The three party manifestos mumbled some vague policies and the electorate responded with a blank shrug. For all the present talk of a need for “strong” and “decisive” government, none of the three parties were ever offering much prospect of this in the first place. The coalition cabinet now in the works – a Labour or Tory administration with a little peep of Lib-Dem pantyline – should be a pretty simple accomplishment, despite the breathtaking ideological compromises which may be required (a referendum on electoral reform… yes, that’s it!) The only danger is that the British parliament would end up appearing a bit senile – holding debates on the technicalities of electoral representation whilst the economy tumbled down around it.
A few months ago, it looked as if Gordon Brown would be slaughtered at the polls, that most of the cabinet would lose their seats, and that the whole New Labour project would be consigned to history. Last week, the opinion polls were unanimous that Nick Clegg would finish at least second and that we would witness a radical overhaul of the “old” two-party politics. One should not be too hard on Nick Clegg. Until recently, I was forecasting a Lib-Dem electoral meltdown, as so much of their support seemed temporary, precarious, and derived mostly from their opposition to the Iraq war. Despite clinging on to their voting base, the Lib-Dems have suffered the most out of the three parties from their imprecision on policy. I did not vote for the Lib-Dems myself because it looked suspiciously like a vote for a Tory-led government, and most of Edinburgh seems to have decided the same. Labour held all of its Edinburgh seats, most notably from a strong Lib-Dem challenge in Leith.
If there was “voter disconnect” during the election campaign, it was most obviously a disengagement from what most of the media were telling them, although it seems a little unfair to subject the entire political commentariat to days of sleep deprivation, until they finally witness a magical government forming in a swirl of hallucinatory lucidity (David Dimbleby seems to have been presenting the BBC election’s coverage for over fifteen hours, and he could be repeatedly interviewing the same exhausted pundits until Saturday). Perhaps the media’s profoundest failing was to mistake a parliamentary election for a presidential campaign, and to focus with obsessive energy on the characters, “vision,” and “experience” of the three party leaders. “Cleggmania” and “the Cameron effect” turned out to have exerted a largely negligible influence over the election results. Indeed, when it comes to personalities, there has been a general brain-drain from parliament: Michael Howard, Bob Marshall Andrews and Ann Widdecombe baled out voluntarily; whilst the Lib-Dem medical boff Evan Harris and the fine independent MP Dr. Richard Taylor both lost their seats. Moreover, some truly charmless personalities such as Labour’s Ed Balls and the Speaker John Bercow have survived spirited and high-profile attempts to oust them.
Ultimately, this election seems to have been characterised by an assumption amongst the voters that behind the meaningless facades and empty manifestoes, Labour and the Tories were very certain what they were doing, which amounted to exactly the same thing: after winning a mandate, they would trot off to the business community to be told what to do. Wrangling over who will lead a powerless and clueless cabinet seems to be going into too much detail. Roll on democracy.