Nothing in Ed Miliband’s election campaign became him like losing it. For all the garment-rending since Thursday, it was a good election for Labour to flunk. Even without a formal agreement with the Scottish Nationalists, a Labour government would have been perpetually open to the charge of being ‘held to ransom’ by an SNP fraction pulling the UK ever further leftwards. The Tories, probably led by Boris Johnson and hoorayed by the press, would have been free to indulge in Europhobic braying from the opposition benches without the discipline of running an in/out referendum to make them act responsibly. Miliband would have been torn between two nationalisms: the left separatism that has obliterated it throughout Scotland, and the rightist anglonationalism of Ukip that has leeched Labour’s vote in northern England. Fleet street would have had a hoot. It would have made eating bacon sandwiches look like a picnic.
Hands up if you saw that one coming. I confess that I didn’t. The first line of the BBC announcement, ‘Conservatives largest party’, was no shock. Then there was a pause a few seconds long, and the projection of 316 Tory seats came up. I nearly fell off my chair. From that point on, the surprises only got bigger. Why was it so surprising, though? If you’d asked me six weeks ago what was going to happen, I’d have said, a little reluctantly, that the likeliest outcome was a Tory minority government. From that point to an outright majority is a step, but not a gigantic one. If I’d been granted a glimpse ahead to the result, I’d have said the Tories did better and Labour worse than expected, but not amazingly, bizarrely, unforeseeably so. The thing which turned this into such a blindsiding shock was the fact that the election campaign was so flat and eventless. For six weeks, nothing happened. The numbers refused to move. Then everything happened at once. The talk in politics these days is all about ‘narrative’ and ‘momentum’, but there was almost no sign of that in this election. There was little evidence that the electorate were paying any attention. The Tory campaign worked spectacularly, but did so in a new and peculiar way: it was like a pill that the patient refuses to swallow, and holds off swallowing, and then downs all at once.
Relief at the fact that this general election campaign is over will for many of us be tempered by the fact that it also, most likely, isn’t over – in the sense that we probably won’t wake up tomorrow morning knowing the identity of the next government. There’s one important thing to bear in mind today. For most electors, most of the time, it isn’t true that every vote counts. There are usually about 100 seats in play in a general election. The others are safe seats, and while voting in them is an important part of belonging to civil society, blah blah etc, your individual vote is unlikely to have any bearing on the outcome of the election overall. This is one of the factors which leaves electors feeling disconnected from the whole process. This time is different.
The Tory papers are hitting the delegitimisation thing pretty hard today. The front pages are: Nightmare on Downing Street (Telegraph)Miliband trying to con his way into No. 10, says PM (Times)For sanity’s sake don’t let a class war zealot and the SNP destroy our economy – and our very nation (Daily Mail)Post-election shambles looms as legitimacy crisis worsens (Independent, which may have surprised its readers by telling them to vote Tory) And then for light relief, the two papers owned by Richard Desmond: Why You Must Vote for Ukip (Daily Express)Brits live sex show on Magaluf booze cruise (Daily Star) The delegitimisation story is going to be an interesting test of how much power the newspapers still have.
It’s forty years since anybody has won power in a UK general election without the backing of Rupert Murdoch. He’s not happy about the prospect. That’s the explanation for the surreal juxtaposition of the Sun covers from England and Scotland: ‘Vote Cameron!’ ‘Vote Sturgeon!’ It makes no sense, unless you see that what it’s really saying is ‘Vote Anyone But Ed!’ Miliband took an early decision to attack Murdoch, and as a result owes him nothing. To have people in office who don’t owe him is not Murdoch’s happy place.
Something has been bugging me about this election, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on, and just in the last week or so I’ve realised what it is. It’s the near-complete absence of posters. Not just posters, but the whole apparatus of visual paraphernalia: banners and billboards and advertising. This is my fifth general election in the same street, and it’s the first time I’ve never seen a single election poster in the road.
