Monday 9 May 2005

The most unfair election in British history

by Iain Macwhirter

The electorate left Tony Blair in no doubt what they thought of him last week. But with only 35% of the vote, Labour secured a projected majority of 66. The Tories took 32%, yet Tony Blair won nearly twice as many seats. And they call this democracy?

At least now we can wave goodbye to the pager clones. Those doggedly on-message New Labour MPs have gone the way of the device that used to deliver the “line to take”. Many of the most ardent Blairites were massacred on Thursday. Labour is now more like the party it was in the 1970s. The stage is set for a conflict between a leader who has lost credibility and a party that wants its ball back.

Two images sum up 2005. Stephen Twigg, the infant hero of Labour’s 1997 “people’s revolution”, biting his lip as he lost the seat he stole from the Tory minister Michael Portillo eight years ago. His rueful expression summed up the feeling that the New Labour project has come full circle.

Second image. Victorious George Galloway, the former Scottish Labour MP sacked for his opposition to the war, lambasting Tony Blair like an Old Testament prophet: “All the people you’ve killed and the lies you have told have come back to haunt you.” Not for the first time, Galloway had found the words to wound. It was the soundbite of the night – and he duffed up Jeremy Paxman too.

This was a defeat for Blair wrapped in the cloak of victory. It was a triumph for the very people power that helped put him in Downing Street in the first place. Up and down the country people used a kind of stealth voting to deliver maximum damage to the Prime Minister while avoiding the defeat of a Labour administration they believed to be essentially sound.

By calculated defections and tactical voting, a disillusioned electorate cut Blair’s majority by 99 seats, from a domineering 166 last time to a timid 66. From Putney to Na h-Eileanan an Iar (the Western Isles); from Bethnal Green to Dunbartonshire East, voters held the Prime Minister to account in a concerted and finely targeted withdrawal of consent.

Even in the seats Labour retained, such as Edinburgh South, voters delivered a message. They accepted that Nigel Griffiths probably deserved to stay on – after all he is a confederate of Gordon Brown’s and supported congestion charging in the city – but just to make sure he understood they slashed his majority to 400.

This was a remarkable achievement for the British voters. “Labour on a reduced majority” didn’t appear on any ballot paper. The Prime Minister warned that tactical voting would only benefit the Tories. Not so. The Conservatives did not have a good night, winning fewer seats even than the hapless Michael Foot achieved in Labour’s annus horribilis, 1983.

Through a kind of electoral telepathy the British people managed to overcome the vagaries of our increasingly anachronistic electoral system to achieve the required outcome: Tony Blair stripped of that huge majority which fuelled his hubris.

The PM will not be starting any more wars in a hurry with his new precarious majority. No more riding shotgun for George Bush as they rid the world of bad guys. Blair, so long as he remains leader, will be looking over his shoulder at a depleted Labour backbench.

In some respects, this was similar to the voter revolt we saw in 1997 when the Tories were slaughtered by a country which had had enough of sleaze. Now in 2005, the country has rebelled against a political leader many believe has betrayed the spirit of 1997. Not just over Iraq, but over things like house arrest, tuition fees, ID cards, Alastair Campbell.

If this was the revolt of the shiraz and chardonnay set, then it has found its voice and it is drinking well. New Labourites had resorted to a kind of class envy in their efforts to dismiss the concerns of the thinking middle classes about Iraq. Blue-collar workers supported the war, we were told, and the anti-war plonkers would be shown to be irrelevant.

Well, now they know. Principle can carry a punch. Brian Sedgemore, the former Labour MP who defected to the Liberal Democrats, called on voters to give Tony Blair “a bloody nose”. They decided to give him a couple of black eyes as well.

There is no doubt that the war and trust were the key issues of the night, and indeed of the entire campaign. Too many voters had simply had enough of what they believed to be Tony Blair’s high-handed and dishonest handling of the war in Iraq.

Of course there were other factors in the mix. Immigration played a strong role in eroding Labour’s vote, especially in English constituencies where the Tory “dog whistle” was heard loud and clear. Many people have become fed up paying higher taxes while still waiting for real improvements in the NHS. This is especially so in Scotland where cracks are beginning to show in the machine of Labour domination.

Tony Blair was probably right to say in his victory address that people are fed up with yobbery and the decline of “respect” – though in Bethnal Green and Bow he got rather more of that than he wanted. But the PM was badly advised in trying to suggest that what the electorate wanted was yet more Blairism. If it hadn’t been for the stabilising influence of the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, Labour might well have lost its overall majority.

This election, we now see, really was a very close call. That opinion poll collapse that happened in the first week of the campaign, when Labour’s overall lead was cut to one percentage point in the poll of polls, was no statistical aberration.

The polls have proved extremely reliable in this election. If Labour hadn’t presented itself as a two-leader party, if Brown hadn’t offered himself as a human shield, then Blair might have been negotiating with the Liberal Democrats for a coalition this weekend instead of putting the finishing touches to his third administration.

The winners lost and the losers won – though there was clearly disappointment in the LibDem camp that they didn’t do better. With 62 seats, the party is bigger than at any time since the days of David Lloyd George. But this wasn’t the mould-breaking result some had forecast. This was essentially an anti-Labour, or rather anti-Blair, vote instead of a fundamental and irreversible swing to Liberal Democracy in Westminster.

But it could be the beginning of the end for the Scottish coalition in Holyrood. With 11 seats, the Liberal Democrats are fed up not being taken seriously. They think they could take Labour, and Labour might be minded to let them try. There’s a lot of bad blood around.

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