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A Campaign of Contradictions

A Campaign of Contradictions

🕔05.Jun 2017

What a strange election this has been. It’s also one of the most dispiriting, even contradictory General Elections I’ve ever witnessed, writes Kevin Johnson in a ‘long read’ view of the campaign. 

Unnecessary, as even Theresa May might be feeling right now, although she’ll probably be boosted in the early hours of Friday morning.

READ: Who’ll be the big West Midlands losers: Con, Lab or the pollsters. 

This election has all been about expectation management. Whatever the count on Friday morning, on this criteria Theresa May has lost with Jeremy Corbyn countering most assumptions.

It was meant to be the Brexit election. But there’s been precious little detail to inform voters what to expect from the major parties by way of negotiating objectives or broad strategy that we didn’t know before the snap poll was called.

The last two elections were defined by talk of deficit and debt. The dreaded D words have hardly had a look in this time around.

The Tories won in 2010 (sort of) and 2015 (yes, just two years ago folks) promising to tackle the budget deficit and, in turn, national debt with so called austerity. To say that’s still work in progress would be an understatement.

Labour’s economic credentials remain tarnished, not as much by the facts as Ed Miliband’s strategic blunder to jettison all the positives from the New Labour era and allow the Conservatives to re-write the narrative about the causes of the 2007/08 global economic meltdown.

Whilst there will be many who want to see an end to austerity, such as police numbers or nurse’s pay, the price tag of Labour’s plans – including a mega spend on student debt – will be frightening to many whose vote is driven by macroeconomics or the New Labour style creed of aspiration.

The incumbent PM went into the contest on a ‘strong a stable’ platform, but has been found wanting. She lacks many of the qualities expected of modern leaders, regardless of party. As I noticed very early in her premiership, she often looks ill at ease and struggles to demonstrate a depth of personality and display human empathy required in the media age.

No, we don’t want actor politicians or even supercilious ones who have well crafted phrases for every occasion. Being uncomfortable on the TV lifestyle sofa does not make you a bad person or even a terrible PM. Time in the job may help, but Theresa May needs to find a way to have her finger on the pulse of the nation (not just the Daily Mail) and be more nimble in TV studios and on the streets.

The PM eschewed head-to-head debates with other political leaders in favour of running a doorstep campaign. But she seems to have met less real people over these last few weeks than a poor night at speed dating.

Her performance on Friday’s BBC Question Time Leaders Special steadied the ship somewhat, but she still struggled when it came to real people with real issues. Given her admirable wish to help those ‘just about managing’ articulated within minutes of becoming PM, Theresa May’s political philosophy has hardly come to life in this campaign.

Hastily assembled manifestos meant holes appeared quickly. To everyone’s surprise the gravest error was in the Tory book in the shape of social care.

We’ll never quite know what impact over the campaign Mrs May’s half U-turn would have had as the first terrorist attack in Manchester understandably took the nation’s focus just hours later.

Policy “clarifications” do not have to have a catastrophic impact, but a positive or at least neutral result rely on a degree of mea culpa. Theresa May showed no sign of that. Indeed, her frustration at being so misunderstood was quite revelatory.

In some ways, I have sympathy for the Conservatives with respect to their manifesto. They did at least try to tackle big issues – what Mrs May describes as the five great challenges of our time – and take some hits, like scrapping the ‘tax lock’. But whether it’s fox hunting or school funding – not to mention social care and a ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ on Brexit – the party is open to challenges from the centre and left as well as the media.

It’s easy to find gaps in the Labour manifesto too. But, at least it has some numbers in it and broadly reflects Mr Corbyn’s beliefs and policy positions. You can argue about the desirability of nationalisation or the economic impact of taxing the top 5% and biggest corporations more, but there’s a degree of honesty there and it provides a clear choice to the electorate.

Ah, choice. In the consumer driven world, it’s all about choice. Arguably, this election offers a greater degree of choice than we have seen in a generation. Labour has done a better job of providing its candidates and activists with ‘retail’ policies to sell on the doorstep, with Tories struggling to present gift-wrapped offers for floating voters.

