After six weeks of one of the most tedious, controlled, and stage-managed electoral campaigns in my lifetime, I don’t think I’m the only voter south of the border who will feel more relief than anticipation that it’s finally over.
This has been a campaign driven by the political machines of the three main parties, a campaign in which every gesture, phrase, every piece of clothing, every statement, every public event, even the personalities of their leaders, have been carefully chosen, framed and planned beforehand in order, as Shakespeare sort of put it in another context, to steal the impression of the electorate’s fantasy.
It’s been a campaign about image and presentation, from the sixth-form boarding school boy jumpers worn by the Lib Dems, to Ed Miliband’s ‘hell yeah’ Chuck Norris posturing to his even more ludicrous ‘ain’t gonna happen’ impersonation of Del Boy in order to get down with the youth. The disturbing sight of ‘pumped-up’ Cameron bouncing around in shortsleeves like a hyperactive schoolboy who has accidentally ingested his dad’s Ritalin because his campaign managers have told him to inject more ‘passion’ into the campaign will stay in this viewer’s mind for some time, and not in a good way.
Like so much else in this campaign, Cameron’s weird simulation of passion was just that – a simulation designed by central office to fill a perceived presentational gap. Even the expressions and smiles on the faces of the people in the background behind the party leaders’ performances appear to have been more preplanned and chosen than usual – mini Kim-Il-Sung orchestrations with applause and nods for each predictable rhetorical cadence.
The political class had its reasons for this. The Tories and Labour knew that they were running neck and neck in the polls and neither one was willing to do or say anything unscripted or off-message that might have caused a dip or provide ammunition for their opponents. Both of them wanted to please all the people all of the time, and both were painfully aware that many of their traditional supporters were not pleased with them at all.
Unwilling to be associated with any particular class or power bloc, all the three main parties preferred to cling to safe and even inane generalities, whether it was the ‘British people’ or ‘our NHS’ or the trusty ‘hardworking families’ – a cliché that doesn’t get any less wearisome or banal through constant usage.
The Lib Dems were the same. They know that they are widely-despised by right and left, and yet they are in the curious position of being likely kingmakers in a hung parliament, and willing to consider coalitions with either Labour or the Tories, in another demonstration of political ambition over principle that is unlikely to endear them to the electorate.
So no one can be surprised that all three leaders preferred to insulate themselves against any potentially destabilising contact with the public.
Such stage management wasn’t universal. Leanne Wood, Nicola Sturgeon, and Natalie Bennett all sounded like human beings rather than robots reciting catchphrases, and Bennett did well to get over her disastrous early start. Sturgeon is a natural politician who doesn’t seem afraid of what the public might say or do, but then she is the leader of a party poised to make historic gains, in a country whose population is genuinely excited about politics and feels itself to be participating in a process that may lead to equally historic political changes.
That’s something that can’t be said south of the border, in a stale, rancorous political climate that has transformed a shameful joke party like Ukip into a major political force. None of the three parties seem able or willing to understand why all this has happened. None of them seem able to articulate a positive, inspiring and convincing vision of where British society might go.
Instead both parties have attempted to terrify the electorate with dark visions of a future ruled by their opponents. For the Tories, it’s the fear of economic recovery being wrecked by Labour ‘chaos’ – epitomized by its image of a ticking clock in an electoral broadcast being smashed to bits by a Labour hammer.
In one interview at the beginning of the campaign, George Osborne must have said ‘it’s a choice between the Conservative stability and Labour chaos’ about ten times in less than five minutes, as though he had an app in his brain that was programmed to repeat it at intervals. Closely linked to the ‘chaos’ meme is Boris Johnson’s ‘Ajockalypse now’ and the collapse of the union. Cue images of the puppeteer Alex Salmond pulling the strings of a hapless Ed Miliband. Chant ‘Salmond’, ‘Salmond’ or ‘Sturgeon, Sturgeon’ till your eyes go glassy.
