IT”S NOT EVERY democratic election that triggers a riot.[i]
But in London last week that’s exactly what happened. Thousands took to the streets to protest the results of the election that had taken place two days earlier. Footage shot by the protesters shows police officers pinning people to the ground, kettling them into contained areas with batons drawn, while protestors sing “Power to the people” and “We all live in a fascist regime” (the latter to the tune of The Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine”),[ii] with the police, for their part, enduring shouts of ‘Pigs’ and taunts from just a matter of feet away. It may seem paradoxical for a crowd to be drawn together by the result of a democratic election to sing in unison about living in a totalitarian state, but in some ways it was the most fitting end to possibly the most surprising and unusual election in Britain in modern times.
Why surprising? Well….
The day before the vote, all the polls had the election nearly tied. It would be the closest in the UK for decades, with either the Conservatives or Labour narrowly managing to become the largest party in the House of Commons, and requiring a coalition with at least one other party to govern, as had happened in 2010 when the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats had formed a government together. Then, an exit poll by the BBC astonishingly suggested that, while they wouldn’t win a majority, the Conservatives would actually be comfortably the largest party, with Labour and the Liberal Democrats performing much worse than expected. No one really believed it. Former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown was one of the first guests to appear as part of the coverage. A former Royal Marine officer and Foreign Office diplomat, Lord Ashdown is universally respected as a statesman, and is not a man prone to wild hyperbole. But so convinced was he that the poll was wrong, he even offered to eat his hat on live television if it was accurate. The no-nonsense former Labour Party spin doctor Alastair Campbell then offered to eat his kilt. As a Labour voter, I had to hope they were right. In a sense, they were. The poll wasn’t accurate, at least not in the way anyone expected. When the votes were counted, the Conservatives were not only the largest party, but they had achieved the seemingly unachievable – they had won a majority of the seats. No need for coalitions and the inevitable compromises they entail – a majority, and a mandate from the electorate to govern.
The Conservative Party won 36.9% of the votes cast in the election, 6.5% more than their nearest challenger, the Labour Party. If this looks like a close race, then look again, because that 6.5% difference translates to a whacking great 99 seats in a Commons made up of 650, giving them a clear, and unexpected, majority. An outcome I certainly didn’t see coming.
For the first 24 hours or so I allowed myself to wallow – the only word for my mood was despondent. Friends used other words to describe their feelings – “scared” and “frightened” for example. Now, from the outside those must sound like strong words to use. After all, in a modern democracy no party capable of winning an election outright can be so extreme as to actually frighten the people they’re going to govern over, surely? What can there possibly be to be scared of? And just why were those people protesting?
Well, let’s examine some of the things the coalition did in their five years in charge. Where to begin? Perhaps with the number of disabled people who have died or committed suicide in the immediate aftermath of being declared “fit for work” and being forced off disability benefits. A Freedom of Information Request was made to force the government to reveal the exact number.[iii] They still haven’t, but a similar request in 2012 revealed that “some 1,100 sick and disabled people died in the first eight months of 2011 after…they had been found potentially capable of some work,” wrote Owen Jones in his best-selling book The Establishment (tellingly subtitled And how they get away with it). It was,” he wrote, “the equivalent of thirty-two people dying each week.”[iv] That’s thirty-two people dead, per week.
Or the way that job seekers had their benefits stopped or suspended for surreal reasons: not completing the assessment because of having a heart attack in the middle of it, or missing a Job Centre appointment due to attending a job interview[v]…. This left vulnerable people without money for food or heating (871,000 people in 2013 alone had their benefits stopped for at least four weeks).[vi]
Or the massive increase in child poverty, with 300,000 children estimated to have moved into hardship, and a total of 29% overall according to the New Policy Institute (NPI), a situation the Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts will get worse,[vii] while maternal mortality rates are up to double those of other European nations.[viii]
Or the startling rise in the number of people relying on food-banks during the coalition – from 61,468 people given three days’ worth of food in 2010-11 to 913,138 in 2013-14.[ix]
Or the way that the Conservatives have looked for any opportunity to privatize anything they can, from parts of the NHS to the Royal Mail which they sold off for so much less than it was worth (despite repeatedly reminding the electorate of the need for austerity to ‘balance the books’) purely because they wanted rid of it even though it generated revenue whilst in the public sector which now goes to shareholders rather than the public purse.[x]
Or the constant stigmatizing of the poorest members of our society (benefits claimants, immigrants) to distract attention from the huge tax avoidance by corporations and rich individuals which dwarfs the amount believed lost to the Exchequer through fraudulent benefit claims (£5bn (or $ 7.8bn) compared to £1.2bn ($1.8bn).[xi]
And those are just the things they actually managed to do. Let’s factor in the policies that they wanted to implement, but had to give up on because the Tories’ partners in the coalition government, the Liberal Democrats, stood in the way: the “Snooper’s Charter” which would give greater powers to the police to monitor our electronic communications, scrapping the Human Rights Act which protects British citizens, slashing subsidies to green industries, reducing the rights of British workers…[xii]
I’m biased of course, and I should give the Conservatives some credit for legalizing gay marriage at least, a genuinely progressive policy David Cameron pursued despite opposition from his own party members. The party could not have won without the support of reasonable, moderate people, many of whom would have flinched at at least some of the above, so what was it that led them to choose to vote Tory?