Time for a look at prospective election outcomes in close detail. The numbers haven’t moved much: if they were share prices, they would be described as ‘trading within a narrow range’. The real winning line, as I argued in my last post, is 323. At the moment no party looks even vaguely likely to get there alone. Instead, the bookies and the pollsters both have for some time had the Tories wobbling around somewhere in the range of 280 to 290 seats. Labour’s vote in Scotland has collapsed, as everyone knows; if it hadn’t, they would have a clear lead. Instead they are wobbling around the 260 to 270 level. With numbers like this, the other parties decide the next government.
It’s that time, now traditional – traditional since 2010, anyway – when the general election is so close that people start to speculate/fantasise about a possible role for Sinn Féin in the electoral aftermath. The important role they’re most likely to play is not being there. There are 650 seats in Parliament, so the winning line is 326: that’s the number which gives a party an absolute majority. The presence, or rather absence, of Sinn Féin changes that. The Shinners, as they’re known in Ireland, currently hold five seats, and are on course to hold them all. But the Shinners don’t actually come to Westminster to take up those seats, because they won’t take the oath of loyalty to the crown. This changes the maths: 650 minus five is 645, so the real winning line is 323. Given how tight this election is, that could make the difference between Cameron being able to bodge together a minority government, and not.
Sometimes, when you try to do something positive, it only draws more attention to what you aren’t doing. Ed Miliband has announced a new policy in relation to private sector rentals: for three years, landlords won’t be able to raise rents above the rate of inflation. It’s not hard to spot that this policy is targeting private sector renters. This demographic is young, and strongly represented in London, the only area of the south-east where Labour have good winning chances. For all the talk about London house prices and the winners from the housing bubble there, more London households rent their homes than own them. The bubble and the rental explosion are the same thing: homes zoom up in price, and a direct result is that fewer people can afford them.
In the world of apparatchiks and backroom boys where the political parties find their leaders, there is usually a hot idea or ideas. These come in waves, obviously. Not long ago, nudging was a big thing. The idea came from Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s book Nudge. Downing Street set up an in-house nudge unit. Don’t laugh – even if you’re old enough to imagine Frankie Howerd apologising for having nudged your unit. The nudge unit, whose official title is the Behavioural Insights Team, was so successful that it attracted the highest, most meaningful, most irrevocable honour in our modern democracy: it was privatised.
So the Tories believe they have finally found a theme which can ‘cut through’ on the doorstep: the peril of Scottish nationalism. Sir John Major was wheeled out yesterday to stress the danger we all face. In Major’s words, ‘this is a recipe for mayhem. At the very moment that our country needs a strong and stable government, we risk a weak and unstable government, pushed to the left by its allies and open to a daily dose of blackmail.’ If that was all he’d said, it would be fair enough as an expression of opinion. The trouble came earlier in his speech: The SNP have offered to support Labour in an anti-Conservative alliance. And of course, as you know, the Scot Nats are deeply socialist. And by support I don’t necessarily mean a formal partnership but an informal understanding, perhaps even an unacknowledged understanding, to keep Labour in power. Labour would be in hock to a party that pushed them slowly but surely ever further to the left. There is a difficulty with that statement: it assumes that everybody in Scotland has severe amnesia.
At sporting events in the US, the organisers sometimes set up a fun thing called a T-shirt cannon. This is what it sounds like: a cannon, or rather a bazooka, which emits a thud and sends a T-shirt across the arena where it softly thwacks into one of the punters. Who doesn’t want to be hit in the face by a free T-shirt? The T-shirt cannon was brought to mind by the latest round of policy announcements from the Tories.
