Can the UK be united ever again?

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The broadcasters had their special glass studios erected just outside Parliament, anticipating days, if not weeks, of to-ing and fro-ing, as politicians tried to scrabble together some sort of arrangement. The sandwiches had been ordered. The civil servants, in their usual meticulous fashion, had prepared around 16 pretty coloured folders, containing all the different permutations of manifesto pledges,  divided into non-negotiable commitments and those on which there could be compromise or simply be ditched.

The politicians and the media had the crucial bits of the Cabinet Manual memorised and were prepared with, respectively, their arguments and questions as to which permutation of parties would both be viable and legitimate.

As it is, the broadcasters, rather shamefacedly, are still in their glass-surround studios, and all the rest has been cancelled or written off. We have the first Conservative majority government in almost a quarter of a century, indeed with a larger majority than Labour had  in 1964, or after the second general election in 1974, and almost as large as Churchill had when he came limping back into power in 1951. But we have our country that is divided politically as never before and facing, in their own way, as daunting a set of issues, problems and conundrums that Labour faced 70 years ago in the ashes of World War II.

Before musing about  of those, though, the question that is naturally obsessing the media is: how did we not see this coming? How did the opinion polls get it so wrong? Is there any point in commissioning them again?

A few thoughts: it can’t be a coincidence that the three times that the opinion polls failed to accurately predict the final result were all times when Labour was expected to win and when the Conservatives’ position was understated. As in 2015, in 1970 and in 1992 a majority Conservative government was deemed to be on the wildish outside of possibility. Yet they won majorities of 30 and 21 respectively. Okay, this time it’s an even smaller majority, requiring only six defections or wins by opposition parties to reduce it to zero – entirely possible over the course of a five-year parliament – but gobsmacking it still was, when the final tally became evident in the early hours of Friday morning.

Caution should have been much more evident, given the unprecedented numbers so close to the election who claimed not to have decided how they would vote, and the elevation of previously fringe parties into serious players, complicating seat predictions based on uneven shares of the vote across the country (see below!).

Previous post-election surveys have indicated that a vastly disproportionate number of those who claim not to have decided end up voting Conservative. I did not commit this to writing, so you’ll have to trust me, but I said to the current Mrs Rudin as we walked to the polls that I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a big upset and I reckoned the Tories would do about 4% better than the polls suggested, which turned out to be about right. But only the day before I reckoned that, given the SNP, plus the other nationalists in Wales and Northern Ireland and the Green(s) are, for all intents and purposes, in the Labour column, the arithmetic must point towards a Labour-led government.

Another factor in my noddle (and one that needs to be taken into account in the polling calculations) was that the incumbent government almost always does better than the polls suggest – the” hold on to nurse for fear of something worse” factor. The leadership element is also especially strong in those ‘undecideds’. Can I really see that leader as Prime Minister and not being a disaster/embarrassment on the international stage? Siren voices (including some of the pollsters and pundits) were pointing out that no party has won that is behind on both the leadership question AND in judgement of economic competence. And Labour was WAY behind on both. Yet still the numbers said ‘too close to call’.  And finally, and uniquely this time, anxiety if not outright fear and loathing, at the thought of a Prime Minister being forced to make concessions to those who have been elected specifically to serve the interests of just one part of the parliament’s jurisdiction, and whose aim is the destruction of the UK. MPs are supposed to serve the interests of their particular CONSTITUENCY, and of the nation-state as a whole, not one part of it.

But in any case, DID the posters get it so wrong? They always protest that they provide a snapshot of voting intentions, not a prediction, and they always acknowledge a margin of plus or minus three percent. You should always read the small print! In an event, certainly if you take the ‘poll of polls’, they did get most of pretty well exactly right, as well as the share of the vote by the Lib Dems, UKIP and Greens; the share in London and, most significantly, in Scotland. And, of course, the Exit Poll  was pretty close, although still underestimating the share of votes translated to seats, at least, and not quite as close at last time. Also, as last time, many, especially Lib Dems claimed it was complete rubbish, even leading to the (so far unfulfilled) promise by former party leader Paddy Ashdown, and former Labour chief spinmeister Alastair Campbell, to eat their respective hat and sporran if it turned out to be right. Well, to be strictly accurate, the poll DID get it wrong – the final result was even WORSE for their parties!

But the final factor maybe the most crucial: people simply LIED to the pollsters and possibly even to themselves. There are not only the shy Tories (or s**** Tories, if you prefer), there are the self-denying Tories. In many parts of the country, ‘Conservative’ is a party that dare not speak its name.

After the pollsters called it wrong in 1992, the legendary/infamous editor of The Sun, Kelvin MacKenzie, called the poll chiefs in and told them (no doubt in typical forthright fashion) that, as they had failed to do their job, he simply wasn’t going to pay them!

