Thursday, 15 May 2014

The Euros are the elections that don’t matter. Except they do.

UKIP's results themselves are not the issue
It’s complicated. Next week’s election will not change very much in itself. We will send members of our favourite parties off to Brussels again in greater or lesser numbers to vote on things that, we tell pollsters on a regular basis, we care little about. Everyone’s eyes will be on the greater prize of a general election, less than twelve months away.

And you can forget the polling around this election; it means very little. Rarely has there been an election with so much of the electorate avowedly committed to protest voting, often for parties they don’t even really like.

A friend of mine, traditionally to the left of me, is voting UKIP. Why? Not because he likes them. Because he’s fed up with both right and left. “Because there’s a chance, just a chance”, he says, “that something might change”.

Now, I believe him to be wrong. But his vote forms part of an anti-establishment effect, which transcends right and left and which has blossomed in recent troubled times right across the developed world. It is not just UKIP, but Respect. It is the People’s Assembly, UK Uncut and other anti-austerity groups. The Occupy crowd. The other nationalists and secessionists. The Spanish “Indignados”. The Tea Party. The list is long.

The principal common trait of all these groups is being against the political establishment and, with the possible exception of the nationalists, if ever confronted with the tedious demands of actually having to do something in office, most would surely run in horror in the opposite direction.

So, forget the Euro-election polling and results. They tell us nothing. Things will blip up for UKIP and punish the main parties, and then in all probability blip back down by the end of the year, well in time for a distinctly lukewarm performance at the general election.

Of course, such “outlier” polling happily feeds the new-paradigm, all-bets-are-off brigade’s analysis. The trouble with supposed new paradigms in politics is that they are very rarely true.

But the election does matter. Why?

Think of a balloon. You blow it up, and let it down again. But the let-down balloon is not the same size as it originally was. It is bigger. Rubber is not perfectly elastic, so part of its stretching is permanent. The concept is simple. it’s not just where you end up; the end state will be different, depending on the path you take to get there. In most cases, it is not the same to go from A to B via C as it is to go via D. Mathematicians and economists call it path-dependency.

The possible wildcard is how much UKIP’s showing will convulse Cameron’s back benches into a mutinous froth, and whether he can withstand the resulting rightward pressure.

So, while the polls may well return gradually to normal for UKIP after this blip, the important point is that the resulting impact on Tory policy could be a little longer-lasting. The question is whether that impulse will push the Tories past their “tipping point”, where the rightwards pressure from their back benches outweighs Cameron’s will to stand his ground in the centre.

Now, suppose that (a) UKIP’s strong showing is enough to kick the Tories into a position of such rank right-wing stupidity that it alienates the mainstream electorate, and (b) that Labour positions itself to take advantage of the centre ground vacated by the Tories’ lurch. We have the beginnings of a strategy which could yet see Miliband on the steps of No. 10.

So, just like the balloon, the effect of the UKIP’s apogee on the Tories may not be perfectly elastic either. That blip upwards of UKIP, like the impulse of a pinball flipper, may have a more lasting impact on the overall political landscape than, in all probability, the party itself will do.

As Hopi Sen pointed out yesterday, “we should reject the inevitability of victory or defeat”. Things are neither great nor terrible just yet. The problem for Labour is that the chances of Miliband seizing such an opportunity to move towards the centre, where the votes are, seem tantalisingly slim. As an old professor of mine used to say: best indicator of future behaviour? Past behaviour.

Miliband’s political trajectory to date has been to aim consistently for a distinctly party-unifying, soft-left direction. To listen to the siren voices of the well-meaning wonks amongst whom he seems to feel at home but who, so far, are decidedly light on hard-nosed, workable policy. But time is running out for that kind of a strategy.

Now, in making such an about-face towards the centre, he would also run the risk, of course, of seeming opportunistic and inconsistent. But surely better that than leaving a vacuum in the political centre, vulnerable to sucking up protest votes for anti-establishment parties, or even no votes at all.

In the most positive sense, Miliband is not without a certain streak of ruthlessness; it is pretty much a necessary condition to be party leader, or at least a successful one. Perhaps this facet will take the upper hand as he comes into the home straight, and perhaps it should. A recalibration of strategy and people, and one extremely short on ruth, could just tip the balance.

One hopes so: with the seemingly inexorable downward drift in Labour’s poll lead – noting that Monday’s poll by Lord Ashcroft and then Tuesday’s ICM poll showed
the first Tory leads in two years – this may be Miliband’s, and Labour’s, last opening.

This post first published at Labour Uncut and selected for Progress' What We're Reading


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