David Cameron on the campaign trail in Wells. Photo: Dan Kitwood/WPA Pool/Getty Images
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Owen Jones: if the Tories get more seats than Labour, get ready for a Very British Coup

Don't let the right tell you that if Labour come second on seats, their government would be "illegitimate".

“No firing squads, no torture or retribution, no bloodshed. A very British coup, wouldn’t you say?” Amid an election campaign that has become ever more ominous in tone, I find myself remembering these words, uttered by Sir Percy Browne, the head of MI5 in the former Labour minister Chris Mullin’s epic 1980s political drama A Very British Coup. Harry Perkins, a leftist ex-steelworker from Sheffield, has swept to power on a radical programme, only to face co-ordinated establishment sabotage. In a climactic scene, Sir Percy blackmails Perkins into resigning on grounds of ill-health.

Ed Miliband is no Harry Perkins. A commitment to raise the top rate of income tax to the same level as Japan’s, to levy a tax on the top 0.5 per cent of homeowners and to cut public expenditure every year is not exactly parliamentary socialism in our time. But long ago, most of the media and other powerful forces in British society decided that the prospect of Miliband as prime minister was simply unacceptable. His leadership represents a modest departure from three decades of consensus established by Thatcher’s governments, but any departure is deemed intolerable. The highly personalised “Get Ed” campaign has taken a sinister turn. The Tories and their media allies are now declaring that a government led by Miliband would be illegitimate. A very British coup of our own. Although openDemocracy has been warning about this possibility for weeks, discussion has been all but banished from the mainstream media.

Our parliamentary system is quite straightforward. A government needs to be able to muster the support of the majority of sitting MPs in order to be legitimate. If it can survive a vote of no confidence, and most MPs back its Queen’s Speech – the government’s legislative programme – then its democratic legitimacy is unimpeachable. The magic number in order to govern – given Sinn Fein’s boycott of the Westminster parliament – is 323. But the Tories and their allies are arguing otherwise. They have told newspapers that they will “declare victory” if the party wins “most seats and votes”, and that Labour will have no “legitimacy” if it is the second party in terms of seats and needs to rely on the SNP. When Theresa May and the Mail on Sunday suggested that an SNP-backed Labour government would represent “the worst crisis since the abdication” – eclipsing the minor blip of the Nazi conquest of Europe – it was rightly mocked on Twitter. But this may well prove a mild foretaste of what is to come.

We are sleepwalking into a dangerous moment. If there is a left-of-centre, anti-Tory majority in parliament then the Tories must fall, however many seats they have won. Left-wing parties will have won the election and a left-of-centre government led by Labour must take office. And yet it would be deemed “illegitimate” by the Tories and most of the media. That really would be a situation with few precedents in an advanced democracy: where the opposition and media refuse to accept the democratic legitimacy of the national government.

The “unionist” Tories have been fanning English nationalism over the past few weeks for two obvious reasons: to boost the SNP in Scotland, in order to increase the likelihood that the Tories will emerge the biggest single party; and to damage Labour in key English marginals. They may well succeed, ensuring a Tory triumph in the general election and leaving this whole scenario redundant. But it never was just a strategy aimed at winning on Thursday. It is a scorched-earth policy, all aimed at what happens after 7 May. The plotters will attempt to administer a fatal blow to the Union, whether they see it as such or not: they will tell the Scottish people that the MPs they have elected are political pariahs who have no rightful say over the governing of the country. And then they will wage the mother of all campaigns against the legitimacy of a Labour-led government.

Our very British coup will surely unfold this way. The Tories declare victory if they have the most seats, regardless of the parliamentary arithmetic. Key supportive newspapers endorse this line and pressure is put on the broadcasters to follow suit. The Tories begin publicly reassembling their coalition with the Lib Dems within hours of the polls closing, despite knowing they have no majority in parliament, in order to cement the image that they remain the legitimate government.

