84. Election Special

Yes, I’d like to remind you, I’m running for President
– appreciate your vote, and here is an industrial love song.
Joe Walsh, Eagles – November 1980

2005-general-election-big-ben-london-night.jpg

We’re having an election here. On 5th May.

So much has happened since our last, in 2001.

And can eight years really have gone by, since John Prescott was dancing away the London small hours to the heady optimism of D-Ream’s ‘Things can only get better’ ?

It’s hard to believe, sometimes. Eighteen years of Conservative government had preceded that new dawn in May 1997. After so long living with Maggie Thatcher’s iron will and John Major’s grey underpants, being accustomed to uncaring and unlistening politicians, it felt so good to bring in a new broom, to have the feeling that someone would actually listen, and that something might actually change.It’s a complex election, this time. Maybe they all are, but I can’t remember it ever being like this. Normally, the choices in this country are pretty straightforward. Either you can go with the hanging-and-flogging and foreigner-bashing, low-taxation brigade, or you can put your principles before your wallet and cast your vote in solidarity with the impoverished and underprivileged of our society. Or you can choose something else, and most likely waste your vote, whatever the rationale behind it.

It’s a tricky choice, for some people, and I’m sadly guilty of failing with all three of those alternatives at one time or other. We all make mistakes, so I’m sorry about 1979, when näivety suggested that a vote for a woman would in some way be a liberating step. It wasn’t.

These days I fall firmly into the mainstream of rose-brandishing European social democrats. It would probably leave me with some good electoral choices, if I lived in Germany, or Spain, but in Britain today, it’s a bit of a problem.

It takes some time to appreciate and assimilate, but the main issue in this election is Tony Blair. What a fantastically charismatic, and well-meaning politician and international statesman he is. Principled, fighting for social justice, stern with the economy. All of the above. So where did it all go wrong ?

Let’s be honest. Because, as a politician, he’s just too cute by half. I don’t mean that I find him good looking, but rather that he’s so much keener on finesse than fact, and on spin than substance. Popularity has always been just as important to him, deep down, as principle. The result these past eight years has been a pragmatically watered-down and often ineffectual kind of unreforming socialism. The kind where not much really happens. Where despite a huge national majority in favour, it’s taken eight years to ban fox-hunting, and only then at the last minute and against Tony’s better judgement.

There were over 100 women MPs on that first day in Parliament in 1997, and there was talk of sweeping away the anachronisms of government, of making it more relevant in the process. So why has it taken three elections to think about reforming the House of Lords ? There’ve been some steps along the way, in establishing a sort of deluded halfway-house mixing inheritance with nominated representatives, but after eight years we’re not much further forwards on our way to a democratically-elected Upper House.

Back in 1997, Tony said that the most pressing issues for his government were going to be ‘Education, education, and education.’ And now, eight years on, we find that the free university education which I enjoyed, which my colleagues enjoyed, which Tony himself enjoyed – well, that is something of the past. It was Private Eye which memorably characterised the Major government’s privatisation of utilities with the phrase ‘Higher prices mean cheaper electricity for everyone’. Using the same flawed logic, we are now told to believe that increasing access to higher education means penalising those least able to afford it. This is one of the truly wonderful principles of this country, and it is all being thrown away.

At least there has been progress with the National Health Service. There are enormous problems still, of course, but more funding is, slowly, making a difference. That’s one national institution which seems to be safe with Labour, in part because Gordon Brown has been solidly continuing the slow but inevitable process of refinancing it. The health of the economy has helped here, although there have been significant casualties – and the inevitable but painful collapse of UK car-maker MG Rover last week couldn’t have come at a worse time for Labour. But that’s what happens to an ailing asset in the hands of a team of asset-strippers.

As for foreign policy – well, Tony has always been one to press the European case. Or has he ? Because, after eight years, we are no nearer joining the Euro Zone, with that debate put off until after the election (like so much else), whilst Britain has chosen to position herself somewhere in the irrelevant isolation of the mid-Atlantic.

