Elections are among the days politicians and activists both love the most and hate the most. Love because the whole country at least has a sense that this is the most important thing happening anywhere today, and because right up to 10pm you can win another argument and win over another waverer and get them to the polling booth on time. Hate because no matter how well or how badly you have controlled the agenda, the control is now no longer with you. It has shifted decisively, definitively to the public. Democracy in action. What’s not to love?
All elections provide the answer to a basic question which, during the heat of battle, is sometimes not entirely clear until the end, when all the results are in.
If I go through all the elections I have been involved in, first as a journalist and then as part of the Labour team from 1994, it seems to me the questions are these.
1987 – does Margaret Thatcher have a sufficiently clear agenda and a sufficiently strong record to merit a third term? The country said yes.
1992 – is Labour ready to be a party of government again? The country said No. They were not exactly wild about John Major but they thought he was just about good enough.
1997 – is New Labour real? Is Tony Blair a potential Prime Minister? The country said yes in the language of landslides.
2001 – has New Labour done enough to merit a second term? Yes. Another three figure majority.
2005 – what about a third term, and in particular who is best for the economy? Are we ready to go back to the Tories? Again, even after Iraq and even with all the difficulties between Tony and Gordon Brown, the country said yes to Labour but with the majority down, and with a sense that at some point they wanted change at the top.
2010 – is the country ready for change and is the answer David Cameron? The answer to the first part was yes. The answer to the second part was ‘we are not sure.’ And the coalition was born. I predicted it, according to Philip Gould’s book, nine months out. Why? Because that was where the political centre of gravity was developing. The question was answered with an uncertain reply because that is how the country felt.
So the 2010 answer was more complicated than any of the previous ones. And the 2015 answer may be more complicated still.
Here is the question the Tories hoped that people would answer with a resounding yes today.
Is the economy on the mend and is that down to David Cameron and George Osborne?
They hoped that led to a second related question. Does David Cameron look and sound more like a Prime Minister than Ed Miliband?
Cameron thought yes to both was enough for a campaign at the start of which he said that anything less than a clear Tory majority, allowing him to govern unencumbered by the Liberal Democrats, would represent failure in his own eyes. Time to go time. Make way for – he even named them – Osborne or Johnson or May.
Well, as he sat down to breakfast today, he did so with a sinking feeling that the country might not answer yes in quite the numbers he imagined.
Has the economy improved and do he and Osborne get the credit? They have made the mistake of believing their own propaganda. You can find plenty of data that says there has been improvement. And they have plenty of media outlets who have reported such data to the exclusion of the data that suggests their claims of economic miracle do not match the reality of millions of lives. With every boast that has actually played into the Labour attack that this recovery has helped the people at the top but not the majority.
The one political success I have always given them is the way they managed to persuade themselves, most of the media, a lot of business, and some members of the public that Labour spending and borrowing caused the global financial crash, rather than the disgusting antics of their friends in the money world in the US and elsewhere.
I have also been consistent in saying Labour has not done enough to rebut all that. But even without that rebuttal, having spent a fair bit of time both at Labour HQ and out on the road in key marginals, my sense is the public have a much more nuanced sense of where blame lies for the crash and who is best placed to take the next steps forward for our economy.
Ed Miliband’s central message, that Britain does best when working families do best, is essentially both a many not the few message, but also a values message about who and what we are as a country and as a people.
The media has barely covered the growth in food banks over the past five years. But I found undecided voters often bringing it up as something that caused them real concern bordering on shame. Yes, some had imbibed the Tory line. But many others felt that there had been no reckoning after the crash, that the Tories still stood up for and defended those who had really caused it – not Gordon Brown who actually helped save the world economy at the time of the crash – but the investment bankers still raking in massive bonuses, the hedge funders who bankroll Cameron’s campaign, the non doms and tax dodgers who think there should be one rule for them and their many homes and another for those who can’t afford to buy or rent a home at all. Standing up for those who caused the crash, and punishing those who didn’t, was a potentially fatal error by Cameron and Osborne.
All this plays to a sense of fairness that despite the brutality of our media on these issues – where the tax dodging press owners urge Tory votes pretending it will be good for their readers when actually it is good for them, their wealth and their power – most people have in their DNA.
Here is the other thing about this election. If it was decided by Murdoch and his papers, Dacre and his papers, the Barclays and their papers, David Cameron would be heading for a majority bigger than any ever enjoyed by Thatcher or Blair. But it is not and Cameron would seem not to be heading for a majority at all which, by his own definition, represents failure and defeat.
