The 2010 general election had its emblematic moment – the encounter between Gordon Brown and ‘that bigoted woman’ – that confirmed the inevitable. The image of the three women party leaders embracing could be the pivotal point in 2015, the Podemos moment that has seemed to elude the British progressive left for so long. That is certainly how a growing number of commentators on the right are seeing it. But are they too pessimistic and are we victims of wishful thinking? Are we set for another five years of the Tories supported by their friends in UKIP, the DUP and the Orange Liberals? Or, has neo-liberalism had its day – is it becoming as laughably unfashionable as loon pants, asks Martin Yarnit.
With less than three weeks to go, the signs still point to a dead heat between the two main parties but the context of coalition building seems to have lurched abruptly leftwards. As often in politics, glacial movement is suddenly disrupted by the unexpected – Hegel and Marx’s Old Mole that works away unseen until without warning, the earth crumbles away. In his determination to avoid a tv tete a tete with Ed Miliband, David Cameron inadvertently created the conditions for a unique event when three leaders of anti-austerity parties were given the space to present a political perspective that has been excluded from the media mainstream. There, above all, was Nicola Sturgeon, setting out the stall that looks set to carry all before it in Scotland on 7 May, demonstrating that the progressive left can command a majority, while Miliband and Farage were left as the dumbfounded onlookers.
As the three women party leaders embraced at the end of the second tv debate , Britain tasted the sense of hope and profound release that has been sweeping Greece and Spain. But when Britons come to cast their votes on the 7th, it could all seem to be illusory and short-lived, except of course in Scotland where the leadership of the Labour Party faces decapitation. We may, in short, still end up with David Cameron in Downing Street.
But the long-term significance of the moment has not been lost on the right wing commentariat. Michael Gove has chided his colleagues for willfully ignoring this new fact of political life while Rod Liddle, sensationally, has declared in favour of Labour because of its determination to diminish inequality – for him now the central political issue. Fraser Nelson, the Spectator’s editor, expects Miliband to be carried into Downing Street on a rising tide of angry populism, thanks to the realization that the basic premise of the free market – ‘that if you finish school and work hard, you’ll find a home and be able to raise a family’ – no longer holds. The Telegraph’s Charles Moore has urged his readers to face the terrifying possibility that Nicola Stugeon may be – sort of – right in identifying this problem, even if the answer for the right is not to bear down on inequality (because, he argues, ‘once you make economic inequality the chief measure of social ill, you always end up with socialism as your remedy’) but to create opportunity.
But even if the right’s fear for the worst on 7 May is premature, there are grounds for expecting a wind of change over the coming five years. It could even be a repeat of the Scottish referendum when the losing side goes on to the political ascendant. Long-term, neo-liberalism, the uber-market version of capitalism that has ruled the roost since the Thatcher-Reagan tryst, has come up against a brick wall. The unleashing of the full force of the market has generated a degree of inequality that undermines demand and political legitimacy, creating a dangerous moment for capitalism, as we have witnessed across Europe and in emerging economic giants like Brazil. For all that stock market and currency traders relish volatility, wiser heads like the heads of the IMF and the World Bank recognize the urgency of re-establishing order and stability. Sooner or later, that means a new settlement between labour and capital, globally, as the Financial Times’ Martin Wolf has advocated in his ‘The Shifts and the Shocks’. The anti-austerity campaign that suddenly burst into political view in last week’s leaders debate before millions of stunned British viewers is merely the first step along that road.