Well, the principal reason seems to be that a large number of people have been convinced by the need for austerity, and that the economic crisis had been caused by the previous Labour government’s over-spending. Ever since coming to power, David Cameron has been waving around a letter left by a Labour MP for his Conservative successor as Chief Secretary to the Treasury. And his note read simply: “I’m afraid there is no money.” It was a joke, a light-hearted welcome note, but Cameron has been using it as the ultimate evidence of Labour’s irresponsibility.
Of course, the last Labour government didn’t cause the global financial crisis and the idea that a Conservative government would manage the economy more effectively is equally mythical. The current Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequor (who is responsible for the government’s economic policies) George Osborne has borrowed more than the last three Labour Chancellors combined,[xiii] has overseen the slowest economic recovery the country has ever seen,[xiv] and his austerity policies have spectacularly failed to get even half-way to meeting their targets of eliminating public sector debt by 2015[xv], while the hardest hit have been the elderly and the lowest earners (according to the Institute of Fiscal Studies).[xvi] But when Osborne has made increasingly desperate claims that his policies are the best way to fix a broken economy, most of the mainstream press has given him an easy ride, with a willingness to simply repeat the government’s message without scrutiny which should embarrass a country that prides itself on its free press. It is certainly true that the longevity of Margaret Thatcher and her political philosophy (which was continued by Labour’s Tony Blair) has shifted the political center-ground to the right, but the press’s constant scare-mongering that it would be the end of the world if any vaguely left-wing or liberal policies were to be pursued has helped keep it there.
Then there is Scotland, and the fears of the break-up of the United Kingdom. At present it’s made up of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In 2014 Scotland held a referendum about whether to leave the union and form an independent country. The “Yes” campaign, headed by the left-leaning Scottish Nationalist Party, was narrowly defeated. Only, after the referendum, the SNP has become the most popular party in Scotland (it won virtually all the seats in the country last week). A Labour/SNP coalition seemed a very real possibility (despite Labour leader Ed Miliband explicitly ruling it out), and one canvasser told me that the fear of the UK being partly governed by a party that wanted to break up the union was frequently raised on the doorstep, whipped up by a Tory advertising campaign which showed Miliband superimposed in the pockets of notable SNP leaders. Combined, the illusion of the Tory’s fiscal responsibility and the likelihood of Labour needing the SNP to form a majority seems to have convinced a large number of people to swallow hard and vote Conservative.
Still this is all just a guess as to the motives of those Conservative swing voters. Most of them are keeping very very quiet about having voted for the Tories at all, let alone why. 2015 is now the year of the “Shy Tory” – people too embarrassed to admit to a pollster that they planned on voting Conservative because of the party’s negative image. Given their record over the last five years, it isn’t hard to see why.
But now they’re in, what of the future? Within days (in some cases, within hours) of the final election result the newspapers had suggested that the “Snooper’s Charter” is back on the schedule;[xvii] the “Access to Work” scheme that helps disabled people get back into employment could be cut;[xviii] the Human Rights Act will be scrapped (to the hysterical delight of the right-wing press, the move will “leave us standing alone with Belarus and Kazakhstan – the only other countries in Europe that have chosen to forsake similar laws” such as the right to life, the right not to be tortured and the right to a fair trial, among others);[xix] there will be cuts of another £12bn ($18bn) from the welfare budget in ways they did not feel the need to specify before the election; reductions to the benefits cap and removing housing benefit from under-21s on Job Seeker’s Allowance.[xx] Oh, and they’re likely to find time to bring back fox-hunting (because blood sports are clearly what the country needs).[xxi] Then there’s the plan to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600, involving drawing new constituency boundaries which will make it harder for Labour to win a majority.[xxii] They have admitted that they are “considering” amending the Freedom Of Information Act to make it easier to reject requests,[xxiii] as well as decriminalizing paying the BBC’s licence fee, in a move widely seen as an attack on the whole concept of non-commercial television[xxiv]. There’s Cameron’s support for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) which will allow corporations to sue governments that pass legislation which interfers with their profits.[xxv] Perhaps most frightening are new anti-terrorism measures which will allow the police to vet and stop all electronic communications of those suspected of extremist views, including any protests of innocence. By the time this article is published, Cameron will have introduced the measures with the chilling phrase “For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone.”[xxvi] Now, it seems, even obeying the law isn’t enough. And they plan to do all this backed with the votes of just 36.9% of the turn-out.
