During the 2015 general election, when I began this blog, I used the title, “The Marvin Gaye Election” for one post, because I really had no idea what was going on. I’d gone into the election expecting either another hung parliament, or possibly a narrow Labour victory, or at least a Miliband government with a Confidence and Supply arrangement with another party. What we now know is that David Cameron, largely through his ruthless efficiency in crushing his Coalition partners, and the tenacity of Tory voters in Scotland, was cruising to a narrow, but decisive win. And all our woes….
Three elections (and a referendum) in four years feels like a really dire mass participation reenactment of the First World War. It’s futile. The politicians and diplomats seem to have stumbled into it by accident. The generals went into battle without a plan. We, the poor bloody infantry, have been mired in our trenches smoking Woodbines and occasionally falling asleep as a comrade plays a mournful version of ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’ on a harmonica. On then Home Front the jingoist press ramp up the xenophobia (without, alas, any “plucky Belgians”). And so, lions led by donkeys, we prepare to go over the top. Without a cunning plan.
Because who has any idea what’s going on?
The parties have created competing myths about the last battle, aka the 2017 general election. Whether either myth contains any wisdom, we’ll have to wait a couple of weeks to see.
The Tories went into 2017 with an even more commanding lead in the polls than they have this time. Their view now is that they then had the wrong leader, and the wrong manifesto. But is that right? May was so popular in the middle of 2017 that they built an entire campaign around her, downplaying the Tory brand, and promoting ‘Theresa May’s Team’. They got a three word slogan of power and simplicity – ‘Strong and Stable’. And the polls remained pretty favourable. The local elections happened during the campaign, and seemed to suggest that May was on course for her landslide.
But May wasn’t comfortable in the spotlight, and the more the public saw of her and her vacuous slogan, the less they liked it. As for Nick Timothy’s manifesto….
So this time the Tories have a celebrity leader, another three word slogan that they’re flogging to death, and a backroom campaign that is ruthless to the point of sheer dishonesty. That’s not exaggeration – you can Fact Check it on Twitter.
They also have a manifesto with less content than the Daily Star on a thin news day. What could possibly go wrong?
Labour myth has turned 2017 into the election won single handedly by Jeremy Corbyn (it’s a mere detail that he didn’t actually win). The ‘brilliant campaigner’ would have got the party over the line if only they’d had just another week. As for that magical manifesto. Pure electoral gold.
So why not re-run the whole thing with extra manifesto? When you’ve got a winning formula…. (Reminder: you didn’t win.)
In 2017, as a slightly despairing outside observer, I felt things shift over the course of the campaign. The polls looked good for the Tories despite a few wobbles, but there was a sense that the Tories were losing the impression of being a juggernaut about to mow down all who stood in their way. I did begin to hope that things might not be as bad as I’d initially feared.
But in 2015, there were so such feelings, either of hope, or despair. The campaign felt unreadable. The electorate seemed disengaged. And Cameron got his majority.
2019 feels more like 2015 than 2017.
In 2017, there was more of a sense of unity and purpose to Remain voters. Our mission was to try to deny May the landslide she wanted to push her Tory Brexit through Parliament. Enough of the Remain vote was willing to mobilise tactically, which is the real reason why Labour did so much better than expected. It worked, insofar as it derailed the Tories, and we are still in the EU.
This time around Remainers are split. Tactical voting may still happen, but there’s much less goodwill in the Remain camp. There’s a sense that the SNP is happy with any outcome as likely to be good news for them, and the Lib Dems appear more focussed on damaging Labour than on stopping Brexit. This election was essentially their call. Without the Lib Dems choosing to side with the SNP, there wouldn’t be an election in December. We’d still have an impotent Tory minority government, and enough MPs to back an alternative minority government with a single item mandate to run another referendum. It was their call, and it’s a very big gamble.
So, what’s going on? All parties are running poor campaigns, taking voters for fools. Voters may deserve to be taken for fools, so angry, cynical and disengaged are we. Dirty tricks, foreign interference, suppressed reports, suspended inquiries (did I forget to mention American IT tutors with a sideline in pole dancing?). It’s all so grubby, tawdry, unedifying.
Is this going to be our worst election ever?