In 2010, 56.7% of people voted for parties who, at the time, were arguing against austerity. Back then, both Labour and the Lib Dems said they were against spending cuts for at least a year. As Nick Clegg put it in his 2010 Spring Conference speech, little over a month before the election:
“We think that merrily slashing now is an act of economic masochism. If anyone had to rely on our support, and we were involved in government, of course we would say no.”
101 days after making that speech, Clegg broke his promise to the British people. He led his party through the lobbies in support of George Osborne’s emergency budget: committing the very act of economic masochism he had warned against.
The consequences of his decision were brutal. The fledgling economic recovery was stifled at birth, setting it back by years and, according to one study, costing the average person in the UK £1,500. It triggered a 36% increase in the number of people sleeping rough. The suicide rate shot up. In 2012 alone, more than 200 libraries were shut, and tens of thousands of young people had the confidence knocked out of them at the start of their careers.
As Clegg had predicted, this plan failed utterly on its own terms. The government is tens of billions away from its own targets, and only achieved the meagre deficit reduction it now claims by including vast asset sales like the Royal Mail and 4G spectrum in its revenue account: an act of dodgy accounting I wouldn’t put up with in the small charities I’m a trustee of, never mind the national balance sheet. Perhaps most damning of all, given their rhetoric about borrowing, is the OBR prediction that household debt in Britain will increase back to 170% of disposable income by 2020. Unsecured personal borrowing has already reached its 2008 peak. It’s not so much that we’re borrowing less as a country, just that the state has shifted the debt onto individuals.
The fact that Nick Clegg predicted all of this isn’t really the point though. What’s important is that British voters did. In 2010, we overwhelmingly backed parties who said that cutting public spending that year would be the act of economic butchery it turned out to be: like trying to reduce the amount of weight we’re carrying in a marathon by amputating a leg. Perhaps even more extraordinary is that we never talk about this simple fact: an overwhelming majority of us voted for one approach to the biggest question at that election. We got the opposite.
The astounding democratic deficit displayed in that fact is partly explained by the Lib Dems capitulation. They traded away things they had implied were red lines in exchange for details of their manifesto that few had noticed because, deep down, their leader was always an Orange Book neoliberal at the helm of a ship which up till then had mostly shown the public its port rather than starboard side. But another reason that this has been allowed is the utter failure of the press to hold anyone to account over this vast change of position.
The uselessness of British reporting on this matter is so astonishing that it’s been noticed on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. New York Times columnist and Nobel winning economist Paul Krugman recently asked “why is British economic discourse so bad?”. I’d like to tie that question to one I’ve been asking people for a while now: almost every opinion poll for the last 4 years has shown that Ed Miliband is by far the most likely next Prime Minister. Whatever might happen in the next few weeks, the collection of parties likely to help the Labour leader into Downing Street has so far had a consistent majority when attitude surveys are translated into hypothetical seats. In recent polls, that majority has grown: a fact which, again, was barely reported in the Tory press.
Likewise, I don’t see any particular reason that a swing to the Tories is any more plausible than a shift to Labour. There is a credible case that either will happen, but we are only ever told about the likelihood of the former. Will the revelation that Ed Miliband isn’t as bad as the media caricature (how could he be?) make people more likely to vote for him? Will a closer examination of the Conservatives remind people that they have breached almost all of their major promises and missed most of their major targets? Or will people move towards the status quo as the big day approaches? There’s a debate to be had, but we’ve only really heard one half of it in most of the press. It’s worth noting that, so far, where pundits largely told us that polls would shift away from Labour in England and the SNP in Scotland, in that far off land called reality, if anything, the opposite has happened (though only a little).
Despite all this, almost none of the newspapers or broadcasters has told anyone that simple fact: polls have always shown the collection of left leaning parties ahead. This media blackout was only broken this week week, when the FT produced the below graphic, calculating that on current polls, there’s a higher chance of the Green Party having some role in government than the Conservatives. It’s notable that this is also the paper who have been most vocal in criticising George Osborne and Danny Alexander’s austerity. As Chomsky has said, the Financial Times is telling, because when the elite is talking to itself, it’s more likely to tell the truth.
