DAVID CAMERON defied polls, pundits, and the predictions of many — including, to a slight degree, myself — to pull off a clear but narrow outright victory in Thursday’s British election; the result is a reward for five years of sound stewardship and represents the logical outcome of good governance but poses risks for the Tories: even so, the Left has been divided, the Liberal Democrats annihilated, and Tories must be favoured to win again in 2020.
I had intended to posit on the excellent outcome of Thursday’s election in the UK on Friday night, Melbourne time, but time — as readers know too well — has been in short supply of late; this is a situation that will continue for the foreseeable future, and with other issues backing up and more (like the budget) looming, we’ll talk briefly on this tonight and keep moving.
But as was the case recently in New Zealand, the stunning majority win by Britain’s Conservative Party has provided proof — were more required — that enough voters in enough seats are open to embracing a reasonably authentic conservative agenda of smaller government, lower taxes, incentives for families and business, strong national defences, and limited and far more tightly targeted welfare programs that serve as a genuine safety net and not as some divine right of entitlement: and, when coupled with economic growth (in Britain’s case, the fastest of any developed economy, including Australia’s) all of this adds up to a powerful case for election provided that case is adequately and competently made and prosecuted.
In this sense, the Tory win in the UK carries lessons for conservatives in the US, Canada, and especially here in Australia, as a hapless and trouble-prone Liberal government prepares to deliver a make-or-break second budget next week (to remedy the politically apocalyptic mess it made of its first) and which approaches the two-third waypoint of its first term with re-election far from a certainty.
I must confess that I thought a majority was beyond the reach of the Conservative Party; not just on account of the closeness of the polls, or the relatively low share of the vote they projected for the Tories, but because — on an orthodox reading of the British political landscape — the Conservatives simply didn’t seem able to establish the sort of simple plurality over Labour required to come in with half the seats.
I thought the Tories would win about 290 seats with a floor at the 280 mark, and with the possibility of a “surge” that might get them close at 310-315 seats, but not quite close enough.
But this was no orthodox election in the UK, as we’ll see shortly, and whilst I note the outraged blather emanating from the Greens, UKIP (and to a lesser extent Labour and the Liberal Democrats) over the Tories winning a majority on 37.1% of the votes cast, I also note there was no such outrage emanating from any of those quarters in 2005 when Labour under Tony Blair scored a 66-seat majority on 36% (and the Tories finishing that election on 32% — almost two points better than Labour managed this time — with 35 seats fewer than Labour won on Thursday).
So first things first: the outraged hypocrisy of the also-rans should be ignored; it is typical of the Greens especially that having won fewer than one vote in 25 cast they nonetheless now bang the table demanding seats in Parliament as a reward for the pathetic and unattractive platform offered to and rejected by the overwhelming majority of British electors.
The Tory Party has finished with 331 seats (+25 from 2010) to 232 for Labour (-26), 8 (-49) for the Lib-Dems, 56 (+50) for the Scottish Nationalist Party, and 23 “Others” (including one for the United Kingdom Independence Party): it adds up to a slim but serviceable majority of 12 for the Conservatives over all other parties, and in the circumstances is a triumph.
The simple truth of a first past the post electoral system is that whoever puts together the most votes in a given constituency wins that seat — which is how it should be — and in the UK, any change to that arrangement was emphatically rejected at a referendum just a few years ago. Britons voted decisively against an Australian-style preferential voting system, and that was absolutely the correct result, and here in Australia any attempt to move away from preferential voting and back toward the FPTP system the system was created with in the first place should be welcomed, encouraged, and implemented as quickly as it can be legislated.
But for all of that, Conservatives now face a further five years in office, barring defections, by-election losses or a split in the Tory Party bringing David Cameron’s government down; it is important to note however that whilst the result of the election was clear, it was by no means a landslide or otherwise a thumping win, and this reality should stay very much top of mind as the Tories go about the business of their second term in office.
To illustrate the point, I note the win on Thursday was weaker (in both seats won, the resulting majority, and the proportion of the vote secured) than all four election wins achieved by the Conservative Party under Margaret Thatcher and John Major, including the surprise come-from-behind victory recorded by Major in April 1992.
Even so, Cameron is now able to get on with the business of implementing Conservative policies in full control of the House of Commons, and unencumbered by the retarding influence of the Lib-Dem partners whose party has now been comprehensively trounced and virtually wiped out.
