“This is an exit poll, very carefully calculated, not necessarily on-the-nail, but here it is – 10 o’clock – and we are saying: the Conservatives are the largest party…and here are the figures which we have – quite remarkable, this exit poll – the Conservatives on 316…that’s up 9 since the last election in 2010. Ed Miliband for Labour: 77 behind him at 239…down 19 from the last election…so that’s the remarkable scene that our exit poll is revealing. We shall discover, when the first results start coming in, how accurate it is, but if that is the story, it is a quite sensational story…”
It was a jaw-dropping moment. The polls throughout this election campaign had led us to believe that a hung parliament was inevitable, that Labour might even beat the Tories by a handful of seats. Days of spin and negotiation were expected, but Ed Miliband was the favourite to be the next Prime Minister. The Tories, surely, could not emerge from five years of painful, ideologically motivated cuts with a mandate to attack the country’s public services even more deeply, and even more aggressively.
As it happened, that exit poll actually underestimated the public’s susceptibility to an agenda of fear and parochialism, fuelled by UKIP dragging the Tories further to the right. An overall majority of 331 seats for the Tories testifies that we are, in fact, a naturally conservative nation.
From the vantage point of the small, densely populated liberal utopia of Brighton & Hove, it has been easy to assume that most people, at heart, are innately compassionate and community-minded. That, really, most people would vote for a broadly left-wing government if the situation were right: they’ve simply been waiting for the opportunity. David Cameron’s rise to power in the last election was fortuitous and reliant on the compliance of the Lib Dems. No one advocated the Tories’ austerity agenda besides those flushed with inherited wealth and the right-wing establishment. But we know that the rich are the minority, so this time it was just a simple case of ensuring as many people as possible exercised their democratic right.
This election result has shown that all of this is nonsense. The electorate isn’t as stupid as it’s sometimes tempting to believe. They’ve looked at all the options, and they’ve emphatically, legitimately opted for the Tories over everyone else.
There is something stark and hard-hitting about that. This wasn’t a coup. The British – or the English, at least – have democratically elected a government that has already shown that it serves a privileged minority, and has essentially pledged to continue to do so.
Soul searching in the aftermath of defeat is a well-worn cliché, but it’s truly necessary now. The nature of the formation of the previous coalition government enabled the Left to kid itself, as I have done, that the nation wants a left-wing government; that all it needs is a nudge in the right direction. But it doesn’t. Left-wing politics (certainly the Labour version of them) are hollow and irrelevant to most people now. The job of the Left isn’t to nudge people in the right direction; it’s now to re-establish exactly what left-wing politics are, and why they’re relevant to the people currently voting for policies that are detrimental to them and their families. This is a genuine fork in the road. When deciding where to go next, the decision isn’t between Blairism and Brownism, as it seemed to be in the 2010 leadership contest – it’s more fundamental than that. The nation has moved on and Labour have been left behind.
As a New Labour child, it’s been tempting to believe that the Thatcherite era of Conservatism ended in 1997. Labour ruled for thirteen years until the aftermath of the global financial crisis, when the Coalition came to power opportunistically, lacking a mandate or the confidence of the majority of the electorate. When the public saw the impact of Tory austerity, they’d unite to kick them out as soon as they could. But that’s a fallacy, and a misunderstanding of what informs people’s voting behaviour. New Labour wasn’t a new era of liberalism; it was a slight blip in an epoch of Thatcherism. Tony Blair endured by sticking with, and re-branding, those Thatcherite principles. The Coalition, and now the new Tory majority government, have simply taken the baton.
Social media has helped to facilitate the Left’s delusion that it’s been in the driving seat. Twitter users tend to follow those whose views reinforce their own. Likewise, Facebook ‘s news feed algorithm is designed to display stories that closely match ones that users have previously clicked on, i.e. ones that likely back up their world-view. The result is a virtual echo chamber of smug back slapping and anti-Tory memes. So when we woke up to a Tory majority on Friday, everyone was asking: ‘who are these people who are voting Tory?!’ . Because we don’t mix with or try to understand those with whom we disagree, we just mock them.
‘If you voted for the Tories yesterday, you’re an idiot’, screamed Facebook statuses on Friday morning, completely missing the point. Firstly, that message is only reaching your own social circle, none of whom are likely to have voted Tory (you wouldn’t risk offending them like that if you genuinely thought they did). Secondly, that statement falsely assumes that Tory voters are barely coherent imbeciles who don’t understand how to vote, let alone what they’re voting for. If you want to understand people, you must first learn to respect them, and to speak to them with respect.
UKIP, too, thrived because they pitched themselves as the underdog fighting the affluent, intellectual, liberal middle classes. Being condescending towards them only served to galvanise them. As it emerged, the UKIP vote seemed to damage Labour more than the Tories. If the Left had spent less time patronising them and more time trying to win them over, things may have been different.
There are wider concerns about the perception of Labour (and the Left) amongst the group that Labour would traditionally have seen as their core (i.e. whatever the working class is called these days). Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, said in the aftermath of yesterday’s result that: “We will always be the people of the lower paid…”. That may be their intention, but there are millions of people across Britain who disagree. The outcome in Scotland, for example, showed that Labour can no longer take it as a given that people see them as the dominant party of the working classes. Rather, there seems to be a sense amongst young working people that the Left is comprised solely of Southern, elitist intellectuals.
The Tory propaganda machine, backed by the right wing media, played on this by portraying Ed Miliband as a ‘north London intellectual’, whose ideas are informed by political theory rather than real-life experience. And, ultimately, this worked. The Left needs to start speaking to and winning over voters, rather than continually preaching to the converted and pouring scorn on everyone else.
The results of this election seem to indicate that we’re a nation with an inferiority complex. Many of those who voted on Thursday have done so with the belief that the Old Etonians know best. Jeremy Hunt, with his private school education and Oxford PPE degree, is not sufficiently qualified or knowledgeable to be making decisions on the NHS. George Osborne, also privately educated and also an Oxford graduate (of Modern History), is not a qualified economist. There is nothing to suggest they know what they’re doing – history has shown otherwise – and yet they’ve strengthened their stranglehold on the country by persuading people that we need them.
It’s devastating because we’ve rewarded a party who strive for a society based on selfishness and greed; a society defined by economic measurements, not human ones. Migrants, for example, are rarely spoken about in terms of their cultural and societal contribution, or as human beings with the same basic human rights as everyone else; they’re portrayed as a burden on our economy (regardless of whether or not that is true). The Tories are sculpting a dog-eat-dog nation. There is no room for compassion in their ideology. Any choices you make as a citizen are all about furthering your situation individually; whether or not that is to the detriment of anyone else is irrelevant.
Regardless of whether this actually serves the country (as opposed to the 1% at the top) well economically, it is a reprehensible value system. Margaret Thatcher is dead, but her values thrive and, at this rate, we will breed a nation of egotists striving for a payday that will never come. The notion that hard work alone will help you better yourself is part of a structure utilised by the privileged to ensure that the less well off continue to serve their needs. We must not let this become the status quo.
This election was a triumph of entitlement. The Tories were helped over the line by Rupert Murdoch and the media establishment, and by donations that far outweighed those pledged to rivals at the other end of the political spectrum. There is no doubt that the Tories will use this mandate they’ve been given to continue to further the interests of the privileged, to the detriment of the majority. The challenge now for the Left is to produce an alternative, and to learn to sell it to those who’ve been tempted by policies that further suppress them. Britain today feels like a lonely place for anyone with broadly left-leaning ideals, and it will get worse before it gets better.