Uruguay’s mounting crisis: a parable for the paralysis of the Left

This summer, as the British Labour Party finds itself blindsided by the rise of Leftist populism, a number of analyses have sought to counterpose this against broader problems facing the Left across Europe. In power in many countries at the time of the 2008 crash, and having embraced free market economics and neoliberalism in many cases, social democratic parties have been left unable to articulate an alternative to traditional supporters enduring falling living standards, rising levels of job insecurity, and who – for the first time since 1945 – see an economic and political system which is palpably failing them.

In the absence of new ideas, the Left has increasingly taken refuge in old ones, generally defined in opposition to something: most notably, austerity. Paul Mason views this as the start of a long transition signalling the end of capitalism as we know it; the trouble is, as whatever will replace it is still entirely unclear, social democratic parties find themselves trapped defending a system which they know no longer works, amid a context of what was once organised labour being dispersed, atomised, by the rise of self-employment, the digital economy and globalisation.

In trouble across Europe – only in Italy, where the centre-right was humiliated by various euro-related disasters, are the social democrats still in a position of relative strength – the Left’s only (supposed) success story has been in South America: where it’s dominated over the last decade and more. But even there, its position is now dramatically weakening, for reasons which are depressingly familiar.

In any case, we should note that what might seem like ‘success stories’ to unreconstructed Leftists have amounted to little more than ugly, lowest common denominator populism in too many cases. The main driver behind the Left’s rise in South America has been powerful, emotive memories of the 1970s: when the US covertly supported a whole host of murderous, fascist dictatorships, particularly in the continent’s South Cone (encompassing Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay). As democracy returned, and those who grew up under these regimes came of age, populist, socialist movements grew in influence: most of which styled themselves in opposition to the imperialist meddling of Washington.

Yet when they came to power, the response of a number of leaders (particularly in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and to a lesser extent, Argentina) was to consciously divide their countries between rich and poor. To oppose the demagogue Hugo Chávez in Venezuela was to be depicted as part of some American-backed Fifth Column, trying to bring the horrors of the 1970s back; and while it’s true that the CIA have clearly tried to infiltrate the opposition at times, it’s more accurate to say that under President Obama, the State Department has simply waited for Venezuela to collapse, as it inevitably will.

In August 2003, around 3.2m signatures were collected for a recall referendum against Chávez, provided for in the constitution. These were rejected by the National Electoral Council (CNE) on the grounds of being put together before the midpoint of the Presidential term; the government then raided CNE and seized the petitions. In September, the opposition collected a new set of signatures, some 3.6m: rejected by the CNE on the grounds that many were invalid. Riots which killed nine and injured 1200 followed this decision. The petitioners appealed to the Electoral Chamber of the Supreme Court, which reinstated 800,000 signatures, bringing the total to well over the 2.4m required; but this was overturned by the Court’s Constitutional Chamber, and again, the government seized the list.

Eventually, the referendum was granted – but only after the list of signatories was posted online by Luis Tascón, member of the National Assembly and government supporter. On television, Chávez boasted about the list, warning darkly that “those who sign against Chávez are signing against their country… against the future”; and that all signatories would “remain registered in history, because they’d have to put their name, last name, signature, ID number and fingerprint”.

Signatories now found themselves fired, denied jobs, denied official documents, threatened and intimidated by government-backed militias. Many fled the country. When it came, the referendum was rigged, as subsequent elections have been. The list itself can still be bought even now from market stalls in Caracas for a few dollars.

When supporters of Jeremy Corbyn, or the man himself, defend Venezuelan ‘democracy’, they are actually defending a police state: in which opposition leaders are jailed, and opposition supporters intimidated and worse by militias. Despite being one of the world’s most oil-rich nations, it’s a basket case. There is no paper or toilet paper on the shelves; the puppet Parliament has given Nicolás Maduro, Chávez’ successor, the right to rule by decree; Maduro falls back on comically suggesting that the Americans will bomb Venezuela, and sabre rattling against neighbouring Colombia and Guyana; food shortages remain endemic; murder, kidnapping and violent crime have reached epidemic proportions. Chávismo, whatever it stood for to begin with, has failed.

In Ecuador, meanwhile, President Rafael Correa uses millions of dollars from the country’s intelligence budget to censor and remove online videos and other information critical of him. The last remaining freedom of expression NGO was ordered by the government to close earlier this month, despite recording more than 600 attacks against journalists over the last four years. Amnesty International has accused Correa of restricting “core human rights of freedoms of assembly, association and expression in Ecuador”.

And in Argentina, which took to inventing its own inflation figures out of thin air, has imposed strict currency controls, and where the media has found itself under continual government attack, the as yet unexplained death of Alberto Nisman, a federal prosecutor investigating the 1994 car bombing of the Jewish Centre in Buenos Aires, again brought into focus a country where corruption is rife, the intelligence services have alarming amounts of unchecked power, and where freedom of the press is, in practice, significantly lacking. The peso was devalued by 20% in 2014; further devaluation is likely next year, and on the black markets, the currency has fallen much further.

The response of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has been, again, to sabre rattle: against Britain over the Falklands, American hedge fund managers, even Uruguay over a pulp mill. Peronism, a political doctrine which essentially stands for nothing, depends on this sort of populism. It’s a mistake to view Kirchner as a socialist; she’s not. She’s a neo-corporatist who buys off the poor while providing no genuine long term help, while encouraging a cult of personality – anathema to fully functioning republics, as the speech below beautifully explains – common to the leaders mentioned above, as well as Evo Morales in Bolivia. None of these countries are success stories; none should be cited by any sort of serious, grown-up Left as models to be emulated.

With the Brazilian economy in crisis, its oligarchs still hugely powerful (demonstrated by the FIFA scandal as much as anything else), and Dilma Rousseff weighed down by corruption allegations, what does that leave? Peru to an extent; Chile and Uruguay. On the South American Left, only the latter two countries (routinely cited in surveys as safest, least corrupt, and offering the continent’s best quality of life) have been consistent successes over the last decade: in both cases, by remaining moderate, non-ideological, and seeking to bring the whole country with them. Not cynically dividing them and engaging in what, in Argentina to an extent and Venezuela especially, has often amounted to political warfare against legitimate opponents.

Michelle Bachelet’s Chile is often described, albeit dubiously, as South America’s only First World country. The politics of its government? For want of a better term, Blairite. But the country itself is not remotely left wing, and closer ideologically to Colombia (which has increasing ties with the US) than the rest of the continent. Bachelet, moreover, is now enduring historically appalling approval ratings: which encouraged Latin American conspiracy theories regarding Chile’s recent Copa América triumph on home soil, are predicated mostly on a corruption scandal involving her son and daughter-in-law; and presage, almost certainly, a shift to the Right at the next election. Bachelet’s socialists are in trouble.

