Where to begin? This issue of the Scottish Left Review goes to print in a Britain which has no government – the people have indeed spoken. Unfortunately, this state of affairs is unlikely to last.
It is perhaps a tricky task for us to make any sort of comment on an election when we don’t really know the result yet. In a way it is almost as difficult to make a comment about this election in Scotland since it is already becoming a bit indistinguishable from the election to come next year (the implications of one seep so completely into the other that it is hard to write about one without writing about the other). Since there will be plenty written on this subject in the Scottish Left Review in the coming year this quick run-through of the election aftermath will attempt to focus mainly on the election past.
It raises many questions about the British State, the British people, the political system, the relationship between the political system and the ‘markets’, and the space that has opened up in front of us. All of these are pertinent. But before we have a look at them, let’s take a moment to dwell on what it all felt like for those closely interested in politics. Because this election was really not for them. Certainly on the left it is hard to feel excited about anything that happened during the campaign. It was both shallow and empty, all substance shorn from the process. It was narrow and myopic – it is hard to remember an election campaign so utterly dominated by such a small number of people (even deputy leaders were virtually invisible). It had no memory, and no-one who seemed inclined to try to remind us that we’ve just been through a massive crisis which questioned the entire economic system in Britain and beyond. It had ‘newspapers’ which stuck so closely to script it was almost a satire (looking at newsstands there were three papers sitting next to each other, each declaring a different candidate the winner of the latest leaders’ debate). It goes without saying that all the major policy issues were ducked during the election, and the process of ‘triangulation’ (positioning yourself as equidistant from every possible newspaper editorial as you can) had reached is logical conclusion with three parties in effect standing on the same basic platform. And in Scotland, whatever your political standpoint you would have seen a de-Scotifying of the election, with only English policies on Schools and so on being allowed airspace.
In fact, the real juxtaposition of the election will have seemed to many not to be the mild differences in body language and selection of ties by leaders in the televised debates but the sterile, stilted and empty parade that posed as an election against the riots in Greece. Apathy versus anger? Perhaps not. It was not the voters in Britain who dragged the election into inertia and nothingness but the powers that be. It was the media and the parties who wanted a non-election and in fact there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the people actually wanted to be heard this time round (everything from increased turnouts to the very British sort of protests by those who were prevented from voting). There are those who are asking if it will ever be thus, a country too polite to really express its anger at political and economic corruption. We’ll just let them stitch together a deal and then it will all tick along like before.
Those committed to left politics will have found it hard to concentrate on much of the election. If you are among them you didn’t miss much. But that does not mean nothing happened. For Britain, and for Scotland, this is probably a real shift in the ground beneath our feet. Why? Let’s have a look.
But was it an election?
Often the clichés about political process are inane and sometimes just wrong, but this time there is a cliché which is in fact prescient: this really was an X Factor election. Which is to say that it wasn’t really an election at all but a contest. Traditionally an election is a process of being selected for a position of power on the basis of a statement of what will be done with that power. In elections you select representatives on the basis of how they will wield power. That did not happen this time. In fact, every effort was made to make sure that no party was caught out proposing to wield power in a significantly different way than the other. The criteria for selection did not include a programme for action. It was a contest because people were asked to make a selection on any basis apart from what the candidates would do differently. It was a process which involved personality and presentation, show and no tell. So far, so cliché.
What all the lazy comparisons with talent contests fail to properly draw out, however, is that an election which is not an election has very significant consequences. Because, like it or not, people actually have political views. Left and right is not dead. Even in 2005 you had a proper election. There might have been no real difference in the economic or foreign policy positions of the two main parties but there was a difference in the social policies. Michael Howard played old-fashioned prejudice cards and set his party up as a populist, right-of-centre party. So it was possible to place yourself on a spectrum – if you were vaguely left (or indeed very left) then you knew that Labour was probably closer to you than the other lot. But Cameron has now expunged this difference. On economic policy, social policy and foreign policy there was almost no differentiator between the parties. And so there was no election, only a contest. And so we have got exactly the outcome you would expect – if people can’t place themselves on a spectrum then you scatter evenly across it.
