Welcome to the era of no overall control

The leaders’ debates energised what were, in truth, disappointing campaigns for all three main parti

It's all over: the festival of pledges, pratfalls, fumbles and fudges that constitutes a modern British election campaign. And the result is . . . great confusion. Parliament's hung, everyone's lost and the only likely bet is another election not too far away. We are now in possession of the Snark of British politics - a first-past-the-post election with a muddy, proportional representation-type result.

Asked on the BBC at 5am on Friday 7 May who was going to be running the country, the Children's Secretary, Ed Balls, replied that he didn't know for sure, as he had been out of mobile contact for an hour. And that's how it felt as the graphics registered unsatisfactory gains for the Tories, a savage deflation of the Lib Dem soufflé and Labour hanging on in there, despite losing the mandate of a majority.

There were cameos to savour along the way: the former home secretary Jacqui Smith's face, staring at the defeat she knew was coming but still flinching at the blow when it landed; and Gisela Stuart, holding off the Tory advance in Edgbaston. This was a reminder that sometimes - just sometimes - pleasant character and consistent views can triumph over the party machines.

And there was the news that many Friends of Cameron hadn't made it - so, no Annunziata Rees-Mogg and no Notting Hill queen Joanne Cash in the next parliament. Meanwhile, many Tories were just as dismayed to see Zac Goldsmith crowned in Richmond as some in New Labour were to see Balls survive his boundary change.

At the end of it all, we were left watching Gordon Brown re-entering Downing Street and a lot of aerial shots of cars hurtling around with very tired men in the back seats. But we were still no closer to knowing who would govern Britain.

Loose briefs

How did it happen? The Tories entered the campaign having endured two very ropey months. They lost momentum and clarity of message, which was never recovered. A key strategist admitted to me in the early hours of 7 May that there were faults in the "ground war" for seats: "Candidates [were] wandering around loosely briefed and some without even the blue rosette. [There was] a lot of confusion out there."

But what the party was saying was also shrouded in mystery. What exactly was the Conservative offer? It depended whom you asked. Most significantly, David Cameron had what one of his closest aides concedes was a "wandering" message on the economy. A party which had declared that slashing the deficit was a priority softened the edges of its message. The married person's tax allowance, which Cameron had once intended to put at the centre of his pitch for power, was in tatters, reduced from an ambitious attempt to mend "broken Britain" to a forlorn symbol of good intentions.

The "big society", Cameron's big idea, had great potential, but its contours were so vaguely defined that it sounded like awfully hard work on top of our day jobs and the tiresome business of everyday life. At the Battersea manifesto launch, the mood was hopeful but highly nervous. The brief from the top was firm: "No counter-intuitive change messages." In other words, don't lose the core vote to Ukip by talking about saving the planet or being nice to delinquents.

The problem for Cameron was that this was a campaign sculpted around his per­sonality and appeal - and it still didn't put him straight into Downing Street. (And this party, which loves a grudge, will store up that resentment.) The strain on the Tory leader has been immense. He has put on weight in the past few weeks, bemoaning the diet of "sandwiches, coffee and angst" on the road.

The only thrill of the early part of the campaign was the Conservative ploy of doubling back (again) on the priority of deficit reduction - and coming out against the government's planned National Insurance rise. In a battle fought on big ideas, this would have been a detail, but with little else to go on, Labour was boxed in to the "tax on jobs" corner - much to the frustration of that doughty campaigner, John Prescott. He told me of his concerns that the famed New Labour rebuttal machine had gone rusty. "It should have immediately been parried as an attack on health and schools spending. We let them define us far too easily."

The press relied heavily on the leaders' wives for a bit of colour in a campaign painted in shades of grey. The slicker edge of the Tory marketing machine brought us "Web Sam Cameron", showcasing a glowing Sam in a mid-market smock, apparently talking to her open fridge about Dave's
reliability. "He's never let me down." Nice to know.

Poor Sarah Brown tweeted about her daffodils like a Desperate Housewife. Trussed up in high-street attire, she had the tolerant but weary look of a woman doing what she has to do while sensing that disaster loomed. As for Miriam González Durántez, she appeared as a fetching St John the Baptist for her husband, Nick Clegg. Dazzling but unaffected, she won the hearts of the nation's working women by making it clear that she would rather be doing the day job than stomping around key marginals.

None of this mattered, however, once the debates crackled into life. "As of tomorrow," a senior Labour strategist said to me at the time, "nothing you've written earlier will matter." He was right. The refreshing thing about the Cleggster's breakthrough moment was that it was so unexpected that we all thought we had discovered it for ourselves.

