The result was a disappointment. The polls led us to believe there would be no overall control and therefore Miliband would be likely to become Prime Minister of a minority government dependent on some kind of understanding with the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National party, the Greens, the SDLP etc. It was clear that the Tories were worried about this possible outcome from the way they kept demonising any understanding between Labour and the SNP. This outcome would have meant less austerity, less welfare cuts, a bigger commitment to reducing inequality and probably a foreign policy based more on a commitment to upholding International law, particularly in the Middle East.
But it was not to be and the Tories got an overall majority of 12. They are in their honeymoon at the moment but they will have their difficulties. The promise to cut £12 billion from welfare will cause an enormous reaction and their party is going to be obsessed with the EU renegotiation and referendum which will split them very sharply.
But the biggest point I want to make is that the commentary on the outcome of the election has been completely misleading. There was no swing to the right. Labour got 36.9% of the vote, the SNP 4.7% and the Greens 3.8%. Together this is 45.4%. It could be argued that the Liberal Democrats belong more to the left than the right, which is why their vote collapsed so badly (they stood as a party to the left of Labour in 2010 and then entered a government to the right, and were duly punished). If their 2015 vote is added, the total is 53.3 % of the total vote.
In fact the Tories got 24.4% support from the population registered to vote. Their vote increased by only 0.8% from 2010. The Labour vote increased by 1.4%. Labour got 9,347,304 votes. The Labour vote in 2005 which brought in Blair’s “historic third term” was 9,566,618. The collapse of the Labour vote in Scotland, for which Blair was more responsible than Miliband, meant Labour lost over 300,000 votes in Scotland.
This does not mean that Labour ran a good campaign. The biggest failure in my view was to allow the Tories and Liberal Democrats over the past five years to continually claim that the economic crisis was the responsibility of the last Labour government. This is a ridiculous claim. As all serious people know, the global crises started in the US and nearly led to the collapse of the banking system, which would have caused a depression as bad as the 1930s. To avoid this required a very big spend to bail out the banks and keep the economy from falling into depression. The action the Labour government took was strongly supported by all the other parties. But it is notable that Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson very quickly appeared in the media claiming that Labour has lost because of a swing to the left. The figures above show that this claim is completely false but no doubt many people will believe it.
The British electoral system is now so anomalous that it produces results that are not connected with the balance of public opinion. The case for electoral reform is now overwhelming. The traditional justification of the distortions of the first past the post system is that it produces strong government. My own experience of government, with power concentrated around Blair and Campbell and Brown in the Treasury, with very little debate or serious thinking about policy options, is that this so-called stronger government is bad government. The reform in our electoral system which would see a range of parties represented and require openness and shared thinking to assemble support for government policy would I believe improve the quality of government.
When I was in government, the invasion of Afghanistan involved very little fighting, as the Taliban melted away; and the people of Afghanistan were very hopeful of a better future with their new government system drawn up after widespread consultation under the aegis of the UN. There was a promise of democracy and development and the people wanted both.
By 2006 there was a new phase of fighting and dying with the US and UK involved in an intense war against the Taliban. I have never really understood why things changed so much until I read No Good Men Amongst The Living by Anand Gopal, published in 2014. I strongly recommend it. Anyone who wants to understand how things went so badly wrong in Afghanistan should read this book. It basically tells the story through three people’s accounts. What is clear is that the Taliban gave up after the invasion, faced with the overwhelming power of the US. It is important to remember that they were never Al Qaeda and started fighting after the US withdrew with the end of the Cold War, and warlords created chaos in the country. The Taliban imposed a terrible form of order and then came the US invasion. What Gopal’s book demonstrates is that the warlords who were reinstated by the US used their power for corrupt and self-enriching purposes and reported anyone who got in their way as Taliban, which led to Guantanamo or jail and torture in Bagram and the obliteration of villages. This is why the Taliban came back.
And of course we must never forget that it was US policy, acting through Saudi Arabia that created Osama bin Laden in the first place by backing religious fighters to resist the Soviets and the government they supported. Afghanistan was a pawn in the cold war and abandoned when it was over.
The Middle East
Until quite recently it was clear this a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians would transform the atmosphere in the Middle East. It is of course still highly desirable that there should be such a settlement, based on the enforcement of international law in order to ease Palestinian suffering, to save Israel from the consequences of its cruelty and hubris and to demonstrate that western policy respects international law and is no longer riddled with double standards. But since the invasion of Iraq and the counter-revolutions against the Arab Spring the situation in the region has become much more complicated and dangerous.