Incidentally I do hope that the Electoral Commission, and possibly even the police, are investigating the emails sent out by the Telegraph editor today to readers urging a Tory vote. First, should it be considered an election expense? Second, has there been a breach of the Data Protection Act?
The press was pretty hysterical in 1983, 1987 and 1992. We managed to tame them for a few years when they knew we were going to win. But this time Ed Miliband has been subject to a campaign of vilification which must make even Neil Kinnock feel he got off lightly.
That is if you like a sub-question that this election is answering. Is the press as powerful as once it was? The answer is no. Is social media more important? The answer is yes. But are either the deciding factors? No.
If Ed Miliband does become Prime Minister – and I will explain shortly why I think he probably will – it will be a great thing for democracy that he has done so without courting or needing the support of the vicious, self-serving, nasty, deeply unbritish right wing media.
I hear The Sun has today wasted a few inches on an editorial claiming that because I signed a pro- Leveson, anti Murdoch/Dacre petition yesterday, this ‘let the cat out of the bag’ about Labour’s real agenda. That it was all about curbing the freedom of the press to stop them writing bad things about what it calls ‘lefties’ – these are people who do not share Murdoch’s very right wing view of the world.
The reason I supported Leveson was because serious wrongdoing had been exposed, had disgusted the country, which wanted a genuinely free press not the one we have now, owned by a small number of right wing oligarchs who wouldn’t know the truth if it bit them on their saggy arses.
When push came to shove, despite saying he would side with their victims, Cameron sided with the strong not the weak. Miliband sided with the weak not the strong. That is leadership. This is a side issue for the campaign but one worth reflecting on, for it exposes the real agenda behind the viciousness in display over thousands of front pages in recent years, culminating in the hate-filled hysteria of recent days. Miliband dared to stand up to vested interests. That is a good sign.
So the question at the heart of this election is this ‘has Cameron done enough to deserve another five years in power?’ The polls could be wrong, but the answer that appears to be forming is No.
So then, again if the polls are borne out, the question becomes ‘has Ed Miliband done enough to be in a position to be asked to try to form a government?’ And the answer to that is yes.
It is be found in the manual signed by Cameron, and agreed by Nick Clegg, paragraph 2.12, which addresses the issue of hung Parliaments. You are likely to be hearing a lot about it this evening if the exit polls confirm the opinion polls of the last few weeks.
‘Where an election does not result in an overall majority for a single party, the incumbent government remains in office unless and until the Prime Minister tenders his or her resignation and the Government’s resignation to the Sovereign. An incumbent government is entitled to wait until the new Parliament has met to see if it can command the confidence of the House of Commons, but is expected to resign if it becomes clear that it is unlikely to be able to command that confidence and there is a clear alternative.’ The clear alternative is likely to be Ed Miliband’s ability to command a Commons majority for a Queen’s Speech.
Now there is one other big question being asked, most loudly in Scotland, and that is about whether our political system is fit for purpose. Here again I must return to the fundamental weakness of Cameron – his constant confusing of tactics and strategy and especially his woeful, shameful decision to use the too close for comfort independence referendum result to try to fight Scottish nationalism with English nationalism. He put the booster rockets under nationalism and the SNP every bit as much as Nicola Sturgeon has. Just as he was prepared to put EU membership at risk with a tactical response – the In Out referendum – to UKIP, so he is prepared to put the Union at risk. His attempt to portray Scottish MPs as somehow inferior or unworthy has been disgusting. His handling of Scotland and Europe alone, let alone all the broken promises, render him unfit for purpose.
What it shows – as do his billions of hidden benefit cuts and his billions of unfunded spending promises on the NHS – is that he is prepared to say and do anything to have a few more weekends clinging on the right to chillax at Chequers. He does not deserve to win. That is why I believe he won’t.
Ed Miliband, if he does become Prime Minister, will do so having shown he can make and win difficult arguments and do so in the face of a wave of powerful vested interests who have thrown all the money and the lies they can muster.
The question then will be ‘is he up to the job?’ That was the question the public asked of David Cameron by putting him on a period of probation by denying him a majority and forcing him to work with others.
As with every Prime Minister, we will only fully know when it happens. Having watched and worked with Ed Miliband closely over this campaign, and having seen him grow into the role as the heat has risen, I think he will be able to answer that question in the affirmative much more convincingly than Cameron has. I certainly hope he gets the chance. I for one believe he has earned it.