Saturday, 9 May 2015

The narrative of election victories

The results of the 2015 UK General Election have been described as extraordinary now more times than I can count, and everyone is scratching around for explanations as to why the pollsters got it so wrong and why two neighbouring countries with a shared heritage should have elected two such entirely different sets of political representatives- broadly, England (except for London) going Tory/UKIP and Scotland going to the left of Labour.

(One VERY important caveat here, by the way. Though Cameron's victory is being hailed as if it were virtually unanimous, his party received well under 40% of the vote and still has a majority slimmer than John Major's in the 90s. Still...)

The SNP whitewash has been categorised south of the border (and particularly by the tabloids) as a nationalist, anti-Union and even anti-Labour surge but actually it seems to have been in a sense more extraordinary than that. A country which has always been if anything more socially conservative than its neighbour has apparently swung politically to the left of the most left-wing of the UK-wide parties. The SNP is anti-Trident, anti-austerity, pro-progressive taxation and increased welfare spending and pro-immigration. The Siriza of the UK, or more akin to pre-Blair Labour than anything else. The Tories whom the English elected, meanwhile, argue for reduced taxation and the taking of a flamethrower to the Welfare State.

So how did that happen? One argument of course would be that the Scots have, en masse, moved politically to the Left whilst England (and Wales, it appears) have moved to the Right. To some extent this is no doubt true, but in a sense saying that does no more than restate the original question, with no real explanation. So why has it happened?

Well, one explanation, that is appropriate to the (vague) themes of this blog is the issue of narrative. I have argued before (here for instance) that there is a strong narrative imperative in the way we view the world. As a species we use narrative to construct and inform our view (political and otherwise) of the world, and a simple, clear narrative is more powerful than any logical argument, however clearly stated. And it seems to me that this election has shown that fact more clearly than ever, because the parties that won were the ones with the clear narratives.

First, the Tories. Like any political party facing an election it presented the electorate with a hero quest narrative and they did it very well: there was a goal (the Long Term Economic Plan), a serious danger to escape from (the nameless horrors of the global economic crisis), a villain (the Labour party, which single-handedly, recklessly and with malice aforethought created that global economic crisis), various perils to be navigated (Europe, immigration, financial perdition) and of course an element of comedy (Ed Miliband). Essentially of course there was a hero (David Cameron). I will come to the hero bit in a minute, but it is worth pointing out that there was even a mini-narrative for the election campaign itself (Lynton Crosbie's assertion that polls would not budge until a sudden last-minute swing when people realised they couldn't afford the Miliband risk) and a useful prop (the jokey note to a 'friend' left by the Labour finance minister).

The SNP had an equally strong hero quest narrative. They also had a goal (the establishment of a Scottish Shangri-La), a serious danger to escape from (austerity and the Tory dismantling of the Welfare State) and a villain (a three-headed monster, the ThatcherBlairCameron). Their unexpected, but archetypally Scottish, heroine was Nicola Sturgeon, a feisty wee woman who rose to superstar status.

The UKIP narrative started simple and direct (I have just eaten, so really don't want to spell it out) but began to lose its clarity as Farage back-pedalled from some of the more extreme crap spouted by supporters. It is maybe for that reason that, thank God, UKIP began fading in the polls and didn't achieve their breakthrough.

So what of the losers? Well, I don't think I am the first to point out that neither Labour's not the LibDem's narrative was in any way clear or comprehensible. The LibDems villain was (sort of) the coalition partner they had been in bed with for five years. The danger to be escaped was both (sort of) the same as the Tories' and (sort of) the Tories themselves. Labour's danger to be escaped was in some ways their own past in government (never a strong start...). Business was both a villain and an ally and the prop they used to counter the Tories' treasury note was both literally and metaphorically a tombstone.

