Friday 2 June 2017

Before A Fall

Labour is gaining ground in the polls. I'll admit it: I did not expect this.

Some perspective is in order. The Tories still enjoy a lead outside the margin of error, in every single poll taken so far. Let's look at the last five polls, released between 27 May and 1 June. The Conservative lead varies from +12 (ICM, 29 May) to +3 (YouGov, 31 May). Taking the mean of these five, we have Con 43.4, Lab 35.6, LibDem 8.2, UKIP 4, for a Tory lead of +8. Plugging this into the UK Polling Report swingometer results in a Conservative majority of 46.

Conservative Central Office. Displeased at recent developments, but still planning for victory.

Twenty-five months ago, David Cameron would have given his left testicle for these polling numbers. The boost in Labour support won't necessarily hold up; and it appears to be driven by younger voters, who may or may not turn out on election day.

That said, this election was widely expected to be a walkover for the Tories, with excitable talk of a landslide of 150 seats or more. Expectations were driven so high that Theresa May could win a majority of 40 or 50 seats, the best Conservative result in 30 years, and it would still feel like something of a defeat.

How has this happened?

The widespread assumption, which I shared, was that this election would be like 1983. Labour is weak and divided, with an unpopular socialist leader, and eccentric policies described as "the longest suicide note in history." The Conservatives duly triumph, and grind Labour into the dust.

It now feels a little more like 1992. Labour has some positive ideas; their manifesto commitments are detailed, largely popular, and reasonably well costed. However voters are wary of change, and unsure if the Labour leadership can be trusted with big decisions.

The difference is the calibre of the leaders involved. I'm no particular fan of Neil Kinnock, but he was far superior to Corbyn. The same is true of John Major in comparison with Theresa May.

Major was a mediocre Prime Minister at best, but he had his virtues: Elements of decency, humility and courage which are sorely missed in the modern Conservative party. In the 1992 election campaign, he was well known for standing on a soapbox and giving speeches in public places. (Strictly speaking, the "soapbox" was a document box, but soapboxes are traditional and the name stuck.)

In 1992, security concerns were very real. The IRA had seriously attempted to kill Major with a mortar attack on Downing Street in 1991, and would not adopt a ceasefire until 1994. Major climbed onto a soapbox anyway, and accepted the heckling and occasional thrown eggs. It was a powerful symbol that Major was not taking the voters for granted, and it helped him to a surprise election victory.

The contrast with Theresa May could not be more striking. The Prime Minister does not do unscripted appearances in public. She gives speeches in tightly controlled venues, to hand-picked audiences of Conservative activists, with mere voters kept at a distance. Media contact is kept to a minimum.

Unlike her predecessors Gordon Brown and David Cameron, May refused to take part in a televised debate with other party leaders. This looks like a strategic error, as Corbyn did reasonably well in the debate, and May was relentlessly mocked for sending Home Secretary Amber Rudd in her place.

The Conservative manifesto consists largely of empty platitudes and uncosted promises. One of its few definite commitments was the so-called dementia tax, which May was forced to drop a matter of days after it was first launched, all the while insisting that nothing had changed.

May gives an impression of both weakness, and thinly veiled contempt for the electorate. Her campaigning goes something like this:

EXT. Castle surrounded by a moat filled with crocodiles. A crowd stands beyond the moat. THERESA MAY stands on the battlements and speaks through a loud-hailer.

MAY: You there, peasants!
CROWD: [Unenthusiastic murmur of greeting]
MAY: Bow before me and tremble, as I interrupt my busy schedule to speak to you. I'm going to take away Granny's house to pay for her care home. So what are you going to do about it? 
ELDERLY VOTER: We're going to vote for someone else. Old people turn out in elections, remember?
MIDDLE-AGED VOTER: Yeah! You're not taking my inheritance!
CROWD: [Roars of agreement. Fists and walking sticks are waved in May's direction.]
MAY (hastily): No, no, don't do that. I'll put a cap on payments for care homes.
CROWD: [Shouting gradually subsides]
MAY: [Clears throat.] Now then, as I was saying. I am your leader because I know I deserve to be. You will vote Conservative because I'm better than that rubbish Corbyn. Is that clear?

The Prime Minister can't even play the merciless, iron-fisted tyrant in a convincing fashion. She has been practically daring us to vote Labour. If the opposition had a halfway plausible leader, she'd be in deep trouble. As it is, she's only on course for a comfortable majority instead of a landslide.

What were the Tories thinking? What was their offer to the electorate?

Their one and only selling point is hard Brexit. The Conservatives will purge the UK of any traces of EU influence, and go out of their way to be harsh to foreigners and immigrants. We can rely on that much.

May and her allies saw a huge lead in the opinion polls, and believed they were invulnerable. They thought they could win a landslide based on a lazy, inept and contemptuous campaign. They didn't have to act as though they were servants of the people; they just needed not to be Labour.

It must be emphasised, the Tories are still probably going to win. But it appears they need a little more than raw hatred and arrogance to win by a landslide. This discovery seems to come as a surprise to them. The response, from Theresa May above all, is a creeping panic which they struggle to keep in check.

If Labour actually wins this thing? In that case we'd have a whole new set of problems. I really do not trust the leadership, judgement, or competence of Corbyn or most of his shadow cabinet. The SNP's price for supporting a Labour government would almost certainly be a second Scottish independence referendum. A Labour party which can barely function as an opposition would suddenly bear the responsibility of government, including complex and delicate negotiations surrounding Brexit.

That said, I would prefer the many problems of a Labour government to the Tory alternative. The campaign is revealing May to be not only cruel, but cowardly and incompetent.

The prospect of Prime Minister Corbyn has gone from a laughable fantasy, to something which begins to keep Conservative leaders up at night. Those who inflict fear and pain on the rest of us are suffering a little fear in return. Such is what passes for comfort in these times.

"Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall." --- King James Bible, Proverbs 16:18

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