The Power of Hope, Part 2: Campaign

In part 1: Context, I set the scene for our current politics, post-2008 crash, with hung parliaments, Brexit and Trump signalling that more and more people were voting for change – for the hope that by challenging the establishment they could better their lives. Part 2 looks at how this groundswell of feeling played out in the recent snap election.

Given the premise I have set up, it hardly needs pointing out that May’s campaign was the exact opposite to those run by Leave and Trump. Much like the previous Conservative campaign run to elect Cameron’s slim majority (and indeed, the Remain campaign run by Cameron et al), May’s campaign was based on the fear of what would happen if you didn’t vote to maintain the Conservative status quo. Whilst the Remain campaign’s ‘project fear’ at least tried to base itself in facts and figures and a genuine concern for the economic impact of Brexit, May’s ‘project fear’ decided to abandon any sense of justification and resorted to the worst kind of Conservative sneering.

The ‘Maybot’ repeatedly feeds the same audience the same cues to sneer at Corbyn et al; May and the Conservative team had no way of knowing how this would play with the electorate as there were none there to hear it. Such was the astonishing arrogance of the Tory campaign that they confidently created their own touring echo chamber and awaited feedback from the ballot box – certain that it would be a resounding majority for May.

May’s robotic performances, delivered in the same way, to the same Tory crowds, waving the same placards, in interchangeable soulless locations served only to emphasis the complete lack of change and hope offered by the Tories. It was supposed, no doubt, to symbolise and solidify the stability and strength of Theresa May, that she was an unchanging force that would weather any storms offered up by Brexit. It was supposed to be an election where the bovine masses would be utterly enthralled by the ‘strong and stable leadership’ only a domineering Thatcher-like (or rather, ‘Thatcher-lite’) PM could deliver.

The lesson the Conservative party didn’t learn from Brexit and Trump is that people didn’t vote for either to achieve stability and maintain the status quo, they voted for them because they are desperate for change. They wanted to shake up the political establishment and give it a kicking for neglecting them for so long. Brexit was – and remains – a tremendous gamble, but it is clearly one that 52% of the population are willing to take. So when May paused, in the video above, after each name to allow the Tory faithful to make the planned pantomime noises of fear, she was actually giving the voting audience a chance to actually imagine what it would be like to have Jeremy Corbyn et al in office. Given that Corbyn was clearly terrifying the establishment, was promising to fund the NHS, would employ 20,000 new police officers and tackle the social care funding crisis, a lot of people clearly liked what they imagined during those faux-dramatic pauses.

What is interesting is that this election should have been the one that cemented the Conservative right’s dominance in British politics. The accepted view was that Farage, Trump, Le Pen and fascism in general were supposed to be the main beneficiaries of this surge of anti-establishment feeling. The world looked on in horror at Trump’s election and wondered if Europe would – in the elections following – lurch back to Facism as it had done during the great depression of the 1930s.

But it hasn’t worked out that way – yet. Le Pen failed and May – who had moved the Conservatives firmly to the right in an attempt to mop up the disintegrating UKIP vote – didn’t get a thumping majority that had seemed so inevitable just days before the election. As we all know, May didn’t even get a majority, let alone a landslide. Instead Jeremy Corbyn – the most disastrous Labour leader in history, according to a lot of his own MPs, and utterly unelectable to most (probably because that’s what they kept being told by almost everyone, including most of the Labour party) – instead ended up with just 2% less vote share than Theresa May.

How Jeremy Corbyn did this is simple – and based on my premise, fairly obvious: he was anti-establishment, offered real change and campaigned on a basis of hope.

Brexit and Trump demonstrated that you don’t have to have a complex message to get people engaged and voting for you, you just have to sell – convincingly – the idea that you will do something to better their lives. For Trump it was putting America first, draining the swamp, banning Muslims and building walls – all to help the average American have a good job, take back control from Washington and be safe from crime. For Brexit it was taking back control – over borders, law and trade – again, to make you prosperous and safe.

Base instincts, simple messages and the clarity of the promise that the result would be something not offered by the current political system that would improve your life. Brexit and the recent election also saw an increased turn out, which is to be expected if change is offered. You don’t tackle voter apathy by offering the same thing, you also don’t inspire people by offering the same thing in a different colour rosette (take note Ed Miliband, you can’t beat the Tories by trying to be them with your anti-immigration mugs etc).

