There were lots of losers in yesterday’s General Election: Esther Rantzen, Lembit Opik, Labour. But probably the biggest losers – those who stand most exposed this morning as having utterly failed to convince ordinary punters of their case – are Britain’s cultural, liberal elites, those political campaigners, academics and opinion-formers who invested all their hopes in Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats, but who failed to carry the voting public with them. This is turning out to be the story of the election: the creeping inability of the cultural elite to influence everyday public opinion.
Normally, ‘Lib Dems come third’ would not be a shocking headline. But in the wake of ‘Cleggmania’, when there was a widespread (and wild) discussion of Clegg as a new Obama who would take us into a new dawn and transform British politics forever, the fact that the Lib Dems not only didn’t make any gains, but actually seem to have lost seats, takes on a new dimension. It exposes, not only the well-known fact that the Lib Dems are the perennial third party, but also something more profound: that there is a chasm between the cultural elite and the public today, and the electorate is understandably not enamoured by the argument for a ‘new politics’ that lacks any substance.
The Lib Dems had a particularly miserable night. Some had predicted that they would win more votes than Labour to become Britain’s second-largest party, possibly securing over 100 seats. Back on Planet Earth, according to projections, they appear to have won 61 seats, which would be one less than they got in 2005. Far from taking off into the political stratosphere, their overall vote appears to have risen by a measly 0.9 per cent. At a time of widespread disillusionment with Labour and doubts that David Cameron will really lead Britain into a bright new future (as captured even on the Sun’s front page: ‘Cameron: Our Only Hope), the Lib Dems’ failure to gain ground is extraordinary.
Added to this is the fact that some of Britain’s most influential thinkers and writers backed the Lib Dems – loudly, frequently and passionately – yet they seem to have made little to no dent in the public’s consciousness. Key figures in the cultural elite rallied behind Clegg. They wrote multi-signed letters to newspapers describing this as an ‘extraordinary political moment’, an election that had been ‘seized by the voters and turned into a democratic contest over the shape of our democracy itself’. They called on others to ‘pin their colours to the Liberal Democrat mast’. They compared themselves to John Stuart Mill. They claimed that their ‘liberal surge’ had ‘shaken the establishment to its foundations’.
The Guardian published a long editorial backing the Lib Dems under the headline ‘The liberal moment has come’. Most strikingly, it declared that the Lib Dems ‘reflect and lead an overwhelming national mood for real change’. Really? The national mood has rejected Clegg. The voters were not seized by Cleggmania, which, as spiked argued, pretty much alone, was an entirely media elite-driven phenomenon. ‘I don’t agree with Nick’ is the overwhelming message of this election. It is not only Clegg who needs to have a serious word with himself this morning. So too do his intellectual and political backers who so spectacularly failed to read the national mood or to influence it in any meaningful way. This was more than a mere misjudgement – it signifies a rupture between the influential intellectual wing of the elite and the public.
Not surprisingly, the cultural elite is mightily annoyed with the electorate. Last night’s TV election coverage featured various editors and other bigwigs saying ‘I thought this was supposed to be the election that moved us beyond tribal politics?’ and ‘Whatever happened to doing things in a new way?’. In other words, why are you voters such tribalistic tossers? But it is not accurate to depict this election as simply the ‘old politics’ on the march once more. Rather, yesterday’s vote also confirmed the public’s dislocation from the two big parties. Labour’s vote plummeted – they’ve lost 86 seats so far – and while the Conservatives’ vote has risen (by 92 seats at the time of writing), they have not been given anything like a clear mandate to take over the reins of power. The lack of anything like mass enthusiasm for the two old parties coupled with the rejection of elite Cleggmania suggests the electorate is both alienated from the old and spectacularly unimpressed by the new.
The problem, of course, is not the electorate. It is the lack of an alternative. The big idea offered by the Cleggomaniac cultural elite, which would apparently shake the foundations of the establishment and seize the voters, was electoral reform. Not any economic solutions, promise of liberty or galvanising vision for Britain, but constitutional tweaking. Such promises of reform were a crutch for an actual political alternative. In the absence of any meaningful political ideas, the cultural elite myopically focused on technical changes to the electoral system instead. The public, clearly, has better things to think about.
Now that the cultural elites have effectively been routed, left shockingly exposed, so the anti-masses, debate-avoiding nature of their campaign for reform has become more explicit. They presented it before the election as a great opportunity to ‘re-democratise’ Britain, but now they are talking feverishly about cobbling together a Labour-Lib Dem coalition in order to force through their desired reforms (are two unpopular parties really any better than Cameron’s kind-of popular party?) and claim that last night’s results show the urgent need for reform. It is only the lack of proportional representation, they argue, that makes people vote for the two big parties – if we had PR, people would take a risk and vote Lib Dem or Green or whatever. But it’s not the absence of PR that is the problem – it’s the absence of inspiring alternative visions. It is becoming clear this morning that the cultural elite wants to change the electoral system primarily to guard against the fickleness of the electorate.
More than anything, this election has confirmed that there is an enormous disconnect between the public and the two big parties and an even bigger one between the public and the cultural elite. Voters did not behave irrationally last night. Far from it. Their ability to make clear choices was hampered by the lack of serious political debate, but nonetheless they seem fairly clearly to have rejected both the illiberal Labour government and the condescending cultural elite. That is not such a bad result. It shows that people are not slates on to which flimsy new ideas can be projected, and that there is a new openness for pushing forward some proper, true and convincing political arguments into the public realm.
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