All of which brings us to Uruguay: the main focus of this article. A country tiny in population (just 3.4m, almost half of whom live in the capital, Montevideo), plentiful in water supplies and green spaces (geographically, it’s around the size of England and Wales), famous for its football and beef, and where welfarist traditions abound. A century ago, under the watch of celebrated President José Batlle y Ordóñez, Uruguay implemented one of the world’s first genuine welfare states: including unemployment benefit, eight-hour workdays, and huge government intervention in the economy. Many credit the socially cohesive, homogenous society which resulted with helping Uruguay, which became known as the Switzerland of South America, lift the football World Cup in 1930 and 1950.

But after the Second World War, in tandem with the rest of the South Cone, Uruguay fell into increasingly precipitous social and economic decline. The conditions triggering the dictatorship gradually fell into place as the country moved towards the extremes and Leftist activists, the Tupamaros (MLN-T) began robbing banks, gun clubs and other businesses, redistributing the proceeds to the poor. In 1968, faced with serious labour unrest, President Jorge Pacheco enforced a state of emergency and repealed all constitutional protections. Political dissidents were imprisoned and tortured; demonstrations were brutally repressed. The MLN-T responded by morphing into a fully fledged urban guerilla movement, which engaged in political kidnappings, bombings and assassinations.

Among their number was one José Mujica. Apprehended by the authorities on no fewer than four occasions, he ultimately spent 13 years in captivity: including a two-year spell in solitary confinement at the bottom of a well, where his only friends were rats. The insurgency peaked in 1970, and the Tupamaros had collapsed by mid-1972. Combined with the rigging of the 1971 election in favour of Juan María Bordaberry’s Colorado Party, this paved the way for the military to confront the independence of first the judiciary, then the executive, then the legislative. The dictatorship was ushered in in 1973; and at one point, presided over more political prisoners per capita than anywhere else in the world.

Uruguay, though, has always been a curious, idiosyncratic sort of place. Few countries anywhere have been presented with a constitutional plebiscite designed to ratify a military junta, let alone had the courage to reject it: as to their rulers’ shock, the people did in 1980. Even fewer would, at a further referendum, then reject the chance to prosecute those responsible: yet Uruguay did in 2009, despite many of those who had been part of the MLN-T insurgency now being in power.

How had the latter come to pass? Uruguay returned to democracy in 1984; and in the 1990s, embarked on a series of privatisations. Its always important financial sector became alarmingly dependent on Argentinian depositors seeking to hide their savings from prying tax inspectors, and taking advantage of Uruguayan banking secrecy. Uruguay was increasingly economically reliant on its much larger neighbour: meaning when Argentina catastrophically defaulted in December 2001, Uruguay suffered its own enormous financial crash the following year.

The 2002 crisis remains the pivotal watershed in the country since the dictatorship. The banks were shut for a week; hundreds of thousands fell out of the middle class into serious poverty; a lost generation of children brought up in such conditions wasn’t the danger, but the likelihood. Something had to give.

Since the return to democracy, the Leftist Frente Amplio (FA) (Broad Front) had been making gradual progress – but was up against two political leviathans. Between them, the Partido Colorado and Partido Nacional (Blancos) had governed Uruguay ever since its formation in 1830: the former, the party of the cities; the latter, the party of the countryside. No recognisably Leftist party ever usurped this duopoly: albeit the impact of Batlle’s reforms was such that both major parties tended, for the most part, to coalesce around the centre, and rarely attempt anything extreme. Other than the period around the dictatorship, democracy and pluralism (the latter, more than anything, is the cornerstone of Batllismo) were always respected.

The impact of the crash, though, completed the Frente Amplio‘s rise; and for that matter, squared the circle for many involved with the Tupamaros over 30 years earlier. The old politics had failed. Now, by putting together a coalition which encompassed communists, socialists, social democrats, social liberals, centrists and independents all under one banner – uniting the entire Left in a manner which, unfathomably, has still not been attempted in Britain – the ancien régime was swept aside, and Tabaré Vázquez returned as President, with a huge mandate. Vázquez and the FA won 51.7% of the vote, eliminating the need for a Presidential run-off. The governing Colorados were obliterated: collapsing from 32.8% at the 1999 first round to just 10.6%. Usurped in the cities by the FA, in a manner not unlike New Labour’s surge across London and the south-east in 1997, for the Colorados – historically, by far Uruguay’s most successful party – there was no way back.

Vázquez now commenced a comprehensive wave of reforms. Income tax was introduced for the first time; $100m was invested in emergency food and health programmes; the healthcare system itself was turned into an insurance-based scheme accessible to all Uruguayans. Poverty was slashed from 32% to 20%; extreme poverty from 4% to 1.5%. Notably, the government also presided over the One Laptop Per Child (Plan Ceibal) scheme, the first of its kind in the world, which provided every grade school student and teacher in Uruguay with a laptop connected to the internet.

The President further endeared himself to his compatriots by standing up to Argentina during a bizarre dispute over a pulp mill in Fray Bentos. His counterpart, Nestor Kirchner, complained that its construction would contaminate the Uruguay River, which separates the two countries. Bridges over the River were blockaded by enraged locals in Argentina; Kirchner took Uruguay to the International Court of Justice (ICJ); Uruguay threatened to resort to the World Trade Organisation.

The dispute lasted fully 7 years – and was ended by the ICJ ruling that the plant could keep operating, and both governments agreeing to the creation of a bi-national commission which would monitor river pollution. Vázquez later revealed he’d even considered the possibility of a military conflict: and sought the backing of his friend, George W. Bush, and Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s Secretary of State. Just in case.

Ultimately though, what made Vázquez’ success possible was sustained economic growth. GDP rocketed by 10.5% in 2005, and growth averaged 7% over subsequent years. Moreover, what separated the FA from so many Leftist governments across the continent was its pragmatism: cautious, even neoliberal economic policies were pursued, with foreign investment encouraged and inflation controlled. Most of the credit for this was due to the brilliant Danilo Astori, leader of the centrist Asamblea Uruguay and Vázquez’ indispensable finance minister.

Before being swept from power, the old parties had warned that the Left would turn the country into Cuba. Quite the opposite. Looking back, what’s remarkable was how well a coalition of such diverse political positions held; all those within the FA who’d fought for so long to achieve power and change Uruguay never lost sight of the bigger picture. The President, meanwhile, was in his element: an oncologist by profession, he’d been entrusted with a patient in near terminal condition, successfully removed the tumour and given it a new lease of life.

