How the Election Was Won
by Bryan Gould
Tue 12th May 2015
Democracy is a messy and unpredictable business. The response to the British general election may well be to shrug one’s shoulders – and perhaps to enjoy the discomfort of all those pollsters and pundits who got it wrong. Perhaps the popular will is harder to read than we thought.
Or perhaps not. Perhaps what we have seen is a demonstration that the popular sentiment on political issues can be manipulated; after all, we have now seen a series of election results around the globe – in Australia, New Zealand and the UK – which have produced similar results following the use of similar techniques.
Those results have meant the election – and in some cases re-election - of right-wing governments which have used remarkably similar strategies. The pattern is now well established.
The first technique is a relentlessly sustained assault on left-of-centre rivals, focusing not just on their supposed disunity and incompetence, but even more specifically on the ground that they are extremist, left-wing (now used exclusively as a term of abuse) and financially irresponsible.
So, in New Zealand, a Labour party that in government produced eight successive surpluses is compared unfavourably in terms of economic competence to right-wing successors who have presided over six successive deficits.
In the UK, a Labour government that had to pick up the pieces following a Global Financial Crisis created by “free market” excesses and irresponsible banks is blamed for the unemployment, falling living standards and increasing poverty brought about by the austerity policies pursued by their Tory successors.
The second technique is to talk up, with equal relentlessness and disregard for the facts, the supposed successes of incumbent right-wing governments. So, a New Zealand economy that suffers a sustained trade deficit, a dangerous dependence on a single commodity price, an unsustainable bubble in its most important housing market and an overvalued dollar that destroys jobs, profits and investment in the productive sector is regularly described as a “rockstar”.
Similarly, a UK economy whose supposed recovery is based shakily on asset inflation and an unsustainable consumer boom that has still not ended the longest and deepest fall in living standards in modern times is celebrated as a triumph for the policies of a Tory government that remains intent on piling more misery on the most vulnerable.
These techniques, depending as they do on the simple and repeated assertion that black is white, cannot succeed of course without the willing connivance of large parts of the media and the business community. That connivance is regularly forthcoming and allows right-wing parties to avoid what would normally be expected in a properly functioning democracy to be a proper level of scrutiny.
So far, so expected. But there is another aspect of the ease with which the right wing establishes its version of events in the public mind that may be less expected and that certainly attracts little attention. That aspect is the supine attitude of left-of-centre parties in responding to the assaults made on them by their rivals.
So, in both the UK and New Zealand, Labour parties have made little effort to defend the economic record of Labour governments. They have on the whole preferred to remain silent on such issues, as if doubting their own ability to mount the obvious counter-arguments and as if resigned to an inability to win an economic argument.
Indeed, they have gone further in allowing their opponents to set the economic agenda. So cowed have they been by the attacks on their economic competence that they have hastened to assure the voters that they will be just as tough as the Tories in cutting public spending and deficits and just as heartless in sheeting home to the beneficiaries and the unemployed the responsibility for restoring balance in the public finances.
These attitudes have been made quite specific. In both the UK and New Zealand, Labour parties have gone out of their way to proclaim their over-riding commitment to cutting the deficit, thereby validating in the eyes of the public the improbable Tory proposition that this must be the prime goal of policy. It was at that point that the election was lost.
It was this eagerness to embrace Tory doctrine that made it impossible for Labour oppositions in either country to argue convincingly that, accepting as they did the same policy framework, they could be expected to produce different and better outcomes. Little wonder that the voters opted for the devil they knew.
The siren voices are at it again. Instead of learning the obvious lesson – that Labour wins only when it is seen to offer what the British people most crave, something fresh and full of hope and ambition – the Blairs and Mandelsons urge that Labour should become even more like the Tories. At a time when even the central banks and the IMF have abandoned their support for retrenchment and austerity, and neo-liberal orthodoxy is seen as a busted flush, Labour is advised to show no interest in a brave new world but to cower in a craven old one.
Lynton Crosby may have a lot to answer for. But at least he knew what he was doing and achieved what he wanted. Even so, he may not have succeeded if Labour had not been running scared.