In the run-up to the Queen’s Speech on 27 May – with David Cameron remaining as Prime Minister – the media campaign against the SNP will make the current onslaught look timid. Amid political uncertainty, a falling stock market and the value of  the pound are used to build an atmosphere of national emergency. A handful of right-wing Labour MPs – the likes of Rochdale’s Simon Danczuk, perhaps – are wheeled out on TV to echo the line of illegitimacy, helping to construct a narrative of growing Labour turmoil. Moves to depose Miliband are encouraged. The aim will be straightforward: to make it politically impossible for Labour to form a government even though left-of-centre parties have a parliamentary majority, and to pave the way for new elections against a backdrop of right-wing hysteria.

As I say, the Tory campaign of fear or smear over Scotland could prove a success, allowing Cameron to return to No 10. If not, a very British coup will begin to unfold as soon as the polling stations close. It will have few opponents in the mainstream media. The left and the Labour movement will have to mobilise in great numbers. The health of our democracy and the future of our country will be at stake

Owen Jones joins the New Statesman this week as a contributing writer

 

Owen Jones is a left-wing columnist, author and commentator. He is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and writes a weekly column for the Guardian. He has published two books, Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class and The Establishment and How They Get Away With It.

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Inside a shaken city: "I just want to be anywhere that’s not Manchester”

The morning after the bombing of the Manchester Arena has left the city's residents jumpy.

On Tuesday morning, the streets in Manchester city centre were eerily silent.

The commuter hub of Victoria Station - which backs onto the arena - was closed as police combed the area for clues, and despite Mayor Andy Burnham’s line of "business as usual", it looked like people were staying away.

Manchester Arena is the second largest indoor concert venue in Europe. With a capacity crowd of 18,000, on Monday night the venue was packed with young people from around the country - at least 22 of whom will never come home. At around 10.33pm, a suicide bomber detonated his device near the exit. Among the dead was an eight-year-old girl. Many more victims remain in hospital. 

Those Mancunians who were not alerted by the sirens woke to the news of their city's worst terrorist attack. Still, as the day went on, the city’s hubbub soon returned and, by lunchtime, there were shoppers and workers milling around Exchange Square and the town hall.

Tourists snapped images of the Albert Square building in the sunshine, and some even asked police for photographs like any other day.

But throughout the morning there were rumours and speculation about further incidents - the Arndale Centre was closed for a period after 11.40am while swathes of police descended, shutting off the main city centre thoroughfare of Market Street.

Corporation Street - closed off at Exchange Square - was at the centre of the city’s IRA blast. A postbox which survived the 1996 bombing stood in the foreground while officers stood guard, police tape fluttering around cordoned-off spaces.

It’s true that the streets of Manchester have known horror before, but not like this.

I spoke to students Beth and Melissa who were in the bustling centre when they saw people running from two different directions.

They vanished and ducked into River Island, when an alert came over the tannoy, and a staff member herded them through the back door onto the street.

“There were so many police stood outside the Arndale, it was so frightening,” Melissa told me.

“We thought it will be fine, it’ll be safe after last night. There were police everywhere walking in, and we felt like it would be fine.”

Beth said that they had planned a day of shopping, and weren’t put off by the attack.

“We heard about the arena this morning but we decided to come into the city, we were watching it all these morning, but you can’t let this stop you.”

They remembered the 1996 Arndale bombing, but added: “we were too young to really understand”.

And even now they’re older, they still did not really understand what had happened to the city.

“Theres nowhere to go, where’s safe? I just want to go home,” Melissa said. “I just want to be anywhere that’s not Manchester.”

Manchester has seen this sort of thing before - but so long ago that the stunned city dwellers are at a loss. In a city which feels under siege, no one is quite sure how anyone can keep us safe from an unknown threat

“We saw armed police on the streets - there were loads just then," Melissa said. "I trust them to keep us safe.”

But other observers were less comforted by the sign of firearms.

Ben, who I encountered standing outside an office block on Corporation Street watching the police, was not too forthcoming, except to say “They don’t know what they’re looking for, do they?” as I passed.

The spirit of the city is often invoked, and ahead of a vigil tonight in Albert Square, there will be solidarity and strength from the capital of the North.

But the community values which Mancunians hold dear are shaken to the core by what has happened here.

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