Subjective Objectivity – The Blog of The Reasonable Man

August 7, 2010

In which I teach a Guardian columnist how to count

Filed under: Uncategorized — mikeshotgun @ 4:10 pm

Andy Beckett asks, “Is Cameron the New Bush?” in one of those utterly tiresome “the truth might surprise you” type articles in today’s Guardian. He’s not the only one, inveterate sociopath Con Coughlin was at it too.

The short answer is “no he isn’t”. What follows is part of the long answer. I’ll pick on Andy Beckett, because his is the more pernicious stupidity, especially when he starts talking about electoral mandates. 

I suppose I despise articles like this because it has one purpose, purely as tribal red meat for the Labour Party. Geddit – George Bush was a terrible President, and, ZOMG, David Cameron is similar to him too! Jonathan Freedland was at it from the get-go, when he tweeted something along the lines of “Blackberries banned from coalition cabinet meetings? Reminds me of formality of Bush insisting on jackets”. I actually took him up on it, pointing out that the Obama cabinet also bans Blackberries, but he insisted he meant the strict formality of the thing in a despised right wing government, rather than the exact factual parallel in a popular centre-left one. 

Strike one, but frankly I’m disinclined to even play this stupid game, any more than I was willing to buy into the notion that Clegg was the new Obama (you know, until he stopped seeming to a Labour party understudy and collaborated with the villainous Tories) or that Obama is the new Jimmy Carter. Really, this political neophiliac circle jerk is most unbecoming. 

Anyway, here is a key part of the Beckett article:

Having missed the heyday of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the two men began to rise instead when voters were losing their appetite for transatlantic conservatism’s more caustic remedies, and positioned themselves accordingly as “compassionate conservatives”. Most journalists took this carefully constructed moderation at face value.

There’s a strange media disease where “most journalists” always seem to have taken the opposite of what you believe to have been true, but I’ll let this slide. I guess he means the Daily Telegraph, who viewed Cameron as a lily-livered wimp.

Voters were less impressed. In the 2000 presidential election Bush, infamously, received about half a million votes fewer than Al Gore, despite Gore’s over-complicated and stiff public manner, and a jittery economy.

A jittery economy? Yes. A record budget surplus? Yes. So far the parallels are stunning. For the record, the US is a two party system, and Bush got 47.9% of the vote to Gore’s 48.4%, but lost out in the electoral college stakes. But still, a half percent gap in the popular vote is quite the deficit. 

In this May’s general election, it is already less remembered, Cameron’s Conservatives scraped 36% of the vote – only a slight improvement on the share the party won in its heavy defeats in 2005 and 2001 – despite Gordon Brown’s Gore-style presentational problems, and despite a British economy that was not so much jittery as post-traumatic.

I’m going to stop you there Andy and hold your hand while we do some history and some maths, and just a tiny bit of political science. There was indeed a party that got slightly less than 36% in the 2005 election. The Tories share was 32.4%. Currently, the Labour party stand at 29% (incidentally, a lower share of the popular vote than John Major’s Tories in 1997). 

So already the Tories achieved a popular vote edge far and beyond their ideological rivals, greater than the latter had in 2005 at the very least. But Beckett has done here is change the metric by which mandates are measured. George Bush had no mandate because he received half a million votes less. David Cameron has no mandate because the Tory party received only 36% of the vote. It doesn’t matter that this comprises a numerical advantage of over 2 million votes, this apparently isn’t a mandate. Insofar as this is roughly the disparity between the two parties in 2001, it seems that Tony Blair had no mandate either. I guess majorities only count in Andy Beckett’s world when they’re wielded by the Labour party. 

But this is all pinching at the margins of the big point, which is the existence of a third party that commands over a fifth of the popular vote, also known as the Vichy Cleggite Traitors Liberal Democrats. The existence of a third party means that parties in a FPTP will rarely get much above 40% but still get electoral majorities. Beckett blithely ignores the fact that the Liberal Democrats, who got 23% of the vote, are represented in the government too. Even if you can’t finesse this a pure Tory + Lib Dem = government vote of 59%, there’s less of a democratic deficit than with an electoral landslide that barely scrapes 40% of the vote. (All of this is a case for electoral reform, by the way.) 

And yet, out of Bush and Cameron’s poor election showings in 2000 and 2010 has come a new, bolder British and American conservatism. You could call it a politics of wishful thinking – or of bluff.

You see, now a 2 million majority (+7.1%) and a 500,000 deficit (-0.5%) are exactly the same thing! Actually, with a majority over just over 7% of the popular vote, it seems that electorally speaking, you could say that David Cameron is the new Barack Obama. Hell, the same economic fundamentals prevail, so it’s a better comparison. Cameron is also facing lockstep ideological opposition from the opposite party that presided over two disastrous wars and the erosion of basic civil liberties and that has yet to find a successor for a wildly unpopular former leader. All the while he’s taking shots from his own side for being to ineffectual and wimpish. But, just like all the other “X is the new Y” stuff, is stupid. But then, according to some Obama is the new Bush, so maybe this all actually makes sense.


Cross-posted at Something Quotable


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