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Election 2015 – Expectations versus Reality

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Expectations

BBC election studio 2015

Having followed the Guardian live blog all of Thursday (discretely as I was working at the time), my original plan was to start with the BBC election coverage at 10pm. The exit pole would be revealed and this would signify the start of my electoral journey into Friday morning. Twitter was open, the live blogs were being monitored, BBC Two was on TV. My expectation was that the result would be close, the machinations of coalition arithmetic would be endlessly analysed and provide for hours of entertaining debate and wondering.

That was how things were supposed to work. The final result would arrive early in the morning and provide a concrete narrative of how a coalition would be formed. My expectation was that the Tories would claim legitimacy and set themselves up for a very British coup to retain power. I would be disappointed and angry, but at least I could console myself with they fact they would “steal” the election and govern in coalition without a strong mandate from the people. Labour would be revitalised and most virulent temptations of the nasty Tory right would be tamed by the liberals.

The shock of the Exit Pole

The BBC released the results of their Exit poll just after 10 to the shock and disbelief of many. A final poll of polls compiled by the Press Association had put the Tories on 276 seats, Labour on 271, Lib Dems on 28, SNP 48, UKIP three and Greens one. Nicola Surgeon tweeted to treat the poll with “HUGE Caution” while Paddy Ashdown said he’d eat his hat if it was true.

I was flummoxed by the prediction. To think the Tories could be near to a majority was never a result I envisaged throughout the campaign. The polls – and polls of polls – while predicting up to a 35% vote share, never had has resulting in much more than 283 seats.

The first guest interviewed by David Dimbleby after the release of the exit poll was Tory education reform supremo Michael Gove. While appearing shocked at the predicted result he said “I believe it could be right, yes”. With that my heart sank. I was forced to contemplate the manic desires of the Tory neo-liberalism agenda expanding its reach over the coming five years. This would be exemplified by the

* increasing privatisation of the public sphere – think provision of NHS services by private companies, further outsourcing of public services and huge reductions in social housing
* deregulation of the corporate sector – think expansion in zero hours contracts and further pressure on rights of trade unions to strike
* lowering of income and corporate taxes, paid for with spending cuts – taking the axe to £12 billion (10%) of the welfare budget affecting the poorest and most vulnerable in society

Like some on twitter, I had to switch off. My election night was over.

What went wrong, what to put right and future wrongs

Friday represented a chance to analyse and reflect on how the Tories achieved their majority. Stephen Fisher sums it up as

Ultimately the main answers are to do with the collapse of Labour in Scotland inadequately compensated for by modest net gains in England and Wales. On a smaller scale the Conservatives have benefited disproportionately, on seats if not on votes, from the collapse of the Liberal Democrats. The rise of UKIP that was expected to disproportionately hurt the Tories, but in fact seems to undermined the Labour performance more.

The next step is to understand what Labour got wrong, how they can rise again and what the next five years have in store for the UK.

Alan Johnson, writing in the Guardian, and Owen Jones at the paper’s live event yesterday point to a few of Labour’s problems:

1) Scotland – The extraordinary wipe-out in Scotland (they lost 40 of 41 seats). Owen Jones puts this down to the formation of an alliance with the Tories in the referendum on Scottish Independence; The chief tactic of which was fear. They are described in Scotland as the “Red Tories”. Along with this, there was the filling of the progressive vacuum by the SNP and poor party organisation in constituencies with once large Labour majorities. Polly Toynbee believes that Scotland is gone and can never again be controlled by the same party North and South of the boarder. Given this, does Labour retreat into a focus on individual constituencies or become a Scotland focused party loosely federated with a UK Labour identity.

2) Strategy and Messaging – The failure to project a coherent narrative for what the Labour party stood for over the past 5 years allowed the Tories to grab public attention with their clear and sharp messages of ‘recovery, jobs and leadership’. Their “achievements” as they claimed were to have “balanced the books, reformed welfare, taking the low paid out of tax”. They created powerful narratives which were endlessly peddled by their media advisers into the right-wing press.

Labour seemed to rely on facts and figures which failed to counterbalance the emotional power of a good human anecdote. Today’s Guardian leader sums it up as

What Labour needs most urgently now is not soul-searching or a hunt for first principles, but instead to figure out how to convert these principles into the sort of policies that might just catch the ear of a radio listener or TV viewer who is only half paying attention, and which the next party leader will be able to use to unfold the intelligible story that Mr Miliband was not in the end able to tell.

The foundations of the Tory election platform was a ‘strong economy’ and ‘strong leadership’. Labour failed to counter this by either its previous achievements or exposing the inherent weaknesses in this Tory argument. Johnson writes:

We seemed to have no effective riposte to Cameron’s successful distortion of our economic record in government. Thus a succession of Tory ministers were allowed to describe the global banking crisis as “Labour’s recession” and to refer (as Jeremy Hunt did) to the economy contracting. There was no rebuttal from Labour pointing out the decent levels of growth being recorded before George Osborne choked off the recovery through his vainglorious emergency budget in June 2010.

No sooner had Ed Milliband resigned than had the hustling started for the next leader of the Labour party. New Labour survivors such as Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper are favorites, along with Chuka Umunna and Dan Jarvis. Good candidates, but not exactly inspirational leaders to advance and champion the principles of the left as eloquently as Blair advanced New Labour’s aspirational visions.

Their challenge will be to redefine the principles of the party and outline their strategy for 2020. Last night’s Question Time pondered if they were “too right wing for Scotland but too left wing for England”. Can they conceivably ever recover in Scotland, can they ever win by being a “traditional left” party? How do you combine the aspirational, entrepreneurial and prosperous vision of “Mondeo man”, with compassion and support for the poor and vulnerable. What does the map below say about their base and can they ever made inroads into Southern England?

Miliband gambled that the country was ready to move its political centre to the left. The benefits of such a move were not powerfully articulated or accepted by a public swept up on a Tory vision of recovery and prosperity for the few.

As dispiriting as it sounds things may have to get a lot worse before they get better. Polly Toynbee’s outline of the dystopian future ahead for the low paid represents the chilling reality of the next 5 years. It’s a reality I completely unexpected at 9.59pm on Thursday. It’s a reality borne out of a surge in Scottish Nationalism, Labour’s strategic mistakes and the powerful Tory messaging of a strong economy and strong leadership. It’s said the Left have only two positions, self-righteousness and self-loathing. The latter we’ll have for months, but let’s not fall into the former once the cuts begin in earnest.

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