2015 UK General Election: Did voters defy the polls because of deeply rooted ideas about masculinity, race and political power?
As I walked along the pavement early yesterday morning to get the papers, under the heavy grey sky, cussing the cold temperatures and contemplating all that a Tory majority will mean for the next five years, a few party volunteers (presumably Labour, given the neighborhood) stumbled past me, identity cards still around their necks, seemingly stunned from either lack of sleep, drunkenness, shock or a combination thereof. Stunned with the unexpected news of a Tory majority. They will have more power and more time to destroy the last vestiges of anything resembling the public provision of services. Cuts that even mainstream economists such as Paul Krugman have called counterproductive to the UK’s economic recovery. The phrase ‘Rainy Fascism Island’ came to mind.
The polling companies have failed spectacularly. That great British invention of the Inquiry will be used to find out what was so flawed about the methodology employed:
The final opinion polls before the election were clearly not as accurate as we would like, and the fact that all the pollsters underestimated the Conservative lead over Labour suggests that the methods that were used should be subject to careful, independent investigation.
The British Polling Council, supported by the Market Research Society, is therefore setting up an independent enquiry to look into the possible causes of this apparent bias, and to make recommendations for future polling.
While they try to figure out what went wrong, I will employ a different and even more unscientific approach to consider what happened south of Scotland. Based on two encounters in the last 24 hours, I wonder whether some voters defied the predicted outcome of weeks of polling based on deeply rooted (but not necessarily unconscious) ideas about masculinity, race and political power.
The first encounter was a conversation overheard at the off licence I visited Thursday evening, before the results started rolling in. While trying to choose the least bad option, I overheard the following conversation:
Man: “You know, that Miliband, he’s Jewish.”
Woman cashier: “Really? Oh.”
Man: “Yeah, I mean, he looks completely Jewish.”
Woman cashier: “Well, I don’t know about that but I think he’s alright.”
Man: “Well I wouldn’t vote for him.”
NB: polling stations were not yet closed at this hour
Yesterday morning, when I reached the newspaper kiosk, the following conversation ensued between the vendor, me, and a third party.
Vendor: “Just those two?”
Me: “Yes. I am so depressed.”
Vendor: “About the election?”
Vendor [pointing to Cameron’s bloated face on the cover of the Guardian]: “I like this guy.”
Me: “What?! Really? Why?”
Vendor: “He is a strong man. He knows what to do. He is good for England. Miliband needed to be more like Blair if he was going to win the election.”
Me: “Yeah, but what about Cameron’s policies?”
Vendor: “He’s got a strong character.”
Woman joins us [to buy Daily Mirror]: “I think you’re wrong. I think he’s been too hard on this country.”
Me [relieved]: “Yeah, exactly, I agree!”
Seller: “I support Chelsea, I like the colour blue.”
Woman: “Well, just you wait and see what he does.”
Did David Cameron, in presenting a possible Labour-SNP coalition as the greatest threat to British democracy invoke, in the minds of many in England, the image of a foreign threat x 2 that has haunted England for hundreds of years? Was the possibility, even in spite of Miliband’s repeated refusals to entertain the idea of any cooperation with them whatsoever, of a “centrist/centre-left” and SNP coalition interpreted by Englanders as a threat perhaps, to English existence itself? Let’s not forget that while they only won 1 seat, 5 million people voted for UKIP. From the Con-Dem Go-Home Vans to Labour’s “control immigration” coffee mugs, all three parties have consistently stoked anti-immigration and anti-immigrant sentiment. Did this fear of the immigrant translate into a more generalised fear of foreignness?
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Walter Scott’s novel Waverly, which retains its status as among the first historical novels in the western literary tradition, recounts the adventures of a young English nobleman, Edward Waverly, in Scotland during the time of the Jacobite rebellion in the mid-18th century. The novel is rife with descriptions of the Scottish Highlanders as barbarians at the gate, no better than the black heathens in far-flung colonies. Edward meekly tries to disagree with his English superior, Colonel Talbot, who has the following to say:
I cannot spare them [the Highlanders] a jot – I cannot bate them an ace. Let them stay in their own barren mountains, and puff and swell, and hang their bonnets on the horns of the moon, if they have a mind: but what business have they to come where people wear breeches, and speak an intelligible language? I mean intelligible in comparison with their gibberish, for even the Lowlanders talk a kind of English little better than the negroes in Jamaica… And they learn their trade so early. There is a kind of subaltern imp, for example, a sort of sucking devil, whom your friend Glenna – Glenamuck there, has sometimes in his train. To look at him he is about fifteen years; but he is a century old in mischief and villainy. (p.387)
But if the Scots are the prototypical savage for the English characters with the exception of Edward himself, who feels a romantic passion for the Highlanders akin to the Orientalists of the time, the Jewish characters do not fare much better. Returning to England from the Highlands, Edward and his companion arrive at a public house owned by one Mr. Ebenezer Cruikshanks:
On alighting at the sign of the Seven-branched Golden Candlestick, which for the further delectation of the gusts, was graced with a short Hebrew motto, they were received by mine host, a tall thin puritanical figure who seemed to debate with himself whether he ought to give shelter to those who travelled on such a day. Reflecting, however, in all probability, that he possessed the power of mulcting them for this irregularity… at the sign of the Highlander and the Hawick Gill, Mr. Ebenezer Cruickshanks condescended to admit them into his dwelling. (p227)
Cruickshanks proceeds to charge extortionate rates for the services on offer, and is cast as a comic figure, to be mocked. The centuries long stereotype of the miserly, effete Jewish man stands in contrast to both the magisterial warrior-status of the Highlander, and the civilised figure of Edward. Waverly holds pride of place in the literary canon as a work that represented the virtue of tolerance, and the progress and modernisation that the unification of Scotland and England signified for Walter Scott.
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Sure, Ed Miliband seemed pretty hapless throughout the campaign. For the left, it is clear that the political failure of Labour to mount a properly anti-austerity campaign led to their stunning defeat. It is also clear, however, that many voters across the political spectrum opted for the image of a “strong,” authoritative figure in Cameron, whose policies have been punitive, disciplining, and for the most vulnerable people, brutalising. In contrast, the mere possibility of a government populated by foreign elements surely worked in the favour of the Tories, in the context of a campaign pushed even further to the right by Farage. First on the priority list is the yes/no referendum on the EU, and the replacement of a European inspired Human Rights Act with a “British Bill of Rights.” It seems that the only silver lining is the resounding rejection of austerity evinced by the SNP victory; perhaps this polarisation between North and South will make possible some movement out of the political doldrums we find ourselves in.
Rebecca Jones is a lawyer, activist, and independent researcher based in London.