The Lib Dems have played the fear game too, whether it’s Paddy Ashdown comparing the SNP to the Bosnian Serbs, or the endless warnings about the need for ‘stability’ emanating from the ghastly Nick Clegg. So has Labour, which has tried to prevent electoral meltdown in Scotland with dishonest mutterings about the ‘dark side of nationalism.’
Labour, meanwhile, has its own grim spectre to offer the electorate in the shape of another five years of Toryism – an admittedly dire prospect to be sure, but one which invites left-of-centre voters not to consider what five years of Labour might be like.
So now it’s over, and today I shall head down to the polling station today to hand in my useless vote. It’s useless not because voting is useless, but because where I live my vote cannot make any difference one way or another. Here in the Derbyshire Dales, we have a good Labour candidate, which might have made me overcome my instinctive aversion to the Labour leadership, but all the stats indicate that he doesn’t have a chance of unseating the incumbent Tory.
So that leaves only the possibility of a personal statement. I understand the horror at the prospect of another five years of Toryism. I understand the ‘dime’s worth of difference’ argument. I also recognize that you have to distinguish between the leadership of a party and its constituency, but I don’t see how voting Labour will empower progressive politics, an argument that reached its most idiotic form in Russell Brand’s insistence that Miliband believes in ‘communities’ and will ‘listen.’
Remember how Labour ‘listened’ back in 2003? And as for Owen Jones’ ‘hope’ – when I hear the word I reach for my revolver, at least when its attached to a party that specializes in harvesting false hopes for its own electoral advantage.
The idea that the left will be revitalised by a Labour victory doesn’t hold water for me. I find Labour hollow. I find Miliband hollow. For all his endless waffle about ‘hardworking families’ and ‘fairness’ I just sense a head boy who wants to be prime minister, and a party that has watered down any real commitment to social justice into a vague, fluffy ‘fairness’ and ‘one nationism’ that is as hollow as its leader.
Even when Labour pays lip service to its social democratic past, it is always frantically triangulating, cleaving to neoliberal nostrums about the deserving and undeserving poor, about benefit caps, compulsory jobs for young people, unspecified austerity cuts, more discreet forms of privatisation, inane demands for immigrants to ‘learn English’, as though they were deliberately chosing not to; promises to step up deportations etc
For me, the best outcome of this election would have been an SNP-Labour coalition, whether formal or informal, because the SNP rejects not just Toryism but austerity politics per se, and might have galvanised the Labour left to do the same. But Miliband didn’t even have the courage to do that, because his own party is set to continue austerity and because he was terrified to be seen as ‘Salmond’s puppet.’
So he has ruled out any form of cooperation whatsover, and now trade union leaders are trying to persuade him to form an anti-Tory coalition with the Lib Dems – the same party that has been in coalition with the Tories for the last five years! Such things are possible because the Labour Party has always believed that it can tack to the right and still retain its leftwing supporters because the latter had nowhere else to go.
But now they do. In Scotland they’ve gone to the SNP. Here in England they can go to the Greens. If I lived in Scotland I would have voted SNP. But today I’m going to vote Green. Not because that vote can make a difference. But because I’m tired of plodding down to the polling station to vote for the least bad. .
Given the catastrophic consequences of climate change that are looming over us – consequences that have been almost entirely absent from the campaign debates – I think British politics could do with a good greening, even if the Greens only succeed in changing the debate.
And even though I’m aware that the record of the Greens in Germany leaves much to be desired, the fact is that pretty much every party leaves much to be desired. And the policies of the Greens, at the moment, are closer to my own beliefs and convictions, on war and militarism, immigration, social justice, the NHS, and climate change, than any of the other contenders.
So even though I would still prefer to see Labour win than the Tories, ultimately I don’t just want to see the Tories kept out – I want to see the monopoly of the whole political class broken – and not by bloody Ukip. Were I in a marginal seat where my vote might help remove a Tory, I might still vote Labour, but I don’t. So I’ll vote Green, while still hoping that the Tories lose nationally.
But whatever happens I don’t believe this election will bring the kind of society I want to see any closer.