Tabaré Vázquez

Uruguay’s constitution does not allow a President to serve two consecutive terms. So Vázquez, who basked in extraordinary approval ratings of 80%, departed; and the overwhelming success of his government made Mujica, his very different successor, a virtual shoo-in. This was indeed quite a story. 25 years earlier, Mujica had been in captivity; 39 years earlier, after being shot six times by police, the then guerilla had been fighting for his life in a Montevideo hospital. Now, Uruguay’s answer to Nelson Mandela became its unique, truly one-of-a-kind head of state.

When they travel to other continents, Uruguayans are used to being asked just where their country is. “Is it in Africa?”, enquire some. “Part of Argentina?”, wonder others. Two men have done a huge amount to change this and put the place on the map. Footballing icon Luis Suárez; and Pepe Mujica. The world’s humblest President: who lives on a farm, grows his own food, gave 90% of his salary to charity, never wears a tie in any circumstances, and whose sole, cherished possession is a 1987 Volkswagen Beetle.

Pepe and his beloved Beetle

I moved to Uruguay in February 2012. When I arrived, people I spoke with were embarrassed by Mujica. “We can’t have a President who behaves like this!”, they wailed. “It looks terrible for us!” I thought it was wonderful, and told them as much: “We’d go crazy for someone like him in Europe!” For Mujica then, read Corbyn now? There are parallels: not only in their politics and peculiar appeal, but their humility.

That very humility, indeed, was why contrary to what might’ve been expected, Mujica initially consolidated his predecessor’s moderation and good sense. Astori was now Vice-President: under his watch, growth and stability continued, while the President kept those on the far Left of the coalition at bay. In the meantime, the FA married social liberalism with social democracy: passing legislation allowing abortion, equal marriage, and proposing that the sale of cannabis be regulated.

This latter idea was what sprung Mujica into global prominence. What’s rather less known, though, is that next to nothing has actually happened. Cannabis is the perfect example of how Mujica’s image is not matched by the reality: many Uruguayans believe he was much more concerned with how he appeared overseas than making a substantive difference at home; some, of the more cynical variety, even think that where Pepe’s concerned, it’s mostly all an act.

In 2013, Mujica gave a celebrated speech to the UN General Assembly, where he fulminated against the world’s obsession with consumption. He urged a return to simplicity: family, love, free time, a planet based not on markets but on conservation and fraternity. Free time, indeed, is a favourite theme of his; but with the cost of living in Uruguay prohibitively high, it’s not a luxury enjoyed by anything like enough of his people. Dirty, litter-strewn streets and lack of recycling (if you try to recycle things in Uruguay, they’re often taken to the same place as the rubbish!) also sit at odds with the romanticised rhetoric.

Throughout my time in the country, I was always aware of its constant contrasts and contradictions. Of high quality, high speed internet – but which took a month of pleading phone calls and a dozen cancelled appointments for the state owned monopoly, Antel, to finally install. Of buses which are cheap and reliable enough, but on which there isn’t enough room to swing a cat: if you have any luggage, whatever you do, take a taxi. Of taxis which, unlike in Buenos Aires, are safe: it’s just that the drivers fancy themselves as the next Lewis Hamilton and take you halfway round Montevideo first. Of a locale which always, to me, felt safe; but only because of porters in every apartment block, security guards outside every bank… and which was punctuated intermittently by news of a particularly shocking murder.

Most Uruguayans believe the country has never been less safe. Guns are readily available; murder and violent crime has risen alarmingly. Compounding this has been the rather ambiguous view of the government, many of whose members have a pathological distrust of the police thanks to their own awful experiences under the dictatorship. There aren’t many societies where the Interior Minister will blame a murder or robbery on ‘the consumer society… poor people want things too’, but it happens in Uruguay. Similarly, not many countries would, with football hooliganism rife, withdraw the police from a big match not to protect them (as was assumed around the world), but actually to protect football fans (and, it might be added, FA voters) from alleged police brutality. Last year, that happened too.

Again and again, what I noted was an extremely well-meaning government full of Leftist thinkers and academics, but which too often did not fully understand either the consequences of their policies, or the reality on the ground. A reality which, in cost of living, is so grim that the refugees Uruguay took in from Syria amid a huge fanfare last year recently asked to return home.

There were plenty of signs, then, that the FA was tiring during its second term – but as the economy continued to grow, poverty and inequality kept falling (reaching, in both cases, the lowest levels anywhere in Latin America: a fantastic achievement), and services by and large continued to deliver, nowhere near enough reason to kick the government out. In the middle of last year, the youthful, optimistic Luis Lacalle Pou, candidate for the centre-right Blancos, who seemed for all the world to have modelled his campaign on that which thrust David Cameron to prominence in 2005, briefly threatened a huge electoral shock. But as his policies came under scrutiny, his momentum fell away: under the marketing gloss lay not much by way of substance.

In any case, Uruguayans resist change like almost no other people anywhere; and Vázquez, the archetypal safe pair of hands, was back. Plenty of people were disenchanted with the government: but Vázquez is not of the Left, and his was a deeply reassuring presence. So much so that against all predictions, the FA actually improved its position – and in 10 years, almost nothing had changed. It still commanded around a half of the electorate; the Blancos remained stranded in the low 30s, the Colorados in the low teens. Another decade in government suddenly seemed inevitable.

But there was a problem. A large one. Vázquez is now 75, and will be 79 by the time of the 2019 election. Astori, now back to being finance minister, is also 75. Mujica is 80. And while the FA commands huge, vibrant support among young people, beneath these three political giants lies a lost generation: an extraordinary dearth not only of new ideas, but immediate future options. The individuals behind the FA’s rise were all radicalised by the 1970s: but memories of that time are fading, and almost nobody politicised during the 1980s or 1990s is ready to step into the breach.

Not only that, but the FA’s victory was so decisive that now, with their leaders old and tired, the far Left began to demand more. Much more. Fear of electoral defeat had gone; complacency and hubris set in instead. The consequences have eroded the government’s position at an increasingly disorienting pace.

Early this year, Uruguay’s public sector deficit was revealed to be much larger than expected: in fact, at 3.5% of GDP, the figure was almost identical to that during and after the 2002 crash. This owed to wild over-expenditure under Mujica (at whom fingers have been pointed with increasing fury); lower than expected tax revenues; and in particular, an enormous loss made by Antel. 2014 was the fourth consecutive year in which the country’s seven state-owned utilities had made an overall loss. Serious irregularities have since been alleged at Ancap, the state oil company; and gross managerial incompetence at OSE, the state water company.

During my time in Uruguay, there was always this worry in my head. With the unions becoming increasingly powerful but the state-owned companies inefficient and uncompetitive, was I watching some South American version of 1970s Britain slowly playing out before me? By way of warning, together with my students, I used to discuss how Margaret Thatcher had come to power: just as the British unions had rejected In Place Of Strife and paralysed the Callaghan government, would their Uruguayan counterparts end up bringing something similar upon them?