The story is that when Tony’s elected, he’ll stand down in a few years to let Chancellor Gordon Brown take over. It’s not the best way to go into an election, and the Tories were delighted with their early slogan ‘Vote Blair, get Brown.’ Until they hastily dropped it on realising that it’s Tony Blair who is the electoral liability, this time, and that most people would actually welcome that particular exchange.

The problem is, that Tony’s let us down. For so many convincing, principled, well-meaning reasons – perhaps. But ultimately manipulative ones, too. It is Iraq that may cost him this election, and cost this country as a result.

In supporting the invasion of Iraq, Blair could not rely on the righteous indignation of a people rocked by 9/11, nor a simplified view of foreign policy unable always to distinguish between one set of mad extremists and another. No, for the British people it was clear that a solid case had to be made, that a threat had to be proven. And Tony built his whole case for war on WMD. That threat was real, it was live, it was growing. The facts were indisputable. Or so he said.

What really was indisputable was that Tony needed a strong case to justify a pre-emptive, and arguably illegal, invasion. The intelligence material may not exactly have been manipulated, but it was certainly flavoured. The British people were split down the middle, for months, but a bare majority reluctantly accepted the WMD argument saying that war was the only way to address the threat.

The problem for Tony was that there were no WMD, only Words of Mass Deception. From the outside, it may seem a semantic issue now, when the ejection of Saddam Hussein was a welcome result. But for Tony, who had built his whole case for war on WMD, it was simply a disaster. How could we ever trust him again ?

The re-writing of key intelligence documents is no small issue. Information is too important in today’s world. Just look at the Director General of the BBC and the Editor of The Mirror newspaper – both of whom were forced, in effect by the government, to resign for their reporting in the aftermath of war. The analyses that each of these organisations presented, that the intelligence had been re-flavoured, that there had been systematic abuse of Iraqis by the British armed forces, was wrong in detail but ultimately proved correct in substance.

In contrast, Tony’s WMD case proved wrong in every respect. And yet the one person who did not resign, of course, was Tony Blair.

It’s going to be an interesting election then. There are many voters who will want to punish Tony Blair, because they feel they have been misled. The problem for Tony, is that most of these are his natural supporters. They may not vote against him, no, but actually they may not vote at all. As for the hangers and floggers and immigrant-haters – they’ll vote against him anyway. So who will actually vote for Tony Blair ? The answer is that I honestly don’t know.

The irony is that we might then end up with a party in government which was more in favour of the Iraq war than the Labour Party, as a whole, ever was. It’s an intriguing paradox.

Is there an alternative for the disgruntled British Labour voter, then, in 2005 ? In reality, not that much of one. The Liberal Democrats offer some interesting policies, some of which strike a chord. They are supporters of free higher education. And they were adamantly against the war in Iraq. But they don’t really stand a snowball’s of being elected, and if they were (which they won’t be), they don’t yet have the experience, the credentials or the calibre of leader to govern.

There are three weeks to go in this election. The opinion polls have put Labour in the lead for all of the past eight years. Yet recently, that gap has narrowed. Amongst people certain to vote, the Conservatives are ahead. Even as a solid Labour supporter, I’ve had doubts about voting for Tony Blair, this time. How the rest of the country will vote, I’m just not certain. There are just so many voters who will, like me, be partly minded to give Tony a kicking. For not being radical enough, for being populist rather than principled, and above all, for Iraq.

Will the British voters, will I, stay home on polling day ? Or will we look at the alternative, and finally think better of that course ? In Guildford, it’s not an issue. The Liberal Democrats have a tiny majority over the Conservatives here, and it’s tactical voting that will win this constituency. But what will happen in the rest of the country ? Will the voters forgive, or will they wreak a silently passive but decisive revenge ? That is the great unknown of this election. It’s going to be an interesting couple of weeks.

Related articles:
148. Farewell to Tony Blair
56. Paris – a view from the Champs de Mars
15. Sorrowful hills – the Space Shuttle Disaster and war clouds in Iraq
87. One morning in May
95. Going underground – the 7/7 attacks on London
46. On the front line – Crawley’s echoes of Madrid

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