3 May 2010

The year of the broken swing

Old people will die in their own excrement neglected by the local authorities in which they live. Police numbers will be slashed; universities will be forced to turn away able students; the road system will go unrepaired; recycling and refuse collection will be slashed. Welcome to the post election world, described with great clarity during our Channel 4 prime time 90 minute investigation last night of ‘What they wont tell us’.¬†

Three former cabinet ministers, permanent secretaries, economists and public policy experts described the consequences of the 20 per cent¬†cuts required in public services together with the tax rises required to pay down the nation’s overdraft over the next decade.

The collective dishonesty with the electorate about what really faces the country after 6 May, together with political trust smashed by the expenses scandal, renders this one of the most unpredictable UK general elections of all time.

That’s why the norms by which opinion poll projections have been made, may themselves be shattered.

All opinion polls are ‘weighted’ to take account of assorted factors that might influence the raw findings. But this time round those factors are themselves far harder to identify with any certainty. The TV debates, the expenses scandal, the overall despair with politics are hard to measure or gauge.

The contest is depicted in terms of ‘swings’ toward or away from political parties. But the debates have facilitated a genuine three cornered fight – demanding a multi dimensional swingometer that does more than swing between left and right.

My own forays into assorted constituencies over the past six weeks has suggested to me that there is less of a national pattern than we have seen before. Precisely because of the presence of – or the sacking/resignation of – candidates tainted by the expenses scandal in individual constituency, there are vast differences between one local contest and another. The ensuing selection process by all parties has proved problematical too.

The result is the ‘election of the fractured swing’. The electorate is in a disillusioned and undecided mood – according to these polls. I cannot remember a phenomenon in which those opting to vote for what the pollsters call ‘others’ has been so large – 10 per cent or more. UKIP, BNP, Greens and the rest are added to by Sinn Fein, Plaid Cymru, UUP, UU, SNP, and a myriad Rantzenesque independents.

In these circumstances, even a party that wins a slender majority will have no great mandate. The electorate has discovered the antidemocratic nature of our voting system. Given the scale of what faces the country – those 20 per cent cuts in public services and worse – it is hard to see how anything less than some kind of coalition will ever wield the authority to confront so massive a social and economic challenge. Even then, under whose leadership?

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