The evidence just keeps stacking up. Fox hunting ban? The public loves it. Nationalising the trains? Bring it on! Zero hours contracts? Outlaw them, yay! Grammar schools? What? Tory policies are not very popular, and Labour ones are commanding majority support. So that’s why the Tories have a 20 point lead in the polls.
How to explain all this?
The answer the newspapers give is that it’s a beauty contest. Annie Leibovitz photographs May for American Vogue; Corbyn is lucky if he’s asked for a selfie by a member of Momentum. Or it’s Presidential. Madame May, the self-styled ‘strong and stable’ Commander-in-Chief, versus Jezza C, the bloke in the library. It’s all about leadership.
Any objective observer (is there such a person?) would see that neither May nor Corbyn exude the magnetism of the ‘natural’ leader. Indeed, there’s more of the improbable rock star about Corbyn, who enjoys campaigning, than there is about May, who rarely seems comfortable in her own skin. May’s greatest personal asset is simply that she isn’t David Cameron or George Osborne; her cold, control-freakery somehow comes across as unshowy competence by comparison. Dave and George called Tony Blair ‘The Master’ – and they are now as peripheral as him, perhaps more so.
So how to explain the May phenomenon?
She certainly fits the mood of Brexiters, being old, cold, a bit dreary, with a boring voice and no discernible sense of humour. She is beloved of Paul Dacre of The Daily Mail, which, along with the patronage and condescension of Rupert Murdoch, is worth a battalion of ‘Sir’ Lynton Crosbys. But the Tories always have those advantages. Dacre may have preferred the son of the manse Gordon Brown to flashy Bullingdon boy David Cameron (he really did), but the Mail’s natural position as the anchor of the hard and humourless Right in Britain has never wavered. We can take a partisan press as a given, whatever happens.
So why has a popular menu of policies not had much effect on the sentiment of voters?
This has been troubling me for some time. There are many particular and specific British impediments to the wider centre-Left in Britain; but social democracy has been struggling elsewhere, too.
I had put much of Labour’s loss of traction with their ‘traditional’ working class voters down to the loss of collective identity and institutions that used to bind the party culturally to its voters. Trades unions, the Co-Op, the local working men’s club, jobs-for-life, heavy industry, the concept of the ‘family wage’, a respect for local democracy, and a belief in The State as a force for social good – all weakened, or gone. And this really does matter. Hollowed out communities, insecure employment, a housing crisis, the loss of social solidarity. People who feel on their own stop listening to people they think are speaking down to them. Even if they then start listening to people who really do take them for fools.
But the bigger problem is that once upon a time, democracy and the economy ran in synch. The terrain commanded by the democratic system – the nation state – was also, largely, the terrain commanded by the economic system. There were multinational companies, but broadly money and political power shared the same borders. Not any more.
Capitalism is now a footloose, turbo-charged beast, which can go anywhere, seemingly do anything. Democracy, by contrast, has had power sucked out of it. Raise taxes on the rich? They won’t pay them. Get the biggest, most successful companies to pay for the roads their delivery vehicles drive on, the schools that educate their workers and consumers, the hospitals that keep their customers alive? No way.
That’s why the European Union, for all its faults, shows the way of the future. If the nation-state and its political institutions can’t harness the economy to serve people, co-operation across national boundaries can exert more leverage. But to maintain popular consent, political institutions need also to develop their internationalist reach, and forms of practice. The borders in our heads need to be taken down.
Until we start to do those things, as individuals, as citizens, as voters, as members of movements, and pressure groups and parties, the mess we are facing in this election will continue. We have to find a way to organise that tells our failed political leaders, and our fellow citizens, that they need a bigger vision, greater ambition, and the moral courage to face down narrow nationalisms.
Surely things can be better than today’s dreary reality?