The alarming economic figures – in tandem with significantly slowing growth, inflation threatening to spiral out of control, and the peso dramatically depreciating against the dollar – called for immediate belt-tightening. Unhappily, the unions – and in Parliament, the far Left – saw it rather differently. On August 6, after a whole series of labour disputes, the first general strike in 7 years took place; followed by an ongoing education strike which has crippled the country.

In Uruguay, salaries for teachers are low – yet they’ve risen by 65% since the FA came to power. As well as mammoth pay rises (demands were for starting salaries to increase from $727/month to $1040/month, and an offer of $865/month was rejected), unions insisted that the education budget be ring fenced at 6% of GDP. The context of the country’s overall situation was treated as irrelevant.

In August, teachers walked out of primary, secondary schools and universities. After around a fortnight of this, the government had had enough: issuing, for the first time since Uruguay returned to democracy, an emergency decree. Vázquez declared that education was an essential public service, and effectively banned teachers from striking for 30 days. This amounted to a declaration of war; the unions certainly took it as such. Many teachers simply ignored it. The FA had entirely lost control of its own members.

Officially, with students facing having to work right up to Christmas (the school year usually ends in November) in order to catch up and take their exams, the strike ended without agreement on 3 September: the government stating that if teachers did not agree to an offer of $860/month, the extra money would be invested in school infrastructure. In practice, especially in Montevideo, industrial action continued: culminating in shambolic scenes on 22 September.

A group of high school students, demanding that the 6% of GDP threshold be met, occupied the Codicen building in the city centre. After several days of fruitless negotiations, a police tactical unit cleared the building – and were attacked outside by members of the Taxicab Drivers and Telephone Workers Union (SUATT); the Memory and Justice organisation; as well as what we might euphemistically term, hangers-on looking for trouble.

Images of what happened, and the all too familiar disarray of the police, can be seen here. Codicen is only a few blocks from Uruguay’s Parliament building: onto which, anti-government graffiti was scrawled. It’s difficult to recall another teachers’ strike anywhere which ended in such chaos.

Typically, much of the focus since has been on alleged police brutality: a running theme in Uruguay. The Left is so focused on human rights, and references the 1970s so often, that the police lack the stalwart government backing which is automatic in almost any other democracy. This leaves the police – who are underfunded, under-prepared, and in many cases, have to live in the same areas as criminals liable to threaten them and their families – frightened of taking decisive action for fear of themselves ending up in court; and plays an obvious part in the country’s growing insecurity. Indeed, over three-and-a-half years in what remains a very macho society, I scarcely met a woman who, if I asked them (which spotting a dispiriting theme, I very often did), hadn’t been robbed or mugged at one point or another.

Adding insult to injury, hugely depressing second quarter economic figures were revealed a fortnight ago. Wholly unexpectedly, GDP actually fell 0.1% compared with Q2 2014, compounding a 1.8% contraction over the first quarter of 2015. Now, not only slowdown, but recession seems increasingly possible: for reasons which are part internal, part external.

Uruguay is particularly dependent on Brazil and China, both of which are in trouble. It will not escape the impact of probable Brazilian and Argentinian devaluations next year; serious problems affecting Russia and the eurozone hardly help either. And as the economist, Pablo Rosselli, has highlighted, the government faces three awful dilemmas: between competitiveness and inflation (the latter is nearing the psychologically critical 10%); real wage growth and employment; public spending and deficit reduction. On each of these, the Left of the Frente Amplio is pulling the wearied administration in a direction it neither wants nor can afford to travel in.

If, as seems inevitable given the rapidly strengthening dollar, inflation does go over 10%, those hit most will be the poorest: those the government is most charged with helping. But of course, continued spending is only feasible if the economy grows in tandem. It’s stopped doing so; Astori and his colleagues are trapped.

Can Uruguay navigate a way out of this? It seems doubtful, not least because those charged with doing so are so old, so tired. For the first time in 11 years in power, the Left has taken a good look at Vázquez and realised, to put it bluntly: “He’s not one of us!” So when earlier this month and to the shock of observers, Uruguay walked out of negotiations over the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA) – which has proven every bit as controversial as its more famous big brother, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) – this was a clear case of the tail wagging the dog. The government did so under pressure from the unions; and that Vázquez made such a move well before it was clear what the agreement would actually involve underscored a loss of authority already apparent during last year’s election campaign, which could also be seen in stark terms during the education dispute.

Meanwhile, Mujica, probably the only man who could bring the Left to heel, has lamentably failed to do so, and continues to wax lyrical about some fantasy world unrecognisable to almost all Uruguayans. It’s not been lost on this observer that things started to go wrong domestically almost the moment that Pepe was discovered on the world stage, and began preoccupying himself with his image further afield.

Pulled between Left and Right, the Frente Amplio is as good as broken – but given it’s always been such a loose coalition, perhaps the only surprise should be that it’s taken so long. If you imagine a governing bloc whose two most important, powerful figures are 75-year-old Tony Blair and 80-year-old Jeremy Corbyn, you get a sense of how impossible this conundrum is to solve. The administration has faced more difficulty in six months than over the preceding 10 years; but those problems seem likely to only worsen.

Perhaps much of this is natural. Governments always tire after more than a decade in office; economics are always cyclical too. But there is in all of this a parable. As long as we live in a world of globalised free markets and interdependence – as long as corporations can up and leave if governments seek to put their taxes up – there will only ever be so much that any social democratic party anywhere can achieve. More than that, the moment it becomes too ideological, or frustrated supporters who don’t appreciate what they have drag it away from the centre, it hits more and more trouble. This was Labour’s sad experience after it removed Blair; and for all its considerable achievements, it appears increasingly likely to be the fate of Uruguay’s first ever genuine government of the Left too.

The polls and (all but one of) the forecasts WERE wrong. Ed Miliband was nowhere near becoming Prime Minister

Thursday May 7, 2015. Britain goes to the polls at what is universally – entirely wrongly – believed to be the closest General Election in fully two generations. The opinion polls are deadlocked, and have been for months. The choice facing the country is by far the most stark since 1992: this wasn’t, contrary to what 99.99% of people assumed, a close election – but it was certainly a watershed.

On Tuesday morning, I set out why I believed that almost all forecasts and predictions were wrong: Ed Miliband’s strategy had been hopelessly flawed; his party would find itself squeezed from all sides; and above all, that the methodology employed by every single opinion polling company was wrong. Alarmingly wrong. Disastrously wrong. Inexcusably wrong.

