Huffpost WorldPost
Johann Hari Headshot

This Is Not What the British People Voted for

Posted: Updated:

The British people are all supposed to now laze back and watch the latest Richard Curtis film: Politics, Actually, a charming tale of two 43-year-old rich men who have to run Britain together despite having different colour ties and eccentric armies of supporters tossing buns at each other in the background. Larks and hijinks no doubt ensue. But before you reach for the popcorn, can I briefly refer back to the will of the British people, before our ballots are so casually binned?

David Cameron went into this election with every conceivable advantage -- a half-mad Labour leader randomly insulting his core vote; a comically biased media; a massive financial advantage over his rivals, flowing from a tax haven in Belize; 13 years out of power; a major recession -- and yet he got only 36 per cent of the electorate to endorse his vision. To be fair, let's assume the 3 per cent who voted for the UK Independence Party also broadly prefer it, and call it 39 per cent. Against this, 55 per cent of us voted for parties of the (relative) centre-left -- the same proportion who say they want a country that is less unequal and less unfair. In any other European country, where they have democratic voting systems, it wouldn't even have been close. This would have been a centre-left landslide, with Cameron humiliated.

Elections are supposed to be an opportunity for the people to express the direction in which they want the country to travel. By that standard, this result is an insult. Don't fall for the people who say the Lib Dem vote was "ambiguous": a YouGov poll just before the election found that Lib Dem voters identified as "left-wing" over "right-wing" by a ratio of 4:1. Only 9 per cent sided with the right. Lib Dem voters wanted to stop Cameron, not install him. So before you start squabbling about the extremely difficult parliamentary arithmetic, or blaming the stupidly tribal Labour negotiators for their talks with the Lib Dems breaking down, you have to concede: the British people have not got what they voted for.

So what kind of government will we now get? There are two possibilities -- and nobody (including Cameron and Clegg) knows which it will be yet. The first is a muzzled and castrated Conservatism, where the Lib Dems stop the Tories doing their worst, and smuggle some progress under the radar. There is some evidence for this. As part of the coalition deal, Clegg got the Tories to ditch a few of their ugliest policies -- like giant inheritance tax cuts for double-millionaires -- and got them to accept some excellent Lib Dem ones. Schools will now get a big cash bonus for taking in poor children, reversing the social apartheid in our playgrounds. There will now be considerably higher taxes on Capital Gains -- the shares and second homes owned by the rich. Planes, the most environmentally destructive form of travel, will now face higher taxes. It's a shaming indictment of New Labour that they didn't do all this years ago.

Clegg deserves real credit for these changes -- although it will be very hard to get any of this past the parliamentary Conservative party, who are now even more right-wing than before. To pluck just one example: an incredible 91 per cent of them don't believe man-made global warming exists. This oddball rabble are five times bigger than the Lib Dems, despite getting only 13 per cent more support.

Which leads to the second possibility: that the Lib Dems can only splash a few yellow dots on to a deep-blue juggernaut. This is what a lot of the Conservative right are gleefully anticipating. Fraser Nelson, hardcore Thatcherite editor of The Spectator, boasts this will be "a radical reforming Tory government with Lib Dem backing vocals". Indeed, it may be worse. Startlingly, during the negotiations, the Lib Dems actually talked the Tories out of their commitment to ring-fence spending on the National health Service, dragging them to the right. Nelson smirked: "You gotta love these Lib Dems." In this vision, Clegg's sweet smile makes it easier for Cameron to drop the Rohypnol into our drinks.

In this febrile Dave New World, the Labour leadership election matters even more. Cameron and Osborne are committed to turning off the stimulus and cut-cut-cutting now, even though we aren't safely out of recession: check out the history books for 1937 to see what happens next. All their instincts are to cut services for people at the bottom and the middle. So long as the President of Argentina doesn't invade the Falklands, they must be odds-on to lose the next election -- provided Labour gets this right.

So before the personality parade begins, Labour needs to ask -- what did it get right over the past 13 years, and what did it get wrong? The right-wing policies pushed by the Mandelson Tendency that were supposed to make them "electable" were, in the end, albatrosses dragging their support down -- from the city-licking that made us so vulnerable to the crash, to the one million killed in Iraq. By contrast, it was the true Labour achievements that remained popular: redistributive tax credits, doubled spending on the NHS, the minimum wage.

David Miliband is the candidate of the people who poisoned the New Labour years with right-wing fantasies. Peter Mandelson is merrily pushing him as the Blairite who can most attract wealthy donors and remains unrepentant about Iraq. His brother, Ed, is much more appealing: he gets global warming more than almost any other British politician, and injected some social democratic steroids into the Labour manifesto. Yet both Milibands -- raised in a cerebral, highly political family -- speak with a peevish anti-populism that doesn't communicate well.

While everyone is concentrating on the drama of two brothers standing against each other, there's a family battle that should matter more. It looks like Yvette Cooper is standing aside for her husband, Ed Balls -- but she is a far more impressive candidate, and should be urgently pressed to reconsider. The politics of the next few years will feature a bunch of wealthy men shutting down SureStart centres, ending Child Trust Funds, sandpapering down tax credits, and increasing unemployment. Who better to oppose that than a down-to-earth young mum who has herself spent time on the dole when she got ill?

Cooper is rooted in the Labour tradition -- her grandfather was a miner, her father was a trade unionist -- but she has the ability to speak beyond it to the real Middle England, who earn on average £23k a year. In government, she piloted some of its most popular progressive policies, from SureStart to free fruit for all schoolchildren to tax credits. She defended them on TV in the election better than anyone else I saw: she's clever (a First from Oxford) but entirely normal, an unusual combination. Labour hameorraghed female voters at this election, while women in all parties were relegated to the role of silent beaming wives. It ended with a cabinet that has only one more woman than Afghanistan's. Isn't Cooper a great attention-grabbing antidote? Or do we still live in a 1950s world of brilliant women stepping aside for their less impressive husbands?

But whoever Labour chooses, it looks like we are about to face years of a ConDem coalition we didn't vote for and don't want. I hope I'm wrong and Clegg really will tame the Tories -- but I'm braced for this movie turning into One Shotgun Wedding and A Bloody Long Funeral.

Johann Hari is a writer for the Independent. To read more of his articles, click here or here.

You can follow Johann's updates on the election at www.twitter.com/johannhari