The Fat Lady is warming up her vocal chords

By skepticlawyer

Well, it’s almost done: Britain goes to the polls this Thursday, the final of the three debates took place last Thursday, and we’re still looking down the barrel at a hung parliament.

That said, a few things have started to come clear: Tory support has stiffened while the Labour vote is collapsing in favour of the LibDems in key marginals. This hasn’t bucked the broad ‘hung parliament’ trend, however. Betfair — arguably the most accurate of all the markets — has a Conservative majority at 47% and a hung parliament at 51%. The LibDems, by eating into Labour’s marginals, will definitely have a much bigger presence in the House of Commons after May 6, but no-one can say with any certainty just how big they will be. 

All this uncertainty, of course, has its origins in a televised leaders’ debate. Australians and Americans have become cynical about television debates and things like the ‘worm’, which means we tend to forget that when they are first introduced, they have a massive, even disproportionate impact. People who listened to the first 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debate on radio thought Nixon won, but those who watched it on television — the first time a Presidential debate had been televised — saw a pale, thin, sweaty Nixon overwhelmed by a tanned, rested Kennedy. No Presidential debate since has had the same impact, and it’s likely that no leaders’ debate in the UK will have the same impact as that first debate of a fortnight ago, where the Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg romped home, leaving both Cameron and Brown trailing in his wake. Britain — whatever happens to its electoral system after May 6 — has now become a three party country, with roughly similar numbers of people supporting each grouping. Topics formerly off the agenda — like immigration — are now firmly on it, and in some ways it is odd to watch the British public and political class attempt to thread through the complexities of the immigration issue in a week. It is probably fair to say that this should have been a debate we had three election cycles ago; thanks to Gillian Duffy, it is a debate we are finally having now.

‘Bigotgate’ was interesting for what it revealed about British attitudes, not only to immigrants but to people in positions of power. As Janice Turner pointed out in the Times, there has long been room in British politics for a certain sort of no-nonsense Northern matriarch to make her point. In denigrating Gillian Duffy (of Rochdale, Lancashire), Gordon Brown managed to attack the North more generally, thereby undermining his own party’s authority:

The most poignant moment of that dreadful day in Rochdale was when Gillian Duffy asked the Sky reporter exactly what the Prime Minister had said about her in his car. You could see from her beaming expectation that she’d counted on a “marvellous woman!” at the very least. Maybe even a chuckling “she should be in the Cabinet”. But the truth made Mrs Duffy’s face plummet like a sponge when you slam the oven door and I felt fury as well as her shame: Gordon had dissed all my aunties.

[…]

For anyone raised in the North, something had happened that defied the natural order. My childhood was run by redoubtable matriarchs like Mrs Duffy: their judgments were to be feared, not tossed aside. Their tongues were as eye-watering as the sudden slaps they could administer to the backs of your legs.

What made it worse for Brown was that Mrs Duffy accepted his explanation about immigration: that is, as many Britons work in Europe as Europeans work in Britain, so it’s a quid pro quo. She even told reporters that she’d be voting Labour again. She trotted off to the shops, and then the country proceeded to implode around her. Brown compounded his difficulties by apologising over and over again, like a naughty schoolboy caught nicking lead off church roofs or scrumping apples. The apologies, in the end, probably did more damage than the ‘bigot’ slur, but I can see why he made them: if Labour loses the North, it is done for.

I am still trying to wrap my head around the thought of Northerners voting Liberal; that, in its own way, would upend a mass of cultural memories. As a Welsh friend here in Oxford reminded me this week, one only has to recall the 19th Century Liberal captains of industry who wanted more representation for the North, but who also owned and ran the mills, factories and mines in which poor Northerners worked and — often — died.

Even more striking is the leading Labour paper, The Guardian, endorsing the Liberal Democrats:

Citizens have votes. Newspapers do not. However, if the Guardian had a vote in the 2010 general election it would be cast enthusiastically for the Liberal Democrats. It would be cast in the knowledge that not all the consequences are predictable, and that some in particular should be avoided. The vote would be cast with some important reservations and frustrations. Yet it would be cast for one great reason of principle above all.

In its endorsement, The Guardian acknowledged that under the Liberal Democrat ‘fairness’ rhetoric was a commitment to ‘resisting the rush to the overmighty centralised state’. Make no mistake: given power, the Liberal Democrats would engage in a ‘bonfire of the quangos’ the likes of which Britain did not even see under Margaret Thatcher. Their manifesto is riddled with ‘abolish’, ‘repeal’ and ‘decentralise’. Many Labour voters (and people on the left generally) still do not appreciate that the Liberal approach to achieving fairness and reducing inequality is via a small state and a steep reduction in income tax. David Cameron pointed out in the third debate — entirely fairly — that inequality and entrenched poverty has worsened in Britain since Labour was elected in 1997. At the same time, the state has ballooned in size, much of it in areas designed to micro-manage welfare recipients’ lives. Surely, the Liberal Democrat policies couldn’t do any worse.

