My interpretation of the British General Election of 2015 just published on openDemocracy: much of the post-election discussion is in denial about what happened.
The report of the Cabinet Office enquiry into the memorandum about Nicola Sturgeon’s conversation with the French Ambassador has exposed the role of the former Liberal Democrat Scottish Secretary, Alistair Carmichael, in leaking its contents. However it also vindicated the accuracy of the memorandum and the integrity of the Scotland Office civil servant who wrote it, thus bringing back into the public arena the remarkable claim that the SNP leader preferred David Cameron to Ed Miliband as Prime Minister.
The publication of the memorandum shows that its author was surprised by Sturgeon’s reported view and suggested that something might have been ‘lost in translation’. A moment’s thought will show that this explanation is highly implausible. A simple statement like that ascribed to Sturgeon would hardly have been difficult to understand, and the French Republic does not appoint as its Ambassador to the United Kingdom, or even Consul-General, an official who lacks a good knowledge of English.
Yet the Cabinet Office report eagerly buys this generous interpretation. It isn’t hard to spot the cover-up, yet the press has been slow to challenge Sturgeon or to try to bring her interlocutor, the Ambassador, into the limelight. As calls for Carmichael to resign mount, Sturgeon is remarkably let off the hook.
The SNP and the Tories
Why this matters is that, if Carmichael’s denial of responsibility for the leak saved his seat, Sturgeon’s denial of her alleged pro-Cameron remarks helped shape the General Election, not just in Scotland but in the UK as a whole. The SNP and its allies had built ‘Yes’ to 45 per cent of the vote in the 2014 referendum largely by campaigning never to have a Tory government imposed on Scotland again. In the election, Sturgeon pushed the SNP to 50 per cent and destroyed Scottish Labour by posing as the most determined anti-Tory leader, taunting Ed Miliband with her calls on him to ‘join’ the SNP, Plaid Cymru and Greens in ousting them.
There was always a striking symmetry between the SNP’s campaign to defeat Labour in Scotland and the Tory campaign against Labour in England and Wales. There was, of course, no direct understanding between the parties, but Rupert Murdoch’s cynical deployment of the Scottish Sun for an SNP vote, while its English counterpart backed the Tories, perfectly reflected their alignment.
What no one fully understood, perhaps, were the opportunities that the SNP’s advance would create for the Tory campaign. Many progressive voters and commentators believed that the arithmetical combination of Labour seats in England and Wales and SNP seats in Scotland would secure a Labour government with some kind of SNP support. This was the explicit basis of the SNP’s pitch to Labour-inclined Scottish voters, and the illusion to which Miliband also clung in his hopes for a minority government, even as he recognised that Labour’s likely SNP dependence was Cameron’s most potent claim.
Lynton Crosby and the TV debates
Yet the relationship between Labour and SNP seats was never a simple arithmetical one. Labour’s potential losses in Scotland inevitably undermined its credibility in the UK as a whole. If anyone came close to grasping the full significance of this, it was surely Lynton Crosby, the Tories’ chief strategist. By exploiting Labour’s potential dependence on the SNP, he was finally able to achieve indirectly what he was unable to do directly, to create a palpable fear of Labour government.
Crosby’s main path to this achievement was the astute management of the only points at which the media election came alive, namely the TV debates. The Tories’ insistence on a very wide spread of party leaders in the debates did not only neutralise a possible Cameron-Miliband confrontation, as Labour feared. It also set up an image of a cacophony of voices, in which Miliband was linked to the radical trio of SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens. In the second debate, especially, Miliband allowed himself to appear with only these three leaders and Nigel Farage – Cameron having prime-ministerially absented not only himself, but also Clegg. Labour presumably agreed to this in order to maximise Miliband’s exposure, but it helped voters to visualise his tetchy relationship with a dynamic Sturgeon.
It was a highly unusual course for the broadcasters to include the nationalist parties in UK-wide debates. Since they stand candidates only in their own nations, the SNP and Plaid have been traditionally included only in Scottish and Welsh, not UK, debates, as have the Northern Ireland parties in Northern Irish debates. The nationalists’ inclusion in UK-wide debates obviously represented an ad hoc modification of the rules around debates, rather than a new principled inclusivity, since the Northern Irish parties were still excluded.
However this departure was the Tories’ price for agreeing to Cameron’s participation in a single debate, and it served them well, giving the SNP and Plaid an extra prominence which Sturgeon (especially) used very effectively. The Greens’ alliance with the nationalists, symbolised by the three-woman hugs at the end of the first debate, further enhanced their standing. This seemed to many a benign pan-British flowering of anti-austerity politics. But the momentum it generated further enhanced the SNP at Labour’s expense, making it much more likely that the Tories would be the largest party even if Labour made large gains in England and Wales.
The appeal to English fear and insecurity
The Tories’ even greater achievement was to cash in on this in England, by suggesting a sinister aspect to Sturgeon’s apparently engaging personality. The material, of course, was there in the SNP’s success in the referendum, and Sturgeon’s refusal, despite saying that the election was not ‘about’ independence, to rule out pressing for a further referendum after the Holyrood election in 2016. This enabled the Tories, with huge support from the Mail, Telegraph and Sun, to suggest that Miliband would be hostage to dark forces. The considerable achievement here was to turn Scots – for the first time in hundreds of years – into a threatening element for a segment of the English electorate. A huge amount of anecdotal evidence suggests that this was the one Tory message that was really played back – ‘I’m worried about that woman’ – by voters on the doorstep.