At this point though, I want to highlight that, in no small part, I was wrong too. While I foresaw an enormously disappointing night for Labour, I did not anticipate such an apocalyptic one. Whereas I expected that the Scottish National Party (SNP) surge would hold, and count horribly against Labour not only in Scotland, but even more in England, where it had become the central plank of Conservative strategy to frighten voters into giving David Cameron a proper mandate, I did not foresee the almost complete wipe-out which resulted. And contrary to my belief that the Liberal Democrats’ positioning themselves as a sensible coalition partner would enable their support to hold up to some extent, it instead entirely melted down: Nick Clegg’s party squeezed even more horrendously than Labour amid the strange, Byzantine beast of First Past The Post (FPTP).

True, despite all that, I still did considerably better than any of the forecasting websites, any of the polling companies: I got the big picture right, you might say. But even I stopped short of stating the Tories would win a majority; I thought a further Tory-Lib Dem arrangement was likely, and never foresaw that half of this equation would all but vanish from the electoral landscape altogether.

A little later, I’ll be introducing readers to the man who did get it right: the only man prior to the formidable exit pollsters who got it extraordinarily, almost impossibly right. But if you’ll forgive me, on this awful morning for progressive politics across England and Wales (if certainly not Scotland), I want to indulge in a spot of something so often beloved of those on the left: self-flagellation.

You see, what happened at this election – this supposedly cataclysmic shock – was supposed to happen all along. The government, while embarking on a series of horribly divisive, almost entirely unnecessary economic policies, had experienced no disasters. The Prime Minister’s approval ratings remained good; at times, remarkably good. Those of the opposition leader were, thanks to his palpable lack of gravitas and the toxic reputation of his party (blamed both for Iraq, entirely justifiably; and the 2008 financial crash, rather less justifiably) poor: at times, extraordinarily so given dramatically rising food bank use, rising inequality, and a prolonged fall in living standards unparalleled since the Second World War. Most of this directly affected those who would, surely, represent Miliband’s core constituency – yet any sense of cut-through remained elusive.

Then consider that, for reasons I set out last month, the nature of Britain’s electoral system has made it impossible for any party standing on anything resembling a truly radical, progressive agenda to get anywhere near winning an election since 1979 (in fact, since 1974): with the early 1980s split on the left meaning that, in effect, the entire voting system was dragged ever further to the right, a self-perpetuating process which is still ongoing and shows no signs of slowing down. And above all, on by far the most important indicator of any party’s readiness for government – economic competence – the Tories had remained well ahead of Labour ever since the crash; considerably because of the latter’s extraordinary failure to challenge a narrative about ‘austerity’ which isn’t only misleading – but is fallacious and increasingly dangerous to Britain’s medium and long term future.

This narrative, parroted relentlessly by the increasingly hysterical Tory press, the BBC, and both the Tories and Lib Dems, meant that when Miliband said perfectly reasonably that no, Labour had not over-spent before the crash, most viewers were horrified. How could they trust someone so irresponsible, not even prepared to apologise; who’d been part of a government which, so everyone insisted, had ‘run out of money’?

Never mind that no country in charge of its own money supply can ever run out of money (it simply prints more); never mind that Britain wasn’t even remotely imperilled in the manner of southern European countries trapped in the euro zone and crucially, without control of their money supply or economic policy; never mind that the effect of coalition-imposed austerity was simply to remove huge amounts of liquidity from the system, grind the economy to a dead halt, and it only began to recover when those policies were significantly ameliorated; never mind that almost all macro-economists around the world (notably the Nobel Prize Winner, Paul Krugman; the Merton College, Oxford Professor, Simon Wren-Lewis; and even the International Monetary Fund (IMF) itself) had rejected austerity as a busted flush; never mind that not Labour, but the coalition, had doubled the national debt, and left it massively more exposed to an increasingly possible second crash; never mind that the economy had been growing rapidly when Gordon Brown was forced out of office; never mind that borrowing costs are historically low, and inflation is at zero; never mind that the welfare state itself had been built by the postwar Labour government at a time the country was technically bankrupt (so it simply borrowed instead, investing in infrastructure and setting a course for the Keynesian consensus); never mind that the now immortalised Liam Byrne note was a playful aside to his successor in the manner of long established Treasury traditions; never mind that, mindbogglingly, the Tories were proposing a more extreme version of the very policy which had failed so completely in the first place… none of this mattered.

 

Liam Byrne’s note was immortalised at this election – by a coalition playing cheap, low, dirty politics

If a lie is repeated often enough, it becomes the truth. Thus both coalition partners asserted that Labour’s much more balanced approach to deficit reduction would “pass our debts on to our children and grandchildren”, even when Tory policy will, by preventing growth or re-balancing, actually do that very thing; both continued to espouse the risible nonsense that Britain’s debt (which remember, they had doubled) was somehow comparable to a credit card debt, or that running a country is akin to running a household budget.

The press, run by barons who benefit enormously from the continuous upward funneling of wealth to the super-rich, and who would be personally impacted by a mansion tax, the return of the 50p tax rate, and especially the removal of the absurd protection of non-doms, hammered the message home again and again: Labour would endanger everything. A shockingly economically illiterate public (so illiterate that this itself poses an increasing threat to public policy, and certainly to the UK’s fiscal health) would inevitably acquiesce: despite policies which do most of them ongoing financial and social harm. And once the ‘danger’ posed by a party with the brass neck to have huge numbers of MPs democratically elected by Scottish voters was thrown into a wholly disingenuous, toxic mix, the die was cast: with public minds panicked into nonsensical comparisons with the 1970s, told that Nicola Sturgeon would ‘drag’ Miliband to the left… despite the SNP actually standing for slower, more drawn out austerity than Labour.

But throughout the last five years, Labour themselves have been horribly culpable: for failing to challenge a false narrative, or set out their own plans in any convincing way. When Miliband defended the Brown government’s record during the televised debates, he needed to assert why it hadn’t over-spent – but in keeping with serious communication issues which dogged him throughout his leadership, he couldn’t. Instead, like a rabbit in the headlights, hoist by the petard of his own foolish commitment to austerity, he froze – and his failure to ‘take responsibility’ will undoubtedly have hung particularly heavy in undecided voters’ hearts in the polling booths yesterday.

 

The rabbit in the headlights look comes naturally to Ed Miliband

That the public have continued to blame Labour for hardship caused by the coalition is a huge part of the reason why Miliband’s results at local, European and by-elections were so poor; and those results, as we shall see, represented an enormous, critical warning: not only to Miliband, but the pollsters. Both ignored them (in the latter case, incomprehensibly so); both will have plenty of time to reflect and repent on this now.

To recap: miles behind Cameron on approval ratings, public credibility, and especially economic competence; lacking in authority or leadership skills; leading a party with a toxic image (and with a Shadow Chancellor who embodied this in public minds more than anyone else); standing on a progressive platform the like of which hadn’t succeeded at any general election in 40 years; overseeing continually poor electoral fortunes despite mid-term ballots almost always providing a huge boost to any modern day opposition (and for that matter, failing to pull into anything like the kind of mid-term lead which any opposition needs in order to win the big one); and up against a government regarded by most as perfectly competent, how could anyone possibly have believed that Ed Miliband’s Labour Party stood the remotest chance of being returned yesterday?