That the election is still well and truly up in the air, that the most likely outcome is a hung parliament, that we are all likely to be at the polls again in six months’ time voting under a new electoral system… is both exhilarating and frightening, for Britain is broke, in debt to its eyeballs. Whoever is elected will have to make public sector cuts the likes of which we haven’t seen before. 

We are, as the Chinese saying goes, living in interesting times.

[DISCLOSURE: The author is a member of the Oxford Conservative Association].

[UPDATE: Now available, in an altered form, over at Online Opinion].

18 Comments

  1. TerjeP (say Taya)
    Posted May 3, 2010 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

    Australia has basically three parties in the lower house. Liberal, Labor and National. And yet most days one would think there was only two due to the coalition between the Liberal and National party. I suspect that politicians tolerance of a hung parliament can only last so long and eventually something will give and restore the two party tradition. The question is what will give, when will it give and who will win or lose out of it. Personally I would mind much the obliteration of the Labour party but I’m not sure that is likely.

  2. TerjeP (say Taya)
    Posted May 3, 2010 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

    I meant “wouldn’t mind”.

  3. Posted May 3, 2010 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

    For the Labour party to be reduced to a rump would require a change in the electoral system, but not a big change. Preferential voting would do it (the Brits, for reasons I do not fully grasp, call this the ‘alternative vote’); proportional representation would be the end for Labour. They would spend 80 years in the wilderness, as the Liberals have just done.

    Like you, I’m a big fan of sortition, and try to persuade friends of its merits regularly. The classicists don’t need much persuading — Greeks of all stripes and Romans used it regularly, and we retain it for jury selection. There’s a lot to be said for it.

  4. Posted May 3, 2010 at 8:56 pm | Permalink

    Terje – you wouldn’t mind the obliteration of a Labor party in Australia? You got your wish some time back I reckon. We’ve got a three-headed one-party state that the trinitarian winners at the council of nicaea could explain without a problem.

  5. Peter Patton
    Posted May 3, 2010 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

    The Australian Labor Party effectively died the day Bob Hawke was elected leader. It thence became the Australian Neoliberal Party.

  6. Posted May 3, 2010 at 11:22 pm | Permalink

    If I were in Britain (which I’m not) and in publishing (which I’m not), I would rush out a reprint of George Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of Liberal England (1935), with an up-to-date and “relevant” introduction by some wise contemporary Pommy pundit. And then I could retire.

  7. Peter Patton
    Posted May 4, 2010 at 3:42 am | Permalink

    The ironic thing about the UK (especially in its extra-England sense) is that there really is a very large section of the population that is not only ‘truly’ left-wing, but even socialist. From that perspective, it is perplexing from this side of the world, as to what is really going on in the Mummy country. Perhaps too much Nanny, and not enough hammer and sickle under New Labour? If this is correct, then perhaps the UK can look forward to some very unsettling times.

    On this point, the great difference between the UK and Australia is that those similar genuine left and socialist Australians (I’d say much smaller in proportion) find some comfort in the Greens. It is curious that thus far, the UK left, frustrated by Blairism, have not turned to the Greens. I suspect that is because the UK had to wait until 1996 for its ‘Hawke moment.’

    Perhaps it is even more telling that Australia has developed a 3rd party that is more left than Labor, while in England, the third party is a whiggish party to the right of Labor.

    Just goes to show that while it might be correct and sociologically useful to refer to the “Anglosphere,” nevertheless there really are significant differences among the Anglophone polities that we should be careful not to diminish.

    I have always thought these differences are too obvious to justify a current popular discourse of “social democrats” vs.”neoliberals” as an attempt to capture Anglosphere politics. It doesn’t, and never did.

  8. Posted May 4, 2010 at 4:15 am | Permalink

    On the Greens, people may be interested in this analysis from Betfair:

    http://betting.betfair.com/specials/politics-betting/uk-politics/general-election-betting/election-bet-of-the-day/general-election-bet-of-the-day—greens-to-win-a-seat-182-030510.html

    And here’s Jon Stewart on ‘bigotgate’. Nearly cost me a keyboard:

    http://tv.gawker.com/5528164/jon-stewart-mocks-the-laughable-tameness-of-british-political-scandals

  9. Peter Patton
    Posted May 4, 2010 at 7:21 am | Permalink

    The effect of the Mrs Duffy issue seems to be neatly divided in two:

    1. Mulculturalist left-wing types – “white working class is racist” – insisting she is a bigot, and that Brown should have told her so in no uncertain terms, and repeated it in public. There is no positive news from this group for Brown. Some might defect to Clegg, tired of New Labor’s alleged ‘pandering to racism’ on the immigration issue. The rest are so rusted on they will stick with Brown regardless.

    2. The far majority of the UK citizenry: “Oi, hands off Mrs. Duffy you bullying oaf, she’s my Aunt and Nanna.” None of these people will move their vote to Brown on the basis of Bigot/Duffygate.

