbit reporting from his living room like Skelator: A Warning From History to remark what a sad day it was that an experiences politician like Douglas Alexander had lost his seat to a 20 year old girl? One again proving just how out of touch the political elite are; you can be a politician for donkeys years, it really doesn't matter to the people, what matters is that you have the passion, spirit and heart to fight inequality and stand up for what you believe and Mhairi Black, regardless of age or gender as Tebbit's comment seems to imply both should be seen as a negative, has that. Alexander does not.

    Never more so have I realised how apt my blog's tagline 'News from Nowhere, Screams From Somewhere' is. It's a scary time to live in England and we need to start the fight back right away.

    1. Thanks!

      The thing is, I actually didn't have a problem with Labour taking an active side in the referendum. I don't even mind that they supported a No vote. I think there was a scenario in which they could have played an active role and come out the winners, and that would have been by supporting the offer of a multi-question referendum, with a choice between Yes, No and Devo-Max. Labour could have campaigned for Devo-Max (i.e. Scotland remaining in the union but with control over everything except defence and foreign affairs), shown in poll after poll to be by far the most popular option with the public. It would have been the most likely to carry the day (personally I'd have voted for it out of pragmatism, despite preferring independence), and Labour could have emerged as the party that saved the union while delivering sweeping new powers to Holyrood. It would have been, to quote the Better Together mantra, "the best of both worlds". But they blew it -- too eager (I suspect) to inflict maximum damage on the SNP by defeating them in a straight Yes/No battle. Labour (and Scottish Labour in particular)'s hatred of the SNP is all-consuming, encapsulated in that John Harris video I linked to, where he speaks to an irate young Labour activist who, when it's pointed out that his party and the SNP have many things in common, angrily responds "They just stole our policies!" Newsflash, mate: you don't own a copyright on the NHS and increasing the minimum wage.

      Incidentally, I was probably being a bit over-simplistic when I said the voters decimated Labour in the space of a single night. I actually think the disenchantment built up over the last couple of decades, and the referendum simply served as the catalyst that opened the flood gates. The signs that something was amiss should have been there in 2007, when the SNP won the Scottish parliament elections by a single seat, and definitely in 2011, when they won a majority. The pundits used to claim that the Scots were used to voting differently in different elections, and for a while I think that was true. What happened last week is more or less just the Westminster pattern catching up with the Holyrood one. The fact that Scottish Labour didn't learn any lessons in 2007 and 2011 is part of why I'm so convinced UK Labour isn't going to learn nothing from 2015. Already we're hearing this pish from Blair, the other Miliband and so on about the need to "reclaim the centre ground", but Peter Oborne made the very interesting point that the three parties that vacated the centre -- SNP, Greens and UKIP -- gained by far the most votes while the party that pitched itself as the "middle way", the Lib Dems, was absolutely massacred.

      Tebbit, eh? I hadn't realised he was even still alive. I find it incredibly tedious that these supposed "elder statesmen", way past their sell-by date, keep cropping up to comment on situations they don't understand. Paddy Ashdown was at it on Question Time last week, doing that infuriating thing of his where he scoffs at everyone else's opinions and mutters away to himself while they're trying to talk. They also had Douglas Hurd on BBC News on Friday evening and it was a sorry spectacle. It wouldn't surprise me if he was suffering from Alzheimer's, he made so little sense, and yet Huw Edwards and co hung on his every word as if he was a fountain of knowledge about how voters in Glasgow think.

    2. Ach, don't even start me on the Mandelson spin about getting back to the if Ed was donning a beret, a beard and a Cuban cigar these past 5 years!! It's just utterly ridiculous and a particularly horrid self serving message to send out there that essentially gets these toerags back into positions of power or as fountain of knowledge elder statesmen types and does no good at all for the party itself. When will people realise that Mandy etc is just taking the strings of the likes of Chuka and getting them to dance to the same old 1997 tune?

      Which brings us to the likes of Tebbit, Hurd, Pants Down and Ken Clarke all of whom continuously get wheeled out to offer their verdict on a situation despite being hands off for well over a decade now in some cases!