(On a side note, it is quite extraordinary how Labour failed to construct a coherent narrative out of the Tories' record, with its failure to eliminate the deficit, bring down immigration or protect the NHS from top-down meddling. It is also extraordinary that they only once seemed to mention that the bogeyman economic crash was brought into existence by policies on bank deregulation that the Tories of the time condemned as not going far enough!)

The disappointing performance of the Greens was another illustration of the narrative imperative. The key moment was Nathalie Bennett's 'brain-melt' in that LBC interview. This was presented as going to the trust issue- that potential voters lost trust in her competence- but I think it was simpler than that. Her inability to recall her party's policies on social housing showed that she had quite literally lost the plot (or forgotten the narrative she was attempting to outline). The Greens have always presented a clear narrative (danger to be avoided- environmental catastrophe and villain anyone who recklessly pursues economic growth) but this time they seemed sometimes to forget themselves what it was and they paid the price.

So what of the heroes of these respective narratives? There is not much point discussing the inadequacies of Clegg and Miliband in that regard. Flawed heroes are all very well in literature, but not for politics. Miliband came across as a decent, well-intentioned geek, Clegg as an unprincipled, power-hungry wannabe, but what they had in common was the fact that both lacked an indefinable something that both Cameron and Sturgeon (for all their diagrammatic dissimilarities from each other) had in spades- self confidence. Clegg knew that the fresh promise he had held out in 2010 was tarnished beyond repair by the student fees betrayal (and more) whilst Miliband was, and no doubt still is, in some sense still the nerdy boy who used to shut himself into the library of Haverstock School every lunchtime.

So what about Cameron and Sturgeon? Well, both had one enormous thing in common: neither had anything like as much to lose as either Miliband or Clegg. Cameron had already announced he would not be standing again after this election and Sturgeon wasn't standing at all. For Sturgeon, anything even vaguely close to what the polls were predicting was always going to be a vast improvement on any previous SNP performance and for Cameron, even if he lost he could pretend that he had sacrificed himself and his political career in the greater national interest and laboured on with the politically unpopular 'tough choices' that only he was brave enough to make (sorry- had to stop for a while. I feel a bit sick).

But there is something deeper still about the nature of both of these heroes. Utterly different in almost every ways, their cultural heritage has gifted both of them a sort of fearlessness that removed the self-doubt which condemned Clegg and Miliband to oblivion. Cameron's fearlessness is born of entitlement- the utterly impervious arrogance of the public school elite, which I have discussed here for instance. This innate self-confidence was boosted by the fact that I really don't think that he (or Gideon or the rest) actually care that much. They haven't got Thatcher's passion or Blair's messianic zeal. They're just doing it all for kicks.

Sturgeon has a different sort of fearlessness. Her's is the 'fuck it, why not?' of the perennial Scottish underdog. She is an Archie Gemmill for the 21st Century, nutmegging the Dutch goalie as Scotland celebrated yet another heroic sporting failure at the 1978 World Cup. She (and all Scotland) knew that however many SNP MPs they sent to Westminster it was unlikely to make a lot of difference so they really had nothing to lose, and God, did she make the most of it.

So how important is this sort of fearlessness to elections in general? Utterly crucial, unfortunately. Thatcher had the fearlessness of the zealot while Major was racked by self-doubt and tempered by reasonableness. Blair was positively Messianic whilst Brown was clearly tortured by inner demons. Some US presidents (Reagan, George W Bush. Need I go on?) have had a fearlessness that is born of stupidity but interestingly Obama- clearly beset with self-doubt of his own when  it comes to actual, policy delivery- seemed able to either simulate or genuinely experience a sort of selfless embodiment of some higher force when contemplating the large and abstract concepts of government.

So there you go. And the implication is obvious really. If Labour wants to return to electoral success (and that is not a redundant question- Miliband often came across as terrified of the idea), then what they need to construct is not so much a coherent set of policies as a compelling narrative. And, like it or not, the primary quality they need in their leader is neither intellect nor compassion nor even political vision, but self confidence.


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