It is morally wrong that five independent fee-paying schools should send more students to Oxbridge than the worst performing two thousand secondary schools combined. Agreed. The increasing ebb and flow of people across our planet is one of the greatest issues of our time. Yes. On the major issues of the day – immigration, the economy, our health service and living standards – the establishment parties have repeatedly and knowingly raised the expectation of the public, only to let us down, time and time again. Yes, broadly speaking. The IMF’s statement yesterday, to the effect that the fiscal projections in Osborne’s most recent budget are unlikely to be met, shows that they’re still at it. The Government continues to signal its intention to widen engagement in international conflict while, at the same time, implementing a crippling round of further military spending cuts. Yes. To help protect the enduring legacy of the motor industry and our classic and historic vehicles, Ukip will exempt vehicles over 25 years old from vehicle excise duty. That gives it away – all this is from Ukip’s manifesto. If the whole manifesto were like that last proposal, all lounge-bar populism and talk of political correctness gone mad, Ukip would be a less disruptive force in British politics.
At an earlier stage of this general election, I thought about proposing one of those drinking games in which people have a shot or swig every time a Conservative on the campaign trail used the word ‘plan’. I’m glad I didn’t go ahead with that. Anyone who’d taken up the suggestion would now be in a clinic. It was already bad, but the Tory manifesto takes it to another level entirely. Guess how many times the word ‘plan’ occurs’. For purposes of reference, the Labour manifesto uses it 27 times. Answer: 121. It’s almost as if they were trying to stress the idea that they have a plan.
I’m having trouble suspending my disbelief at the Labour manifesto. The party promises that it will: Cut the deficit every year Raise the state pension by whichever is the highest of inflation, average earnings or 2.5 per cent Protect spending on health, education and foreign aid Hire an additional 8000 GPs, 20,000 nurses and 3000 midwives ‘Guarantee people a GP appointment within 48 hours, and on the same day for those who need it’ Reduce tuition fees Not raise basic or higher rate income tax, or VAT, or National Insurance Give every child a free unicorn Make rich people, tax avoiders and non-doms pay for it all I made up one of those promises. If you’re trying to guess which is fictional, here’s a clue: not the most unlikely.
To understand the Tories’ general election campaign, you have to grasp its central premise: that the Tory route to power lies through a collapse in the Ukip vote. If the Ukip vote stays where it is, and the SNP vote stays where it is, the popular vote is more or less a draw. Thanks to the party landscape and the geographical distribution of the vote, that puts Miliband in Downing Street. So the Tories badly need Ukip to go away. This helps to make sense of things that would otherwise be inexplicable.
Ed Miliband’s intervention on the subject of abolishing non-dom status is interesting. The non-dom loophole is flagrantly unfair and has corrosive effects on social cohesion: nothing more overtly shows that we aren’t in it together. Look at the upper reaches of the Sunday Times rich list and it’s full of non-doms. The richest people in the US are American, the richest people in France are French, the richest in Germany are German, and so on. The richest people in the UK are from countries where you learn never to ask how somebody made their first million. The reason this loophole has survived – though it’s bigger than a loophole, it’s more like an enormous tunnel – is always officially said to be because the non-doms spend so much money here, and generate so much economic activity, that they end up benefiting the UK exchequer. I don’t buy that line, because if it were true, other countries would have copied us. No other big country in the developed world has chosen to be a residential tax haven for the super-rich. It isn’t a joke or a riff or a slogan to say that the UK has a different law for the rich: the UK actually does have a different law for the rich. London is a wonderful city in many respects, but from the tax point of view it is Monaco-on-Thames.
The BBC has a handy electoral poll tracker on its website. Here’s where we are: I’ve never seen polls like that. The thing which really stands out is that nothing stands out. They are as flat as the flattest of flatnesses. Five months ago, on 7 October, Labour was on 34 per cent and the Tories on 32. In the latest polls, Labour are on 33 per cent and the Tories on 34. That small advantage is not stable, though. The parties are passing the tiny lead back and forth between them like dope-smokers conscientiously sharing a joint.
