If the trio of topics advisable to avoid in polite conversation are religion, football and politics, I haven’t got it as easy as I imagined. Most people I know are agnostic at best and atheist at worst (too secure in their convictions to convince), so faith is a bit of a conversational dead-end. Few of my acquaintances follow the beautiful game, so I tend to watch ‘Match of the Day’ alone and enact the time-honoured tradition of shouting obscenities at a referee who cannot hear me – which, in the absence of company, somehow seems even sadder. When it comes to politics, however, failing to fall in line with whichever consensus one’s peer group advocates can be tricky; and nothing galvanises opinion quite like a General Election, even if the spirit of Brenda from Bristol hovers over events like the Ghost of Christmas Past – the Christmas Past in question being 1923.
It’s probably best not to use 1923 as an optimistic example of how the festive hustings can result in a positive outcome. That December’s General Election ended in a Hung Parliament. Conservative Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin had succeeded the ill Andrew Bonar Law in the summer, and though the Tories had won the General Election held just the previous year, Baldwin sought his own mandate and sent the country to the polls prematurely. What is it about Tory PMs and snap elections? Baldwin found, like Ted Heath and Theresa May long after him, the confidence that comes from a comfortable majority can be fatal at the ballot-box.
The 1923 General Election was notable for being the last occasion in which a third party gained over 100 seats. That party was Asquith’s Liberals, who ended with a tally of 158; in second place was Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour Party, with 191; the Tories managed 258 – a long way from the 308 then needed for a majority. When Parliament resumed after the Christmas break, Baldwin intended to stay in power with anticipated Liberal support; however, the Liberals conspired with Labour to reject that January’s King’s Speech and helped put Ramsay MacDonald in No.10 as the first Labour Prime Minister. If Boris is as great a scholar of British political history as he makes out, he must surely be aware of 1923’s ominous precedent. If so, though, he will also know there was another General Election less than a year later; that time round, Baldwin regained the Tories’ lost majority and was re-elected on two further occasions.
What any of this tells us about what awaits us not much more than a month from now is open to question. But the campaign is already well underway on social media, with all kinds of doom ‘n’ gloom predictions being aired if voters opt for the ‘wrong’ party. The most excited-looking of all the party leaders right now is undoubtedly Jeremy Corbyn; despite the reservations of many of his MPs – who were enjoying toying with a weak and depleted Government (and would have been content to carry on doing so) – Jezza will relish being back in his element, preaching to the converted and punching his fist in the air. He has always been a politician of protest, and never appears entirely at ease at the dispatch-box when he’d much rather be on a stage stating what he’s against. And Corbynistas seem to be doing likewise via Facebook, Twitter and the rest – making the most of their favourite sport. When they’d spent what felt like forever calling for Cameron to quit, their muted deflation when he suddenly walked in 2016 was telling. The fun is in the protesting.
Naturally, divisions within the electorate are more prevalent now than they have perhaps been in more recent General Elections; lest we forget, last time round the two main parties enjoyed their biggest share of the vote since 1970, seemingly marking a return to the duopoly of power that Labour and the Tories traditionally enjoyed. In the last couple of years, however, divisions have transcended the old left/right-red/blue divide for obvious reasons; but this schism in the voting population is maybe a mirror on the way Westminster itself is split, for the political class was never truly divided by party, certainly not in the way Brexit has drawn up battle-lines. Any MP bemoaning the disintegration of parliamentary harmony is giving away the fact that the Commons was relatively harmonious even when daggers were supposedly drawn between government and opposition of whatever colour – and that contradicts the narrative pedalled to the electorate for as far back as anyone can remember. They’re not too keen on actual disharmony in the Palace of Westminster, but disharmony ‘out there’ is good for business.
The old ‘divide and rule’ principle works well for the political class. To concoct a hypothetical – and perhaps obvious – example, take a mixed, low-income neighbourhood; should those living there realise poverty is colour blind and their common ground could be utilised as a weapon, this realisation poses a threat to the powers-that-be. So, better to fracture potential unity and separate them – either literally or through media channels; therefore, the poor white residents can blame the ‘immigrants’ for their predicament and the other side can claim to be victims of a white privilege conspiracy to oppress them. All energies go into hating the false enemy and the upholders of the system that keeps them in their place and prevents them from rising up as one are secure.
This principle could be equally applied to any source of perceived division within society – black/white, male/female, Jewish/Muslim, Catholic/Protestant, Leave/Remain – and most of these divisions are largely illusory. The only factor that divides any of us is class; same as it ever was. If there is an Us and there is a Them, the Them are the political class, not our neighbours; they’ve got the same shit to deal with as we have; and that’s what should unite us. Yes, nothing new about this theory, I agree; but it’s always worth remembering, especially at times like these, when division puts politician’s bums on seats.
Having said that, we have to vote for somebody, and the pressure on the voter is fairly intense in 2019 – does he or she stick with traditional party loyalties or throw caution to the wind by choosing whichever party advocates their own stance on Brexit? With so many different permutations in the offing once polls close, this is not an easy decision; going either way in the polling booth could result in the least desired outcome. Boris has been using that one as a response to Farage’s threat to field candidates in every constituency – whereas Jezza appears curiously oblivious to the serious encroachment of both Brexit Party and Lib Dems into Labour territory. And another factor that cannot be ignored where the voter is concerned is the absolute paucity of inspiring leadership. It’s utterly appalling. Never before have the stakes been so high and the options so bloody pitiful. It’s going to be quite a month.
© The Editor