Sunday, 1 February 2015

94 Days to Go: Going On, and On, and On… the Ongoing UK General Election

Andrew S Crines discusses the general election campaign.

Virtually as the Christmas celebrations were over, the 2015 general election campaign started with little or no ceremony[1]. The campaign, at four months duration, will be one of the longest the electorate has been subjected to in living memory. Indeed, this will become something of an endurance test as the months of campaigning, misquotes, fiscal arguments, and general electioneering turns ever further forward towards the night of the results. During that time we will have the debates (which at the time of writing appear to be subjected to continual uncertainty over the format)[2], the party election broadcasts, and the door to door canvassing.

Of course, even that won’t be the end of it. Then we enter the period of coalition negotiations (unless, somehow, one of the two main parties pull off a miracle and secure a majority!) These negotiations will keep the pundits guessing on the composition of the new government, thereby prolonging the journey to power just that little bit more.

Given the importance of the formation of the first coalition, it is worth briefly considering any lessons from 2010 which may inform a more thorough negotiation process. The five days in May 2010 have hung like something of a shadow of critics of the Lib Dems in government, for i: naively believing the senior in the coalition suspended self interest in the name of honest government and ii: spreading themselves too thinly over the sheer vastness of the Whitehall establishment.[3] The negotiations led to the strange sight of Vince Cable pushing through higher tuition fees,[4] whilst their Tory coalition allies dominated the Treasury and the power it brings over the rest of the government.[5] These five days in May stamped an impression of the Lib Dems on the mind-set of the electorate[6] and, indeed, the character of their role in government for the next five years.

And here we are. Five years later, with an electorate more disillusioned than ever[7] at the political class. The Lib Dems have, to some extent become a face of that disillusionment. Their traditional/protest support base has fled to the Labour[8], leaving a rump of die hards who are the bones of the Lib Dems. But it is not just a tale of woe for the Lib Dems. By standing on the same platform with the Conservatives[9] prior to and during the recent Scottish Independence campaign, the Labour Party is facing a massive challenge by the SNP which could significantly affect the outcome of the election.[10] Granted, the SNP have indicated a supportive role for a Labour government in Westminster,[11] but it is not the position Labour would have expected to find themselves in having fought hard to save the Union.

Furthermore, the rise of UKIP has fascinated the pundits, but their chances of being a steady feature in any credible settlement at Westminster is undermined by its internal instability. UKIP prides itself on being ‘plain speaking’ and against the professionalised form of politics that has come to dominate.[12] But that has a price. It may not be appealing to their central representative claim, but the electorate has come to expect a political party to have a certain credible image. Stability is core to that, and in terms of policy, internal management, and even the dynamics of personnel, UKIP does not fit within this expectation of the electorate.[13] This will become clearer as the party is subjected to ongoing scrutiny. To put it simply, the Tories, Labour, SNP, Lib Dems, and Plaid have all professionalised their presentation for a reason – the electorate expects to be treated with respect. Indeed, the memory of 1983 still lingers over Labour, as does 1997 for the Tories. UKIP is a very young party in comparison and has much to learn in terms of party management and communication.

Thus, the general election will be a very turbulent battleground. It will expose the deficiencies in the established, nationalist, and fringe parties alike. We will, over the next four months, be exposed to the bitterness of politicking[14] in what is one of the most significant general elections in decades. The most unfortunate feature of this situation is the pre-existing and corrosive belief amongst the electorate that politicians are detached, petty, argumentative, and unprofessional.[15] This belief festered in the run up to the 2010 election, and following the decision of the ‘new, young’ party (defined by Clegg in opposition to ‘these two old parties’)[16] to enter government with one of the oldest parties, it has now become almost a solid feature of their mind set. There are some who rightly try to argue that politicians are hardworking,[17] but there are many who argue that politicians are amoral, weak, and not to be trusted.[18] Sadly these critics have the ear of the electorate. Thus, the election campaign is likely to leave a nasty taste in the electorate’s mouth after 8 May. That nasty taste will be cynical, unpleasant, and disrespectful. It is a very unfortunate position for a healthy democracy to be in. The question remains – how do we escape?

Andrew S Crines is a Research Fellow in Rhetoric and British Politics at the University of Leeds. He is also the co-editor of two forthcoming MUP volumes on oratory in Labour and Conservative Politics, and the publicity officer for the PSA Conservatives and Conservatism Specialist Group.

[1] BBC News, 2015 general election officially begins on Friday, 18 December 2014.
[2] The Guardian, David Cameron wants leaders’ debates held before election campaigning, 27 January 2015.
[3] The Guardian, Naïve Liberal Democrats have suffered a loss of identity, says Tim Farron, 9 September 2011.
[4] Liberal Democrat Voice, Vince Cable’s statement on tuition fees, 12 October 2010.
[5] Timothy Heppell, What do I have to do to get promoted? Tory MPs resent the reduced likelihood of reshuffles and promotions under coalition, March 7 2013.
[6] Stephen Tall, How did it come to this? The Lib Dems seven key election promises, 18 November 2014.
[7] Jamie Barlett, Russell Brand has a point about disillusionment with politics, but he is wrong when he says young people shouldn’t vote, 29 October 2013.
[8] Stephen Tall, Must read analysis from Peter Kellner on where the 5 million missing 2010 Lib Dem voters have gone, 11 February 2014.
[9] The SNP, Labour share a platform with party most of us hate, 27 May 2012.
[10] Libby Brooks, Poll shows SNP could win all by four Scottish seats in general election, 21 January 2015.
[11] Andrew Sparrow, Scots want Labour government dependent on SNP, says Sturgeon, 25 January 2015.
[12] Tim Wigmore, Why anti-establishment parties are here to stay, 21 November 2014.
[13] BBC Daily Politics, 27 January 2015.
[14] David Button, Things can only get bitter, 7 January 2015.
[15] Alex Proud, Why the public can’t stand today’s politicians, 22 April 2014.
[16] Andrew Grice, Nigel Morris, Tom Mendelsohn, Clegg smashes through two party system, 16 April 2010.
[17] Matthew Flinders, Defending Politics, OUP, 2012.
[18] Frankie Boyle, Have I Got News for You is everything that’s wrong, 26 November 2011.


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