    Conclusion: Brown was right. It was a disaster.

    Takeaway: This election is the UK’s ‘Keating moment’ (1996), where UK pollies learn that the majority of the country will no longer tolerate culture warring, sneering at those who are not upper middle class and above by constantly being told they are ‘racist’ and ‘bigoted.’

    Clearly the UK is about to live in very interesting times indeed.

  10. Posted May 4, 2010 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps the Fat Lady is tone deaf?

  11. Mark Duffett
    Posted May 4, 2010 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

    Vocal cords, not ‘vocal chords’, even if the fat lady in question is singing in harmony.

    This would have to be one of the most common current misuses of words, behind possibly only people being easily ‘lead’ into error.

  12. Posted May 5, 2010 at 4:04 am | Permalink

    Ah, pedants are we:

    1. I am dyslexic. I can’t spell. That most of my material is spelt correctly is thanks to years of Latin and a very good declarative memory, because I have no pattern recognition skills.

    2. I am so unmusical that I am single-handedly capable of making whole professional choirs sing flat. As a consequence, my knowledge of musical terminology is best described as limited. About the only upside is that I won’t make this mistake again, because I will remember.

    3. DEM is our musical blogger, but she has been sick for 2 days and wasn’t around to help out.

    Dyslexics of the World, Untie.

  13. su
    Posted May 5, 2010 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    That is an excellent piece by Janice Turner. When did simply asking a question about immigration become bigotry? I hadn’t realised how shameful Brown’s characterisation of her was until I saw the full clip.

    And FFS, what does it mean that politicians now seem to think it an unreasonable hardship to have to speak to someone who doesn’t fawn all over their shoes? No wonder the place has become a paranoid surveillance state when the ruling classes have so little understanding of and so much contempt for their own people

  14. Peter Patton
    Posted May 5, 2010 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    Am I getting this right?

    1. Mrs Duffy is firstly worried about the UK’s 1970s-style public debt, run up by Gordon Brown’s Labour government.

    2. She is worried how the UK will afford to pay for things like her grandson’s university educations and her own and others’ OAP.

    3. This situation is surely exacerbated by foreigners ‘flocking in’ from places like eastern Europe BECAUSE – she presumes – their demands/needs on the public purse will increase competition for a slice of the declining public purse, which is caused by the massive public debt of the Brown Labour government.

    4. Gordon Brown said ‘don’t you worry about that, as the free movement of people throughout the entire EU means that just as many Britons are ‘flocking out’ of the UK throughout Europe, including to eastern Europe, and thus the net impact on the UK public purse is zero.

    5. Therefore, Mrs Duffy can relax, as the position of her grandson’s education and her own and others’ OAP is the same as before the ‘flocking’ eastern Europeans.

    6. Mrs Duffy accepts this explanation of public expenditure/service provision neutrality.

    7. Mrs Duffy then reassures Brown she will be voting Labour

    8. Brown gets in car and ‘Bigotgate’

    9. Journalists play back Brown’s ‘bigot’ comments to Mrs Duffy.

    10. Mrs Duffy is confused, shocked, and furious by Brown’s two-faced and gutless carry-on.

    11. Brown visits Mrs Duffy, when ‘Bigotgate’ becomes global sensation.

    12. Boffins do the numbers and discover that indeed net migration to the UK is overwhelmingly positive, thus Mrs Duffy’s concerns about public finances were, prima facie, valid.

    13. Thus less an example of bigotry/racism, Mrs Duffy was making informed comment on the appalling public debt that Brown has bequeathed Britons.

    Is that close?

  15. su
    Posted May 5, 2010 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    PP: “Boffins do the numbers and discover that indeed net migration to the UK is overwhelmingly positive, thus Mrs Duffy’s concerns about public finances were, prima facie, valid.”

    And there is an argument to be made that migration, though there may be a short term cost, can also be a net positive for society and the economy. But to make that argument you would have to have some respect for people like Mrs Duffy, and understand that some of her fear is justified by circumstance, and some has to do with getting older in a country that has changed a lot in her lifetime, and then you would have to put some work into explaining your position instead of writing her off.

  16. Peter Patton
    Posted May 5, 2010 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    Quite. That’s why my point 12 said that Mrs Duffy’s concerns were prime facie valid. And you are right. In the brevity of such an exchange between a PM and mere hoi polloi she should not be expected to have a Ph.D in macroeconomics and population policy. 😉

  17. Posted May 5, 2010 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    Peter at 15: That’s an accurate summary, although the boffins who tracked down the net positive migration data were actually from Channel 4’s ‘Factcheck’ team. Their website (with lots of other factchecking) is here:

    http://blogs.channel4.com/factcheck/

    On the net positive migration issue, their analysis is here:

    http://blogs.channel4.com/factcheck/2010/04/29/does-number-of-europeans-here-equal-brits-abroad/

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