"All political careers end in failure," we often hear, a slight misquote of a line from Enoch Powell. These might be exceptions that prove the rule, but few can claim with a straight face that the careers of either Margaret Thatcher or Ronald Reagan ended in failure. Thatcher was ditched by her party, yes, and arguably the Tories have never recovered from that singular moment of trauma, and yet who can deny that the legacy both she and Reagan left the West has not proved resilient since then? Not even the great crash of 2008 has led to a break with neoliberalism; if anything, quite the opposite, regardless of the rise of a few opposition movements.
Barring a complete shock, tomorrow's election results will demonstrate there are times when political failure is absolute, whether it ends careers immediately or not. The last polls all point either to a dead heat between Labour and the Tories, or a lead for the latter well within the margin of error. 6 weeks, or rather nigh on 5 months of campaigning by both has failed to shift opinion in any substantial way. All they've succeeded in doing is consolidating their support: that might not strictly be a failure in that it's just as important as winning over undecided voters, but it speaks of just how limited the terms of engagement have been.
Nor is it as if the main two haven't tried: the Conservatives have thrown every conceivable bribe at those they consider "their people" possible. The all but abolition of inheritance tax, the expansion of right to buy to housing associations, the promise of tax cuts to come, paid for by a brutal slashing of the social security budget, none of it has worked. Labour meanwhile affected to pinch the Tories' clothes on deficit reduction, pledging it would fall every year, guaranteed by a "budget responsibility" lock, the forerunner to the 6 pledge tombstone. The parties battled over whom could deny themselves the most potential revenue: the Tories would legislate to make raising income tax, national insurance and VAT illegal, while Labour said they would only put the top rate of income tax back to 50p. If this was meant to make voters believe just how serious they were about sticking to these fine words, it hasn't worked. Why would it when everyone can plainly see there's going to be a mass bartering session come Friday afternoon when another hung parliament is confirmed?
The failure has not just been political, however. If the 2015 election becomes known for anything, it will be as the one where newspapers confirmed they are as good as dead. This is not to say they no longer have any influence, as some risibly claim: quite the opposite. They might not have a direct impact on how people decide to vote, but they can define perceptions and shift attitudes fundamentally. Ed Miliband would not have been considered a complete no-hoper little more than a month ago if it had not been for the way he was persistently caricatured as a weird leftie nerd from almost as soon as he won the Labour leadership.
What has changed is the abandoning of all pretence of being the voice of their readers as opposed to the voice of their owners. The Sun straight up admitted its contempt for Ed Miliband was based around how the fiend hasn't ruled out breaking up Rupert Murdoch's continuing stranglehold on the media, something it would have never done in the past. Most egregious though has been the Telegraph, once respected by all for the dividing line between its news and comment, reduced by the Barclay brothers to prostituting itself without the slightest shame to the Conservatives, time and again turning its front page over to missives issued directly from CCHQ. Peter Oborne's exposing of the paper's sycophancy towards advertiser HSBC seems to have led to it straight up throwing in the towel, not so much as bothering to hide its bias. The Mail meanwhile with its non-dom owner Lord Rothermere savages Miliband as a "class war zealot" who will "destroy the nation", although when the paper has already described his deceased father as "THE MAN WHO HATED BRITAIN" it's barely possible to go any lower.
It wouldn't matter as much if there was the slightest evidence the monstering of Miliband and Labour was working, or if there was something resembling wit in the constant attacks. Putting Neil Kinnock's head in a light bulb and asking the last person in the country to turn out the lights if he won at least had the semblance of originality, of being a wounding attack. Reprinting the photograph of Miliband eating a bacon sandwich in a slightly comical fashion alongside a whole load of puns on pork is pathetic, nowhere near cutting enough and worst of all, obvious. The Sun of Kelvin MacKenzie's era, of Rebekah Brooks's era for goodness sake would have come up with something better. If nothing else, the Sun once knew how its readers' minds worked. As with the rest of the popular and indeed right-wing press, those days are gone and they're not coming back.
That at this point the right-wing media rather than eulogising about Cameron and his party is spending all its time attacking Miliband and questioning his party's legitimacy to govern itself demonstrates their and the Tories' abject failure. When all they've got is a year-old photograph, a five-year old joke of a letter and the prospect of a party in power that hasn't won an election, after 5 years of precisely that, little could be more pitiful.
Not that Cameron or the rest of the leaders have been held to account by the media as a whole. All the attempts to trip them up, to get the Tories to say where they'll make their cuts to welfare or how much Labour will borrow have been brushed aside. The interrogator who has caused politicians the most discomfort, Andrew Neil, has been doing so to an audience of politics nerds and the barely compos mentis, while tinsel tits Evan Davis was given the job of interviewing the leaders in prime time, bringing his brand of less tenacious and less insightful technique along with him. All the emphasis on trapping the parties in a gaffe has only had the result of making them risk averse above all else. The campaign as a whole has suffered from that choice.
If anyone's failure has been total, it must though David Cameron's. He's had every advantage a prime minister could hope for: an utterly servile media; a divided opposition with an unpopular leader; a growing economy; and the collapse of said opposition in its Scottish heartlands. The threat on the right from UKIP has subsided somewhat, helped by another failure in the shape of the wheels coming off Nigel Farage's bandwagon, and still Cameron hasn't been able to shift the polls in his favour. From the outset he's displayed every sign of not being interested, from the interview with James Landale where he said he wouldn't serve a third term, instantly starting the Tory leadership contest, to the cringe-inducing showing of "passion". If any other politician had claimed to be "bloody lively" and "pumped up" the ridicule would have been absolute, as it would if it was Miliband addressing empty cowsheds or dropping in on farmers for a spot of breakfast, or if the Labour leader had made the slip that the election would be "career defining". Calling him the poor man's Tony Blair doesn't really work any longer; not only did Blair win elections, Blair at least believed in things. Cameron as the profile by Matthew d'Aconservative in the Graun demonstrates believes in absolutely nothing.
Indeed, the only thing saving Cameron is Labour's collapse in Scotland. This isn't so much down to the success of Nicola Sturgeon as it is the carry on from the referendum and Scottish Labour's helpless flailing around trying to work out why it is this has happened now. There is a point to wondering why it is voters who've come to the conclusion they've been abandoned and ignored by the party they previously backed en masse would then transfer their allegiance to one single party en masse and think there'll be a different end result, but only as far as it goes. The only thing to be done now is to appeal to voters' better instincts: that every seat Labour loses in Scotland helps David Cameron regardless of what the SNP says about "locking the Tories" out. It also has to be emphasised that just as Nicola Sturgeon says Scotland and the rest of the country will never forgive Labour if it refuses to work with the SNP, it's also the case the SNP will never be forgiven if it refuses to vote for a minority Labour government's Queen speech on the specious grounds it doesn't end austerity.
5 years ago, the British people conspired to ensure no one won the election. Five years later and they seem all but certain to produce a result that adds up to the same thing, only with bells on. If this doesn't result in the political class considering just why it is they've become such failures and what to do about it, then they've missed the real message of this campaign. The same goes for a media that has never seemed more out of touch, talking to itself and only itself. Regardless of which party wins the most seats or manages to form a government, there's a reckoning coming. It's not going to be pretty.
Labels: Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, David Cameron, Ed Miliband, election 2015, Labour, Liberal Democrats, media analysis, politics, tabloid analysis, Tories