Election sketch: How politics broke its promise

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 8 May 2015 in Comment

With a strong mandate from 23 per cent of the electorate, Cameron must get on with whatever it is he is planning to do

For months British politics has felt like a drunken exercise in building IKEA furniture, with seasoned political commentators screaming hysterically at each other as they fumbled around, blindly trying to put together a model of how a government could be formed.

There were, we were told, far too many parts and no manual for how it should work. And there were far too many tools.

A majority government was inconceivable, and even a coalition might be impossible.

In the end, despite what we were promised, everyone was wrong. And elections, if nothing else, are about promises.

The SNP’s huge swing was based on the promise that Scotland’s ‘voice’ would be louder at Westminster, with the party claiming Scots have been ignored at Westminster for too long.

"Tony Blair, for example, under-promised and yet over-delivered on foreign wars"

Which is true – except obviously for Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, Alistair Darling, Jim Murphy, Danny Alexander, Douglas Alexander, Alistair Carmichael and Michael Moore.

So there were a few. And actually Tony Blair is also Scottish – if he was ever born at all.

Plus David Cameron owns quite a bit of Scotland, though that is not exactly the same thing.

But the point runs true – Scottish MPs may have had a disproportionately large amount of power at Westminster over the past few decades, but they were not SNP ones.

The Lib Dems meanwhile have learned about the danger of breaking promises the hard way – with Nick Clegg announcing his resignation after the party lost all but eight seats.

Ever since surprising the UK in the 2010 TV debates, Clegg has appeared an incredibly polished politician. Or at least he always looks quite shiny.

And his resignation speech had a peculiarly old fashioned feel to it, invoking the need to keep the ‘flame of liberalism’ burning in order to defend his record.

At least he stood in contrast to Jim Murphy’s offering, which was the first recorded resignation speech in political history not to include a resignation.

But then maybe that is part of Murphy’s long term strategy – with the still Scottish Labour leader cleverly staying one step ahead of the SNP, by deliberately losing his seat to give him more time to concentrate on the leadership of the party.

Ed Miliband took to TV soon after to announce his own resignation. In fact by that point it was hard to take a tea break without someone resigning.

But watching him speak it was hard not to feel a bit sorry for Ed Miliband, who never seemed to have a particularly clear strategy beyond being hated by the right wing press.

"It is British democracy in action, with about 23 per cent of electorate asking Cameron to get on with whatever it is he is actually planning to do"

Perhaps in an effort to distance himself from Clegg’s mistake, Miliband had started the campaign by declaring he would be the first Prime Minister in history to ‘underpromise and overdeliver’.

Actually though, this isn’t actually as attractive as it sounds. After all, what if the plan he is ‘under-promising’ is a bad one?

Tony Blair, for example, under-promised and yet over-delivered on foreign wars. What if Miliband was under-promising his plans for removing all of Britain’s roads? Or starting a famine?

And even if you accept all that, the statement, ‘I will under promise and over deliver’, is itself a promise. Is that also under-promised? Will Miliband really under-promise, or is that, in itself, an under-promise?

You can see why the electorate was confused, given its not so much a policy as a weird riddle – a logical loop with the listener forced into wondering how you under-promise an under-promise and what that means.

So it didn’t work out and Cameron got a strong mandate, winning an excellent 36 per cent of the vote from a 66 per cent turnout.

It is British democracy in action, with about 23 per cent of electorate asking Cameron to get on with whatever it is he is actually planning to do.

The problem is – as the IFS has pointed out – that’s still not really clear.

But then nothing about Cameron is. Whether it is which football team he supports, whether he is concerned by climate change or whether he plans to fundamentally restructure the British state, we really have no idea what he thinks.

He even looks ill-defined, with the campaign seeing him wandering the country like a pinkish ghost held together with cling film.

Still, he did at least get passionate as the campaign continued, at one point looking like he was on the verge of exploding like a broken kettle, as he shouted, “You can have all the plans and all the dreams and all the policies and all the ideas in the world but they don’t amount to a row of beans unless you’ve got a strong economy”.

That at least clarified one thing: he doesn’t want a row of beans.

But his change in tact at least attracted attention. Asked about it, he bellowed, “If I’m getting lively about it it’s because I feel bloody lively about it!”

But it wasn’t that convincing, and it speaks volumes about how far spin has gone in modern day politics that Prime Minister can start screaming about how he feels ‘bloody lively’, like he’s not the head of government but instead the Guvnor of a struggling gang of football casuals, without anyone really noticing how weird it all is.

So some things are still unclear, but at least we know what the result was. What happens next? That promises to be interesting.

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