Posturing, positioning and electioneering
Derek Turner anticipates a possible transformation of the political landscape
As the general election campaign limps into its last months, politicians have been working hard to sway what is expected to be an unusually unpredictable race. There is a widespread if unfocused public dislike of mainstream politicians, who are increasingly seen as being out-of-touch and corrupt, and this has thrown old calculations and understandings into disarray.
Polls have long shown the Tories and Labour within small percentages of each other, the Liberal Democrats doing poorly, and the SNP, UKIP and maybe the Greens showing strongly, perhaps even deciding power in a hung parliament. Almost every vote is being fought for, and few seats now are really considered completely “safe” by Conservative or Labour tacticians. Scottish seats long reliably Labour may be lost to the Scots Nats, strangely made stronger by losing the independence referendum, because along the way they attracted almost half of Scottish voters, including many younger ones. Labour may also lose votes to the Greens in one or two English constituencies (which is why David Cameron demanded they be included in TV debates). On the other side, some Conservative seats in England are endangered by UKIP, who even where they do not win may divert enough votes to ensure a Conservative loses. A night of democratic drama is promised for 7th May, probably followed by a period of jostling, during which lines drawn will be erased, inalienable principles will be alienated, and enemies will become ‘frenemies’.
Despite this campaign’s complexity, in some ways it is traditional in tone, with Conservatives as always emphasizing their real or supposed competence and Labourites their real or supposed compassion. Conservative arguments are strengthened by the apparent ineptitude of Eds Milliband and Balls, who combine physical strangeness and gaucherie with unfortunate memory lapses. Oddly, they have so far desisted from attacking Labour on one of the fronts where it is most vulnerable – that party’s atrocious record in its one-party state Northern towns, where it has for decades presided over inefficiency, sleaze and ethnic pork-barrel politics, to the extent of abandoning thousands of children to sexual exploitation. Meanwhile, Labourites assert that Tories are heartless plutocrats, only concerned for the wealthy – and this meshes with a cultural meme that unites Anglican archbishops with the furthest fringes of the Left. Neither Cameron nor Milliband arouse much loyalty or liking even within their own parties, and unimpressive election showings will lead to leadership challenges.
The rise of smaller parties has been accompanied by much closer scrutiny of their policies, because these may now actually matter. SNP economic policies for independence were predicated on the former high price of oil and being able to repudiate the Scottish share of the UK national debt – and they have not yet readjusted to the British status quo, or the fall in oil prices. They find it difficult to explain how they can combine cutting the deficit with increasing spending by £180 million by 2020. Luckily for them, as they are still British there are still London bankers to blame and English taxpayers to bilk, and the SNP’s new leader Nicola Sturgeon is making a determined power play by threatening to reverse the gentlemanly convention that Scottish MPs do not vote on English-only matters. The Greens have also been ridiculed for some of their more outré ideas, such as dispensing with the royal family and army, while party leader Natalie Bennett has come very publicly unstuck in two major interviews.
But the chief target of ideological artillery has been UKIP, which is still making the transition from single-issue pressure group to fully-manifestoed party, and some of whose personnel have said indelicate or sometimes idiotic things, chiefly about immigration. In some ways, this campaign is more about UKIP than whichever combination of what Nigel Farage calls “legacy parties” governs after May 7th. UKIP is arguably the only truly insurgent party contesting these elections, because the others all offer ‘middle ground’ variations on similar themes – supranationalism + ‘progress’ + political correctness. UKIP therefore constitutes an existential threat to cosiness, and is eliciting great fear and hatred.
Other parties may have their candidates ridiculed and their policies questioned, but only UKIP candidates are automatically suspected of being morally reprehensible. Whole websites are devoted to attacking UKIP, and zealots have disrupted some of their meetings. Channel 4 has gone to the trouble of broadcasting a highly tendentious docudrama, UKIP: The First Hundred Days about what might happen if Nigel Farage were to be elected Prime Minister. The SNP has ruled out any kind of cooperation with UKIP, even though they resemble UKIP in their civic nationalism and suspicion of geographically and (supposedly) culturally distant elites. The recent spike in Green membership seems more a circling of generic Leftist wagons against the whooping Apaches of UKIP than with mass eco-epiphanies. Labour politicians have often denounced UKIP as unspeakable – although not so often lately, as they feel UKIP coming close behind them in some constituencies, and strive to convey the impression that they have developed responsible policies on immigration. David Cameron’s throwaway remarks of a few years ago about UKIP being the haunt of “fruitcakes and closet racists” are now a major embarrassment to him, as two of his MPs and many activists have already gone over to UKIP and others may follow in the near future, especially if UKIP does better than expected.
UKIP is both boosted and hampered by its unvarnished quality, on the one hand being able to claim authenticity, on the other being frequently embarrassed by policy inconsistencies or candidates’ gaffes. Whatever happens in May, the party is destined to become more streamlined and professional, and this will lead to different problems – fickle protest voters will start to see UKIP as becoming too much like other parties, while old guard activists will start to perceive that they or their ideas are being squeezed or sold out. But these problems still lie mostly in the future, and for now UKIP seems likely to deliver a salutary shock to the moribund mainstream, which may effect actual change. For this, all who claim to believe in democracy really should be grateful.
Derek Turner is a novelist and writer and the former editor of Quarterly Review. His personal website is – www.derek-turner.com