It’s 1992 all over again as the Shy Conservatives crawl out of the woodwork, make a mockery of every opinion poll in existence and condemn the United Kingdom to five more years of cutbacks, corporate tax evasion, privatisation and a potential exit from the EU, with all the uncertainty that attends it.
Prior to Election Day on the 7th of May, almost everyone anticipated a minority government or some sort of coalition on the cards. Labour and the Conservatives were neck-and-neck in the polls; Nick Clegg and Nicola Sturgeon were busy, rehearsing their potential roles as kingmaker; Ed Miliband and David Cameron mopped their brows. Then came the results: a Conservative majority. I almost threw up. How was this possible? Almost everyone I had spoken to was as keen as mustard to see the back of the Son of Thatchula and his boys in blue. I saw many placards outside residences for Labour and the Greens but none for the Conservatives. What happened at the eleventh hour to bring about such a decisive swing in favour of the incumbents?
A rotten mayor for a rotten borough
One reason is Britain’s archaic electoral system. Consider Figure A. The chart on the left shows the distribution of parliamentary seats (there are 650 in total), while the one on the right represents the percentage of votes (30,698,210 persons turned up to the polling stations, some 66% of the electorate). Spot the difference. Cameron’s party won 331 seats, or 50.9% of the total – a small majority, but a majority nevertheless. However, their share of the vote was only 36.9% (11,334,920 votes). The ‘first past the post’ system works rather splendidly for them, doesn’t it? Labour and the SNP also fare quite well under the current rules. Miliband’s merry band of headless chickens secured 35.7% of the seats (232) but 30.5% of the vote share (9,347,326). The SNP, as expected, won a landslide in Scotland with 56 seats, mostly at the expense of Labour. A political earthquake, indeed, but remember that this was a UK general election and the goal was Westminster, not Holyrood. Nationwide, the nationalists have 4.7% of the vote share. With 8.6% of the seats, they punch above their weight.
The Liberal Democrats were never forgiven for getting into bed with the Tories and reneging on their promise to roll back university tuition fees. As a consequence, they took a royal hammering on the 7th and are now down to eight seats. Despite this, 2,415,888 voters declared for them (7.9% of the total). The Greens, too, are under-represented in the Commons. They hold onto one lousy seat, their Brighton stronghold, though they have 3.8% of the vote (1,157,613). Look again at the charts: there is clearly a discrepancy that tells us Britain’s elections are not fit for purpose.
The purple slice in the second pie chart, virtually absent from the first, belongs to UKIP, the party that has borne the brunt of this electoral stitch-up. Their rise to prominence since 2010 has been remarkable, though not without controversy. To the mainstream media (with the exception of the Daily Express), Nigel Farage is the Devil incarnate and it has become something of a habit among those wishing to bask in the ephemeral glow of peer approval to make public their animosity towards the Kippers. Nothing says “I’m a good guy” quite like a generous dose of self-righteous liberal hatred. Deriding Farage’s boys and girls as racist bigots and nincompoops doesn’t cost a thing, is unlikely to result in repercussions (unlike criticising radical Islam, whose subscribers may well sharpen their knives and hunt you down) and may even get you a date with that cute Asian girl you’ve been eyeing up recently. “UKIP are idiots! Yay! I’m part of the in-crowd.” It’s a phenomenon known to psychologists as ‘virtue signalling’ and is most commonly found in the Twittersphere. Now, your humble Spideron has made no secret of his support for the UK’s involvement in the EU. Living as I do in a cosmopolitan area, I have rubbed shoulders with numerous Poles and Romanians. They are no better or worse than we Britons and their presence in this land does not impoverish us. Free movement within the EU is something I welcome, for it benefits us as much as it does our Continental cousins. I refuse, however, to jump on the anti-UKIP bandwagon; it is far nobler to tackle the message than to take the path of least resistance and join the congregation of knee-jerk liberal opprobrium. I feel that UKIP ask the right questions but do not have the right answers. It does not surprise me that so many people (3,881,129) cast their vote for them on the 7th. That this sizeable support – putting them in third place – did not translate into anything more than one seat in parliament ought to tell us that something is clearly, dreadfully, wrong with the state of our democracy. When a political party has 12.6% of the vote but barely a whisper in the House of Commons, one can understand why 34% of the electorate didn’t bother to turn up. Why is there a Tory MP in charge of Shitsville, when the councillors are Labour or Green? This strikes me as schizophrenic.
UKIP came second in over a hundred constituencies but this counts for diddly-squat under our Darwinian, first-past-the-post electoral system. Labour saw a growth in support in areas held by the Conservatives, while their power base diminished in other areas. For this reason, they lost seats. The Tories, meanwhile, are unchallenged in rural areas and many prosperous suburbs, areas with a much lower population density. That’s how they do so well: relatively small numbers of wealthy, successful folk dwelling in their nice houses in Chalfont St. La-Di-Dah or Hedgefundington-on-the-Wold will stick with what’s best for them, blissfully unaware of the struggles others face. It is the number of seats, not the actual level of support, which determines who governs the entire nation.