Every single key electoral indicator was against it and in favour of the Tories. The apocalyptic, beyond seismic fall-out from the Scottish referendum – incorporating a Scottish left feeling completely betrayed by the last-minute announcement of The Vow and Cameron’s apparent shifting of the goalposts the moment a NO vote was confirmed; furiously mobilised against a Scottish Labour Party who had stood alongside the hated Tories and therefore confirmed itself once and for all as ‘Red Tories’, who neither represented their interests nor had delivered anything resembling social justice despite 13 years of government – which, true to form, wasn’t so much ignored as entirely missed by Labour’s laughably oblivious London headquarters until it was already far too late – was only the latest of many factors which, combined, could only lead to one conclusion. Miliband would lose; and he would lose big.

Thus, a week after the referendum, a time when most commentators were incomprehensibly expecting a Labour majority, and had not picked up on what was happening in Scotland in any way, I stated that he would inevitably lose in this post on The Guardian. When challenged, I even forecast the share of the vote: 37 or 38% for the Conservatives; 31 or 32% for Labour – and posited:

I think we’ll start the general election campaign, ie. a month before polling day, with everyone anticipating a hung Parliament. We’ll finish it, as a minimum, with the Tories as the largest party – and probably with a majority.

To me, this was the only logical outcome. As we moved towards the election, I treated any Tory lead as a sign of the inevitable; but was bewildered as Miliband appeared (according to the fatally, catastrophically flawed polls) to overtake Cameron during the campaign, then as things remained level pegging all the way to polling day. I simply grew more and more suspicious: what was wrong with the polls? Why were they all saying something which I could scarcely even conceive of being true?

Then, as May 2015 noted the difference between telephone and internet polls, things began to make a little more sense. The Guardian/ICM poll revealing a huge difference in Sheffield Hallam when voters were quizzed on their nationwide choice (Lord Ashcroft’s technique in constituency polls, which plainly formed the bedrock of all forecasting models), but were then asked to factor in the local candidates (as they would on election day) confirmed to me categorically that I was right: the polls WERE wrong, and were both understating the incumbency vote and overstating the progressive one.

Yet even then, I didn’t follow this through to its logical outcome. In my article on Tuesday, everything I highlighted should have left me forecasting a Tory majority: not merely that Miliband could not possibly become PM. I should also have better appreciated that, given a hitherto merged party encompassing both the Liberals and Social Democrats had effectively cut its latter half away by joining the Tories, but would be facing those very same Tories (who the polls were under-stating) in most of its key seats – who basked in public approbation for economic competence, while the Lib Dems played the Aunt Sally role of being blamed for any of the coalition’s more pernicious policies – Clegg’s party wouldn’t just lose half its support. It would inevitably haemorrhage a whole lot more: and be lambs to the slaughter when up against the Conservatives.

Instead, naturally enough I suppose, I asked myself, “in 2015, with all their sophisticated techniques and given all the lessons of the past, could ALL the pollsters – even including Nate Silver, for goodness’ sake – really be THAT wrong?” So I restricted myself to predicting another Tory-led coalition, rather than extrapolating in conclusion the very thing which all my arguments should have led me to. My forecast remained much more favourable to Cameron than almost any other anywhere; but still, mea culpa. A lesson learned.

 

Even Nate Silver’s number was up at this election

Then on Wednesday night, as the nation slept before crunch time, and the likes of May 2015 asserted preposterous levels of hubris about the likely outcome, everything suddenly became clear. I had chanced upon the one and only forecasting hero of this long campaign: whose services will surely be in the highest demand in the years ahead, who had conducted comprehensive, demonstrably proven psephological research, and whose findings drove an absolute coach and horses through every single professional forecaster and polling organisation… as well as sending an unforgettably cold chill down my Labour-supporting spine. For the Conservatives, his work spelt Nirvana; for the opinion polls, it spelt Nemesis.

In an extraordinary tour de force, the best, most counter-intuitive piece of electoral research I believe has ever been conducted in the modern day (better even than Silver’s in 2008 and 2012), the website Number Cruncher Politics (NCP) explained that, according to all possible indicators and variables, the polls were telling a wildly different story to that accepted by just about everyone.

As I had done, NCP strongly suspected a repeat of 1992-style Shy Tory Syndrome; but unlike me, as the man behind it is possessed of the scientific expertise necessary to trawl through exhaustive amounts of data going back some 50 years and model it in various ways, he had the ability to conclusively prove it. By examining electoral data covering the previous 35 years, toplines from the last half century, and opinion polls from this Parliament, he identified a very clear statistical pattern, which repeated itself through three separate models. His main findings were as follows:

1. As I had noted in my article, opinion polls at British General Elections are usually biased against the Tories and in favour of Labour. The exception, when both the Conservatives and Labour were a little understated in 2010, while the Lib Dems were wildly overstated, was in all likelihood, a one-off (and to me, easily explicable by how vulnerable the soft progressive vote invariably is under FPTP. The same demographic of voters inflating the Lib Dem position 5 years ago were, I intuited, having an identical effect on Labour this year).

2. The unusual fluidity of the electorate during this last Parliament (so many Lib Dem voters abandoning the party; Tory and Labour voters heading over to Ukip) had almost certainly undermined – perhaps even entirely negated – the adjustments made by pollsters after the debacle of 1992. Especially when it came to the usual method of reallocating ‘don’t knows’ – because far fewer of these would vote for their traditional party, but amid a new, multi-party landscape, how could pollsters possibly determine who would, and who would not?

 

The rise of Ukip was one of many factors giving pollsters all sorts of extra difficulties

3. Every single one of 16 opinion polls ahead of an election over the last 2 years had fallen prey to a pro-Labour bias, at the same time as late swing to the Tories was occurring: unnoticed until the election itself. At the 2014 European elections, Labour’s lead had been overstated by 3.3 points; while all by-elections since early 2014 had displayed a huge shy Tory factor, averaging 5.5 points.

4. Conflicting internal polling – reports of which I noted in my article, and clearly precipitated a dramatic change in strategy over the last week as a panicking Labour campaign desperately courted the notoriously unreliable young vote (again, the same voters who failed to turn out for the Lib Dems in 2010, despite so many of them having promised their support) – bore uncanny resemblances to 1992.

5. Since 1992, the overstatement of Labour and Lib Dems had been almost uniform: ranging between 2.3 and 2.9 points.

6. Serious problems in weighting data from online panels; other problems in reallocating undecided voters in phone polls, not to mention poor response rates to the latter.

