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14 May 2015

I was right (and I’m sorry), an end to the A-word, Miliband’s dignity and VE Day flag confusion

The Tories, for the first time in more than 20 years, have scraped an overall majority. Isn’t it time they did some triangulation?

By Peter Wilby

In last week’s column I predicted that the Tories would win between 295 and 300 seats and expressed the fervent hope that I was completely wrong. Indeed I was wrong, but not in the way I hoped. But at least I was closer than almost anybody else. Moreover, in early March I predicted what turned out to be the result, possibly the only time this year before the night of 7 May that “Conservative” and “overall majority” appeared in the same sentence. In the end, I foolishly allowed myself to be swayed by the pollsters, ignoring my late father’s advice that one should never listen to experts.

Yet I never expected Ed Miliband to get a sniff of office, having sat through too many general election nights (1959, 1970, 1992) where Labour fell far short of expectations. What the pollsters, pundits, MPs and party aides, in their Westminster bubble, don’t understand even now is how little attention many people pay to politics. Asking how they will vote is like asking whether they will eat a curry, a hamburger or fish and chips a fortnight on Tuesday. They haven’t thought about it.

When (and if) they get to the polling station, their main concern, particularly in economically fragile times, is that things don’t get worse. The Conservatives, thought to be better with money (after all, they’ve got lots of it themselves), usually benefit from voters’ instinctive risk aversion and, this time, they had the added advantage, from which even Gordon Brown benefited in 2010, of already being the government. The Tories’ clever exploitation of fears of a hung parliament did the rest.

 

Milibad at politics

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In the debate on Labour’s future – which will no doubt drag on tediously until March 2020 – I am already tired of the word “aspirational”, which I have read or heard at least a hundred times since the votes were counted.

Labour is said to lack appeal for the “aspirational classes”. The category is too imprecise to be helpful. Labour lost votes to the distinctly non-aspirational Ukip; to the high-tax, high-spending Greens and their fairyland manifesto; and to the SNP, which may be aspirational but not quite in the sense used by New Labour supporters. It did well in London, where one would expect most voters to be aspirational in one way or another.

Miliband’s problem was not that he was too anti- or too pro-aspiration, too left-wing or too right-wing, too hostile or too friendly to business, too Keynesian or too neoliberal. He just wasn’t very good at politics. He accepted the Tory narrative on the need for austerity, failed to challenge the claim that Labour overspending caused it, said little about the party’s record in building schools and hospitals, and relied on random retail offers, such as a freeze on energy prices, that didn’t add up to a coherent programme for government.

He didn’t repel the electorate as Michael Foot and his manifesto did in 1983 and, to a lesser extent, Neil Kinnock and John Smith did in 1992. He simply offered no compelling reason to vote Labour.

 

Aspire or desire?

That A-word troubles me, not least because I lost my first editorship, at the Independent on Sunday, because, I was told, I didn’t appeal sufficiently to those elusive aspirational folk. As used by the Independent’s then management, “aspirational” seemed to mean people who lived, or wished they lived, in the more fashionable parts of London, and who sought advice (and advertising) on buying the appropriate clothes and furniture. As used by politicians, it seems to apply to anybody who wants more money, probably to spend on a white van or perhaps the latest smartphone.

In both those senses, “aspirational” becomes little more than a synonym for “ambitious” or “covetous”. I am fairly certain that it once had less materialistic connotations. Examples in my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary bear me out. Goldsmith wrote of “Ye powers of truth, that bid my soul aspire”, while the 18th-century cleric and essayist Vicesimus Knox referred to “he who aspires at the character of a good man”. At least Red Ed, despite the efforts of the Tory press, achieved the latter, emerging from his travails with stains on his competence but not his character.

 

Tory triangulation

One of the most important questions for the next parliament concerns how the Tories will raise their £12bn in welfare cuts. They didn’t expect to get an overall majority, so they campaigned like a minority party, making reckless commitments, on the assumption they wouldn’t be allowed to implement them. Without welfare savings, their sums, which exclude rises in VAT, income tax or National Insurance, don’t add up.

One way of reducing the risk of Downing Street being besieged by wheelchairs and malnourished babies is to raise the minimum wage dramatically, automatically reducing the bill for working tax credits. Another is to steal Miliband’s rent controls, which would limit the housing benefit bill. Neither would save much – probably barely £1bn between them – but they would do the Tory brand no end of good. The Tories, for the first time in more than 20 years, have scraped an overall majority, miles short of Labour’s in 1997. Isn’t it time they did some triangulation?

 

The wrong flag

One of our local churches held a rousing concert for VE Day, made tolerable for a lefty such as myself only by a couple of pieces from the pacifist Michael Tippett. This being Essex, Union flags were waved vigorously, particularly during “There’ll Always Be an England”, written in 1939 and originally sung by Vera Lynn. Surely the wrong flag, I thought. Then we came to the third verse: “Red, white and blue,/What does it mean to you?/Surely you’re proud, shout it aloud,/‘Britons, awake!’” I wonder if, 75 years ago, the incongruity would have crossed anybody’s mind.