What the many foaming-mouthed right-wing commentators are saying post-election is utter garbage. In their fantasy world the reason Cameron’s Tories had such a disaster was that he was insufficiently right-wing. If only he’d bashed Europe/immigrants/the BBC more then people would have flocked to him. This is so obviously nuts that it is breathtaking. It is worth always remembering that there are a number of different ‘lefts’ and ‘rights’ and people can be on different places in the spectrum in each. There is an element of genuine rightward movement in some areas of social politics (immigration being the obvious example), but this wasn’t a social election. This was an economy-and-public-services election and on these issues people are very far to the left of all the political parties. Few people have sympathy for public sector cuts and austerity because they have a fairly clear sense that it is the result of the recklessness of the super-rich. There is a palpable sense that people want some rebalancing – we don’t ‘hate bankers’ unthinkingly but because of what they have done and what they represent. People couldn’t keep voting Labour (well, except up here) because they so clearly didn’t deserve it. But there was nowhere to go on the left, so they scattered. Britain’s politicians have been on the right of the public for a while now. This contest was random because of the lack of election. Given no option to rebalance the economy in the way most people would like to they voted randomly. And here we are.
A very happy un-election day
This point should be the focus of some serious thought. The Scottish Left Review has in the past suggested that the current political situation has about it the absurdity of Alice in Wonderland. And so it is that we wish you a Very Happy Un-Election Day. As the Mad Hatter would tell you in a second, since there is only one day every five years when you get to influence the government, it makes sense to celebrate all the days when you don’t instead simply to avoid the need for deferred gratification. So the press (especially the far-right Murdoch press and its imitators) has been obsessed with ‘what the markets think’. That’ll be the markets whose corruption and incompetence is bringing down countries and inflicting misery on people all over the world? You will have noticed that ‘markets’ like ‘stability’. That is much the same as the way in which criminals like not being caught. How many people do you know with any sympathy at all for ‘the markets’? In fact, when last did you come across anyone with anything other than contempt and anger for ‘markets’? These Mad Hatters would like very much if you all just got on with celebrating all the days on which you have no chance of Screwing Up Their Giant Scam. They’re spooked because at heart they know this election reflects on them. The consensus is breaking up – let the markets run free is most certainly not the message from this election. We are caught now in a twilight zone between the old neoliberal world order and something else. We don’t know what that something else is, but people want it. Or at least the election suggests that they wanted something different and it wasn’t there on offer. It’s not just the election which is spooking markets, it’s Greece. At some point we will have to eat that mushroom and everything will again go back to its original size. We don’t tend to riot and break and burn things in Britain. It is much, much worse. We are politely indecisive.
Fingers crossed for…
This is all well and good, but there still has to be some sort of outcome. We’re not going to get any sort of radical economic change on the basis of any of the permutations of government on offer. But we do have – for the first time in a decade – the prospect of a permutation now which might lead to something which might then lead to real change (such is the rather pathetic state of ‘hope’ in today’s Britain). The problem is the one highlighted above of time lag. It is really hard to know which permutation is likely to offer the best hope of a chance of change sometime in the future. Here are the contenders:
- We get an outcome which somehow delivers a change in the voting system. That means that come the next election we could have a much more diverse range of political options with a realistic chance of gaining representation. We could even have socialists in Westminster. For this, most people would bet on a Lab-Lib-others coalition.
- We get an outcome that frees Labour from the corrupting influence of power and allows it to rediscover its more radical roots. A strong Tory government might best deliver this.
- We get an outcome that breaks up the British State and changes the picture forever. That would probably also best be delivered by a strong Tory government.
