The equally-gratuitous Part I.

Trench foot-in-mouth

Last week Gordon Brown called a voter who strode up and gave him what-for about immigration from Eastern Europe “bigoted.” After forgetting to take out his microphone. Whether it counts for anything or not is totally unclear – in 2001 the famously surly deputy prime minister hit a guy and Labour got a huge majority. But it’s not for nothing that this is the first real coverage Brown has individually got in weeks. This fracas sadly encapsulates Labour’s war so far – they haven’t been able to catch a break, nobody’s listening and nobody thinks you matter.

(As a personal note, I agree with Gordon Brown. Really I like him better the more everybody else hates him. But more on that in Part III.)

It is a strange sort of revenge for Labour’s resistance to proportional representation that Gordon Brown is learning how it feels to be the leader of “the other party.” Though Labour’s numbers have held relatively steady and the resurgent Liberal Democrats are beginning to drop back, the race between two fresh, dynamic, not-grizzled leaders looks better when you don’t stick Mr Shrek MP up next to them. Labour, having developed a taste for the blood of its own leaders, is watching large chunks of its support drift away (to apathy and to LibDems – less to Tories) and indications are that the campaign is totally falling apart. Senior party leaders are apparently trying to convince Gordon Brown to stay on as a caretaker in the event of a loss in an attempt to prevent deputy leader Harriet Harman – whose abrasive style and overexact behavior as Women’s Minister earned her the nickname “Harriet Harperson” – from gaining an indomitable foothold.

As the tetchy campaign enters its final week, both Labour and Tories rounded on Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg on a promise of amnesty for illegal immigrants and extremely ill-advised declarations about his intentions should the Liberal Democrats hold the balance of power in Parliament. These have allowed Brown and Labour, with some success, to declare that a vote for the Liberal Democrats is by proxy one for Cameron – and certainly even Brown-hating Labourites will find irritating his attempts to dictate their choice of leader. David Cameron’s Conservatives have too late realized the danger of the LibDem surge and are only now turning their guns on Nick Clegg after generic attacks on a hung parliament fell flat. A strong performance in the final Leader’s Debate has helped Cameron – no poll since 20 April has showed a vote-winner other than the Conservatives – but the chances it will save him from electoral ambiguity are fading. The election’s had its big bang moment: the focus now shifts from the general campaign to contests in 650 individual seats.

The election-to-come

The quote at the top is from a commentator on election night 1997 when Labour won 418 seats and exterminated half of John Major’s Cabinet.

Derrida (in a random and slightly gratuitous philosophy reference that I’m probably going to fuck up) liked to talk about the “democracy-to-come”: how democracy doesn’t constitute anything intrinsically but is a perpetual work-in-progress, moving and shaping with the passage of time and the change of mores as people and elites assert control in new ways. It’s not going anywhere, as such: there’s no pre-arranged destination, no inevitable moment of completion and triumph. Democracy is a political system that meanders down the road, leaning forward, nervously eyeing its surroundings. If so, in Britain this week democracy is hurtling down an expressway. But where to?

The Liberal Democrat surge has guaranteed that this will be the key question in any new Parliament: not who will govern but how British government will be. If the Conservatives don’t win a majority the Liberal Democrats will hold the balance of power. It is a decades-long party policy that they cannot participate in a regime that does not pursue electoral reform, and for the first time they will be large and decisive enough to enforce that policy. Hungry for power though they may be after a hundred years out of government, they are not likely to break this commitment.

Labour will lose. Nothing can stop that now. But their ability to survive – not as a party of government but as a party at all – now hangs in the balance of this vote. If Labour does indeed drop into third and 100 seats or more fall, a massacre of Labour’s leading lights could follow. It is, ironically, like an asteroid is coming towards the Labour party. What they need in the event of a loss is enough diversity so that the gene pool of potential leaders and their supporting personalities remains robust enough for them to quickly rebound. Two factors are working against this.

The first is that low turnout, high profile Labour safe seats, like David Miliband’s South Shields, are precisely the ones likely to give up a larger-than-average swing should the election go horribly wrong. Labour’s strongholds in the North are the most likely to suffer in such a situation, and given independent interventions and a large swing towards one challenging party could overtop the superficially large majorities held by several Labour ministers like brothers Miliband or the family BallsCooper. (Teehee – Balls.)

Labour may also suffer because of Brown’s reliance on peers in government, who are unelected but can still occupy most government positions. Three peers sit in Cabinet positions which can be held by MPs – two as Secretaries of State and one, Lord Mandelson, as Gordon Brown’s right-hand. A larger number are junior ministers at the highest profile departments – 3 of 9 at Business, excluding the Lord Mandelson; 2 of 5 at Defence; 3 of  5 at the Foreign Office. The competence of these officers aside, these are all positions which are not being used to blood MPs who will be the beating breast of a Labour opposition (and the core of future Labour leadership teams). With the attrition likely if a severe loss comes on Thursday and the potential loss of many junior ministers who sit as MPs, including the most politically sensitive in marginal seats, a rump Labour party would likely fall into the hands of its safest and most hardline members, possibly under an unexpected and inexperienced leader. The Conservatives know how this feels. But they will not share Labour’s pain.

Any hung parliament is unlikely to last long, especially if it results in any kind of broad electoral reform – a new poll will have to follow any alteration in the governing system. If so – and if Labour is unlikely to be a party to the decisions that shape such a reform – their concern should not now be this Thursday. It should be election night November 2010, or May 2011, or whenever this Parliament teeters to its conclusion. By then Tories and LibDems alike will truly have dipped their hands in the blood and they will suffer the burden of having no time for any proposed remedies to take effect (which is why Cameron is so desperate for a majority government – he’ll need his full five years, at least). Labour could profit from this, especially if any Conservative-LibDem regime tears itself apart over reform.

So this was supposed to be 2 parts. w/e. I have a lot of opinions.

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