What Are We Going To Do!?!
Before I start there is something I have to explain, which is that ‘Spin Cycle, Part 1’ was written, and recorded for the podcast, on the 22 May, mere hours before the Manchester bombing. Obviously a great deal has happened in the campaign since then. I think it’s only fair that I reproduce that part, as originally written, so that you can see what I said at the time and compare it to how things have panned out since. I’ll put it at the bottom. I will have to update it of course, but I’ll do that by adding observations now, rather than changing anything I wrote then. Now, to business.
In part 2 we’re going to look at it from the Labour point of view. Or perhaps I should say points of view. Those guys were not expecting this. They were in the middle of a civil war. They had a leader with great support amongst the membership, and bugger all from the parliamentary party. That was a situation that they were always going to have to sort out, but it’s not at all obvious how. But at least, they thought, they had three years to work on it. It was a reasonable assumption. There was no election due, and no obvious reason (as discussed in Part 1) for an early one.
They did have one advantage though. When you have a new leader following an election loss, it is standard for that leader to institute a full scale policy review. Given that Corbyn took over, give or take, a year and a half ago, that review would have been well advanced. That has become obvious. When challenged to produce a manifesto with no notice, they came up with a suite of policies that had been costed and, I believe, focus-grouped. This was in stark contrast to the Tories, and one in the eye for those conspiracy theorists who initially suspected this election was part of some sort of master plan. Nuh. Their manifesto was a hastily cobbled together mish mash of half-formed ideas and spite, none of it even costed. They had clearly done no policy work whatsoever. They were not expecting this either.
That half-arsed manifesto gave us our first glimpse of what was to come. Having attacked just about every other vulnerable group in society without suffering much electoral disadvantage by it, presumably because members of disadvantaged groups don’t tend to vote Tory anyway, this time around they came up with a policy that targeted the elderly. As the elderly tend to vote Tory in disproportionate numbers this was effectively an attack on their own base. It went down like the proverbial lead balloon, and May was forced into an embarrassing climb down*, which she compounded by denying that it had even happened. Completely self-inflicted injury. Corbyn’s team had one job, which they absolutely nailed (respect!), and that was to come up with a pithy, memorable way of describing the policy. Dementia Tax. Perfect.
Now, at the start of the campaign Labour were 20-odd points behind, and when I wrote Part 1 the polls hadn’t yet shifted much. Even so, I said there were reasons for the Tory campaigners to be concerned. Since then a couple of things have happened to underscore those concerns. Firstly, Jeremy Corbyn has turned out to be pretty good on the stump. He seems to genuinely relish campaigning, and he has come over well. Secondly, and I think far more tellingly, the Tory campaign has been spectacularly incompetent. Every move they’ve made has played into Corbyn’s hands, and May herself has proved to be a dreadful candidate. She has come across as brittle, anxious, deeply flawed and simply not across the detail of her own policies.
These impressions are important. Many of my readers, discerning lot that you are, would find them quite superficial. However, the mere fact that you are reading this suggests that you think more about your politics than most people. The majority will make up their minds based on vague impressions and ‘gut feelings.’ The strategists know this, and in that knowledge May’s team chose a presidential campaign. They didn’t have to do that. They obviously thought they were on a winner. Early in the campaign all the branding was about May, the party scarcely got a look in. It was all ‘Strong and Stable.’
You don’t often get to see a governing party drop its main slogan mid-campaign out of sheer embarrassment. Let’s just take a moment to let that sink in. They went with ‘Strong and Stable’ but their candidate looked so weak and vacillating, and so far from stable, that sticking her in front of that slogan only served to draw attention to her inadequacies. Her micro-expressions have been the gift that keeps on giving for purveyors of GIFs (if you’ll pardon the pun) and memes, in much the same way as Ed Milliband’s were two years ago.
I do seem to be talking a lot about the Tory campaign, when this section was supposed to be about Labour’s. There is a very simple reason for this. The Corbyn strategists are familiar with the maxim, attributed to Napoleon, “Never interfere with your enemy when he is making a mistake.” That has been the case for most of this campaign, and has produced a very unusual outcome for Corbyn’s people. They’ve been able to have a genuinely ambitious manifesto, with lots of big ticket items and proposals for major change, and yet run what is essentially a ‘small target’ campaign. They have been able to simply send their candidate out to do his thing, and seem far more competent and credible doing it then the opponent who chose to make this a contest of personalities.
They did have a wobble early on of course, and it led to what is arguably the most interesting part of the whole campaign. I alluded to it in Part 1, and at the start of Part 2 I mentioned that Corbyn and his team were in the middle of a civil war when the election was called. Somebody, and it seems all but certain that it was somebody in the shadow cabinet, leaked major details of the manifesto a week early in an apparent sabotage attempt. Corbyn’s team must have been hanging their heads in despair. For a couple of days. The Blairite faction presumably believed, as Blair did, that Thatcher was right, the ground of political debate had permanently shifted, and that left wing policies, such as renationalisation of the railways, had been successfully painted as ‘loony’ ideas, and were effectively unsellable. They were dead wrong.