There are a lot of lessons here for the Abbott government, which has laboured under the dead weight of poor advice and strategic and tactical ineptitude, to say nothing of the morally criminal antics of a bitterly hostile Senate; Australia’s Liberals might not be able to do anything about the state of the Senate without an election, but Cameron’s Tories have at least demonstrated there is a way to build sufficient public support to carry an electoral mandate when the opportunity eventuates.
In many respects, the Cameroon agenda is little different to that of the Liberal Party here: structural repair of a gaping budget deficit, starting work on repaying state sector debt that in Britain ballooned to £1.5tn under Labour; tightening and restricting welfare payments to the genuinely disadvantaged, and capping the amount of benefits paid per household; cutting taxes on personal and business incomes; providing incentives for enterprise, home ownership and working families; securing Britain’s defences through the renewal of the Trident nuclear missile deterrent; and so forth.
It’s an agenda that has seen Britain — unique among a sea of basket cases and stagnant neighbours in Europe — begin to boom; and it’s an agenda that has been astutely packaged, explained and sold by a slick and brutally effective Tory communications unit that makes anything Australia’s Liberals are currently capable of appear pedestrian at best by comparison.
Unlike the Liberal Party, the Conservatives have been merciless (some might say ruthless) in exposing the dangers of a return to office by their Labour opponents’ a telling example lies in the fact the shadow Chancellor (read: shadow Treasurer) Ed Balls was coerced into suggesting the British government did not spend enough money during its last period of government between 1997 and 2010; the Tories leapt on this gleefully in the final weeks of the election campaign — pointing at the horrific national debt pile and a budget deficit running at more than £100bn when they took office — and crucified Balls and Labour over such a ridiculous (and dangerous) official position.
Balls was one of the Labour MPs who lost his seat on Saturday. It is difficult to imagine the Liberals’ present line-up engineering such a viciously effective strike on the Shorten-led ALP.
Much credit must be given to Lynton Crosby — the Australian political strategist who emerged from the Liberal Party in the 1990s, who steered the Tory election effort — for despite Thursday’s triumph, the plain fact is that for much of its first term in office, Cameron’s government looked imperilled (to say the least) ahead of its next date with the British public at the ballot box.
It is Crosby who deserves full credit for getting the Tories focused, on message, and disciplined enough to stick to a plan, and anyone who doubts Crosby’s abilities ought to sit up and take notice.
I wrote in this column last week that if the Conservatives won — faced with bad polls (that proved wrong) and confronted by a difficult election — then Crosby would be entitled to be regarded as one of the best political strategists, anywhere, ever: and so it has come to pass. He deserves the kudos he is now rightly being given. And in the way such matters are managed in Britain, talk that his efforts merit a knighthood express a sentiment with which I have no objection whatsoever.
The one blot on an otherwise excellent result is Scotland, where 56 of 59 seats were won by the Scottish Nationalist Party; I tend to think that if Cameron proceeds to govern as a “One Nation” Conservative — a term carrying a rather different meaning than it does in Australia — then the SNP, when its MPs front up for re-election in five years’ time able to boast of achieving next to nothing, this aberration will begin to fade away as sharply as it has appeared now.
The SNP’s only real objectives were to block a Tory government at any cost, and to use the balance of power (if it secured it) to manipulate a Labour government into helping engineer the dissolution of the United Kingdom.
As a third generation descendant from two Scottish families I have no interest in, or time for, either the SNP or their “visions” of “independence:” having followed the referendum campaign last year and witnessed the blatant lies passed off by the SNP as a “case” for independence, I find it incomprehensible anyone would trust an SNP MP or candidate, much less believe anything they had to say.
The SNP might hate the Conservative Party — good for it — but it also hates the English, and when an outfit like the SNP that masquerades as a sober and responsible voice for its people advocates for outcomes that would plunge an independent Scotland into economic depression, it should be dismissed with the contempt it deserves: and Cameron, and his Tories, find a big opportunity to rebuild their party’s stocks in the North by exposing the SNP for what it is, and by delivering for all constituent countries in the Union as they have promised to do.
For as long as it continues to load, post-election, readers can glean an idea of the extent of the movement recorded on Thursday from the interactive graph and tables published with the UK edition of The Guardian online; the stark extent of the SNP’s domination in Scotland — taking 56 of the 59 seats there — is obvious, whilst readers will see that in the southern third of the UK, the Lib-Dems have been reduced to a single seat (Carshalton and Wallington on London’s southern outskirts) and in their traditional strongholds in Devon and Cornwall have been obliterated.
