It’s amazing how quickly it can come to seem like ancient history, but a couple of months on, time enough for the pain of May 7th to ease a little, I can reflect on the UK general election campaign with a little objectivity.
Having left government employment, 2015 was the first general election since 1983 when I was free to throw myself into the campaign. I wanted Labour to win, and was gutted that they did not. But leaving that aside, what a strange ritual they are. So here, in as apolitical a way as I can manage, are some things I learned.
1. Some people will say anything
There are almost too many examples to choose from (this was an election, f’crissakes).
There was the embarrassing attack on Ed Miliband by Tory time-server Michael Fallon. The one about how Miliband would stab the country in the back over nuclear weapons because he stood against his brother in the leadership election.
The Prime Minister lying on TV about the Conservatives’ intentions towards tax credits is also noteworthy for its boldness and the speed with which his government’s Budget did a wholly predictable 180.
But my favourite bit of zany hyperbole was Nick Clegg’s latest excuse for betraying those voters who may have thought he meant it in 2010 when he promised to abolish university tuition fees. In twenty seconds of blindingly slippery bravado, Clegg first manages to suggest it was really all Labour’s fault. He then explains that unfortunately, once he and his colleagues were in their ministerial cars and offices, it wasn’t possible to abolish fees, so they ‘did the next best thing’.
Just so we’re clear, the next best thing to abolishing a £3000 fee is to triple it to £9000? Masterful stuff!
But sadly, political candidates will tend to say anything because…
2. Some people will believe anything
I’m convinced Labour lost in 2015 largely because the Conservatives and their Lib Dem helpers successfully created a myth about the last Labour government, and Labour failed to challenge it.
You know the story: Labour spent too much, they crashed the economy and the Coalition had to save us from the fate of Greece by slashing and burning the bloated public finances.
These myths can be comprehensively rebutted with the facts (see for example the series of articles by economist Simon Wren-Lewis.) But it does no good. A good story eats facts for breakfast and on the doorstep you still encounter people who seem to think that somehow the massive rise in borrowing under Gordon Brown caused the banking crash, instead of the other way round.
And, as for the people who confidently assert ‘they’re all the same’…I think this government will show us all soon enough how different things can be.
3. Political education is badly needed
I met a woman who told me she didn’t know how to vote. She wasn’t uninterested in political issues, she simply had never voted and didn’t know how to do it. Add to this the vast numbers of people who do not even register, and the low turnout of those who do (the Conservatives won with the votes of fewer than 1 in 4 of potential electors).
And then add to that the extent to which apparently intelligent people treat their vote as some kind of lifestyle choice rather than a contribution to choosing the government. I spent a lot of time campaigning in Croydon Central, one of the crucial marginals that Labour needed to win. We knew that it was close and the only possible results were a Conservative MP, or Labour’s excellent candidate, Sarah Jones.
With every vote needed, it felt like a worrying omen to find myself arguing with a former Labour member who said he intended to vote for a fringe socialist party, because he would not vote for a party that supported the war in Iraq. It did no good to point out that he would simply make it more likely that the Tories (who supported the war in Iraq even more strongly than Labour) would win.
Sure enough, Sarah lost by 165 votes. There were more than 1400 Green votes, helping to re-elect the Tory MP for next five years. Surely 166 of them could have compromised with reality.
4. Young people need to vote
Labour had a clear lead among voters aged 18-34. But sadly, those younger voters – as usual – were less likely to vote. And while young people stay away from the ballot box, they will continue to be screwed when it comes to tough political choices. The recent Budget showed that yet again: pensioner benefits remained untouched while the axe was taken to working age benefits, and the higher minimum wage was confined to those older than 24.
Politicians are influenced by idealism. But they are even more influenced by the thought that they will be voted out. If young people can’t be bothered to vote, politicians will feel free to ignore their interests in favour of people who do vote.
5. I love metaphors, but sometimes they need to stay just metaphors
If you think people doubt what you’re saying they probably won’t be convinced just because you carve a series of vague promises on a large slab of marble.
I think we all know that and, as a loyal Labour supporter, I will not dwell on it.
What kept running through my mind was that someone had had the job, in the heat of the election campaign, of contacting a stonemason and explaining what they wanted. I struggle to imagine that conversation and I look forward to reading the intern’s memoirs on day.