7. Polling error averaging 5 points net over all General Elections between 1983 and 2010.

8. Relative to the Tories, Labour’s local election performances in non-General Election years under Miliband had been the second worst by any opposition over the last 35 years.

9. All three models – based on adjusted topline numbers; polling internals; and actual votes – were telling an extraordinarily similar, unbelievably alarming story about this year’s election; and combined, when tested against the polls at every General Election since 1983, outperformed them on all but one occasion (2010, when the difference was a mere 0.2 points).

10. What was that story? Namely, that the Tories were heading for a victory by between 6, and more likely around 8 points – despite the opinion polls all suggesting things were dead level.

The sheer, overwhelming exhaustiveness of the research left no room for doubt. I was awestruck by what I had just read, and given my habitual sense that the polls were very, very wrong, knew it could only mean one thing. The Tories were heading either right to the cusp of an overall majority; or their first majority since, you guessed it, 1992.

Three final opinion polls were now due to be published before 7am. Inexplicably, none were; all appeared several hours later instead, along with a fourth too. Had the polling companies seen the NCP research, appreciated the catastrophe it foretold for them, and reappraised their data? I have no idea, but can only suspect not. I tweeted it to May 2015, but got no response: instead, the New Statesman’s forecast site happily updated the news that the final polls still suggested a tied race, and Miliband premiership.

Section 66A of the Representation of the People Act, 1983 states the following:

(1)No person shall, in the case of an election to which this section applies, publish before the poll is closed—

(a)any statement relating to the way in which voters have voted at the election where that statement is (or might reasonably be taken to be) based on information given by voters after they have voted, or

(b)any forecast as to the result of the election which is (or might reasonably be taken to be) based on information so given.

Above, point 1(a) refers to exit polls: which of course, are never released until 10pm. But 1(b), while not explicitly doing so, appears at all elections in the past to have been taken to cover opinion polls released after voting has begun. This was the sixth General Election I’ve experienced – and never before have opinion polls been published after 7am on polling day. Why were they on this occasion?

In fairness to the pollsters in question, the Act was hardly designed for an internet age dominated by social media and, at this election, by forecasting websites: all of which continued to apply the latest data despite point 1(b); while on Twitter and Facebook, various candidates re-tweeted endorsements from voters and voters declared who they had voted for. As The Telegraph notes today, some form of mild campaigning still seems to have been going on beyond that.

A mess, then, which the Electoral Commission would do well to resolve ahead of future ballots – but there are two vastly more serious points here. First, for the duration of the campaign (and, for that matter, a good 2 years prior to that, according to NCP), all polling companies and forecasting sites have been publishing wildly, at times ludicrously inaccurate information which inevitably influenced the race, and the outcome. When parties are assumed to be tied, their strategy changes; media treatment of them substantially changes (never more so than in Labour’s case this year); public responses change too. In the latter case, how many more voters are likely to vote a certain way out of fear that those they’re opposed to are in touching distance of victory? And under FPTP, how many vote tactically who would otherwise not have done – and vice versa?

In practice, as the NCP model conclusively demonstrates, Labour were never ahead, and have probably been several points behind throughout the campaign. Yet that’s not what the polling companies were saying. Should organisations with such disastrously flawed methodology and a consistent record of inaccuracy which, as exposed by NCP, dates back at least 32 years, be allowed to dominate the agenda in such a way; and above all, to have such heavy influence on debate and public discourse?

Remember: huge amounts of the Tory campaign were dedicated to frightening English voters into stopping a minority Labour government propped up by the SNP – but in practice, this was never the prospect it appeared, because Labour were doing much worse than was believed. Enormous amounts of discussion were put over not to policy, not to manifestos, but the electoral and Parliamentary arithmetic – but this bore no resemblance to the reality.

Tory scaremongering about Nicola Sturgeon was based on a false prospectus

Is it any wonder the British public have such little understanding of macro-economics when whole election campaigns – leading to a decision hugely determining the futures of them, their families, their loved ones – are given over to constant reactions to never-ending opinion polls: even when these polls are completely wrong? Other countries (most notably, France) do not allow polling firms to play such a huge role during the final week of election campaigns; why on Earth does the UK?

To make matters worse, the thesis I set out on Tuesday focused heavily on the role of Lord Ashcroft: whose constituency polling has been a huge feature of this campaign, and clearly became central to most forecast sites: most notably, May 2015 and Election Forecast. My piece concluded that his data was almost certainly awry; and in that, we now know that he was in very good company with all other polling firms.

At The Telegraph, virtually ever since Ed Miliband was elected Labour leader, Labour-supporting Dan Hodges has consistently (and we now know, quite brilliantly) forecasted Miliband’s demise. He must be experiencing very conflicting emotions this morning; as a fellow Labour traveller, I know I am. In February, he asked a question which the British polling world should have already been asking: “What does Lord Ashcroft want?”

As Hodges set out, over the last 5 years, Ashcroft has morphed in public persona from hugely controversial non-dom to friend of the political process: opening up the business of polling to the public in a manner never seen before. But Ashcroft, contrary to what so many must assume, is not a pollster: he buys in polling from other companies, publishes the results, but won’t reveal who these companies are. He himself is not a member of the British Polling Council either.

Not only that, but he’s an extremely wealthy Tory peer, and former Deputy Chairman of the Party. During tbis campaign, he’s tweeted his admiration of Sturgeon – whose ‘danger to England’ just so happened, by purest coincidence, to constitute the central plank of the successful Conservative strategy. I have never known a Tory give such regular praise to a nationalist in the way Ashcroft has.

His final ‘snapshot’, released well after 7am yesterday, had Conservative and Labour tied, and only added to the bigger picture that the two parties were deadlocked. But ask yourself, purely hypothetically: if you were a Tory who naturally desired your party to win as convincingly as possible, would you want the final poll to have them well ahead… or locked in a race too close to call, which would encourage maximum possible turnout? More to the point: purely hypothetically, if you were a Tory who wanted maximum possible negative exposure of Labour throughout an election campaign, scaring the public into voting heavily against them, would you want them to be well behind… or seemingly on the verge of victory?

How far the obvious flaws in Ashcroft (sorry, I mean the companies which he buys his polling in from)’s data help explain the almost identical flaws in every other firm’s data, I couldn’t possibly begin to imagine. But how has such an obviously self-interested individual become the most influential figure in opinion polling? Why were at least two very well-publicised forecasting sites so dependent on deeply flawed data? Why haven’t more questions been asked about his motivations?

 

What does Lord Ashcroft want?

