With a blend of applied pop psychology and arbitrary guesswork, the media had anticipated that Nick Clegg’s solid performance in the televised leaders’ debates would automatically result in great gains for the Liberals, while Labour’s hopes had been all but written off in the build-up to the May 6th vote. With Labour now out of power and the Liberals settling in as junior partners in a Tory government, the prediction might not appear to have been so far off the mark. But the real significance of the election results remains unacknowledged by a mainstream media machine determined to confer a sense of legitimacy on the Cameron premiership; what is paramount, just now, is to satisfy ‘the markets’ (international capitalism) that Britain is in the hands of a ‘stable’ (Tory-led) administration which can deliver ‘strong government’ (devastating cuts in public services), and to this end serious political analysis has been necessarily sacrificed.
The inconvenient truth is that Labour did remarkably well at the polls, and it is a measure of the nation’s deep and enduring distrust of the Conservative party that, despite widespread disillusionment with ‘new’ Labour, the electorate still voted overwhelmingly against a Tory government. And significantly fewer than expected voted for the Liberals, much to the surprise of media commentators who appear to have harboured a genuine belief that the televised debates had changed the political landscape, that people in their masses would simply cast aside the complex and important considerations that informed their traditional voting patterns on the basis of a couple of slick television performances; it was an assessment which betrayed the misanthropy at the heart of a media establishment that has become complacently comfortable with its own self-hyped notion – a conceit, in fact – that it occupies an unmediated leadership position in modern British society.
Its political analysis is also, in its basic essentials, found wanting. In the days since the May 6th vote we have repeatedly been bombarded with the assertion, stated as though it were a bald and self-evident fact, that an alliance with Labour would have been more in keeping with the Liberals’ ‘natural instincts’ than would a Liberal-Tory alliance, suggesting that it would have been uncomfortable or even painful for the Liberals to come to an accommodation with the Tories. Anyone who knows even a smidgen of British political history will tell you that is not so, that the tradition of British liberalism – and in particular its commitment to economic liberalism, which is the most important component of its politics – is far closer to the modern Conservative party, in ideological terms, than the politics of the Labour party, even allowing for the latter’s rightward shift under ‘new’ Labour.
Prior to Labour’s arrival on the scene in the early 20th Century, it had been the Liberals and the Conservatives that were, to use Nick Clegg’s tiresome phrase, ‘the old parties’, the representatives of the entrenched interests of the ruling class, and no ‘instincts’, natural or otherwise, would see a man of that tradition drawn towards the party which, for all its flaws, remains in some significant measure a party of the working class interest. Mr Clegg made sure to drag the process out for a few days, because he is an intelligent man and will have been acutely aware of the importance to his personal credibility of being seen to drive a hard bargain; and he has won a few concessions along with way – but it won’t have hurt, that is for sure.
For Labour, the electoral defeat offers a new opportunity for rejuvenation and a fresh start. After a close election, the party can proceed in the knowledge that it has not lost the wider British public, only that fickle middle class constituency that it had so successfully wooed in 1997. Labour’s decline of recent years has exposed the dangers of tailoring the party’s politics to suit a perceived British mainstream whose support was as ephemeral as it was paralysingly conditional – as soon as the going got tough, both Murdoch and the middle classes jumped ship, because they understood, in the final analysis, where their class interests were best represented. It is high time that the Labour party adopt a similar approach – what is called for now is a return, in earnest, to first principles.
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This post was written by Nathaniel Mehr