There are, amongst all the other ersatz-yet-eternal regulations which commentators and politicians bring out almost newly-minted to prove their passing points, two rules of British politics: never write off the Conservative Party, and never underestimate the capacity of the Labour Party to alienate its allies. Were we to seek a narrative which might explain the static, enervating and gutless General Election campaign of 2015, these verities might be at its centre. In a period of political flux, in which the two major parties can no longer muster the support to command a majority of the Commons even under an electoral system designed precisely to fix it for them to do so, the Tories and Labour have each remained true to form: an astonishingly weak and witless Conservative campaign has nevertheless edged resiliently ahead in recent polls, despite all the dire warnings about governing parties always losing seats and shares of votes; and a schizophrenic Ed Miliband, on the one hand over-performing to the occasional extent of charming the public (no, really: watch his interview with Geoff Lloyd), has nevertheless gone out of his way to rob his party of any advantage the parliamentary arithmetic may provide it in the face of a larger Tory party, by telling the SNP and everyone else that he would prefer not to govern than work with fellow left-wing travellers.
What we have witnessed, then, is a defensive election campaign: the Tories scaring voters with absurd visions of chaos occasioned by the arrival of actual representatives of Scotland at Westminster, the Labour Party issuing mugs for sale with the words ‘Controls on Immigration’ printed on their sides in satirical socialist red. I have sympathy for both strategies from a purely pragmatic perspective: David Cameron faces a full-throated attack from his right, and knows from his party’s stubborn poll rating that being positive on the subject of the Coalition’s patchy record on the economy isn’t working; Labour also faces a revolt from that constituency which was once at its core – the white working class – and is loath to appear any longer to dismiss apparently widespread concerns about the impacts of globalisation (although, according to May2015, Labour voters at least rate immigration fairly low in their priorities).
Whatever, though, happened to leadership? Both leaders have spent five years denying a core vote strategy, and yet in this short campaign that is clearly what each have been pursuing: hoarding, not winning, votes. It can be little surprise in this context that the polls have shifted so minutely, if at all, or that in frustrated response the mainstream media has resorted to some of its most partisan reportage in a quarter of a century. This has been a grudge match of an election campaign, one in which the balance is so fine that the participants have chosen to avoid mistakes rather than aim for triumph. The Liberal Democrats have adopted an unimaginative and blandly centrist offering, openly placing themselves as useful only as a counter-point to eternally frustrated hard-right Tories or frankly chimeric hard-left socialists. Even UKIP’s Nigel Farage has been relatively tame, as if the speakers of right-wing truth to power have just as much to lose by opening their mouths as their sold-out brethren. The Greens, too – joined with UKIP in being punished by our electoral system – have doubly hobbled themselves, either deliberately or by design, by inexactly and timidly communicating if not their rather confused policy platform then the ideology that sits behind it, which one day might allow a more organised party to craft something a little more coherent.
Only the SNP, of those parties able to make much of an impact on Thursday night, seem to have produced something close to a positive campaign – and a message that seems both forthright and outward-looking. They look set to be rewarded by FPTP with a disproportionate number of seats. And there we reach the rub of this election’s undiscovered country: something remarkable is happening in Scotland, powered by David Cameron’s post-referendum cynicism, but its implications for the future of the United Kingdom are unclear, occluded by fear-mongering and parliamentary chicanery. In deference to the Middle England which the Conservatives’ campaign manager, Lynton Crosby, has sought to terrify with visions of a rampant Alex Salmond, Labour has – perhaps unavoidably, perhaps not – failed to make a crucial twin argument: first from a unionist perspective, as part of the better-together tone of the Yes campaign last year, that representation from all corners of the UK, and all stripes of opinion within it, is welcome at Westminster; and simultaneously from a leftist perspective the important point that nationalism undermines our society’s ability to withstand the pressures of corporate interest (and, should the more conservative position also need to be embraced, geopolitical flux). This rather old-fashioned and myopic Tory-Labour showdown has led us all down an unedifying cul-de-sac of sectional argy-bargy and dancing-on-the-heads-of-pins posing.
