At the last UK General Election, there was a lot of talk about sly or shy Tories, those who cast their vote for the Conservative Party while being too embarrassed to admit to it. This helped explain why the Conservatives/Tories were unexpectedly re-elected. 34% of the electorate didn’t vote, though the 66% turnout was apparently the highest since 1997. Prior to the election, another hung parliament was widely predicted.
So why are people coy about how they vote? It has to do with voting for selfish, parochial reasons, and having enough self-awareness to feel that one should be ashamed of voting on so thin a basis. In most democracies, of course, the politically engaged are disenfranchised by the ignorant, “None of your business”, part of the electorate. That’s just a fact of life. The amount of people willing to hold forth on issues on the news without any historical understanding astounds me, or used to. Now, I fully understand that holding forth on Iran and Iraq with no understanding beyond the evening news or the Murdoch press is rather alarmingly the norm. Mention historical context and people either become defensive or roll their eyes.
I have never voted Conservative, and sincerely doubt a politically literate population would have tolerated Thatcher or Thatcherism, or a Rupert Murdoch-dominated press, or waved their little plastic Union Jacks as the task force sailed for the Falklands Islands. But then, in thirty years of voting, I’ve been on the right side of a general election only once. That was Blair in ’97, who I hoped was a façade (for Middle England) on a still leftish Labour party. It turned out, of course, that the New Labour rot had eaten away at the foundations. New Labour had transformed themselves into what’s now being described as Tory Lite – in the interests of power at any price.
Since then, it’s simply been a choice between two parties offering broadly the same platform. Nothing much to choose between them – both serving the corporatocracy – like the Republicans and Democrats in the US. Essentially, you’re picking your pimp. You’re going to be whored, and the clients’ interests – that’s the people buying your time and labour – will always trump yours. It’s been said that one of the biggest successes of Thatcherism was Tony Blair and New Labour. That the Tories have managed to convince working people that they, the Tories, represent their interests is a stunning tribute to brainwashing and media control. The same brainwashing turned working people against the unions.
There is a consensus, establishment politics, and you challenge it at your peril. You’re allowed to argue passionately within certain parameters, as Chomsky has pointed out, but you’re not allowed to step outside these parameters. Tony Blair courted Murdoch and the City. One of Gordon Brown’s first acts in government was to pass the right to set interest rates to the Bank of England – again to gain the confidence of the City, who don’t like anything getting in the way of their pursuit of profits, especially political decisions designed to help the poor or the less well off. Under New Labour, deregulation of the financial sector continued to be politically a la mode. In short, New Labour had been elected because it was now safely in accordance with the political consensus and had the backing of the Murdoch press. All of which manoeuvring and shenanigans leads us back to the notion that if elections changed anything they’d be outlawed. They take place at all because they take place within the acceptable consensus bandwidth.
So 2015 was never going to be a rousing election. Labour were always going to be hammered in Scotland given the disgraceful role they had played in the Independence Referendum. The Liberal Democrats had already failed in their attempts to get some form of proportional representation, and would ultimately gain nothing (save for a few individuals CVs) for going into coalition with the Tories. Indeed, they were reduced to a single-figure rump following the election with Paddy Ashdown making arrangements to eat his hat. When the exit polls were released – predicting a Tory majority – there was a slight sense of embarrassment. The British, or English at any rate, had sneaked into the polling booths, done their dirty little deed, and slunk away afterwards, hopefully (from their point of view) unnoticed.
Ed Milliband, the Labour leader, resigned, and the long campaign for the next Labour leader began shortly thereafter. Following drop-outs and non-runners, it looked like a run-off between Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper with Liz Kendall there as a right-wing also-ran. The plan was simple: vote in another Blair clone as leader, hope the electorate tire of the Tories in the intervening five years, and then get elected – probably with media backing before and after – to do roughly the same thing the Tories were doing. But there was a worry, a niggle, a concern about impressions. Given the similarity of the candidates and the paper-thin differences between them, there wouldn’t be much of anything that could be called a debate – so how about throwing in a left-winger to give the impression of a broad debate prior to electing your favourite Blairite (it had been done before). With minutes to spare, they scratched together just enough votes (some charitably donated in the interests of debate) to get the token left-winger, Jeremy Corbyn in this case, onto the ballot.
It was a good plan. Grass roots party members would get to hear “traditional”, “left-wing” Labour views given an airing before the party elected Andy or Yvette to “unite” the party and appeal to Middle England and disenchanted Tory voters. The Labour establishment would smile benignly and offer their blessings. The best laid plans of mice and party apparatchiks…
Jeremy Corbyn did the unthinkable. He garnered support. He filled halls. He offered hope. Hope. The right-wing press chortled and mocked, and then attacked viciously when they realised he actually stood a chance of winning. The Guardian and BBC sneered and sniped. Then it was all about who could catch him, as Yvette shrieked, and Andy flip-flopped, and Liz repeated herself about wanting to be trusted on the economy. And that pesky question about the Tory Welfare Bill kept coming up, which haunted the non-Corbyns, Corbyn being the only one who had voted against it. Burnham and Cooper, their careers in mind, had abstained; as had Liz, who – to be fair – probably believed it was the right thing to do.
Then came the purge. As part of the new election rules, anyone eligible to vote could become an affiliate member of the party for £3 and take part in the leadership election – so long as they shared the parties values. There was much talk of the wrong sort of people – mischievous Tories, Socialist Workers, etc – taking advantage of this. A lot of votes, were purged, and it’s a safe bet that nearly all – if not all – would have counted for Corbyn. Celebrities Mark Steele and Jeremy Hardy were two unlikely purgees.
None of it mattered in the end, though. Corbyn won on the first ballot. Tony “two interventions” Blair went as quiet as Chilcot, and Andy took a job in the shadow cabinet. A lot has been achieved already. We’ve seen what happens when the status quo feels itself threatened. We know the press – including the Liberal press – favour the rich and powerful, and are becoming less and less subtle about doing so. We’re all supposed to get terribly upset because he, Corbyn, didn’t sing the National Anthem – neither is he too keen on kissing the queen’s hand, which one is obliged to do on becoming a member of the Privy Council. Like the non-singing of the anthem (and why would a republican atheist want to sing God Save the Queen?), an insult to Her Royal Maj, doncher know. Doff your caps and tug your forelocks, people.
Then it was reported that David Cameron had put his Prince William in a dead pig’s mouth, though this has now been officially denied.
The next general election’s in 2020, a long time for a party (for whom people are ashamed to admit they voted) to govern.