One man who has asked such questions – many, many such questions – has been the Labour peer, Lord Foulkes. He conducted his own online pursuit of his Tory contemporary throughout the campaign: leading to frequently entertaining exchanges, but never leaving observers in much doubt as to what he thought. Foulkes has hinted for many days that the polls were wrong; and in February, went a great deal further. Opinion polls, he fulminated, were increasingly:

“Being manipulated at the behest of people with money, whether they be the media or individuals, as part of the political process… What is clear now is the media in particular, but others as well, are demanding instant polling, determining when it should be done and how it should be done. The academic rigour that ought to be carried out isn’t being carried out.”

And to be sure, given what this article has set out, who could possibly argue true academic rigour had been carried out on a whole series of polls which haven’t just been a little wrong – but a lot wrong? Very wrong. Astoundingly wrong.

Similarly astounding, when you stop and think about it for a moment, is how, after half a century’s dominance of Scotland, the Labour Party have been swept away just like that via a speeding yellow flash; meltdown triggered, as noted above, by The Vow and its ongoing fall-out. But what’s so often forgotten about the referendum campaign – the democratic event that changed Scotland irrevocably forever – is that between August 2013 and polling day itself, just two opinion polls (and only one with a sample size of over 1000) put YES ahead. That latter poll, by YouGov and the Sunday Times, was publicised with unusual relish by Rupert Murdoch on Twitter, and sent shockwaves through the British establishment.

Its response to one solitary rogue poll? The Vow. As soon as it had been made, Labour were in no position to control what resulted; and when that involved Cameron cutting the rug away from Gordon Brown’s feet on the steps of Downing Street, suddenly, a party which for so long had dominated Scottish politics was faced by an oncoming train it (because it was in government in neither England nor Scotland) could do nothing about – which yesterday, flattened it completely, destroying its broader electoral hopes in the process.

Opinion polls, then, can be remarkable things with yet more remarkable consequences. Especially when they’re conducted for a newspaper de facto owned by someone with a surprisingly good relationship with the then First Minister of Scotland; even more when they help trigger the collapse of a party which had taken that someone on in a manner of no other British political party in my lifetime. What did that someone’s lead redtop do during the election campaign? Simultaneously support the SNP (against Labour) in Scotland; the Tories (against Labour, while banging home the message of dangerous, rebellious, left wing Scots coming to rule over the English) in England.

Rupert Murdoch, of course, was humiliated by the Leveson inquiry into phone hacking; deemed “not a fit person to exercise the stewardship of a major international company” by the British government, and has been investigated by both British and American authorities for bribery and corruption. This perhaps helps explain The Scottish Sun’s enthusiastic support for the SNP; The Sun’s vituperative opposition to Ed Miliband, whose ideas threatened to end any remaining influence of Murdoch over the UK media, and its voicing of a narrative which would inexorably pull England and Scotland apart, threatening the imminent break-up of a 308-year-old Union.

Through his actions, Murdoch has left no doubt regarding his open hostility to the UK and British establishment. Hell hath no fury like a global press baron scorned. At the same time as Murdoch has fallen from grace in Britain, Ashcroft’s star has dramatically risen. Which is, presumably, entirely unremarkable – but the examples of both provide a heavy reminder of what can happen when vested interests collide with the democratic process.

As Foulkes has noted, extraordinarily, the ever more influential polling business is entirely unregulated. In such a world, despite their consistent inaccuracy, all polls are effectively taken on trust: a remarkable state of affairs. Foulkes has therefore introduced a Parliamentary Bill intending to establish an independent regulator; which will also place restrictions on polls being published in the three weeks leading up to an election. In light of all that’s happened in this campaign, one can only wish his Bill speedy and safe passage.

To return, though, to yesterday. I now knew conclusively that the polls were hopelessly askew – but the dear old British public did not. Neither did the BBC presenters: who in tandem with the entire watching world (but not, at least, maybe two or three of us) greeted the exit poll with incredulity. The moment I saw that poll, I was entirely sure it was either (a) absolutely accurate; or (b) still underestimated the Tories’ position. The latter was how it proved. While frantic Labour supporters initially clutched at the straw of an exit poll that wasn’t – a YouGov re-contact survey confirming the previous day’s numbers, which had been arrived at via all the same mistakes as all the other polls – I simply told my friends that it was over. And it was.

We’ll never know whether those in charge of the exit poll had been alerted to NCP’s work. Either way, though, they at least did a magnificent job in hellishly demanding circumstances; they at least emerge from this complete fiasco with their heads held high.

As I type, David Cameron is now back in Downing Street, gleefully clutching a 12-seat majority. He and the Tories, though, will soon discover that in politics, as in life, we should be careful what we wish for; for with an EU referendum now certain, Cameron is likely to be even more boxed in by his lunatic fringe than John Major was after 1992. The chaos of that period destroyed the Tories’ public image, opening a chasm in the party which even the staunchly Euro-sceptic Cameron has been unable to close. With the economy now likely to be sent straight back into recession by even heavier austerity than before, I would be moderately surprised if the Prime Minister makes it as far as the referendum; and in the event of a vote to stay in, even more so if the Conservatives don’t do what they’ve been threatening to do for over a generation, and split completely and irrecovably.

For the other big winners of the night, the SNP, the path to independence is clear. How can a country with one Tory MP and 56 nationalist MPs possibly be governed from London by a majority Tory administration? Answer: short of immediate full federalism and an immediate change to proportional representation – preventing such a scenario ever occurring again – it cannot. The Union’s days are numbered.

And Labour? With Miliband having resigned with typically good grace, now the party must put right its awful, tragic error (for both men) in choosing the wrong brother in 2010; and resolve its ongoing internal debate between the kind of quasi-social democratic agenda offered by the now departed Ed, and something closer to the Blairism necessary to win under FPTP. Chuka Umunna would plainly represent the latter; but in truth, if Labour are ever to regain a foothold as a natural party of government (especially once what we know now as Britain becomes merely England and Wales), it desperately needs to reach out to and reconnect with the many millions of working class voters it has shed since 1997.

Tony Blair knew how to win; but did not know how to create something truly long lasting and self-sustaining. Only by shunning both Blairism and Milibandism can Labour hope to do that: it needs to forge a new non-statist, localist, communitarian approach, in which the ties of family, friendship and community are reborn; power is devolved downwards to localities and through federalism, and offers real remedies for Britain’s increasingly divided, fragmented, discordant, atomised society.

That huge bloc of traditional support (the latest chunk of which voted SNP and Ukip last night) must be won back; the sense of alienation they feel must be listened to and engaged with. Their aspirations – as well as those of small business or bigger business – must be met: a much larger, much more coherent coalition of Labour support than is ever generally appreciated is out there, but has been almost entirely neglected for a whole generation.

As the country discovered yet again last night, British politics only works for a few. As it regathers its energies from this latest devastating blow, it is Labour’s task and will always be Labour’s cause to ensure that, by offering new solutions to both new and old problems, it finally begins to deliver for the many.

 

No, not New Labour. Blue Labour.