Labour has been reduced, effectively, to seats around traditional coal mining areas it has dominated since capturing them from the old Liberal Party in the early 1900s, plus mostly less well-to-do parts of London; it is difficult to see how the party can come back in any less than two additional terms, for this is the third consecutive election at which the Tories have strengthened their position in England, and Labour’s Scottish bedrock has been reduced to a single seat.
That task will become harder after 2018, when new boundaries cutting 50 MPs from the House of Commons and introducing equal-sized constituencies — slashing Scotland’s over-bloated representation relative to the other component countries in the UK — take effect.
But for all the Labor blather of “gerrymander” that was intermittently heard early in the last term of Parliament, I challenge anyone to justify why places like Scotland should be shown the kind of heavy weightage that now stands to be abolished: and in the ultimate irony, whilst the SNP probably would have swept Scotland irrespective of the boundaries that applied this time around, the redistributed boundaries that would have applied to this election (until they were deferred, at least in part on account of Labour opposition) would have made Labour’s path to a majority that little bit easier after the shellacking it copped this week.
For the Lib-Dems, it’s hard to conclude the party is anything other than all but over; reduced to just 8 seats (from 650), they have recorded the lowest haul of Lib-Dem seats in the 30-odd years since they were founded, and the lowest haul of seats in the name of the old Liberal Party in many decades.
I think there’s an opportunity there, if they want to take it: to seize the mantle of Britain’s pre-eminent social democratic party, developing mainstream policies of the Centre-Left with broad appeal to the British middle class, workers, intellectuals and minorities, and set about reversing the political execution inflicted on the old Liberal Party 100 years ago by the emergence of the Labour Party, the Liberals’ inability to respond or react, and the split in their party that occurred in the aftermath of the first world war.
The opportunity is there if they want to take it, and to build on the lessons from their recent stint sharing government to “mainstream-ise” their centrist-slightly leftist party.
But they won’t. The Lib-Dems will retreat to their preferred mode of eternal opposition and carping.
UKIP will probably wither on the vine if Cameron delivers both the renegotiation of relations with Europe he has promised and the so-called in-out referendum to follow it; should both Tory initiatives materialise, the primary purpose of UKIP will have ceased to exist: this election was UKIP’s one shot in the locker to transform a party of protest and wins in lesser forums into success where it actually matters — Westminster. It didn’t. Its leader failed to win a well-chosen Tory seat and it returned a single MP.
UKIP will blather about proportional representation, but all such an electoral system would do now is to reward losers whose support is drawn from the fringes only. Its time has gone.
As for the Greens, with their pathetic 3.6% of the vote, who gives a shit.
In the end, however, the British election has provided a win for common sense, good governance, a bustling, growing Britain, and for what is right.
I wish to personally extend my congratulations to the team at CCHQ on a job well done, as well as to all the footsoldiers for Conservatism whose ranks I do hope at some point to join, and acknowledge again the brilliant leadership of Lynton Crosby in achieving the desired result. We’ll come back to Lynton in a minute.
But if the Conservatives avoid divisive splits, continue to focus on the long-term objectives that have shaped the Coalition administration they headed for five years, and continue to notch up the kind of results in Britain that are increasingly the envy of the rest of the free world, there is no reason to think they cannot triumph again in five years’ time (or whenever an election might occur in the interim).
In a final word on Lynton Crosby, it is reassuring to note the Liberal Party has finally (and belatedly) re-engaged his firm, Crosby Textor, to advise in the lead-up to next year’s election, after a ridiculous period in the wilderness at the apparent behest of elements in and/or close to the Prime Minister’s Office.
One hopes it isn’t too late for it to make the required degree of difference to the Liberals’ prospects.
But if I were Bill Shorten or, more to the point, any of the number of faceless, brainless, cardboard cut-out henchmen populating the backroom of the ALP, the prospect of Lynton Crosby running my opponent’s election campaign would send a little thrill of terror down my spine.
Once and for all, Lynton Crosby has proven that even the most difficult of circumstances in seemingly irretrievable situations are not beyond his capabilities to turn around.
There are 232 excruciatingly sore backsides left on the British Labour benches that now comprehend all too well precisely the kind of carnage Crosby, the master strategist and tactician, is capable of inflicting on his enemies.
Australian Labor should be afraid. Happily, by the time the ALP comprehends that Crosby has stepped into the ring, it will probably be too late to run, or to hide.