This election also seems to be one where the two main parties will dominate (at least in England), with the Lib Dems and UKIP being squeezed hard. The move to something near to multi-party politics (in as much as that is possible with a first-past-the-post system) has reversed, at least for now.

On many fronts, Labour and the Conservatives – and their respective leaders – present very different options to the British public. But, for those somewhere in the middle of political persuasion – what some may call ‘urban metropolitan liberals’ – it is an election which offers hardly any choice at all.

On the economy, Brexit and security, liberals will find voting Labour very challenging.

On Brexit, schools and hospitals placing a cross in the Conservative box will be tricky.

Yes, the Lib Dems and Greens offer an alternative to ‘progressives’ but for many that will be a ‘wasted’ vote, at least at this election.

Labour is placing its bets on more young people voting in this General Election than is normally the case. That’s one reason for its stance on funding students at university. It also helps to explain the varied state of the polls.

Whilst Jeremy Corbyn does attract a young following at his rallies, we’ve seen similar phenomena before with hundreds of idealists looking for something more radical and real queuing at campaign events but not translating into anywhere near enough votes.

Perhaps more to the point, it’s likely Mr Corbyn’s votes will pile up in constituencies where, even in this election, Labour is already safe. Appealing to the centre ground and taking votes in marginals is where the real business of elections is done – and there is little sign of that.

The apparent turnaround in the polls, a poor performance from Theresa May and a Labour leader who seems more at ease campaigning would appear to make this election more exciting than first anticipated.

But TM will still be PM on Friday. It may not be with the massive 100+ landslide first predicted, but it’s still highly likely Mrs May will have a very comfortable majority and turn in the best Conservative performance in thirty years.

Elections used to be won on who will be better for the economy. This one was meant to be all about Brexit. But, given recent events, security may feature even more largely in voters’ minds.

Here, too, some will find a stark choice, but will still be short of options.

On police funding and tackling extremism and terrorism, some will find the former Home Secretary and current Prime Minister’s assertion that “enough is enough” to be another semi U-turn that has come too late.

Mr Corbyn’s most difficult moments in this campaign have been on the subject of security, either on the issue of the nuclear deterrent (which clearly won’t be a deterrent if he becomes PM, even though the manifesto commits to a mutli-billion pound renewal of Trident) or on dealing with terrorists through drone strikes abroad or police firearms on British streets.

Along with the economy, leadership is usually the key determinant in elections. Mrs May is still likely to be winner on that score among voters, but her leadership credentials have been damaged, not enhanced, by this campaign.

Claims that our politics is becoming too presidential grow louder at every election, but this time Mrs May’s team made her and the contrast with Mr Corbyn centre stage. It hasn’t quite gone to plan.

There have been a few other Cabinet/Shadow Cabinet figures allowed on air. But even trusted hands like Michael Fallon have dropped the ball, Boris has been Boris and whilst Amber Rudd has looked slightly more sure footed later in the campaign. Has an incumbent Chancellor been any less visible in a campaign?

On the other side, it’s so easy to criticise Dianne Abbot that it feels wrong. But the thought of John McDonnell, Barry Gardiner and Emily Thornberry around Mr Corbyn’s Cabinet table will not be comforting to everyone.

Mr Corbyn has already succeeded in the battle of expectations. If he manages to keep Mrs May’s margin of victory to around 50/60, it will be difficult for the Parliamentary Labour Party to force him from office – as strange as that seems following what, in normal times, would be a crushing defeat.

As someone who usually enjoys election campaigns and who believes passionately in the importance of the political process, this has been a very disengaging campaign. I’m as far from a ‘plague on all your houses’ observer or voter as you are likely to find, but the 2017 General Election has tested even my resolve.

But events in Manchester and London remind us, as if needed, of the importance of our freedoms – not least the right to vote. So I will be marking my cross on Thursday and staying up all night to see the results roll in, but with just a bit less excitement than is normally the case.

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