Who won the UK election? We did!

6 May 2005
The voters won yesterday’s election in Britain, and all three major parties suffered existential defeats. Their leaderships immediately set about persuading themselves of the opposite, that a kick in the pants was in fact a pat on the back. Labour won an “historic third term”. The Conservatives have “started their recovery”. The Liberal Democrats are “well poised” to become the main opposition party next time. They would say this. In Scotland, the Greens got 1.1 per cent of the popular vote and, according to the BBC, their co-convener Robin Harper concluded: “I'm terribly pleased with our performance - it's better than we have ever done before”. Doubtless, Frank Sweeney, the candidate for the Workers Revolutionary Party in Birmingham Northfield, offered a similarly cheerful gloss, when he got 34 votes. By contrast, the popular mood is not deluded. It seems to be one of sombre satisfaction with a dirty job done well. The voters – “we”, I’m proud to say - refused to be frightened by Tory alarms into a racist panic over migration; we refused to be taken in by Labour’s Tony Blair over Iraq, soft-soaped into thinking that his lies did not matter; we did not switch to vote for a Liberal Democrat party that positioned itself nicely, but did not address the wider world. Instead, in effect, three out of five of the British electorate did their democratic duty and said, “none of the above”. OK, they are still the three largest parties, one of them had to win and it the one most engaged with reality. There is a limit to what voters can do. Within it, profound defeats were inflicted. From the start of this election blog I have insisted that the Conservatives are unable to recognise the realities of contemporary Britain and address them. Against an intensely despised Prime Minister and a government able only to offer more of the same it should have been possible for the Tories to increase their share of the vote. They didn’t. When he conceded defeat their leader Michael Howard called on Prime Minister Blair to “really deliver clean hospitals”. Is this what one of the world’s oldest and proudest parties is reduced to? Howard has rearranged the deckchairs on the Titanic – they now look smarter, the crew more disciplined. But the party’s slogans did not just sound like loud creaking noises coming from below deck: they were. The Liberal Democrats have proved to be the greatest disappointment. An American friend asked me “Who are they? Is it true they get 25 per cent of the vote?”. Well almost. They are at just over 22 per cent as I write this on Friday morning, but with only 10 per cent of the seats in Parliament’s House of Commons. By contrast Labour, in Britain’s grossly undemocratic electoral system, with just on 37 per cent of the vote has over 55 per cent of the seats. A historic residue from the nineteenth century, marginalised by the rise of Labour as the working class won the franchise, the Liberals began to stage a recovery in the 1980s when they allied and later merged with the Social Democrats, who had broken away from Labour. This year with fifty MPs out of 650 they were well placed as opponents of the war and advocates of tax reform to push aside the Conservatives. They gained just over ten seats. Almost all the positive energy and sense of hope generated over the past five weeks was picked up by the Lib Dems. Under the leadership of Charles Kennedy they absorbed it, and gave far too little back. Kennedy is a fatally poor leader for a small party that must create its authority and influence. Immediately after he became the Lib-Dem leader in 1999 I went to see him. Was he interested in thinking more widely about the role of a radical party like his own? No he was not. He told me that Roy Jenkins, the founder of the Social Democrats and his guru, had advised him to let events come to him and not try and force the pace. This has been his attitude ever since. He started by taking his time and never stopped, now he has lost his moment. Labour became victors with the lowest popular vote ever for a winning party. Its leader should have resigned in the summer – when he had done his Biblical seven years. Had Gordon Brown taken over then Labour’s majority would most likely have been well over 100 rather than being cut by more than half down to a predicted 66. Will the Prime Minister now proceed to a graceful handover? I doubt it. He is more likely to do everything possible to put his stamp on the third term and head off Brown. In his speech outside 10 Downing Street this morning, after accepting the Queen’s offer to form the next government, Blair came up with the newest version of L’état c’est moi. He made great emphasis on what he would do, describing himself twice as “I, we, the government”. Was this an expression of weakness, an acknowledgement that he was no longer the sole “leader” in the way he had been? Or was it a way of appropriating the reversal he had suffered when his unpopularity meant he had to keep Brown by his side and parade himself for the cameras as only the first amongst equals with his Cabinet colleagues? Today, Blair struck a new note. The election campaign had taught him, he said, that while voters liked the “end of deference” they badly wanted there to be “respect” – in the classroom, on streets and in town centres on Friday and Saturday nights. “I want to make this a particular priority for this government – how we bring back a proper sense of respect in our schools, in our communities, in our towns, in our villages.” The hypocrisy is breathtaking. One could set out the long list of acts of constitutional vandalism and of disregard for the democratic process which “I, we, the government” has overseen. Not least in the blatant disrespect for the evidence which lead the country into war which no well run school would tolerate. But there is also Blair’s personal behaviour. Those fortunate enough not to live in a country where the largest selling newspaper is the Sun may not know about the major newspaper interview which the Prime Minister and his wife gave just two days ago. Cherie told Blair to “strip off” so he could be photographed topless to demonstrate his fitness. He told the papers millions of readers that he made love “at least” five times a night. (That’s enough. Ed.) How can he get away with it? One answer is that he has a sense of mission that has no location in historical realities. See Matthias Matussek in his piece on the British and VE Day. If this is so then Tony Blair will not step down willingly. On the contrary he will feel that the 'martyrdom' of the election campaign has left him cleansed - punished in order to carry on. His party will need to find the will to force him to go. Where does this leave British politics? With a question: which will be the first of the parties to really make a reckoning with its defeat? If any do. Real names comments welcome, please email [email protected]
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