For many, it’s been a bit of a struggle to emerge into the bright light of day after this most unexpected of results – another 1992! Activists spent months trudging door to door, talking till hoarse, and having endless campaign meetings. We had a green surge, a UKIP rise and fall, and those final heady days of Labour and Tories running neck and neck, but then the Tories walked away with the prize. Yes, possibly a poisoned chalice but still the prize – an apparent mandate to govern from almost 37% of the population. The total vote of what one may call the progressive left – from Greens to centre left – was about 45%, but not enough seats to hold power with the Lib-Dems being wiped out in terms of seats if not votes in their old heartlands in the West Country. Not the scenario people expected to wake up to!
You may wonder why I’m writing about this as I’m meant to be writing about our precious planet from an Asia- Pacific perspective, but just like all the other bloggers with any connection to the UK I need to have my two pennies worth on this. I do have the benefit of distance in time and thinking. The Confucian ideas of leaders as virtuous sages, who rise to their position on the basis of merit and commit themselves to serving the people, are already beginning to look appealing.
So with the benefit of (some) detachment, I’m going to ask what went wrong and what happened? Why did a seemingly unpopular government win through?
Some say that Miliband wasn’t a charismatic enough leader – would you vote for a man that ate bacon butties that way? Too geeky, not leadership material…..Still some deference for the boys from Eton perhaps! Others say that the party wasn’t business friendly enough or that it had moved too far to the left, though few policies are identified in support of that thesis.
I’ve three points to make. Firstly, echoing Larry Elliot in Guardian there were some very simple answers to the Tory claims that absolutely needed to be made, but they weren’t. To the charge that Labour had squandered the country’s resources and left the UK with a massive deficit, the reply was that the deficit was very modest before the financial crisis. Labour never seemed to challenge that claim with the confidence needed. Austerity-lite didn’t help. It’s good to see this happen now – by Chuka Umuna and Yvette Cooper at least. Similarly with immigration they seemed to buy into the argument that the problems of the UK were somehow created by immigration, without recognising the benefits and the vast numbers of people from the UK that move abroad. Perhaps they were too driven by pollsters who told them that the people didn’t like the deficits and didn’t like immigration. It’s good to see that the Greens were bold enough to challenge the consensus on immigration and advocate a proper living wage that wouldn’t allow local workers to be undercut and upholding our obligations to refugees.
Second, to have charisma perhaps you actually need a vision? And a vision isn’t quite the same as stitching together a loose patchwork of “no to the bedroom tax” with “yes to a mansion tax”, combined with “we’ll save the NHS”, and “we’ll push for a living wage”. Under pressure the loose stitching gives way and there is little to mask what’s underneath. The last Labour government didn’t introduce wealth taxes, it didn’t even try make the remnants of the poll tax – in the council tax – a little bit fairer. It started carving up the NHS and didn’t do anything to ensure that in cities like London the minimum wage was really a living wage. There could have been a positive story – a plan to diversify and make the UK economy stronger and more resilient? A plan to ensure a society that worked for ordinary people not financiers.
Third, and this is a tricky one….there is a degree of commonality on the left-green axis – though also considerable divergence. The Greens see themselves as responding to the many issues of the last 30 or so years from living on the brink of environmental disaster to glaring inequality. They have worked to develop new ideas of social and economic organisation founded on different ideas of well-being and a strong commitment to international environmental justice. The Lib-Dems have left people uncertain where they stand on the traditional left – right spectrum, and the move to the right seems to have destroyed them. Despite the differences there are commonalities, but instead of developing those commonalities – as the Confucian leader in a democracy may have done- what we saw was smug satisfaction when Lib Dems got torn apart blamed for the policies of the Tories, and effort put into getting Caroline Lucas out of Brighton and killing the Greens at birth. There are plenty of differences between those groupings worthy of a good debate, but instead we had tribalism gone mad, trying to climb to the top but in the process pulling each other down. This was pursuit of victory at the expense of the better political outcome. Would a more collaborative progressive left have done better for the population? I hope the progressive left – and I know I am assuming that the Lib-Dems will move back into this space or at least to the centre – can now work together perhaps on those areas where there is real commonality. To me the key issues are electoral reform, the environmental agenda, austerity, and immigration which at least in part is connected with conflict in Africa and the Middle-East.
People are looking for genuine leaders with courage and a clear convincing vision of a real alternative! Caroline Lucas’s increased majority shows the popular support for those with conviction and courage. For too long, Labour has stood on the doorway looking into a Tory vision of the world saying they can do things better, not as nastily, but unintentionally supporting that vision as a result. The Lib-Dems have looked confused and opportunistic. Now the progressive left must rise to the challenge. All should accept that each has a distinctive voice, but can together develop this alternative vision and policy. This isn’t an expectation of sagehood from our leaders, but just a few steps in that direction and a willingness to put the tribal fight to one side and work to be an effective opposition rather than retrenching and awaiting the next election.