The idea that Labour lost the election because it appealed, economically, to too narrow a section of voters, has nothing to say about this remarkable development. This key Tory success had almost nothing to do with interests and everything to do with an intangible fear and insecurity on the part of English voters who simply do not understand Scottish politics and the (to them) sudden rise of the demand for independence over the last two or three years. The Tory warnings had unmistakable echoes of Benjamin Netanyahu’s notorious warning that ‘the Arabs are coming’ which won him a similar surprise victory, but was all the more astonishing since the Scots – unlike Arabs for Israeli Jews – have never been an enemy of the English in modern times.
Multi-party dynamics and Labour’s failure
The Tory appeal to fear seems to have played particularly well to Southern English voters. In all the attention to the SNP’s near-clean sweep in Scotland (95% of seats for 50% of votes), the similar Tory success in South-West England (over 90% for 46%) has been overlooked. Here the Tories used the SNP scare to shepherd even more one-time Liberal Democrats into the Tory fold.
The Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg, had already indicated that he preferred a new coalition with the Tories, thus saving his own seat (as Tories followed Daily Mail advice to vote tactically for him) while removing any last vestige of a reason for anti-Tories to support the Lib Dems tactically in southern marginals. The Lib Dems were thus squeezed from both sides, enabling Cameron (who repeatedly visited the South West during the campaign) to scoop up all of their seats in the region. At the same time, the Scottish scare probably helped the Tories retrieve some of the support they had lost to UKIP, which may have been a significant factor in minimising the expected Tory losses across England.
Labour’s defeat, therefore, was the result of far more than their own failings. The collapse of the Lib Dems contributed almost as much as the rise of the SNP to their downfall. During most of the campaign, it was widely agreed that Labour (which means, given the presidential character of the national battle, Ed Miliband), was doing surprisingly well. The Tories’ two well-rehearsed attack lines, the economy and Miliband’s personal weakness, failed to shift the polls. Labour remained stubbornly in the race: its attack on inequality (especially over Non-Doms) resonated widely, and Miliband even began to become a positive for the party in some quarters.
Labour had to overcome a Tory lead of 36:29 from 2010. Given the traumatic nature of that defeat and the benefits of incumbency for Cameron, it was actually a good outcome for Labour to be level-pegging in the final stages of the campaign, especially with the SNP, UKIP and the Greens all taking votes from it on a significant scale. We need to recall that the party had already declined from a 43% vote share in 1997’s landslide to only 35% in Blair’s final 2005 victory, without these additional competitors. To be almost back to that share of the vote would have been creditable, given the circumstances. Even the actual result saw Labour’s vote share rise slightly more than the Tories’ did.
It is true that, in the last week of the election, a rather different TV trap ensnared Miliband. The BBC’s Question Time saw Cameron waving Liam Byrne’s notorious note about ‘no money left’, and two well-primed audience members reinforcing its symbolism with sharp questions to Miliband. Miliband’s weakness here, unlike his SNP framing, reflected his and Labour’s inability over five years to nail the Tory-Lib Dem canard about responsibility for the crisis, and the party’s failure to pin the blame for austerity on deliberate Conservative policy.
Thus the two apparently decisive flaws of Labour’s campaign – its potential SNP dependence and economic record – were both about perceptions and feelings rather than about appeals to interests, let alone policies. Both conveyed the impression of Miliband’s weakness that the Tories had attempted to pin on him from the start.
Polls and lessons
The strange thing about most autopsies on the election is how little they have reflected on the dynamics of the campaign. It is almost as though those six weeks didn’t happen – Labour’s defeat resulted, we are widely told, from its failure to appeal to a broad enough constituency and especially to ‘aspirational’ voters. Few mention the complex multi-party dynamics (although everyone commented on these during the campaign), let alone the Conservatives’ skilful exploitation of these.
There is clearly much we do not yet understand about exactly how things tipped unexpectedly towards the Tories. We have yet to see a full detailed analysis from the exit poll which accurately predicted the surprise outcome: this may throw more light on the discrepancy with the earlier polls. We don’t know how far the results reflected a last-minute swing from the 34:34 tie suggested by the last fortnight’s polling to the 37:30 (Conservative: Labour) actual outcome, and how far the polls had misrepresented opinion throughout the campaign.
Yet surely any discussion of the way forward for the British left from this historic defeat should reflect on the experiences of the campaign and the way in which its multi-party dynamics contributed to Labour’s result. It is clear that the Scottish referendum campaign and the rise of the SNP have not only turned Scottish politics upside down, but have fundamentally affected British politics as a whole. English-British nationalism in both its explicit UKIP and opportunist Conservative forms has taken centre-stage: it will dominate in the EU referendum, which will define UK politics for the next year.
As Labour’s aspiring leaders shift back to the centre ground after the modest leftward move under Miliband, none of them appear to have much to say about the dramatic new challenges which sank the party on May 7th. They seem to wish to forget the recent campaign, rather than to learn its lessons. None of them appear to offer a narrative which will enable Labour to fare better in the radically new kind of electoral theatre which has developed in Britain.