This is a very strange election campaign from the Conservatives. The Tory messaging for the final week is all wrong. My browser is full of Tory ads calling on me to “Get Brexit Done” when everyone knows Boris is all about that; if anything, they risk alienating the key group of Remainers who voted Tory in 2017. The Tories are currently hanging on to just five-eighths of these voters, and any further slippage could be fatal. As far as potential pro-Brexit switchers from Labour go, they need to be saying “the NHS is safe with us” because that’s any Tory campaign’s Achilles heel. The Cameron campaign worked this out in 2010, hence the saturation of “I’ll cut the deficit, not the NHS” billboards that year. Of course, Dominic Cummings worked that out for Leave in the Referendum too.
There is only one issue about which voters are more concerned than Brexit – and that is the NHS. The Conservative campaign strategy depends on people who have never voted Tory in their lives, living in constituencies which haven’t voted Tory since the 1930s, who are mostly among the older generations; and they need them to break the habit of a lifetime on what looks like being a viciously wet December day, when any health problems they might have are likely to be flaring up at their worst. Detoxifying the Tory image on the NHS takes persistent work, which they simply haven’t done.
Then there’s the ‘Get Brexit Done’ ad leading YouTube’s homepage since Friday evening, which must have cost the Tory campaign a few quid, in which Johnson not only doesn’t appear, but isn’t mentioned even once. Maybe he’s been snatched by the same aliens who abducted Rees-Mogg a month ago? One reason for his absence could be that his approval ratings have fallen from +7 to -20 during the course of the campaign. All the same, while Corbyn’s ratings have risen, this isn’t 2017: although he is no longer as popular as Prince Andrew, as he was a month ago, at -44 he’s instead improved to being about as popular as herpes.
Another little oddity – Johnson was heckled in deeply Tory Salisbury last week. For me, the big question is why he was visiting a nuke-proof Tory seat in the first place. In an election where the electorate is deeply polarised by generation, this is one of the most elderly constituencies in the entire UK. Even if this was a play for regional TV news coverage, a very clever Labour tactic in 2017, wouldn’t Johnson have been better off visiting somewhere like Southampton or Reading with some actual, you know, marginal seats? Party leaders don’t have time to waste the week before a general election.
The impression one is left with is of a badly organised, badly targeted, campaign that if it wins will do so only because Labour has spent the past four years in a state of civil war. Much of the same criticism applies to the LibDems, who continually tell voters that they’re the party of Remain, which everyone knows, but is all anyone knows. They will be attacked by the Left for a generation, no matter what, for being a party of heartless austerity-mongers; they might as well have cashed in on this by selling themselves as the party who’ll balance the books even if it means they’re hated. With both the Conservatives and Labour running manifestos straight out of the Ladybird Book of Fiscal Policy, it would have helped them in key targets like high-income Westminster, Esher, and Guildford, where their prospects are dependent on lifelong Tories switching.
I will say one thing for the LibDems; they are extraordinarily visible where they actually have a chance. In a long drive to Mid Wales last weekend, any party posters were thin on the ground; except in Layla Moran’s Oxford West, the summer by-election gain of Brecon and Radnor, and the key target of Cheltenham. All of these were festooned with LibDem orange diamonds, which readers across Ireland should note are displayed here in gardens and windows as a sign of actual support by actual voters. Posters don’t win campaigns, but they are a sign of an energetic and effective ground campaign that is engaging voters in a constituency.
The SNP too have run a campaign whose messaging hasn’t been designed to maximise their haul of seats. A heavy focus on securing a second independence referendum may have solidified their core vote to an adamantine degree, but it has alienated pro-Union Remainers who may have cast an anti-Tory tactical vote otherwise. Instead of looking at a 2015 style earthquake, Sturgeon is now looking at best at only modest gains from the Tories and a failure to wipe out Scottish Labour, and it may be worse than that. Scots Nat campaigners will doubtless say that securing a moral mandate for Indyref2 after the 2021 Scottish General Election is of more importance, but as opinion polls indicating a majority for Scottish Independence are currently about as common as credible manifestos, they may find themselves fighting shy of a referendum come 2022. One more miss and they blow their chance for at least a generation, something their Québecois counterparts could tell them all about.
