Thursday, 8 June 2017

The Day of Judgement

The UK goes to the polls tomorrow for its general election, and it has been an extraordinary time, quite unlike any election campaign period I can remember.

The Labour manifesto leaked, and the Conservatives and press were quick to scaremonger that this was an attempt to take the UK back to the dark days of the 1970s, industrial unrest, strikes, nationalised industries swallowing vast amounts of money, and the winter of discontent.

But they struck too soon. Once the manifesto was out, Jeremy Corbyn began to explain it in a calm, measured, almost conversational style. Here was the Shropshire lad, the countryman who grew food on allotments, who engaged with the voters often in a chatty style. In some ways, he reminded me of the early Stanley Baldwin, another politician who eschewed flamboyant oratory for what was more a fireside chat.

There was the odd missed step, such as losing a figure for childcare on women’s hour, and Dianne Abbot also did the Labour campaign no favours with grabbing a figure for police pay out of thin air. But on the whole, Corbyn came across as remarkably unlike the bogeyman portrayed by the Conservatives and the press.

The “loony left” of Boris Johnson’s rhetoric seemed more like the last ditch attempt by the Conservatives to mount this campaign of fear, and it seemed to fly in the face of reality. There was Corbin, measured and conversational, while Boris was the one ranting and raving, more like someone on the “loony right”.

It reminded me of Churchill’s decision to use the worst possible rhetoric in denouncing Clement Attlee with vitriolic abuse: a strategy which completely backfired as the electorate heard the real Attlee speak. Attlee did not respond in kind, made what was really a mild put down, and Churchill’s votes ebbed away.

On the other side, Theresa May, with what looked like an opportunity for a landslide election, attempted to campaign almost wholly on style rather than substance. When there was substance, as in the treatment of pensioners, she either blustered over figures with the threshold for a winter fuel allowance, or in the face of the backlash against what was being termed a “dementia tax”, did an about turn, and then pretended she hadn’t.

As Andrew Neil put it: the first time a manifesto promise has been broken before an election.!On taxation, all she would commit to was to look at the Conservative’s record, that they were the party of low taxation.

It didn’t help that her campaign team also repeated the same slogans. Amber Rudd, sent in to deputise for an absent Theresa May on the Leader’s debate, raised a laugh when she said “just look at our record on taxation”.

Will income tax rates rise under a Conservative government? The answers are fudged. When Sir Michael Fallon said “the only way they can be sure their taxes won’t rise is to vote Conservative”, a Conservative spokesman swiftly corrected it to the May line: “we will always be the party that keeps tax as low as possible”.

There were no firm commitments, and it was clear that rather like her Brexit campaign – “Brexit means Brexit” – that she was almost psychologically unable to provide clarity.

And on “The One Show”, Corbyn shone, explaining his past and why he was committed to a fairer society and social justice, and also charmed viewers answering questions on allotments, jam and manhole covers. Theresa May, by contrast, came across as stiff and not at all relaxed.

The most recent poll suggests a landslide for the Conservatives, despite all the mistakes and vague platitudes in their election campaign. If they do win, it will be despite Theresa May rather than because of her. She is no Margaret Thatcher, who was by contrast, a leader with firm and clear convictions and policies.

And while Jeremy Corbyn may well lose, he has fought a dignified and engaging campaign, streets ahead of the terrible on by Ed Milliband (with his Ed Stone: the manifesto in 10 stone promises!). Gordon Brown’s campaign was also dogged with disaster: the coach crash in front of the relaunched election campaign, and the failure to take off a radio microphone after speaking to a pensioner.

By contrast to the last two Labour leaders, Corbyn has fought a good campaign, and shown what many people, including myself, had thought was impossible: a labour party revitalised, not on the basis of slogans (“New labour”) but upon genuine principles, whether or not you agree with them.

The Conservatives, on the contrary, have fought one of the worst campaigns I can remember, full of platitudes, sound bites, raising fears of immigration, and focusing on their ability to produce the best deal... or even no deal... for Brexit, but with only one notable difference: the ability to tear up and remove any promises made by David Cameron to the election in the last election manifesto.

As Theresa May turned from “strong and stable” to “weak and wobbly”, I am reminded of the line in last week’s Have I Got News for You. Theresa May had just said that “Brexit negotiations need a woman who can be tough.” And as Victoria Coren-Mitchell said: “It is fortunate the EU has one: Angela Merkel!”

And so the public, just as in voting for Brexit, will vote for something unknown: a manifesto lacking any details. In this respect, Theresa May reminds me of G.K. Chesterton's comments on politicians in high office:

"He was very public, as public men go; but they all seem to become hazier as they mount higher. It is the young and unknown who have decisive doctrines and sharply declared intentions. I once expressed it by saying, I think with some truth, that politicians have no politics."

No comments: