This long election campaign seems to have continued the process of tribalising British politics. The social media age encourages us to surround ourselves with views we like and shut out voices we don’t. This feedback loop reinforces our belief that we are right, and insulates us from other opinions.
The vast majority of the de-politicised British public don’t pore over manifestos, watch leaders’ debates or even follow the news. For them elections are a necessary evil, something to be endured. After all, government goes on in the same way that bills still need to be paid – sometimes they change. Occasionally a campaign catches a mood, like Tony Blair’s in 1997.
What’s brought this home to me is not the huge number of friends on social media who are devastated – after all, I surround myself with voices I like – but hearing of a friend who’s close to minimum wage in the NHS who voted Tory – “better the devil you know”. There is a huge amount of cognitive dissonance out there – there always has been and there always will be.
People form perceptions, slowly and over months, if not years. The perception of Ed Miliband was created by the press from the off and, probably because of his stated pledge to do something about press regulation, relentlessly hammered home in the dying days of the campaign despite him clearly showing that he was not the clueless, gormless geek worthy of parody.
The perception of the Liberal Democrats was as too closely allied with the Conservatives. Instead of a critical friend preventing disagreeable things from happening, they repeatedly voted for legislation that was profoundly illiberal because government loyalty “demanded” it. The way the coalition seemed to be set up was as a kind of Buggin’s turn. Put simply, in my view, they did coalition wrong – something that Lord Steel voiced publicly minutes after Nick Clegg resigned. The logical end point was why vote for them when you could just as easily vote Conservative? I suspect a number of former Lib Dem votes did just that. My perception was that they weren’t distinct enough, they didn’t stop enough.
Which brings me onto the next point. What set the SNP apart in this election is that they have broadcast a message of hope to the Scots for a few years now, and you can see the dramatic results. What was notable about the Conservative campaign is that seemed totally predicated on fear, again. “You must vote for us because otherwise the other guy gets in” was all I heard for about two weeks. Winning parties typically engage the wider disconnected electorate with a clear message of hope. In 1945 Labour won a landslide because they convinced the nation that they had a better hopeful vision of the future. The same happened in 1997. There was no message of hope for 2015 – instead it was all bleak austerity, but done with a more caring attitude. That doesn’t win elections – it was never going to. As Alan Johnson said this morning, there was no aspiration for everyday people to attach to.
The assumption is that, without Scotland, Labour (or “the left”) cannot win elections. This is false. Labour won England in 1945 (331 seats out of 510), in 1966 (286 seats out of 511) and in 1997 (328 seats out of 529). They can do so again. But look at the election campaigns – in those three elections, Labour fought elections based on a campaign of hope.
At the same time people are now writing off the Liberal Democrats. I think that’s also wrong. While their party machine is no doubt significantly weaker than it was in 2010, there is still a party machine there, and they still came close to keeping a number of their seats – Cambridge was particularly harsh, where Julian Huppert lost by a mere 599 votes, a little over 1%. There will still be a perception issue, which will depend upon how quickly any new leader (presumably Tim Farron) will be able to shake off the connection to the coalition. (If Norman Lamb becomes leader, that will be harder to do.) But as the link to the coalition weakens the party will increase its membership. I saw a tweet that stated that 1,000 people had joined them yesterday.
And then there’s the UKIP factor. Unless Cameron reneges on his European referendum commitment – something I don’t think his party will allow him to do – then the primary raison d’etre for UKIP vanishes. In order to survive in any meaningful form, it will have to evolve, and evolve quickly, and lose its dependence upon Nigel Farage. I strongly suspect that Labour lost a proportion of votes to UKIP, which will have cost it several marginals. There will have to be somewhere for these votes to return to at the next election, but they need to have good reason to return to Labour.
Personally, I was devastated to see so many good Liberal Democrat MPs fall by the wayside. Julian Huppert in particular did not deserve to go, but I was sad also for Lynne Featherstone, Charlie Kennedy and Simon Hughes. It feels like progressive politics, especially in terms of meaningful electoral reform, has been put on hold.
I’m also concerned that the fight for equalities has become much harder with a Conservative majority, and those of us who campaign in that area have to quickly learn how to talk to Conservatives properly, positively engaging them and positioning this area as one of hope rather than fear. That’s not to say that Conservatives don’t care – many of them do, but many have been alienated from equalities which has been, for so long, couched in the language of the left, understandably given the history around Section 28. Not for nothing were the pledges in the trans manifesto framed in the way they were.