Perhaps all this is why the most striking aspect of this campaign has emerged in my conversations with other voters: that is, their almost universal lack of satisfaction with the choices on offer. As most of the parties have sought to play defence, so most of the voters have identified a vacuum at the heart of each of them. Take an estimable friend of ours who considers himself a natural Conservative but bemoans the decision to give the most successful political party in the Western world back to the Etonians: he considers David Cameron a Liberal or a Blairite (it’s not clear to either of us which is worse), and sees no useful place for his vote in the current system; in a seat in which the Tories could win, he’s attracted to UKIP’s defence policy, and its deficit-busting machismo, but understands how limited their voice and impact will be. He is in this way (and few others) no different to a voter who would love to full-throtedly endorse Labour but, say, finds its range of ceramic drinking vessels less than encouraging.
Where our frustrated Tory might be right, however, is that, for left-wingers who fell out with Labour during the Blair-Brown years, Ed Miliband is their reddest option since dear old Neil Kinnock. He may be keeping TTIP, but he would exclude the NHS from its provisions; he might have supported the Libyan action, but he more or less sabotaged intervention in Syria; and, in his refusal to accept in front of a hostile BBC audience that Labour had spent too much, he is bravely and gamely wearing a Keynesian tin-hat of proportions entirely alien to New Labour. Here’s another conversation we’ve had during this campaign, however: with a leftie who will be voting for the Greens, in a Tory constituency where they have no chance of winning. Any support for TTIP, in his book, is a deal-breaker; Trident must go; Labour is simply not ‘left-wing’ enough. Here is a mirror image of our Tory: a voter faced with signing away any influence on the actual government that is formed in the week following May 7th (assuming, as we all must, a hung parliament), making an imperfect (and arguably self-defeating) choice on the back of the sort of negatives which have defined this campaign.
“Make the Labour party the party you want it to be!” responded another friend of ours when we spoke about this issue. He’s not a member of the party but, like me, grew up in a rock-solid Labour seat, in which paradigms that may now be forever long-gone influenced at least my own political thinking. This sort of hopeful activism, the sort that has done the SNP such good in Scotland, is inspiring, even as it acknowledges the currently broken politics of the left – but is of little use in the voting booth tomorrow. “Vote tactically,” suggested another of our friends, herself marooned in a safe Tory seat and therefore urging us to avoid letting in another chap in a blue rosette via a vote of principle in our own, more marginal, constituency. She is joined by yet another friend, who would prefer to vote Green but, she has said, will vote otherwise in order to hold off the Tories. The siren voices of tactical voting are compelling – is your vote an anti-Tory (or anti-Labour) one more than it is actually committed to an alternative? – but in a feintly rotten borough such as ours, in which the sitting MP has more or less ordered his minor opponents to stand down in order to give him more negative ways to win, they are also fork-tongued and depressing: if we continue not fully to represent in our voting patterns the range of political opinion in today’s UK, will we not continue to suffer under an electoral system struggling to keep up with us?
All of these imperfect decisions look set to leave us with a messy photo-finish on Friday morning. I expect a surprise mini-swing to the Conservatives which may allow them to cobble together a wafer-thin majority with the Liberal Democrats, but inevitably the DUP and UKIP will have influence there. If Cameron fails to get to the magic number of 326 or thereabouts, however, Labour faces a rabid press for months or years – depending on how robust the Fixed-Term Parliament Act turns out to be in practice (and even Nick Clegg has, along with Labour, had a conversion on its rigid strictures in recent days). This may do long-term damage to the left generally and also (and counter-intuitively, given the alternative is government essentially by England) the Union. (To wit: “The House of Lancaster lost the crown in 1461 because Margaret of Anjou did a deal with the Scots.” Oh.)
In many ways, the story of this campaign is why Cameron has been so absent from it – it certainly seems he is not onboard with the bluer-than-blue approach of Crosby; but the story of its aftermath will be how well – or, more likely, how badly – Westminster deals with the SNP. It will be easy to be narrow and factional – more or less the definition of Cameron’s Conservatives (he has not looked good even next to Sir John Major’s contributions during this campaign), and also the direction in which Labour is being pushed by the right-wing press. But this approach will make our next Parliament even more, not less, fractious. First Past The Post, a system once lionised for providing strong government, is now contributing to the political uncertainty which in 2015 is enraging press barons, flummoxing politicians and, most importantly, thoroughly frustrating voters.