To top all that off, this week has seen David Cameron make a series of ministerial appointments that are almost beyond parody – an Equalities Minister who voted against same-sex marriage; a Justice Secretary who is on record as saying he wants to bring back hanging; a Culture Secretary who described the BBC’s licence fee as a ‘poll tax’;[xxvii] a Disabilities Minister who voted against the protection of extra benefits for disabled children and cancer patients;[xxviii] a Junior Health Minister who opposes abortion,[xxix] and a Business Minister who voted against increasing the minimum wage and who wants to change strike law in the UK so that 40% of eligible union members would have to vote for industrial action – a threshold that his own party didn’t achieve in the election that gave them the power to make the change in the first place.[xxx]
But hey, that’s democracy, right? The Conservatives won, so they get to set the agenda, and if your party lost, that’s just tough.
In Britain we have a parliamentary convention called the Salisbury Convention, which in its most basic form means that if a policy appears in an election-winning manifesto it will be allowed to go unchallenged into law by the House of Lords (aside from amendments being offered to make it more workable). This prevents the kind of situation seen during the Obama administration where policies that were voted for by the electorate were blocked by Congress. This neatly sums up the basis of British elections – you might not always like it, but you have to bow to will of the electorate. So, the protests are surely nothing but people acting out against the democratic process, right? Well… yes and no. The basic point is sound, but again, this election is far from straight-forward. Firstly, the Conservatives won because 36.9% of those who voted cast their votes for them, resulting in their being awarded 50.7% of the seats. But the total turn-out was only 66.1% of the qualifying electorate, meaning they were only voted for by 36.9% of 66.1% of qualifying electors – which works out to roughly 24.4% of those eligible to vote.[xxxi]
With these statistics, you’ve got to ask the question – how low can the number of votes cast for a party go and still allow them claim a mandate to make sweeping changes to a country’s infrastructure? At this election, UKIP and the Green Party received a combined total of over 5 million votes (16.4%) but only won two seats between them (0.3%) – one of which was not Great Grimsby, which stayed Labour (in case anyone was wondering after my previous article).[xxxii] From the outside it’s hard not to think that those voters have been effectively disenfranchised. A majority government is supposed to have more legitimacy than a coalition, but it’s not difficult to see why many may question the right of the Conservatives to claim that they are ruling in the name of the majority when 75% of the electorate did not vote for them, or why people might feel that taking to the streets is the only method of expression that they have left. Of course, a few people shouting on the streets of London aren’t going to bring down the democratic government of the day. But over the next five years the loyalty of those swing voters will be tested, as the new government slips their Liberal Democrat chains and pursues their agenda unfettered. It may not be what many of them are expecting. And if the protesters are right about one thing, it is that action can be taken now rather than waiting for the next election, by which time the damage will be done. Already there is an e-petition requesting David Cameron hold a referendum on the plan to scrap the Human Rights Act for example.[xxxiii] With a small majority in the Commons and only a quarter of the electorate behind him, targeted campaigns could cause the Prime Minister to wobble (as he did on several occasions in a first term littered with policy u-turns) and give encouragement to those trying to build a more coordinated opposition. And if at this dark time we need something to offer encouragement and remind us that all things are possible, we can always watch the footage of Paddy Ashdown and Alastair Campbell eating their (chocolate) hat and kilt.[xxxiv]
[i] Oberst, Conor; “No One Would Riot For Less”, Cassadaga, Polydor Records, 2007.
[iv] Jones, Owen; The Establishment, p182, Penguin Books, 2015.
[xxxiii] Which you can sign here; https://www.change.org/p/david-cameron-mp-we-call-on-the-government-and-the-prime-minister-to-provide-a-national-referendum-on-the-planned-abolition-of-the-human-rights-act?just_created=true