If I have previously suggested that this election was slightly dull or a trifle boring, I take it all back. The excitement that attends it is eerie and even sinister, but that there is such excitement is undeniable. It seeps out of every television broadcast or interview with the leading figures, especially Labor’s Tony Blair.
That excitement is not explained by uncertainty over the result. Though I shall qualify this verdict below, almost everyone assumes that Labor will win. Only the size of its majority is thought to be in doubt. There are solid reasons for this.
1. Blair, Brown, and New Labor are presiding over a long economic boom–it started under the Tories in 1992 but Labor’s finance minister, Gordon Brown, gets the political credit today. Almost all of the other issues and criticisms run up against this central fact. Warnings that a major public expenditure crisis lies ahead make little impact.
2. Britain’s electoral system is (more or less accidentally) gerrymandered against the Tories and in favor of Labor. The Tories would need to be six points ahead of Labor in votes in order to be equal to it in seats, and ten points ahead in order to gain a bare parliamentary majority.
3. In addition to that, postal voting under new lax rules has been introduced despite a recent trial for postal vote fraud in which the judge remarked that the system would “disgrace a banana republic.” The government was warned of the increased likelihood of fraud at an early stage of the legislation introducing this system but decided to go ahead with it anyway. It is almost universally assumed that the new system will benefit Labor, in particular in constituencies with a large Muslim population.
And so on.
If Labor’s victory looks certain, what generates the excitement? Simple–the possibility that Tony Blair will be struck down by his own party at the moment of victory. Well, perhaps not at the actual moment; but not long afterwards either. It is impossible to exaggerate the hatred and contempt that Labor politicians and activists feel towards Blair. Labor candidates go on television and when asked their opinion of Blair, utter sullen remarks such as “He is the leader of our party at the moment.” Some ask to be elected so that they can control Blair or even oust him. And some activists are planning to vote Lib-Dem or even Tory so that Blair will be humiliated by a sharp fall in the majority and be replaced by Brown.
In the past these hatreds were held in check by Blair’s popularity with middle England and with the political elite. He was seen, however bitterly, as an electoral asset by those Labor people who thought New Labor was a sellout. But this is true no longer. Blair is deeply distrusted as a result of the widespread view that he deliberately lied to the British people in order to maneuver them into an unjustified and illegal war. That belief is at best an exaggeration and at worst a falsehood. But it moves large numbers of voters, generally on the Left, and senior opinion formers in and out of government.
Its mythic potency is illustrated by the leaking of a top-secret document last weekend in which Blair and his senior national-security advisers discussed Britain’s approach to war. If read critically, the document supported Blair as well as damaging him. While it was embarrassing that the foreign secretary admitted Saddam Hussein had a lesser WMD capability than Libya, it also demonstrated the sincere official belief that he did have a WMD capability of some kind. But it was presented by the media as an unqualified indictment of the prime minister and a proof that he was bent on manipulating the nation into war. What is most unsettling about this episode is that a top-secret document with a tiny circulation at the top of government (probably fewer than 40 people were on the mailing list) was leaked to the press. That suggests an elite disaffection from Blair over the Iraq war that bites very deep.
As a result of these various trends, Blair is likely to be reelected on Thursday to a very lonely eminence in Number 10 Downing Street. Julius Caesar has just been revived here in a version inspired (with a sparkling lack of originality) by the Iraq war. Even so, one cannot help seeing Blair as Caesar surrounded by conspiratorial ministers with raised daggers. Conventional punditry suggests as follows: If Blair’s majority falls below 60 seats, he could go within months; if it hovers between 60 and 120, then he might survive a year; only if it remains triumphantly above 120 will he be able to stay as prime minister for the duration of the parliament.
That said, everything looks different on the day after an election.
Is there any chance that the voters might save Tony Blair from this fate by electing someone else? For the reasons given above, the chances are slim. But the likelihood of some kind of lesser surprise is high.
Look, first, at the polls. They have diverged sharply over the last few days into two groups. One group shows a wide (and widening) gap with Labor on about 40 percent, the Tories on 30 percent, and the Lib-Dems at around 21 percent. A second group shows Labor at 36 percent, the Tories at 33 percent and the Lib-Dems at around 23 percent. Someone is wrong here. And when polls diverge significantly, it is usually a sign that the voters are in a changeable state of mind.