It’s the economy, stoopid
But who is the Shy Tory? I imagine he’s a suburbanite, owns his own home, probably over 40 years old, drives a nice car, never uses public transport or libraries, not particularly well-educated and believes much of what he reads in the tabloid newspapers. He’s happy with the status quo because he’s all right, Jack, and doesn’t want to rock the boat. Oh, and he has less spine than an agoraphobic jellyfish. He’d soil his Y-fronts if word got around that he’s voted for the Nasty Party; besides, it was a tactical choice. I understand the concern about Labour; they spent years mismanaging the economy and a potential deal with the powerful SNP would carry with it many uncertainties. For the Shy Tory, it’s a case of “better the Devil you know”. A Conservative government would bring stability and continued growth, wouldn’t it? Don’t count on it.
The Conservatives anticipate some £30 billion worth of cuts to government spending, yet have not specified where the axe will fall. Pensioners, on whom the Tories so often depend for support, needn’t worry; they’ve been ring-fenced. So, too, has foreign aid, regardless of its efficacy (gesture politics, courtesy of Joe Taxpayer). A handful of nuclear submarines can continue to patrol the North Sea, but there may not be too many servicemen to operate them in five years’ time, such has been the magnitude of cuts to the Armed Forces. It is debatable whether Britain has a blue-water fleet anymore. Our soldiers are poorly-equipped and dwindling in number, though I’m sure the top-brass needn’t fear a cut in their salaries. The Prime Minister maintains the fiction that we can remain the world’s policeman (David Cameron, a wannabe Tony Blair), but we can barely defend our own territories. Thankfully, we needn’t fear the Argentine Witch right now, since her country is in an even more parlous state than ours. £30 billion is a lot of money and only credulous fools like the Shy Tories think such cuts won’t have a negative impact on the economy and wellbeing of the nation. No one knows for certain what the NHS, which needs an extra £8 billion just to stay afloat, will look like by 2020, but I’m not exactly glowing with optimism right now.
Panicked by the rise of UKIP, David Cameron promised us an in/out referendum on membership of the European Union by 2017. Considering the Euroscepticism of the man in the street and the weight of anti-Brussels bias in the popular press, this promise is a massive gamble that I predict will cost us dear. So few Britons – particularly the English – really understand the benefits that our place in Europe brings, economically and politically. Unless Cameron, a man who professes to be pro-Europe, has a trick up his sleeve, then I suspect that the majority will vote with their hearts, rather than their heads, and force the UK to pull out. This will have a disastrous effect on the economy and the integrity of the UK, guaranteeing another Scottish referendum (if this does not take place sooner). Cameron is a poor statesman, indeed. A Wodehousian amateur, he struts and blusters on the world stage, making unreasonable demands in the European parliament, setting red lines and failing to understand the delicate nature of diplomacy. There may come a day when Angela Merkel and other European leaders will lose patience with his antics. Should that day arrive, we may be pushed before we jump. Be prepared for the consequences and don’t forget who it was who consigned us to the political wilderness.
The SNP is ideologically very different to its neighbour in Westminster. Vehemently anti-austerity and decidedly centre-left in outlook, Nicola Sturgeon’s party is on a collision course with the Bullingdon Boys, for certain. A spectre of a second referendum hangs over us, threatening more instability and uncertainty – hardly a recipe for economic growth. Moreover, the Conservatives may have had a majority but it was a narrow one. Cameron’s hold on power over the next five years will be tenuous and I foresee leadership struggles and backbench revolts. Consider the final years of the Major and Blair administrations: the precedent set is not a happy one. Did the Shy Tory stop to consider the ramifications of his vote? I think not. The Conservative Party prides itself on its sound fiscal track record, but look deeper and you will see that this is a fiction. The last five years have not seen a reduction in our budget or current account deficit and while Cameron & Co. remain fixated on low taxes and keeping the over-60s content, I do not see how this financial chasm can ever be narrowed.
It would be fair to say that we in England were faced with a poor selection of candidates to run the kingdom. However, with Team Austerity given free rein to rule without the tempering influence of a moderate faction like the Liberal Democrats, most citizens are in for an uncomfortable five years or more. Labour, the Liberal Democrats and UKIP are now leaderless and it may take a long time before we see any credible opposition to the Conservatives. Even if there were, what chance will they have of getting a foothold in Whitehall when the system is rigged in favour of the Tories? Britain needs another 1832 if credibility in the democratic process is to be restored. 53% of YouGov respondents are in favour of proportional representation. I share that view. I want to see an end to tactical voting. I want to extinguish the power of the Shy Tory. I want my vote to count. I want a voice.