Front page of the Guardian: ‘Labour buoyed as Miliband edges Cameron in snap poll.’ Front page of the Telegraph: ‘Miliband flops as outsiders shine.’ The Mail: ‘Runaway jihadi’s father is Labour activist.’ The Sun, over photo of Miliband: ‘Oops! I just lost my election.’ ICM scored it as a narrow win for Miliband, YouGov for Sturgeon, Comres as a three-way tie between Cameron, Miliband and Farage, and Survation the same except with Farage a point behind. In other words, it was a draw. The main outcome, probably, is that nobody had a disaster; it’s not so much about winning as about not losing, and on this occasion there was no obvious loser.
Tonight’s seven-way leaders’ debate is going to make for a bizarre couple of hours’ telly. The format goes like this: there will be an opening statement by each of the seven party leaders. Then the moderator asks all of them a question to which they each give a one-minute answer, followed by an 18-minute free-for-all debate. Repeat for a total of four moderator's questions, 28 replies, and four free-for-alls. Then closing statements from all seven leaders in turn. Here’s the sequence: A structured seven-way debate like this resembles nothing at all in most peoples’ lives, and that in turn will probably make it look as if the politicians on show also have nothing in common with anyone watching. The likelihood of anyone knowing anything substantively new after it is small, but the possibility of some form of drama is pretty high. I’m using the term drama to include comedy.
At 5 p.m. on 18 September 2014 the Scottish National Party had 25,642 members. Last Saturday afternoon Nicola Sturgeon announced that membership was 102,143 and rising. After the referendum, it was thought that the new intake – widely assumed to be more leftwing – might undermine the nationalists’ discipline. But there was little discord among the 3000 people at Glasgow’s SECC last weekend for the SNP spring conference. Resolutions on all-women shortlists, land reform and the Chagos Islands passed almost unanimously. Sturgeon pledged that her party would block David Cameron’s attempts to return to Downing Street. She said that the SNP would supply the ‘backbone and guts’ needed to force Labour to construct a radical post-election government. Trident would go; austerity would slow; the minimum wage would rise by £2. The loudest cheer came for a call to scrap the House of Lords.
Most of the time, the question that decides an election is the one everyone remembers being put by Ronald Reagan: ‘Are you better off than you were four years ago?’ It’s a good question, but at the moment in the UK it’s also a difficult one to answer. Yesterday, George Osborne triumphantly tweeted about the latest numbers. ‘GDP revised upwards from 2.6% to 2.8% for 2014,’ he said, and also: ‘Real household disposable income per capita up strongly on quarter & year... Living standards higher than in May 2010.’ That might sound like a clear answer to Reagan’s question. But the numbers are squidgier than they look at first sight.
The general election campaign started today, which is strange, because it already feels as if it’s been going on for ever. The reason for that lies in the electoral rules set up in 2000, which set limits to spending during the festivities. The ‘long campaign’ began on 19 December 2014. During it, candidates can spend £30,700 per constituency plus 9p per constituent in the countryside or 6p per constituent in town. Today, 30 March, is the start of the ‘short campaign’, during which the respective limits are £8700 plus 9p/6p. This long/short campaign thing explains why it feels as if the election has been running since the dawn of time, and yet nobody’s said anything interesting and nothing has happened. I’m not sure how I feel about the fact that between now and 7 May, every political party in the UK is allowed to spend 6p on me. You can’t buy much with 6p, not even a vote, which is no doubt part of the point.
For sale at the Labour Party shop. Who needs Ukip?
‘You know what people say about you,’ Jeremy Paxman said to Ed Miliband on Thursday. ‘They see you as a North London geek.’ ‘Who cares?’ Miliband replied. Then he asked: ‘Who does?’ Paxman dodged the question.
A large majority of students across the UK may not be registered to vote on 7 May. Most of the students I’ve spoken to in the last week said they wanted to vote but had no idea they weren’t automatically registered. Until last year, when voter registration was done by household, they would have been: students living in university accommodation were enrolled en masse to vote in local and national elections. The coalition government’s policy of individual voter registration, which received royal assent in early 2013, came into force last summer. It has resulted in a nationwide drop in voter registration levels, especially in cities with large numbers of students.