My final thoughts before voting were no more than a gut instinct, I suppose. It certainly did not reflect the the feeling on the ground or conversations related by Mrs R as she shopped in our nearby town. It was going to be Labour here, for sure and, indeed, their majority doubled in our seat, and at the same time, the local council, which had at one stage been overwhelmingly Conservative, was converted to a solid Labour majority. To the west, after the ejection of Esther Mcvey in what, by all accounts, was one of the dirtiest campaigns even for Labour (usually the true ‘nasty party’ on the ground) Merseyside is, for the first time, a Tory freezone. To the east, Manchester’s 96 city councillors are all Labour. London is different again.

One thing that there will be (no doubt!) a lot of research about – especially as it’s always tempting for the loser(s)to blame the media not the messenger – is the effect on newspaper endorsement, albeit these were overhwhelmingly pro-Conservatives, or, most surprisingly, from ‘The Independent’ for a continuation of the ConDem coalition (a difficult one, of course as it was not on the ballot paper). Likely to have been much more significant, in my judgement, was the impact of the broadcast media’s obsession with the likely post-election deals  in the final stages of the campaign, to the almost exclusion of discussion of policies. This certainly played into the narrative of the Tories’ Australian strategist, Lynton Crosby. This, I am sure, will be part of the post-mortem for the broadcasters, who in other respects, I reckon played a blinder, especially in trying to extract some real answers from the pol’s on their spending plans (it’s not their fault that they signally failed to achieve this!).

Everyone Has One Vote – But Some Count For More Than Others

The voting system has magnified, distorted and denied an even vague relationship to the share of seats and party votes over the country – it takes nearly 4 million votes to elect on UKIP MP but only around 28,000 for an SNP representative. But electoral reform is hardly likely to be pushed by a government that has won a majority on 37% of the vote (or a Labour party that, ten years ago, had a majority of 66 on just a 36% share).

A look at the new electoral map shows how divided is the kingdom. You can now travel hundreds of miles in one direction and not be in anything other than a Conservative-held seat. But our major northern cities are without a single representative of the new government. And, of course, Scotland has only two out of 59 seats which represent EITHER the government party OR that of the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. Strangely enough perhaps, Wales is the most balanced part of the kingdom, including a seat now blue which has been Labour since even before universal suffrage, but that probably reflects the poorly performing Labour-led Welsh devolved government there, notably in education and health service.

This division and disunity would be unhealthy at even the most benign times. Given the scale of the cuts in welfare and ‘unprotected departments’ to come, as well as the enormous challenges in a fast changing world, with so many forces barely controllable by any government (and barely talked abut in the election), it is is deeply worrying. And that’s not even to start to think about the possibility – perhaps even probability – that, by 2020, Scotland will have left the UK and rUK will have left the EU (not necessarily – in fact, probably not – in that order).

So Much For The Past…

Can Labour ever win again? Or at least – as has been said a few times over the last few days – is the next Labour Prime Minister still at school? If it does, can it do so without being just a kind of ‘Tory-lite’ party (as the SNP claim it became from Tony Blair’s leadership?). At the moment – and yes, fair enough, the party’s state is somewhere between grieving, shock, denial and despair – it seems to lack either the leadership or the necessary bold and imaginative thinking. The three camps seem to be: ‘one more heave’, ‘back to New Labour’ or old-styley Socialism. I don’t think any of these will work.

Without a full recognition of both the new situation north of the border AND recognition of the English MPs to control the devolved areas in their part of the UK, and the concomitant areas of taxation and public spending, there could be real trouble. Bizarrely enough, for the moment it may be that the anti-Tory majority in the unelected House of Lords that will prevent ‘English Votes for English Laws’ – and all members of the Lords ARE there to serve the whole of the UK. They have no constituency. So, maybe the Conservatives will have to reform the House of Lords to get what they want, and have promised. Ya couldn’t make it up! (Are you laughing up there, Lloyd George?)

But right now I feel physically sick at the thought of the effects of the coming cuts on the vulnerable, given my (mostly second-hand) knowledge of those made under the last government – and those were supposed to be the ‘easy’ cuts!

It is vital for our democracy and millions of lives that there is a credible, clearly competent and imaginative party and leadership, providing a viable opposition and a government-in-waiting – not one that will just wait for the current government to become hugely unpopular and tear itself apart. Not least because, with this already disunited kingdom, that could all be the case and the Conservatives could still win again anyway! Unless the election system does change and/or the Labour Party immolates, or agrees to dissolve itself (which probably CAN be discounted!), any new party, as with the SDP in the early ’80s, will merely split the anti-Tory vote and produce even bigger majorities for them.

Thinking caps on. Perhaps we’ll need those sandwiches after all.

About richardrudin

I'm a Senior Lecturer in journalism by 'trade'. My background is mainly in broadcasting, although I initially trained (and qualified!) as a newspaper journalist. I'm interested in what shapes people's views/attitudes, nature/wildlife, politics, reading, music (fairly varied but particular fondness from pop/rock/soul genres circa 1964-84 ish) and broadcasting history, as well as new technologies.
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