It turns out they are in fact really popular. As soon as the leak happened pollsters started canvassing opinion on the policies, and discovered that they had really strong support. Some of them even gained majority support amongst Tory voters. This, I believe, will be this campaign’s most enduring legacy. It may finally lay to rest the ghosts of 1983. That was Labour’s worst result (28%) of modern times. I argued, in an earlier piece for Ungagged called ‘Left, Right and Centre,’ that contrary to the conventional wisdom that Labour lost that election by being too left wing, it really had far more to do with the Falklands War and Michael Foot’s duffel coat. I have held that view for 34 years, and I may be about to be spectacularly vindicated. Watch this space.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the two dreadful terrorist attacks which punctuated the campaign. Here at Ungagged, our thoughts are with all of the family and friends of the victims of these terrible events. But we must also consider what impact they may have had on this campaign. Conventional wisdom says such events normally favour incumbents, especially if they are conservative incumbents. But there’s a problem. Two attacks in the last three weeks looks a bit like an attempt to influence the election** but that makes three in three months, and that is starting to look like a pattern. A deficiency. Somebody, somewhere has screwed up. I wouldn’t want to blame the police or the security services, they are limited by the resources they are given, and the leadership they receive. The buck stops with the person in charge, and with the police (in England and Wales) and MI5, that is the Home Secretary.
So when, on Monday morning, Theresa May came out to take advantage of the attacks (yes, that’s what she was doing) with her ‘Enough is enough’ speech (is there some kind of rule these days that all political slogans must be either oxymorons – ‘Continuity with change’ – or tautologies – ‘Brexit means Brexit, Enough is enough’?)*** she was also taking a very strange decision indeed – she would run against her own record as Home Secretary. Because if we haven’t been handling this right, if mistakes have been made, they are her mistakes! She was in the job for six years before becoming Prime Minister! Sir Humphrey Appleby would have considered that more than ‘courageous.’ Or, as Malcolm Tucker once said, “I mean I know politicians and hot air are supposed to go together, but I’ve never actually seen one vaporise!”
*The ‘climb down’ itself warrants a further mention, because in some ways it wasn’t really a climb down at all. You see, the problem as I see it was never the height of the ceiling, or even the lack of one, it was the low level of the floor. Putting a ceiling on the amount that can be recovered from the person’s deceased estate only protects those whose assets exceed that amount. To put that in plain English, it protects millionaires. But the floor, at just £100,000, means that unless your assets do exceed the ceiling, you’re going to lose the house. Even in Clydebank (which is hardly Mayfair) you can’t find a house worth less than £100,000 these days. Not even a flat. Even the house I grew up in, a simple two up, two down terraced house my parents purchased in 1966 for the princely sum of £1,800, went for over £200,000 the last time it was sold (amazing what you can find out online these days).
**Interesting, don’t you think, that IS clearly favours a Tory win? A subject we may have to return to after the electoral dust settles.
***One more slogan I have to mention: ‘No deal is better than a bad deal.’ We’ve all heard it, in relation to Brexit negotiations. Sounds reasonable enough, until you think about it for a moment and realise that it’s utter nonsense! In this context, ‘no deal’ has a very specific meaning. It means we fall back on WTO rules. You may want to google that to find out exactly what it means, but the point is, as a former trade union negotiator I can tell you that if the deal on the table would leave you in a worse position than not making a deal at all, then you are not going to take that deal, are you? You’d be a pretty bloody useless negotiator if you did. It is yet another completely meaningless statement.
Spin Cycle, Part 3
There’s a what now? An election? Are you sure?
In Part 3 we will look at this from the SNP point of view. Don’t worry, this won’t take long. The biggest problem facing the SNP strategists is really how well they did last time. 56 out of 59 seats is obviously a high water mark. It demands a mostly defensive campaign. The delicate part of it was to avoid making it all about either Brexit or IndyRef2. They seem to have done a reasonable job of advancing two propositions.
1. We (the SNP) are best placed to look after the interests of the Scottish people, regardless of the outcome of the election in the UK as a whole, and
2. Even if you have a positive view of Jeremy Corbyn and his manifesto, a vote for Labour in Scotland is far more likely to contribute to the election of a Tory MP than a Labour one.
It’s not rocket science. It’s Tactical Voting 101. If you do not wish to see May and the Tories returned (which I’m assuming most Ungagged readers don’t), then vote for the non-Tory candidate who has the best chance of winning in your seat. In Scotland that means the SNP, in England and Wales it means mostly Labour, with the exception of those seats where a Green, LibDem or Plaid Cymru candidate has a better chance of winning. That’s it. First Past The Post (FPTP) is the simplest voting system there is. There will be much to discuss when this is over, but for now the message couldn’t be simpler: Get out and vote, and vote the Tories out!
Spin Cycle, Part 1
Why Are We Having An Election?
In part 1 we’re going to look at it from the Tories’ point of view. It was Theresa May’s decision to have an election. So, why? I take it that it goes without saying that it’s not for the stated reasons? A mandate? A mandate for what? She’s two years into a five year term. She has a working majority. No, she wasn’t the PM who was elected, but that’s just a function of the fact that we don’t elect PMs, we elect MPs. They can change their leader if they like, it happens. In 1976 Harold Wilson retired two years in and Jim Callaghan served out almost the full term.
Oh, that’s right, it’s was a mandate to negotiate Brexit. Well how many mandates do you need Theresa? You’ve had a referendum and two Commons votes already! And this sudden ‘road to Damascus’ revelation walking in the Welsh hills – I don’t buy it. The only revelation I’ve ever had walking in the Welsh hills was along the lines of, “This was really not a good idea,” and the only decision I’ve made was whether it was by that point easier to go on or to turn back.
No, somebody on her staff has decided an early election was a good idea, persuaded some of their colleagues to their point of view, and then they’ve persuaded Teresa. So what were they thinking? Well this is why you’ve got me, a some time political strategist, campaign manager and candidate. A lefty who thinks Machiavelli has had a really bad press. I know how these people think! And one of the things they tend to think is that you don’t call an early election unless you have a really good reason.
And this is really early too. You see the reason why you wouldn’t generally do it is that it tends to appear cynical and opportunistic. Because it is. Why would you call a completely unnecessary election unless you saw some advantage in it? And the voters don’t tend to like cynical and opportunistic. If they catch a whiff of it, they tend to punish it at the polls. It rarely works out well for the government concerned. Now obviously this time they feel like they’ve got this mandate excuse, but why do they need an excuse? What’s the angle?
Well, I know what a lot of people think it is, which is the opportunity to kick Labour while they’re down, and maybe get a really big majority. Which would, yes, be tempting, but it wouldn’t be enough to tip it for me. Not this early. Because if they believe what they appear to believe, that the electorate is more right wing than it actually is, and that therefore Corbyn’s leadership and policies are what’s destroying the Labour Party, then logic says leave him there. As long as possible. His leadership looks pretty secure under the Labour electoral system, why wouldn’t you let that play out?
I’ll tell you why. Because there’s another factor those advisers must always take into consideration – the future. They know the type of news that helps or hurts a government. So what’s coming down the track? You might, for instance, have access to information the voters don’t have, suggesting there’s a nasty surprise coming in the unemployment figures a couple of months out from an election. So you call the election on early, in order to dodge the bad news. Or if the bad news is happening now, you hold off as long as possible, in the hope that things might get better.
So consider this: How bad do things have to look to May’s advisers to persuade them to go to an election three years early? Sure, the polling figures looked good, but Labour’s appeared to be still falling, so that means they don’t see anything good happening in the next three years! And you know what? I think they’re right! Once the Brexit negotiations get going in earnest, and the leaks begin, it’s going to be nothing but bad news for Theresa. And the kind of bad news that will not only lose votes, it’ll rattle the markets. Then, if Trump’s budget gets through, which it looks like it will, because Republican Congressmen and Senators don’t realise their own economic illiteracy, it will drive the US economy off a fiscal cliff. If that happens, expect a crash this year. I don’t know exactly when of course, but if you twisted my arm I’d guess September or October.
So, taking all that into consideration, maybe they were right to tell Theresa to go now? Well perhaps, but if I was one of them there are a couple of things I’d be worried about. The first thing is the council elections we just had. Despite the predictably favourable media coverage, the results weren’t really that encouraging for the Tories. In England, overall, the Tory gains came entirely from the collapse of the UKIP vote. Labour was only a couple of points down from last time, and the Greens probably took some of that. In Scotland, a lack of understanding of the STV system led to some essentially random outcomes. Some of those random outcomes threw up Tory councillors in surprising places, which of course they claimed as some sort of resurgence, but the numbers simply don’t bear that out.
The other thing that would worry me is that when the Labour manifesto was leaked a week early, in an obvious attempt at internal sabotage, many of the policies turned out to be extremely popular with voters. Too left wing, eh? Doesn’t look that way. Combine that with voters’ natural inclination to smell a cynical, opportunistic rat and Theresa might yet be in for a rude shock. Remember, she started this campaign expecting to win a significantly bigger majority. If she doesn’t deliver that it will be seen as a loss. In campaigning terms, anything less than the position you were in at the start of the campaign is a loss. But in this case, if she doesn’t increase her majority, and by more than a handful, it will be perceived by the public as a loss too.
So let’s not be disheartened. Let’s not make it easy for her. We have got ample material to work with here, let’s make her fight for every vote and every seat. This is not a lost cause. It could yet backfire badly for Theresa May. Let’s do everything we can to make that happen.