Zombie Election

This election is dead. It’s still going to happen (I assume, though take nothing for granted). It’s just that there’s not a flicker of life in the campaign.

It’s not as if the stakes aren’t high. They couldn’t be higher. Brexit blue in tooth and claw, Vs the prospect of escaping via another referendum is quite a choice. And it’s not as if there’s nothing to choose between the parties, despite the persistent lament of the voter presented with a microphone that “They’re all the same. They’re only in it for themselves.” Not true, and the competing visions on offer are starkly differentiated.

That the election matters profoundly only makes it more worrying that the campaign is so flat, the voters so apparently disengaged. What can explain this lack of excitement as we enter the last few days of the campaign?

Including the Scottish independence referendum, we’ve had two plebiscites and three general elections in five years. Polling fatigue might just be a thing. We keep voting, but nothing seems to change. But I’m not at all sure I buy that argument.

There’s the time of year. Winter elections at a time when the days are at their shortest aren’t usually seen as ideal for electioneering. It’s nearly Christmas. We should be disgracing ourselves at the office party, rather than pondering the manifesto of a political party. But that doesn’t explain it, either.

Most elections happen at a time that ‘feels’ right. Whether it’s the four or five year interval and the sense that the time is right to renew the mandate, or, more rarely, when there is an obvious quickening of the public pulse, a feeling that the time is right for change, then the public intuit that a ‘democratic event’ is only right and proper. But this election isn’t like that.

This is a completely unnecessary election. The new Tory leader wanted it badly, because the hard grind of trying to get his Withdrawal Agreement Bill through all the stages of parliamentary scrutiny looked like a lot of detailed work, and no fun. He wants a big majority so that he can put his feet up and let the minions and wonks get on with the boring business of government.

Johnson wanted it, but he couldn’t have got it without the active assistance of the SNP and, crucially, the Liberal Democrats, who ably assisted the Tories in painting Labour into a corner whereby they looked ‘frit’ if they weren’t up for the fight. They should have resisted anyway. The longer Johnson was snookered by his own cleverness in destroying his own majority, the better for the official Opposition. But we are where we are. In the last stages of a campaign actively desired by the ruling parties of England and Scotland (and their useful idiot party), but bemusing to an electorate who have lost interest in anything much.

Even arguments for Brexit amongst voters seem to have dwindled to a plaintive demand that a democratic vote be honoured, rather than any excited expectation that sunny uplands lie ahead.

The lack of enthusiasm suits the Tories. Their electorate of choice is now older, poorer, whiter than it has ever been. The Tory tone of aggressive hectoring and false Johnsonian bonhomie resonates with those voters, and they are voters who are more likely turn out on election day. The YouTube advertisements currently being run by the Tory Party depicting nice, normal looking voters having their lives ruined by shrill, argumentative parliamentarians who won’t shut up about bloody Brexit, and their campaign slogan, ‘Get Brexit Done’ are nicely calibrated to reassure voters that it’s ‘the politicians’ (but not the Tories) who are making something very simple into something unnecessarily complicated. It’s also the perfect lie.

Those three words – ‘Get Brexit Done’ – are freighted with meaning not yet understood by most voters. ‘Get’? A short simple imperative covering an endless legislative, diplomatic, and economic nightmare. ‘Brexit’? In three years it’s gone from magic potion to bitter medicine we must nevertheless swallow. ‘Done’? The one thing we can say for certain is that this thing will never be done.

I’ve said nothing about Labour. What is there to say? It looks like the farewell tour for Corbyn. He and the people around him have concentrated all their energies, over the four years he has been leader, on seizing the levers of power in the Labour Party. So solipsistic is his inner clique that they interpret everything insofar as it conforms to their conspiratorial mindset. Clever and competent MPs are sidelined or silenced, especially in this campaign, for they might outshine the Dear Leader. The unexpectedly good result (though they lost) in 2017 was interpreted as being about the wondrous campaigning skills of ‘Jeremy’ and the brilliance of the manifesto, when to anyone looking objectively at the evidence, they were primarily beneficiaries of some very effective tactical voting where it mattered. Their campaign looks a lot less sure-footed this time, though the tactical vote might still enable them to hold on to their delusions.

The Lib Dems deserve a mention. It was a bad call to push for this election. People who might know about these things suggest that a combination of the European Parliament election results and some optimistic private polling made them think they had nothing to lose and much to gain, mostly at Labour’s expense, from an early and unnecessary election. The polls don’t support that now, though this time they may benefit from Labour voters in the south and south west voting tactically against the Tories. Those of us who want to stop a Tory victory must hope that that happens, but it won’t be an easy thing to do now that all vestiges of Social Democratic Party DNA have been bred out of the party. They look petty, opportunistic and unlovely. Their good luck is that they’re not the Tories. And if they get a leader with more competence, they could begin their rightful task of eventually replacing the Tories as the major party of the centre-right.

This time next week it might all be over. Or only starting. Damned if I know what’s going to happen. But there is unlikely to be a good outcome, only something from along a spectrum of bad outcomes.

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