Does this mean that in two out of three scenarios the Scottish Left Review would hope for a Tory government in Westminster? Well, the first thing to make clear is that the SLR does not ‘hope’ – we are a vehicle for people to think and debate and discuss, not a movement. But the corollary question would also need to be asked – does the SLR really want to support the status quo? In reality, what we want makes no difference, but it is important to think about these outcomes if we are to make anything of them. In the first case, it would require enormous vigilance because it would be naïve to believe that Labour is really interested in voting reform. It will wriggle and wriggle to get a system which keeps itself precisely as over-represented as it is now (Alternative Vote – the alternative to voting reform). Do not trust that there will be real reform just because you want it to be true. If the second option comes to pass, do not believe that Labour will simply ‘fix itself’ in opposition. We have to be more realistic about what has happened to Labour and about the extent of its capture. From where will it reform itself? Perhaps a mass return to the party by those who have left it could have an effect. But it is not something one should place large sums of money on. The third possible outcome is not a straightforward one either. Even if Scotland has rejected the Tories and yet still got them, it does not mean that the right kind of nationalist sentiment will be stirred up to achieve real constitutional reform. Bluntly, the Tories are not quite so awful that the full weight of the British State deployed to Save the Union will be swept away easily.
What to hope for? That’s up to you. Of course, hoping won’t make any difference. But if we have a think about it now we might be better able to do something effective once we know.
What’s wrong with those Scots?
You will have noticed that something a bit different happened in Scotland. There are two things about this which are interesting, but perhaps only one matters. The first (and less relevant) is a question about ‘the soul of the nation’. In the last decade it has become quite fashionable among social commentators to argue that in fact there is only minimal evidence that Scotland is more left-wing than the rest of Britain (you can select any number of academics who will run you through social attitude surveys). There is still some reason to believe that this might be true. But (and this is a big but) you have to accept that in fact the rest of the UK is indeed much more left-wing than those same commentators suggest. Something is different up here and there is just no point in disputing it anymore. Perhaps it is a hangover from the 1980s (but many of us would do well to remember that in political terms that’s a long way away now). Perhaps it is because we are more reliant on public sector jobs (though not that reliant). Perhaps it is cultural (we have a mistrust of the English Home Counties and all their works). Perhaps labour (small ‘L’) is just too strong a part of our cultural identity. Perhaps we’re actually more Braveheart than we’re supposed to be. But something is different.
The second and more relevant question is about what this means for the future. This point will not be explored in great depth here, mainly because this point will dominate the next year of political life in Scotland. Is Scotland returning to Labour, or is it rejecting English choices? Does Scotland vote Labour in a straight polarity with Conservative at Westminster elections but plan to vote very differently in a non-bi-polar election in 2011? Is this a stunning victory for Labour or a premonition of a stunning victory for the SNP to come? There are now only five issues of the Scottish Left Review remaining between now and the Scottish elections in May next year and it is likely that this question will dominate.
…we wait. First we will wait to see what government is formed. Then we will wait to see what that government does. And then we will find out what happens in the rest of the world. It is this last point that we absolutely must take note of before we walk away from this election. To say that politics in Britain has got itself into a bubble isolated from the concerns of the British people is an understatement. To point out that the bubble was manufactured by neoliberal interests is fairly non-contentious. But to suggest that the bubble being burst from the outside is not something that the political classes had really considered is something of an understatement. It has been a fantasy world of debt-you-don’t-pay-back and growth-without-consequence. It has been the 1920s all over again. Britain is a country of behind-closed-door-deals in which the usual dealmakers are suddenly anxious over a behind-closed-door-deal because it is the ‘wrong’ people behind the doors (i.e., not them, not a single investment banker, mandarin or lobbyist). And all this because people didn’t vote ‘properly’. So imagine what will happen when the real consequences of our actions become apparent and the impact of cuts and economic collapse really start to bite. It wasn’t an election, but then it wasn’t really an economy either. We can be sure that before this next five years are out there will be real consequences for real people. The type which make them smash things. Fighting over the wording of a compromise deal on electoral reform to secure a working majority is absolutely, certainly, definitely only the start of it.