The situation in Syria is quite terrible, leading to massive death and displacement. It may have been possible to negotiate an end to violence and a transition to democratic elections if there has not been such strong external intervention arming both sides and prolonging and intensifying the violence. The sectarianism that was unleashed in Iraq after the invasion is destroying the country and spreading across the region as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states have become obsessed with the growth of the power of Iran as a consequence of the change of regime in Iraq. Their sectarian hatred of Shia Islam flows from the very primitive version of Islam known as Wahhabism, which has been spread across the world with Saudi money. This sectarianism has given birth to Isis. This same sectarianism is now causing a humanitarian disaster in Yemen. History never repeats itself exactly, but all this brings to mind the 30 years’ war in Europe between Protestantism and Catholicism. And of course the feudal dictatorships in the Gulf are also trying to defend the status quo against the yearning for dignity and freedom that we saw expressed in the Arab spring.
Obama seems to be determined, as part of his legacy, to reach a nuclear deal with Iran. This is highly desirable and to be applauded. But his policy on Syria, Lebanon and Yemen flows from the obsessively anti-Iranians policy which has guided US policy since 1979. There are few pointers to any relief from continuing conflict in the region for many years to come.
Aid versus development
I have spoken at two or three meetings in the past month that have questioned the value of Aid. My answer is that Development is not Aid. Asking does Aid work is like asking whether public expenditure works or whether health expenditure works. For example the US spends more on a health system that cares for people worse than any European system. We do not conclude that health expenditure does not work! All spending, public, private, military or developmental can be well or badly made.
The best possible security policy is surely a world of even development where all have the chance of a decent fulfilling life. This is also of course morally preferable. We spend much less on Aid than the military but the noise from the media is a demand for more military spending and less Aid. Aid is an investment fund for dealing with humanitarian emergencies and for investing in reforms that will help bring about development in the poorest countries who would have to wait much longer, for example to get a generation of children educated, if they had to rely on their own resources. And of course many of these countries have been badly treated by colonial powers in the past. But development is not just Aid. It require security, fair trade rules, action against corruption – remember a bribe paid to a public official abroad was tax-deductible in the UK and most other countries up to the mid ’90s!
In fact, in recent years Aid spending has been spectacularly successful. Fifteen years ago the world agreed to make the systematic reduction of poverty the central focus of its efforts in the new millennium. Lots has gone wrong since then, but as Bill Gates said in his introduction to HDR 2014: “The accomplishment of the Millennium Development Goal era has been stunning. To take just one example, the number of children who die each year has gone down by almost half, From more than 12,400,000 26.6 million…” There is much left to do but the increase in the numbers of children, boys and girls, in education has been enormous. And we know the single most effective thing that can be done to bring development to a country is to educate a generation of children, including the girls. Girls who have been to school marry later, have less children, their children are more likely to survive and they are better at getting their children to school, accessing healthcare and increasing family income.
I suppose it is a sign of the times that there are so many attacks on aid spending. But it is interesting and important that many people in developing countries are sick of the aid debate because the donors are often so bossy and patronising. And of course aid can be spent for the wrong motives, to prop up pro-Western governments rather than invest in the systematic reduction of poverty.
I recently visited Cheddar Gorge in Somerset. It is spectacular and beautiful. It was formed by meltwater floods after the Ice Age. During the Ice Age permafrost blocked the caves with ice and frozen mud. When this melted water was forced to flow to the surface and carved out the gorge and created caves. Britain’s oldest complete human skeleton was found there in 1903 and is estimated to be over 9,000 years old. There is a very interesting small museum in the Gorge which includes discussion of the period when our ancestors were cannibals.
- UK house prices per square metre are the second highest in the world topped only by Monaco (LSE Centre for Economic Performance quoted by Martin Wolf FT 1 May 2015).
- 63 armed conflicts led to 56,000 fatalities in 2008. 180,000 people died in 42 conflicts in 2014. The number of displaced people exceeded 50 million in 2013 (International Institute for Strategic Studies quoted in FT 20 May 2015).
- The oldest stone tools have been found in Kenya. They are 3.3 million years old i.e. pre-homo-sapiens (Independent 20 May 2015).
- In 2012/13 providing UK public services earned Atos, Capita, G4S and Serco £’6.6 billion. That same year Atos and G4S paid no corporation tax.
- Almost a third of the British population, more than 19 million people, fell below the poverty line in at least one year between 2010 and 2013. The average across the EU was 25%. The UK figure was only exceeded by Greece and Latvia. But the UK also had one of the lowest levels of what the ONS calls “persistent poverty”. Poverty is defined as living in a household with disposable income below 60% of the national median, while persistent poverty is defined as being poor in the current year and at least two of the three preceding years. But the evidence suggests that those who have already been in poverty are more likely to experience poverty again in the future than those who have never been in poverty (FT 21 May 2015 quoting new research by the Office For National Statistics).