Honesty in politics
by Peter Smith
Can Britain's new Conservative government live up to the promise of its own manifesto?
The Conservative Party has won the British General Election, and the result was something of a surprise.
Up until the close of voting at 10pm on 7 May, the received wisdom - after week upon week of polling throughout the long election campaign - was that no one party would have a commanding majority. The incumbent coalition was predicted to do badly, with the Conservatives losing a few seats to Labour and the Liberal Democrats collapsing in Scotland to the Scottish National Party, reinvigorated after the failure of last September’s independence vote.
The UK Independence Party, whose mixture of strong Euroscepticism and mild social conservatism attracted many disaffected Labour and Conservative voters alike, was predicted to split majorities across the country, adding a great deal of uncertainty and possibility picking up a few seats as a result.
A Labour-SNP coalition was the most likely future administration.
The pollsters got the big picture wrong, but many of the small details right.
Overall, many voters were ‘shy’ Conservatives, or those who were simply undecided until the last moment, and their combined effects swung the vote. A large part of the Conservative campaign was to play up the fears of a financially promiscuous Labour/SNP future. As the British satirical website, The Daily Mash, put it, “Following a close-fought election campaign, the electorate decided the prospect of having money was better than the prospect of not having it.”
The initial exit polls indicated that the Conservatives had improved their position markedly. In the rest of the country, they had picked up hundreds of thousands of votes over Labour in bellweather marginals, and ultimately, they won with 331 seats out of a possible 650. Given that Sinn Fein MPs do not take up their seats, David Cameron was left with a working majority of eight. Labour lost 24 to leave a core 232, and the Liberal Democrats collapsed from 56 to only eight. Ukip lost one of their two Tory defectors, and the Greens maintained their sole representative. By daybreak it was clear that all bar three of the 59 Scottish seats were going to go SNP, led by the doughty Nicola Sturgeon, with the three big parties retaining one apiece.
Plenty of well-known scalps were had: Ed Balls, the Shadow Chancellor and one of Labour’s most formidable MPs, lost his seat by a few hundred votes to his Conservative challenger, and amongst the rout of well-known Lib Dem and Labour MPs north of Hadrian’s Wall, Jim Murphy – Labour’s leader in Scotland - and Danny Alexander, Transport Minister under Tony Blair and International Development Secretary under Gordon Brown, both lost, the latter to a 20-year-old called Mhari Black, the youngest MP to be elected since 1880.
The election result threw up the usual head-scratching and breast-beating over Britain’s electoral structure. Ukip, the populist rag-tag group lead by a charismatic ex-public school boy and former stockbroker whose trade mark covet coat, pint of beer and cigarette made him a somewhat unlikely champion of the people, got over four million votes, which translated into only one MP (and his victory was largely a function of his own high standing, previously built up as a successful Conservative). But like the US system, where the American citizenry often juxtaposes a president from one party with a congress dominated by another, Ukip’s failures in the national election were compensated by their success in last year’s European Parliamentary elections. And the British people comprehensively rejected – by a ratio of 2:1 - proportional representation in 2011. We much prefer the decisive election result first-past-the-post usually entails.
So what now? What are the Conservatives going to do with this unexpected (at least in public) win?
When reading the runes, the first place to look is the Conservative Manifesto. Many think that the document was drafted with another coalition government in mind, and one that potentially spanned the rump of the Lib Dems and some of the unionist parties in Northern Ireland. As a result, the document contained many second-order policies, and few headline-grabbers.
Before the Election, I considered what the Manifesto had in terms of human dignity, for the marginalized, the family, the imprisoned, the elderly, and the migrant. There is a lot of good material in the Manifesto, and the document ends with a distillation of the outcomes the Conservatives sought:
Those who work hard and do the right thing must be rewarded. Everyone should be able to rise as high as their talents and effort will take them. We measure our success not just in how we show our strength abroad, but in how we care for the weakest and most vulnerable at home.
Of course, manifestos are merely documents without political leaders to implement them, and there are lots of reasons to be hopeful about the quality of Conservative MPs elected and re-elected.
But there’s a context to this which is very important, and that’s about the honesty of public discourse in British (and perhaps Western) politics.
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