It turned out that there was unusual accord. Brown's hug, "I agree with Nick," was intended to open a door to coalition. In the event, it only confirmed Clegg's status as primus inter pares in the widescreen war. His open countenance, informality and conspiratorial tone with the viewers were magnificent. Suddenly, we saw what we had been missing in Westminster's boy next door.

As he walked off the stage, I watched Dave give the Lib Dem leader a congratulatory thump on the back that looked rather more vicious than benign. The rise of Clegg seems especially painful to a Tory leader who has presented himself as the generational change Britain needs. From now on, parents with political ambitions for their offspring will be applying to Clegg's alma mater, Westminster, rather than to Eton.

Would the bubble burst? At Conservative Central Office, formerly bright faces were stricken. I asked one of Cameron's intimates what they would do if their man didn't make it into No 10. "None of us will still be here," he said. "And you'll be calling Liam Fox for quotes on when he's going to run."

That sense of fragility, of living on borrowed time, never left the Tories. But before we got to round three of the debates, a ghastly fate would strike Labour and Brown. Like the fallen heroes of Greek tragedy, he would be the author of his own misfortune.

The b-word

How did a prime minister surrounded by seasoned advisers get it so wrong? The encounter with Gillian Duffy was somewhere between The Wire and The Thick of It - with a touch of Frank Spencer thrown in. Brown's off-the-cuff diagnosis of her as a "bigoted woman" showed that Labour's connection to its core vote had been shattered. After all, Duffy had merely asked where eastern European migrants were "flocking from". Besides the obvious retort, we know what she meant, and the government has never found a straight answer.

The b-word belied Brown's vaunted intention to meet "real people". That said, we all know how easy it is to be caught out by a phone line left open, or a "reply to all" icon clicked on in error. The trouble is, it just would happen to Gordon, wouldn't it? As he put his head in his hands when the tape was played back to him during a radio interview, disdain mingled with sneaking sympathy.

Labour subsequently announced that its vote was "holding up", as if it were a dodgy pair of suspenders. The damage went deeper, however, and the prospect of Brown remaining Prime Minister, even if the coalition arithmetic was favourable to Labour, went down the drain.

The following night, on Thursday 29 April, when the three musketeers crossed swords on television for the last time, we saw Clegg's magic begin to fade, and a sleek, urgent Cameron admit that few people could understand exactly what his "big society" was about (which he somehow presented as a measure of its integrity, rather than an indication that it was a vague muddle of wishes and instincts). Brown, meanwhile, projected his best asset: avid seriousness.

Yet, his had been a weak campaign, not enhanced by his character and lacklustre projection. How must Brown's persistent tormentor Charles Clarke feel at being ousted in Norwich South while the leader clings on? I think we can guess. Out on the stump, Brown seemed grumpy, exhausted and tense from the start, overcompensating with the fixed grin of a man hiding vast deposits of despair and ill-feeling.

In the final week of the campaign, I went to Eltham in south London with Prescott, who was grumbling about Labour's poor preparation and its failure to launch a dry run of the campaign during the European elections in June 2009.

Peter Mandelson texted to congratulate Prezza on racking up 5,000 miles on the campaign trail. As he did so, Ed Balls was tantalising NS readers with the prospect of co-operation with the Lib Dems in the event of a hung parliament, while Peter Hain embraced it outright. Prescott's fury was as loud and immense as the man himself: "What's this piddling about with the electorate?"

In the end, there wasn't a lot of piddling about; just a panicked retreat, as Clegg candidly put it, to what people already knew. In that regard, Britain is a conservative nation. But this election has also shown that it is not an overwhelmingly Conservative one.

The Prime Minister's statement outside No 10 on 7 May was pure Robo-Gordon: you can deny him a majority and fail to give him a mandate as Labour leader, but he won't give up. One thing was for sure: he would have to be hosed out of Downing Street.

Later, Cameron emerged with a lengthy tract offering something called "confidence and supply" to the Liberal Democrats. He would agree to remove some of the more controversial Tory policies in return for Clegg supplying support. Lib Dems may consider this the equivalent of the ham-and-eggs joint venture proposed by the chicken to the pig. Clegg at least started by giving the impression he would do anything to avoid moving in with him. The chemistry is all wrong.

“We'll end up messing around with that Liberal bloke who's almost a Tory," Prescott prophesied. And it turns out he may have been right. Welcome to the era of no overall control - of almost everything.

Anne McElvoy is political columnist of the London Evening Standard and a regular presenter of "Night Waves" on Radio 3.

This article first appeared in the 17 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, On a tightrope

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit: monbiot.com/music/

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood