Glancing at my phone this morning I was reminded by Facebook of my entry on this day in 2017. Theresa May had just called a general election, and was riding high in the polls, all of which gave her a lead of over 20 points. The local elections hadn’t yet happened, though when they did, they were dreadful for the Opposition. And I wrote, from a feeling in my gut, but no empirical evidence whatsoever, that I was an “optimist”.
My optimism in 2017 was that despite Corbyn, who hadn’t done a thing in the 2016 referendum campaign, despite the Tory poll lead, the galvanising effect of Brexit had given a unity of purpose to the Remain camp which could yet weaponise tactical voting, stop May’s presumed landslide, and perhaps, lead to a People’s Vote.
And arguably that’s almost what happened. No landslide, hung Parliament, tactical voting everywhere. Even in an electoral system as skewed as ours, given common purpose, we can be effective.
Today, with local elections looming, a ‘difficult’ by-election ahead in Wakefield, polls tanking for the Tories, and voter opinion word clouds centring upon words like ‘liar’, you might think that my inner optimist might be clamouring to get out. But it’s not.
Of course, there isn’t a general election looming. It’s hard to get motivated by local elections, especially when few councils will change hands when only a third of wards are being contested. Turnout will be low, 30%, perhaps a lot worse in some areas. There’s no sense of jeopardy, at least not for opposition parties.
The Tories are worried, of course. I saw an election poster locally which made me do a double take. It obeyed the visual grammar of an election flyer, with two smiling young men, and a background of a billowing Union Flag, upon which was printed the candidates’ names, and the date of the election. But of party affiliation, there was no sign. No party name, no logo. A search of the local press showed that the Conservative policy was explicitly to detach the local party from any association with the Tories nationally. One of the candidates said to the media, and this became the headline, “I’m nothing to do with the national side of the party”.
In other words, Conservatives contesting this election are worried. They are resorting to highly unusual tactics to shore up their vote.
You’d think that the other parties, and especially Labour, would be brimming with confidence at this scent of blood.
It doesn’t feel like that. Far from it.
Labour’s leadership seems to be locked into a permanent cringe, forever in awe of the Tories. The response to the Tories’ cynical and outlandish stunt in which they claim that they will banish all male refugees, however deserving of asylum, to camps in Rwanda, exemplifies this. Where the former oil executive turned Archbishop of Canterbury, no wimp he, felt compelled to express his moral disgust from the pulpit, Labour is reduced to bloodlessly stressing the expense, and the practical difficulties of implementation of this bizarre and offensive policy.
It is easy to understand why Labour is in this pitiful position. The leadership is in thrall to focus groups. Where the former Labour leader reportedly waved away all polls, and took no interest in qualitative opinion research, the current leader is mesmerised by them. Both leaders were wrong. Polls give some indication of the direction of travel of voting intention, and that is useful. And focus groups can give a glimpse of the sort of messages, narratives, that are lodging in voters’ consciousness. But what they don’t do is reveal how people think. They don’t provide a blueprint for winning elections.
When asked about things we don’t normally spend a lot of time discussing, we tend to repeat whatever we can recall about the subject. If I was in a focus group discussing reality television, or football, I wouldn’t have any real opinions. If pushed, I could probably say something vague about Married at First Sight Australia, or Manchester City and Liverpool. If my fellow discussants then came up with an amusing anecdote about Naked Attraction, or a sad tale about Cristiano Ronaldo, I would probably smile, or nod gravely, as appropriate. It’s the focus group way. Shallow, but indicative of what’s getting through to people.
And so a careful reading of focus groups ought to be telling Labour that it is not projecting a consistent and compelling narrative. That it needs to show clearly what it stands for, and to project leadership. Sadly it is trying to follow opinion, not lead it.
Which brings me to the most personal side of these reflections. I am a voter. I want to feel that there is a party I can vote for which is broadly on my side. There are two key verbs in the last sentence – vote, and feel.
Voting is an action. It requires the voter to make a decision, and to mark a cross on a form. Feeling is what can motivate the citizen into wanting urgently to use that vote – or conversely to stay sullenly at home. I shall vote – I always do – but it will be without any enthusiasm. I am finding it difficult to motivate myself, because the party that usually gets my vote not only doesn’t inspire me, it repels me.
And it feels deliberate. Voters like me embarrass the current leadership. Urban, educated, internationalist, environmentally-conscious, socially liberal, above all, a bit Muslimy-looking, we are not valued. Even Tony Blair quite liked some of those attributes, (with one very conspicuous exception).
And I can’t help but reciprocate. Labour’s “Hero Voters”, town-dwelling, ‘plain speaking’ (euphemism for bigoted), petrol-headed, Brexity, anti-woke, are exactly the kind of people I’ve spent my life avoiding. Which hasn’t been that difficult, even when I’ve lived in ‘Red Wall’ towns. Because they don’t exist in large numbers.
There isn’t a “Red Wall”. It’s a clever marketing invention by the Right, allegedly populated by the “white working class”, who are said to have flexed their reactionary muscles to push Brexit to victory, and who are now king-makers in any electoral contest.
Labour needs to stop believing the Right’s confident, self-aggrandising mythology. It needs to decide what its principles are, what its direction of travel should be, and to show some swagger of its own.
Look closely at the Tories. They have an ethnically diverse Cabinet, and rising ministerial stars, which might be thought to be at odds with dog-whistle xenophobia. Indeed, the Tories often draw attention to that diversity. That the nastiest anti-immigrant rhetoric comes from the likes of Priti Patel, and the most noxious anti-anti-racism/sexism is fronted by Liz Truss and Kemi Badenoch, is no accident. It’s a product of their confidence. It’s absolutely audacious stuff, which proves only that sass trumps substance. And Labour’s scared to display much of either.
The Tories are, in reality, running on fumes. Their vote is old, and getting older, their tame press isn’t the powerful beast it once was, and if they lose property developers’ money on top of the laundered Roubles that have been bankrolling them of late, they’ll struggle, even after gerrymandering the boundaries and stifling the Electoral Commission, to maintain their unique hold on our politics.
It’s long past time for Labour to find fire, purpose, and poise. Women, of all ages, all classes, and in all constituencies, are to the left of men, and are a force waiting to be mobilised. Minorities shouldn’t be regarded as an embarrassment. Most people know that climate change is real, and urgent, and everyone wants a decent home, secure work, high-quality healthcare, good education from nursery to tertiary, dignified old age, and a safety net in hard times. Why would that be a hard sell?
I suspect that I’m not alone in wanting a reason to vote that isn’t just the limited goal of getting rid of the Tories.
But I’m not seeing it.