Tuesday, 4 May 2010

The election nobody should want to win

The first election coverage I sat up for was in 1970, when the polls foresaw Harold Wilson cruising to a comfortable Labour victory. My abiding memory is of a man with a pot of paint extending the BBC’s swingometer to reflect the far better than expected Conservative performance.

I also fondly recall that night’s ejection of legendary (for the wrong reasons) former foreign secretary George Brown from the Belper seat he had held since 1945. An event matched among “Portillo moments” for Tories perhaps only by the defeat of Tony Benn in 1983.

Apart from 1970, the only election I remember as a pleasant surprise was that of 1992. It then took me ages to unwind the complex financial arrangements I had made to keep my pathetic savings out of the hands of John Smith. By the time I had done so, the Conservatives’ reputation for financial competence had been utterly destroyed by the events of Black Wednesday.

Herein lies my essential problem with this week’s contest. Although I shall sit up all night, as tradition demands, with a bottle of champagne on ice, what on earth will there be for any of us to celebrate, however things turn out?

My tribal instincts lead me to hope for a Conservative victory, but even if I did not have my doubts about “Dave”, why would I want my own party to end up holding the not just poisoned but positively explosive chalice that is the legacy of 13 years of “prudence” by Gordon Brown?

Because the one prediction I think we can make with confidence is that a huge amount of almost indescribable nastiness is poised to strike the air conditioning, and it will make Black Wednesday look like the proverbial vicarage tea party. Looking forward to building an aircraft carrier, having your local A-road dualled, keeping your cushy paper-shuffling job in the civil service until you collect your gold-plated pension, or taking that new wonder drug for cancer?

Terribly sorry, but you’re going to be out of a job and stuck in a potholed rut at best, dead at worst. Oh, and you’re going to be paying painfully higher taxes into the bargain. That is the essential reality of our looming financial crisis that none of the contenders to be Prime Minister – not even the boy wonder Clegg – considers us grown-up enough to hear.

Because, their pollsters and focus groups no doubt assure them, anyone who told the truth would be toast come polling day.

That we have descended into this morass is not simply the politicians’ fault. Yes, they all went along with the ludicrous idea that we could keep getting richer through bankers doing the equivalent of playing the slot machines in Las Vegas. But they did it because we all longed to believe it, too.

During my lifetime we have seen a general infantilisation of the whole population, so that no-one expects to endure real pain or hardship, or to be faced with genuinely tough choices. Who now is prepared to say “No” to the bleatings of pressure groups, or administer the occasional short, sharp smack?

Well, what is coming after Thursday will be far worse than a reluctantly Court-approved “reasonable chastisement”. It is going to hurt, and the party and person who administer the punishment will soon be so fantastically unpopular that the Tories’ 13 years out of serious contention since 1997 will look like a mere bagatelle.

So I shall probably manage a ragged cheer as the Labour seats start to fall on Thursday night, but my heart will not really be in it if “Dave” looks like landing an overall majority. Though the alternative of some sort of coalition risks making nearly every serious politician in the country loathed with a truly unprecedented passion. And where exactly do we go from there?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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