A second consideration is that in the last three elections, all the polls have underestimated the conservative total. Pollsters acknowledge this but argue that the have since built in some corrections for this bias. But as William Rees-Mogg points out in Monday’s London Times (in an analysis on which I have drawn freely here), after the last such correction, the anti-conservative underestimate actually doubled. So either there is a bias which they have not yet detected or–what is also a possibility when highly divisive social issues like immigration are raised–the anti-conservative bias is growing because Tory respondents are more reluctant to reveal their voting intentions. Whatever the reason, past experience suggests that Labor will do less well and the Tories better than expected. And the course of this campaign–especially its late domination by the issues of Iraq and Blair’s trustworthiness–should benefit the Lib-Dems.
A third factor is that this election is taking place in a three-and-a-half party system rather than the traditional two-party one–namely Labor, Conservatives, Lib-Dems and the Rest (currently scoring seven percent in some polls.) The larger the number of parties, the harder it is to forecast the result. For instance, a rise in Lib-Dem votes taken mainly from Labor might elect more Tories even if their vote was unchanged. Add in regional differentials and the likelihood is that there will be quite a few victories and defeats against the national trends.
That is further complicated by changes in tactical voting. For the last two British elections, Labor and the Lib-Dems have had an electoral pact to vote for whichever local candidate seemed likely to defeat the local Tory. That pact was already breaking down informally because the Tories are no longer as hated and despised as they were under the luckless John Major. Tony Blair is now the target of tactical voting hostility. And some Labor and Lib-Dem voters are planning to vote tactically to reduce his majority. Today, Lib-Dem leader Charles Kennedy renounced the pact formally on the grounds that the Tories had no chance of winning. His real motive is to take advantage of the fact that the Lib-Dems were the only anti-war party in order to win votes from Labor. He may succeed–and tactical voting may damage Labor. In any event, it is unlikely to damage the Tories this time except in a handful of seats where the Lib-Dems have embarked on a campaign to “decapitate” the Tories by defeating potential Tory leaders such as David Davis and Oliver Letwin.
Another uncertainty is turnout. In recent years, the British turnout, which was commonly 72 percent and sometimes higher, has shrunk to around 60 percent. Even with expanded (and fraudulent) postal votes, it is expected to fall below that figure on Thursday. Labor is nervous that a low turnout would damage its prospects more than any other factor. They may be no more right than the Democrats were last November. But turnout will certainly determine some seats and the overall majority. And the Tories do better in polls among voters “determined to vote.”
And, finally, there is a slight possibility that the so-called “marginal seats” where the sitting MP has only a small majority will behave different from the rest of the country and throw out more Labor MPs than the national trend would suggest. I doubt that myself. Still, all parties are concentrating their campaign in such seats–it is still possible in most of London to pass the day without encountering the election at all. And simple organization often makes a difference in districts where the majority is tiny.
Taken together, these factors add up to a more exciting election night than the raw poll figures might suggest. I gather that Lynton Crosby, the Tories’s Australian strategist, is predicting that the result won’t be known until 3:00 A.M. local time or 10:00 P.M. EST. If that result favors Labor, the daggers should be out for Blair by about 11:00 P.M. EST.
The Tories and Michael Howard personally have come under some criticism for their use of the word “liar” against Blair. I tend to think that criticism justified even if it is clear that the prime minister would not make an absolutely reliable eyewitness in a capital trial.
It lowers the tone of public debate. It especially affronts Tory voters who dislike public slinging matches more than other party supporters. And it helps the Lib-Dems who, even though they can be the dirtiest of political fighters, nonetheless are seen as more “moderate” and thus cleaner than the two main parties.
It would be a mistake, however, to extend this criticism to all negative campaigning. As a distinguished American Democrat once said: “Say what you like about negative campaigning, at least it’s more honest than positive campaigning.”
–John O’Sullivan, former adviser to Lady Thatcher, is the editor-at-large of National Review and is a member of Benador Associates.