Why The 2015 Election Will Be The Most Painful Yet

Be prepared for some miserable months ahead, says The Observer's Nick Cohen

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Talk to Labour MPs and they say Miliband can't win. Talk to Conservatives and they're equally convinced that Cameron will be out by May. They can't both be right.

Either Miliband or Cameron will be prime minister after the election. But the nervous politicians sense a wider truth: the 2015 campaign will be a struggle between losers. 

One big, grim fact explains the chaos and pessimism of British politics. Our old way of doing business fell apart in the crash of 2007-08. We learned then that we could no longer support our highly-geared City, debt-driven economy and vast welfare state. You must remember our leaders saying we needed to revive manufacturing and find new ways to earn a living in the world. It was true then and it remains true today. But not one of our leaders can offer a coherent plan for a better future.

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"The old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum morbid symptoms appear," wrote the Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci in the Italy of the early 20th century. He might have been talking about Britain in the 21st.

Only a fool or a liar pretends that he knows the outcome of the next general election. But you don't need to be either to believe that it will please no one. If any party is going to win a majority, it'll probably be Labour. It's doing well — or at least not doing as badly as everyone else — in the marginal seats where elections are decided, and constituency boundaries favour it. Labour could secure a majority with as little as 35, 34, 33 or, on some computer simulations, 32 per cent of the vote. Then its problems will start.

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Ed Miliband stabbed his brother in the back because he thought he was more left wing and more charismatic, and thus better able to lead his party to victory. "Ed does human," his supporters assured me as he sneaked a win in the 2010 Labour leadership contest. Miliband thought the sight of bankers wrecking the economy would push Britain leftwards. But the great populist upsurges to sweep the country have not been conventionally left wing. We've had the anti-immigrant nationalism of Ukip and the anti-English nationalism of Alex Salmond. Miliband has no popular movement behind him.

As for "doing human," you have to stare hard to find the humans Ed "does" it for. According to the polls, only a sixth of the electorate believe that Miliband is ready to be prime minister. But thanks to our bizarre electoral system, he could still be in Downing Street. He will have no authority in the country or over his suspicious ministers. What little popularity the wider Labour Party enjoys will evaporate as the debt crisis forces the party to make cuts its natural supporters find unconscionable.

David Cameron ought then to have a chance. The Coalition is more trusted on the economy and Cameron is more popular than Miliband. But a Conservative victory will bring a war, which will make the disputes within Labour look like lovers' quarrels. As of 8 May 2015, the British right's obsession with the European Union will be your obsession too, whether you like it or not. To get an idea of how Cameron's promise of an EU referendum in 2017 will smother national life, look at Scotland. As the long independence campaign dragged on, discussion on the economy, health, schools stopped. Investment also stalled as businesses waited to see how Scotland would decide.

Now imagine the European constitutional question engulfing the whole of Britain. You might want to talk about other more pressing matters, or just get on with your work and life, but until Europe is settled, your voice will not be heard.

I cannot see the Conservative party surviving intact. If Cameron says that Britain must stay in and loses, he and his supporters will have to resign. If he wins, 40 or so of his MPs will not accept British membership on any terms, and will go.

Indeed the Conservative party already has split. Ukip is the result of its divisions, and its rise brings us back to Britain's morbid symptoms. One of the greatest mistakes you can make is to assume that the future will be a continuation of the present.

The MPs, who cannot see their own party winning a majority, are talking of a new coalition. Because we have had five years of a Conservative-Liberal coalition, it is easy to assume that the Liberal Democrats will be in power with either Labour or the Tories.

It is possible, however, that the Liberals won't win enough seats to return to government, or may not want to return to government given the battering they have received.

The balance of power will then lie with Ukip, which wants to do down immigrants, the Scottish nationalists, which wants to do down England or Ulster's Democratic Unionist Party, which wants to do down Catholics. Every option involves sectarian parties demanding and receiving concessions. I can't say I like any of them.

Meanwhile, the economic crisis will roar on. George Osborne's promise to remove the budget deficit in this parliament was nonsense. Whatever divided government emerges will have to impose vast spending cuts and tax rises. The European Union has failed as abjectly to fix the euro. We will have to live with a stagnant Europe stifling the British economy for the rest of the decade. Meanwhile real wages have been falling for years and the British are, once again, up to their necks in debt. They are in no condition to weather another storm. No wonder they're so angry.

Disreputable journalists love to predict disaster. They know that fear sells better than sex, and that the public wants to hear "We're fucked" rather than "It's going to be OK". I am such a reputable journalist you won't even read some of the journals I write for. (I can't say I read them all myself.) But I cannot escape the sober and thoroughly reputable conclusion that fucked is exactly what we are.

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