After a month enveloped in an unyielding, soporific fog, still all we know is that chaos and confusion lie in wait. Yet as I write today, exhausted from checking the polls every minute and drained by the nervous tension of waiting for the stalemate to break, a surge of exhilaration about tomorrow pierces the ennui – for this reason.
Tomorrow, when I walk to a local primary school to vote, I will do so with my son, who turned 18 less than a month ago. It almost makes me well up to think that the new-born I held for the first time, as a grey dawn broke over west London three weeks before the New Labour landslide of 1997, will exercise his democratic right for the first time at dusk tomorrow. Sorry for coming over all soppy. But paternal pride does that to a chap, and so does democracy in action.
It is not for me to reveal how he will vote. But having already breached my own confidence, I repeat that I will be voting Labour with a passion that rather startles me. Some of it stems from negative feelings about the Tories’ portrayal of benefit claimants as innately inferior human beings, and from their financial cruelty towards the disabled. As for the Liberal Democrats, however well they tempered some of the Conservatives’ nastier ambitions, their collusion in the above makes it impossible for me to vote for them for a fourth consecutive time.
But some of that enthusiasm is positive, and for this Ed Miliband takes the credit. Regardless of who forms whatever kind of government (and assuming the opinion polls are accurate), Miliband will come out of this election cycle as the clear winner, and deservedly so. A sensational Opposition leader, he has steered his party clear of the widely anticipated internecine strife. Labour are now remarkably united, while the Tories face civil war if they scramble another coalition together. For five years David Cameron deftly walked the line between the Lib Dems and his own back-bench headbangers. If he clings to power, he will be at the mercy of his far right and will surely lose his footing.
Yet what makes Miliband so promising is something grander than a knack for party management. It is perspective. He was the first major politician to see the leftward shift in the political centre of gravity, which still remains invisible to the terminally obtuse. For all the policy vagueness and the campaign cross-dressing, he has acted on that vision to present a clear choice.
It may not get him to Downing Street now, though it would serve him better to leave the horrors of ruling in accord with SNP wishes to a Tory minority government, and wait six months or a year for the second election which (barring a systemic failure in opinion polling or an as yet undetected late swing to the Tories) looks inevitable.
Miliband will be in a stronger position then because his worst campaign mistake (that imbecilic plinth) is trivial next to Cameron’s. When the PM reflects from retirement on his 2015 campaign, I suspect he will settle on one word as his biggest regret. Calling Russell Brand a “joke” wasn’t merely graceless. It betrayed in monosyllabic crystal clarity the incomprehension of an evolving world that threatens to doom his geriatric party.
Russell Brand is not a joke. He may, by his own confession, be a narcissist. His political philosophy may be unformed and naive. But as anyone who watches the latest edition of The Trews will appreciate, this is a highly articulate, charismatic figure with a serious talent for encapsulating the frustrations of the disaffected young.
Brand’s advice to his millions of followers to vote Labour (outside Scotland and Caroline Lucas’s lone Green stronghold of Brighton Pavilion) probably came too late to influence this election, since many will not have registered to vote. But next time, whether it is this year or next, or even in 2020, will be another story.
Other perhaps than David Axelrod, who knows the untapped raw power of the youth vote better than anyone alive, Miliband’s advisers will have told him not to go anywhere near Brand – just as they warned him against picking a fight with Rupert Murdoch and the Daily Mail. Again, his instinct to engage was sound.
To dismiss Brand lightly is to offer a literal definition of analogue thinking in the digital age. It belongs to 1997, when people still had TV aerials and print newspapers ruled. The fact that Miliband has survived the onslaught from the right-wing press to stay in the game confirms the shift in the balance of communications power.
The young who face a lifetime of job insecurity and the impossibility of buying a home, whose sense of disenfranchisement Brand translates into soundbites, may not vote tomorrow. But frustration and hopelessness are murderous enemies of apathy. They will vote soon enough, and some will become activists. Miliband understands this. Cameron – leading a party that bribes the elderly to keep it in power at the expense of the life chances of the young – hasn’t a clue. In treating Brand and the millions he represents with robotic contempt, the joke is entirely on him.
More than the technology has changed since I woke my three-week-old boy with a hollering lap of the garden in honour of Michael Portillo’s defeat in Southgate, and for those recently come to adulthood not for the better. How he votes tomorrow is his own business, as I said, but I will be voting for my son’s future rather than for that of my parents, and for the futures of the vast majority of first-time voters (and non-voters) who are less privileged than him.
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