Weirdly, despite civil war, despite anti-Semitism, and despite Corbyn, Labour’s actual messaging and direction of that messaging is streets ahead of anyone else’s. They are the only party aiming at an enormous voting bloc: the 45% of voters for whom Brexit is not a top priority. Corbyn’s notorious ‘seven out of ten’ interview before the Referendum reflects the thinking of many Leavers and Remainers alike, especially further down the income scale, something that escapes the Brexit-obsessed bourgeoisie. The Play-Doh economics of the Tory manifesto legitimises Labour profligacy by default. As with 2017, there are clever and cleverly targeted giveaways, notably the five-figure windfalls promised to women who lost out as a result of changes to the pension age; this would help the middle-classes far more than the poor, but that was equally true of 2017 Corbynomics. It’s difficult to argue against in terms of natural justice, and lands cash straight into the laps of a lot of Labour Leavers. Throw in the NHS, the disquiet among a large segment of the electorate who have seen up-close examples of horrific treatment of the sick and disabled in the name of welfare reform, the catastrophic Tory failure to connect with voters under 50, and Labour has a potentially winning hand no matter how badly the mood music around them has been.
A potentially winning hand and I still can’t see how the Tories fail to secure a majority. By this time in 2017 I was getting pretty sure the conventional wisdom was wrong and I’m just not this time. Boris, despite everything, could hardly fail to be a better campaigner than May, and the 2019 Tory campaign has avoided the self-mutilation that destroyed hers. They might lose Guildford but they’ll run rampant in the Black Country: there are signs that they are simply too far ahead in sufficient ancestrally Labour constituencies in deep Brexitland.
Yet something is niggling at my gut. Might it go wrong for the Tories in other ways? Is Boris just too smug and chippy to appeal to a kingdom beset by despair and mutual detestation?
Look at the Twitter messages of the main party leaders in this final weekend: Corbyn is talking about a shared mission to build a decent society; Johnson is talking about how hosting a World Cup can make a small country great. Now, I won’t be voting Labour; it might well be different in a Labour/Tory marginal but I live in a bomb-proof Labour, heavily Remain, constituency. I won’t be voting Labour in significant measure because of Corbyn, but even though I don’t buy into him, I wish I could believe in his capacity to deliver his vision. As for Johnson, the “small country” comment (perhaps more an admission?) is especially fascinating. English people in my experience often struggle to process how small their country is; you know, former Empire, current UN-P5 nuclear power, and all that. Brexit has made the rhetoric of even Brexit’s top cheerleader much smaller.
Most people in the UK don’t want Johnson to be Prime Minister. He isn’t fit for it. Anti-semitism is a big reason why I won’t be voting Labour; but I can’t forget the Prime Minister is a man who, to line his already burgeoning bank balance, penned lines like “piccaninies with watermelon smiles” and poked fun at “bumboys”. For all the FBPE hysteria about a fascist-racist-Brexit takeover, that is not where the UK is today and, no, that is not where the vast majority of working-class Whites are today. Remember, Johnson’s approval rating has slipped by 27% during this campaign; the more voters see of him, the less they like what they see.
It feels a bit like 1992 did with Kinnock; if polling day looks like a coronation for King Boris, the electorate may walk into the polling booth and make a last minute decision to clip his wings, especially if Corbyn is a long way off winning a majority – and he is.
All of this, of course, might make the destination of Northern Ireland’s eighteen seats absolutely crucial. Democracy in the UK is a deeply flawed beast. But remember 2019 was the year when schoolgirls in Sudan were machine-gunned for demanding what we take for granted; thousands of Chinese sent to prison; Hong Kongers battered off the streets; Zimbabweans taken to cells and kicked to death; Iranians shot dead by government snipers. People were battered on the streets of Northern Ireland half a century ago to secure an equal franchise. Your vote is a right and a privilege; casting it is your duty. Use it wisely.
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