Friday, May 07, 2010

Could Have Been Better, Could Have Been Worse

With virtually all the General Election results in, the result is the one I've expected for more than a month - a Conservative lead, but with no overall majority. That they have topped the 300 seat mark because the Lib Dem surge never happened, and, almost certainly has been helped by the money that Lord Ashcroft has poured into marginals. Still unable to win in the Northern cities or Scotland, it is in the English towns and their surroundings that they have made inroads. "Motorway man" turns out to be a shade of blue; though the economic crisis will have a lot to do with it as well.

For me - and for the country - the worse thing would have been a Labour meltdown. There's no use in saying that a Labour party that gets less than 30% of the vote - particularly given its strength in Scotland (where it increased its share of the vote) and the North - is a success, but it could have been much, much worse. New Labour, like Thatcherism before it, turned electoral success into electoral poison in just over a decade. That Labour did as well as it did yesterday is surely because they returned to a "core vote" strategy. The "game changer" of the election debates turned out to be a media invention, even if it did a lot to bring out the vote. That a discredited MP like Hazel Blears could hold on in Salford, shows how fury at the expenses scandal had nowhere particular to go.

So I woke up this morning with no Conservative government, but a strong likelihood of their being one. Cameron's pitch to the Lib Dems makes a lot of sense for him, both in terms of the electoral math, and in forming some kind of "progressive" alliance. At this you have to take Cameron at his word, and not look too deep. The Lib Dems are not only strong amongst the middle class, but they have a sizeable cohort of MPs in Scotland where the Conservatives hardly exist. Any agreement between them would give some legitimacy North of the border.

That's assuming, of course, that both Cameron and Clegg can bring their respective parties with them. There is no doubt that Clegg is weaker now than any time in the last month - and the independent minded Lib Dems are unlikely to give up the luxury of their principals for some kind of phantom power. But Cameron as well has failed to make the case. His own right wing will be more convinced than ever that the Cameroons ran a poor campaign - not giving them the carte blanche that is a Tory's (imagined) "right." Besides, one of the problems with our unequal system, is that there are few ways of making things work in reality. A select committee here, a policy bone there, it's difficult to cement the common ground that surely does exist between the two parties. Besides, it is not a time of feast, but of famine; and so there's thin gruel to be had propping up a party running unpopular policies. Another ten or fifteen Lib Dem seats and there'd have been a different game, but that's not to be. However, it's certainly canny of Cameron to realise straight off that as a new broom he would be far better giving some concessions to the Lib Dems at the expense of his own right wing, rather than be at the behest of a ragbag of nationalists and unionists. For Clegg to bring his party with him, he'd need more, I think, than a few vague promises. Like the unwilling frog who gives the scorpion a lift across the river only to be stung halfway across, killing them both, Clegg risks similarly being stung. And why? "Because its in the (scorpion/Conservatives) nature."

Yet Cameron knows he can't govern without some deals - and has certainly not got the seats to go it alone. He could play dare with the other parties, knowing that the electorate may not take kindly to another election later this year, without hardly a ball being kicked in anger. Cameron has probably done enough to be allowed to govern, even if that's also allowing him to fail. He'll be well aware that the Labour vote stayed stronger (and without electoral reform will continue to deliver urban seats) than they'd hoped: and that six months or a year from now a Labour party under a new leader campaigning against massive public sector job cuts, won't be so easily swept aside.

For Clegg there's a bigger issue about getting into bed with the Tories. What is the endgame? They'll draw a line before agreeing to PR, closer integration with Europe, or abandoning Trident - therefore the Lib Dems need to identify some less global gains. Faced with some kind of shared power, a more pragmatic wishlist will be needed. Here's where the slightly odd nature of the party will find it difficult. Whilst a nationalist party might easily be bought with a few hundred million, the Lib Dem desires are more idealistic. After 13 years with Labour not making any case for a social-democratic alliance with the 3rd party, maybe Clegg has a different vision, of some kind of "progressive" alliance with these "modern" Conservatives which would look to leaving Labour as a niche party of the poor and the North. That would require both an electoral deal with the Tories and a willingness for Cameron to face down his antediluvian wing; neither are that likely.

I'm thinking we'll have a Tory administration then; with some kind of arms-length support from the Lib Dems that will be conditional - for the length of a parliamentary session or two, rather than a full term of government. The Lib Dems as some kind of outboard steer on the Tory luxury yacht, stopping it from the worst excesses those Bullington boys would get up to unchecked. Given the electoral math it would be the least bad option - however, I'm not sure our system has the mechanisms in place that could make this work, or whether Cameron's undoubted progressive credentials will soon disappear under the exilir of power.

For the Labour Party, assuming that this above scenario fails to materialise, there's only one thing: a marriage of short-term convenience with the Lib Dems to act out their PR fantasies for real. I'm not sure, given the small change in the Lib Dem vote, whether the country has really given its OK to such an idea. Indulging it now, at a time of an economic maelstrom, and when Labour has clearly lost it's mandate, could be an absolute disaster for both parties. Rather, in some ways, a re-grouped Labour party, challenging on every level in six or eighteen months, after a short Conservative term where their worst excesses aren't able to be indulged because of the electoral arithmetic stacked up against them. This is not a call for weak government, but perhaps a more measured period of time, where bad ideas from all parties (e.g. ID cards) are quickly dumped in favour of more valuable ideas (e.g. a fast rail link) where there is a consensus. For their part, and against their baser instincts, the Conservatives will accept all those things that happened under Labour to make life better, which they ostensibly hated, from civil partnerships to the minimum wage.

Given the uncertainties probable in this election from day one of the campaign, the collapse in support for marginal parties such as the BNP and UKIP can only be a good thing. With an increased electorate, and increased engagement from that electorate, 2010 looks less like a sea change than was predicted. It could have been better, it could have been much worse. The next few days and weeks will be critical.

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