The Clash of the Mediocrities, or How We Get the Politicians We Deserve

Despite the SNP surge in Scotland, the polling controversy and the return of Cameron to Downing Street, the 2015 election has generally lacked engaging drama. It’s been difficult to avoid the feeling that the election is a tedious interlude before significant subsequent developments, and this seems to be confirmed with resignations of the defeated political leaders, Farage for UKIP, Clegg for the Lib Dems and Miliband for Labour.  None of these leaders can really be regarded as anything other than mediocrities, largely because of their failure to recognise the continuing relevance of Blairism.  This is no real fault of Farage considering his avowedly reactionary constituency, but it remains an enduring problem for the Lib Dems and Labour.

Of the failure of leaderships assocated with their individual and collective election defeats I think the most significant is Miliband’s; Farage will almost certainly stand again for UKIP leadership and most probably win – he’s an established brand, with established appeal to that part of the electorate which takes UKIP seriously, while the party itself remains plagued with what Cameron accurately characterised as ‘swivel-eyed loons’.  In sort, Farage’s shortcomings and idiosyncrasies accurately reflect those of his constituency, which will remain relatively marginalised provided Cameron’s gambit on an EU referendum is sufficient to neutralise the threat to his votes.  And that seems to have been a successful tactic given the election results.

Clegg’s resignation is more significant, but remains a predictable consquence of going into coalition government with the Tories.  Cameron’s relative success at managing the Eurosceptic threat in his own party while holding the centre ground meant that the Lib Dems were likely to lose whatever conservative tactical votes they gained in 2010, while the defection of disaffected Labour voters lost votes in the other direction this time.  Ultimately the Lib Dems became the whipping boys for coalition policy and the loss of the temporary tactical surge they benefitted from in 2010 was predictable.  Clegg’s policy may pay off in the longer term, as the Lib Dems did demonstrate a capacity for responsible politics which might possibly address centre and right-wing reluctance to trust them in government again.  That’s not a completely trival achievement, given their otherwise virtual exclusion from power since 1945.

On the personal front Clegg certainly took a hit on the student fees fiasco.  While reneging on that election pledge was also predictable given the financial circumstances, it will remain the flagship example of the identification of the Lib Dems in coalition with austerity and the most prominent example of a politician betraying their election promises which will be repeatedly flung at them for the next decade or so.  This is certainly unfair, but I have little sympathy for the Lib Dems and Clegg in particular over this; university education has been in a funding crisis for some time.  Absent a willingness to increase funding from taxpayers via increased taxes or proportionate public spending cuts elsewhere, increasing student fees is the only available option to address that crisis.  In this instance, the Lib Dems came face to face with what can only be described as the hypocrisy of the British electorate’s wishes over such post-Thatcherite public spending issues; we want to benefit from high-quality public services but we don’t want to pay for them.  The Lib Dem election pledges over ending student fees therefore opportunistically pandered to that hypocrisy, and so I don’t take exception to the inevitable consequences, and nor should the Lib Dems.

To some extent Clegg’s problem over fees is Miliband’s problem writ small.  In Ed’s case, his attempt to invent some kind of post-Blair consensus was crippled by his inability to confront that same hypocrisy on the part of the electorate over taxation and public services.  Indeed, aside from the Iraq issue, the Thatcherite/Blairite introduction of free market competition into ideologically-sensitive areas such as education and the health service to try and square the circle involved in the contradictory demands for high quality public service and low taxation remains the biggest problem confronting all parties. But given the contradiction with internal Labour ideology, aside from the brief and superficial heyday of ‘The Third Way’ in the nineties (the golden era of acceptable Blairism), it’s always been a bigger problem for Labour than anybody else.

Labour ideologues have never been reconciled to the necessity of Blairism to win elections, and the result has been that ever since Ed won the Labour leadership election on an implicitly anti-Blairite agenda, the post-Blair Labour party and resulting Labour leadership have been less of an attempt to construct a consensus between pro- and anti-Blair factions than they have been an outright expression of anti-Blair orthodoxy.  The results, as Blair pointed out under Brown’s leadership and now under Miliband’s, has been that Labour have been unable to retain a hold on the centre ground when faced with a mediocre challenge from Cameron.

It is considered by some that the success of the SNP in Scotland demonstrates the viability of challenging Toryism from the left.  The only problem with that is that SNP policy is Cameronite rather than Nye Bevanite or Bennite.  The SNP’s successful rhetorical theft of Labour’s clothes, while facilitated by the complacent and authoritarian nature of Scottish Labour politics, is contradicted by their policies (e.g. freezing Council Tax – a superbly tactical ‘rollback’ of public spending to gladden the cockles of any small-government conservative by a party claiming to be ‘progressive’).  The SNP are, essentially, a giant con-trick where any political approach is justified provided it wins votes.  The cynic might fail to discern much difference between that and Blairism, but it remains a fact that Blairism involved more significant commitments to, and achievements for, social democracy than the SNP government in Scotland has ever obtained.

Blairism sought to deliver social democracy within the constraints imposed by the British electorate, and was successful at doing so. The SNP seek to deliver secession to vindicate an exclusively Anglophobic vision of the Scottish national identity; doing so under a ‘progressive’ cloak to steal Labour votes which will discarded as soon as another cloak becomes more convenient.  And in the end, the grand strategy of providing a ‘progressive’ Scottish bloc at Westminster to force Labour leftwards in coalition government failed because of Labour’s failure to contest the centre-ground in the rest of the UK.  If nothing else, this should expose the SNP’s dependence upon British political parties and the counter-productive impact of relying of nationalism to deliver ‘progressive’ policies in the UK political context.

Meanwhile, post-Blair Labour have sought to deliver social democracy within the constraints demanded by anti-Blairite ideology with little or no regard for winning electoral support where this conflicts with that ideology.  And as a result they’ve failed. Again.

It remains to be seen if Labour can evolve past this failed obsessional rejection of Blair.  It seems unlikely based on previous experience, where Labour needed to lose four elections over more than a decade against Thatcher and Major before the manifest need to evolve provided Blair his opportunity.  By that standard, they’ve at least one more election defeat to come before the party starts to think again.  Even if there is a dim perception of that need now, the purging of Blair and the criminality of Blairism have been in effect for so long that there are no potential leaders willing (and capable) of taking up that mantle; the cadre of mediocre rump Bennites, Brownites, Ballsites, Mcluskeyites and Ed-ites populating the current Labour party seem incapable of learning one of the core lessons of leadership, and particularly Blairite leadership; that it can be necessary, even critically important, to challenge party complacency and orthodoxy in order to gain credibility and win elections.

All of which means David Cameron can win a general election campaign using an unambitious strategy without having to work too hard – keep the Eurosceptics under control, claim the centre-ground, take few risks and let Labour defeat themselves.  Fair enough for Cameron, nil points for Labour, the Lib Dems, and most of all for the British electorate when they start whingeing about the resulting policy outcomes over the course of the new parliament.

We get the politicians – and the policies – we deserve.

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