Here were my initial thoughts. They were more like unfathomable sensations than thoughts – a numbness, like the one you feel the moment after you stub your toe, when the pain hasn’t begun but you know you will shortly be yelling in agony.
I was in a pub in Brighton with Labour members who’d been campaigning in Kemptown. I had a pint of Harveys Sussex bitter, and the exit poll would be revealed in four minutes, according to the clock under David Dimbleby.
This was a moment I’d been anticipating for weeks, possibly months, sometimes with dread but over the days with a glow. Because I’d followed every opinion poll, listened to every anecdote from neighbours, mates, people on trains. I’d read the polling experts, and Labour would, at the very least, come close to forming some sort of government. The world wouldn’t be transformed, but the spiteful bedroom tax would be repealed, the non-dom tax dodge would end, and Rupert Murdoch would have to accept he couldn’t dictate who ran the country.
The polls had drifted Labour’s way in the previous two days. The abuse from the press had backfired, and the exit poll would show Labour and the Tories about level. Ten seconds to go – it was like the moments before a penalty, but one that determines the nature of everything. Boof! – Conservatives 316.
Eventually across the country the crestfallen turned to wondering what to do. Firstly, how were we fooled? The answer, I suppose, is that about four per cent of the population say they’ll vote one way, maybe even telling that to themselves, but in fact they’ll vote another, Tory, way.
In part this can make the rest of us feel validated. Voting Conservative appeals to self-interest rather than communal interest, so some of its supporters feel ashamed to admit it. Imagine if you gathered a hundred people in a room and told them they could vote for everyone to be given £50 each, or for them to be given a thousand pounds personally but everyone else gets nothing. In public most people would probably vote for sharing, but in a secret ballot some would put a sneaky cross in a box for swiping the lot. In part that’s what happened on Thursday – except no one will ever be given the £1,000.
And some people must have succumbed to a carefully orchestrated cacophony of fear. Vote Labour and the Scottish will take over, they’ll feed your pets to their pandas and hose your furniture with Irn-Bru until it dissolves and make England put Alex Salmond in goal, that’s what will happen with Labour.
But if that’s the whole story, we’re stuffed, because no attempt to even mildly redress inequality or the power of Murdoch can overcome the power of fear and greed.
Maybe there was another problem with Labour’s campaign, which is it’s almost impossible to win an election by opposing corporate greed, against a hostile media, unless you have a social movement behind you. For example the leaders of Syriza in Greece were known for running massive food banks, leading marches of youth against the closure of services and organising protests against the fascists of Golden Dawn.
Obama is hardly a radical, but his first election revolved around the thousands of students who travelled across America to campaign for him, the vast rallies of tens of thousands and the fundraising from the poorest corners. The SNP vote was clearly more than an election, it was a movement, with thousands mobbing towns such as Inverness, just in order to see Nicola Sturgeon walk up the road. Even Blair in 1997 had a Labour Party that had recruited 80,000 members.
With forces like that, the insults from the press have less impact. There’s an army of people enthused with hope, ready to counter the arguments peddled by the press, and take up the cause of the campaign in every workplace, bar or launderette.
Ed Miliband managed to infuriate Murdoch and the wealthy, but he had no movement to back him up. So for enough people, the fear ate into them, and they were left distant from a carefully managed sterile campaign, leaving them vulnerable, to a last-minute panic and a vote for the Tories.
The result of all this is that somewhere in Brighton there sits a pint of Harveys Sussex bitter, undrunk. You can pop down and grab it if you can find it.
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