With these things in mind, I think its worth considering three more facts.
First, during the Scottish referendum, it was widely reported that Scotland is in fact not much more left wing than England. Whether or not this is true is disputable, but leave that aside for a moment. Every article I saw about this assumed that this meant that Scotland was really a conservative country, more right wing than its politicians will let on. I never saw anyone in a mainstream paper make the case for a position which I think is much more justifiable if you look at polling on attitudes towards anything from whether the government should ‘do more’ or ‘do less’ to the nationalisation of everything from energy companies to banks; from price controls to austerity to decriminalisation of drugs to increasing taxes on the rich to wind farms: it’s not that Scotland isn’t as left wing as people make out, it’s that on a huge range of issues, England is a lot more socialist, socially liberal and environmentalist than its political class. And voters know it – most see themselves as centre-left.
Second, consider this. You have to be in your forties to have voted in a general election in the UK in which the Conservatives got a majority. There is significant evidence that most who backed the Lib Dems in 2010 did so in the hope of a Lib/Lab pact. Certainly, that’s what 54% of them want now, vs 34% who prefer a deal with the Tories. In other words, it seems likely that in every election since the first children of the baby boomers came of age, most people in the UK have voted against having a Tory government.
Third, polls of young people consistently show Labour far ahead, with the Tories and Greens scrabbling for second place. The average age of the 150,000 Tory members is said to be 68. Greens across the UK will likely pass 70,000 members next week. Of those, around 17,000 are under the age of 30. This means it’s extremely likely that there are significantly more under-30s signed up to the Green Party than the traditional party of government in the UK – and possibly more under-40s.
I say all of this because for the last week, my co-editor Olly Huitson and I have been reading and monitoring the quartet of powerful right-wing papers: the Telegraph, the Times, the Daily Mail and the Sun. One of the things which I find utterly extraordinary is the extent to which they are delusional about public attitudes. In one column (behind a paywall), the Sun’s Trevor Kavanagh says that he simply doesn’t believe opinion polls showing Labour neck-and-neck with the Tories: an extraordinary claim for a major political commentator to make unless he’s willing to back it up with some evidence (which he doesn’t). All of them screamed blue murder about Labour’s position on non-doms: a policy which, it turns out, 77% of the public back. His paper has declared itself the voice of the nation, and they struggle to come to terms with the idea that most people disagree with them on most major issues.
There is, I suppose, another word for this delusion: entitlement. Despite all of the evidence, the people who are accustomed to governing this country just assume that everyone else thinks they should be in charge too. It’s an attitude that’s written across almost everything they say: when the slightly more left Ed ran as well as his more Blairite brother David, it was Ed who ‘stabbed David in the back’: the right wing sibling apparently had a divine right to rule. When the right make announcements of policies, they give little evidence that they will work: their assertion is usually sufficient. For the left to get traction, it is required to produce vast piles of data (think “The Spirit Level”, or “Capital in the 21st Century”). Again and again, the government utterly misses any of its own targets, does the opposite of what they promise the electorate, or declares black to be white. Again and again, this is dismissed as though it is nothing. They aren’t in power to deliver a programme as agreed with the people. They are in power because that is their right and proper place.
It seems to me that there are are a number of simple reasons that no paper but the FT and to an extent the Guardian has reported that Ed Miliband has long been the most likely Prime Minister according to opinion polls. First, they are trying to create a false sense of momentum behind the Tories. Second, as I wrote about a few days ago, they will do everything they can to avoid legitimising Miliband as the democratic choice for Prime Minister. Third, it’s easier for old journalists to report a Labour/Tory horse-race than the new-ish complexities of multiparty politics. Fourth, they haven’t come to terms with a simple fact. Britain’s politics now matches its geology: it leans to the left. The South and East aren’t a barometer of public opinion. They are the fringe on the right, with Clacton at its tip.
The old order is staring death in the face, and refusing to go gracefully. It is, of course, possible that its screams of disbelief will frighten voters into delaying its departure for a further half decade; that polls will tip back to the Tories. But this will only be a postponement of the inevitable: no matter how much they claim to be the voices of the people, the Tories and the right wing press don’t speak for us anymore. They are yesterday’s men.