In that intensely surreal period between a General Election being declared and decided (politely known by political enthusiasts as ‘the campaign’), reporters, pundits and psephologists find themselves in a frenetic limbo where knowledge and ignorance are often indistinguishable – though it is their job to persuade us otherwise.
The biggest question “we” want answering is always, “who’s going to win?” But despite the increasing sophistication of opinion polling techniques, which have recovered and advanced qualitatively and quantitatively since the factual battering they received in 1992, the infuriating truth remains unchanged. Whatever privileged insight is claimed, no-one knows how things will shake out until all the votes are counted and apportioned – as we will see again this time.
The opaqueness of a close-run election is peculiarly significant in a first-past-the-post system where the disproportions between votes cast and candidates elected can be considerable, and where local variables (especially in crucial marginals) may make a massive difference to the overall outcome.
Soon, all will be clear again, we tell ourselves. But until then we all try to “see through a glass darkly”. Meanwhile, there is one election prediction that will have been fulfilled come May. The national poll will see another ostensible victory for Lablibservatism, or maybe Conliblabism. They are hard to tell apart.
Lablibservatism is the triangulated distance travelled from Blairism to Cameronism, with a larger twist of Brown and an enlarged dollop of Clegg in the mix. It is the product of an unreformed system that in its unreformedness really does demonstrate, as those naughty anarchists once put it, that “whoever you vote for, the government always gets in.”
So within the first 100 days of any new administration which isn’t so minority that another poll is pending, you would be likely to hear that “now we have seen the books” our pledges on X, Y and Z may have to be “modified in the light of the facts on the ground.”
It would be daft to deny the strong element of truth in this – though some will try to do so. Manifestos designed to woo voters and nutmeg journalists tend to waver or crumble on actual contact with governance, because the outcome distance between an aspiration and a policy can be very large indeed. Nick Clegg, at least, has been honest about that.
When people vote in elections it is often a deeply formed habit, a visceral sense of grievance, a generalised desire for change, a particular personality or a specific concern that motivates them to move their ‘x’ a few millimetres up or down on the ballot paper. The difference achieved by that shift may be large for some, but the overall architecture of the political system in conformity to dominant economic and social forces continues to impose a rather larger homogeneity.
So Conliblabism turns out to be the enforced consensus that while it is easy to rhetorically bash bankers and praise the NHS, the incoming government will still end up incentivizing the wealthy by giving them money and incentivizing the less wealthy by taking it off them. Plus ça change?
And yet… there is another scenario, highly resiliant though the status quo remains. Real change, if it is to come, will surely only arrive from grassroots pressure following a hung parliament, forcing the possibility of voting, parliamentary and constitutional reform to open up the system.
In such a situation the role of the SNP, Plaid and hopefully at least one Green could be very important, too. Libconlabism will ‘win’ again in the first instance. But the cost of victory for the big two or the big three could yet prove fatal in the longer run for the stifling consensus it embodies.
© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia and a sponsor of the online ‘hung parliament campaign at http://www.hang-em.com/ This article is adapted from one appearing in the May 2010 issue of the Christian social and cultural comment magazine, Third Way (http://www.thirdwaymagazine.com). In its original version it was written before the mid-April surge for the Liberal Democrats and the swing towards a hung parliament.