Whilst May was embodying the unchanging, uncaring establishment, Corbyn had a basic message: it doesn’t have to be this way, we can have a political party that represents the many, not the few; we can change the priorities of government so that investment in public services is at the heart of it. It gave people hope, it gave them a real choice – in the same way that Brexit got the voters out because the choice was so simple and binary – leave or remain. Corbyn framed this election in the same way: the end of the welfare state and ever-increasing austerity for the poor and tax giveaways to the rich, or taxing the rich a little more and properly funding our public services. For once voters had a real choice between left and right and this was reflected not just in British politics returning more closely to a two-party state, but also in increased turnout.

A lot was made of UKIP’s collapse and the inevitable Conservative surge this would generate. But in truth this view was always simplistic and wrong when you look at why people voted UKIP in the first place. It is a mistake to think that people voted UKIP or voted leave solely because they wanted to leave the EU and that what happened afterwards was an irrelevance. Actually, for many UKIP and leave voters, leaving the EU was a means to an end. In their eyes their poverty and life chances were being limited by being in the EU, therefore leaving the EU would lead to the changes that bettered their lives. Would all UKIP or Leave voters really care about the ideals of sovereignty or ‘unelected’ bureaucrats who may or may not be discussing the shape of bananas in Brussels if they had a good job, money and a sense that life was treating them fairly?

UKIP’s manifestos – once you got past the xenophobia – have always contained lots of left-wing, socialist details because they understood a lot of the issues that the disenfranchised voters care about. Working class votes were their bread and butter. It therefore shouldn’t be a surprise that an anti-establishment figure like Corbyn offering real change, real hope and a manifesto that clearly addressed the concerns of a lot of working class UKIP voters pulled in a significant share of the UKIP vote. This is even more logical given that Article 50 has already been triggered and that Corbyn’s approach to Brexit is ‘jobs first’ and accepting the will of the 52%.

There is another aspect that may have proved equally as important in the final vote share: the different approaches to the party leaders. May’s campaign has been criticised for trying to run a personality cult campaign based on someone with no personality. This is a fair criticism, but it also neglects that when May did speak she had nothing to offer – when you come face to face with a Nurse who hasn’t had a pay rise for years and your response is to shrug your shoulders and exclaim ‘there’s no magic money tree’ you’re probably not going to win any voters. Trump, on the other hand, didn’t just build a campaign around his personality, but also on making outlandish promises – building a wall and making Mexico pay, knowing more about ISIS than anyone, having all the best words and so on. May didn’t have the personality to draw a crowd or the promises to keep them.

Corbyn, on the other hand, could draw a crowd and had the manifesto of promises to keep them enthralled. That it was fully costed demonstrated that they weren’t just a list of fantasy policies – although this was the line pushed by the Tories and their friends in the media. But, ironically – given the huge crowds he drew and the success of his speeches – the Labour Party worked hard on the ground to not mention him if possible. That so many Labour MPs thought he was a huge handicap meant that they conducted very local campaigns, addressing local issues; selling themselves as excellent local MPs, distant from Westminster. This, in effect, created two separate campaigns, the national campaign led by Corbyn that was selling a manifesto and a vision for the country as a whole, and the local campaign that really targeted each constituency and selling each individual candidate.

Seeing Corbyn as a massive handicap seems to have energised the Corbyn sceptics to really work hard to knock doors and canvas for their local Labour candidate – because they couldn’t take for granted that the national campaign would drive local support. Meanwhile, Labour candidates – thanks to Corbyn – had access to huge number of members, often really quite devoted to Corbyn – who were working on behalf of both local and national campaigns to drum up support for Labour.

What this meant is that whilst Conservative candidates were hobbled by an abysmal manifesto and gagged by a Conservative campaign that put Theresa May front and centre (my local candidate sent me a leaflet telling me she ‘was standing with Theresa May’, listed the main ‘Maybot’ slogans and told me nothing about her at all). They had nothing to offer apart from slogans – and those slogans explicitly promised that nothing would change. It staggers me that a party that has been in power for 7 years in which wages have fallen, the NHS and social care are in crisis, education is heading that way, the police are down by 20,000 and all these austerity cuts have achieved is to double the national debt, can possibly think promising explicitly that they’ll only be offering ‘more of the same!’ is the kind of idea to build a campaign around.

Astonishingly, with an uncosted, back of the fag packet manifesto only remembered for the ‘dementia tax’, bringing back fox-hunting and threatening a no-deal Brexit they actually went a step further and promised to make things worse. It was at best, utterly incompetent, at worst, one of the most arrogant moves from a governing party in electoral history.

It remains to be said that the Conservative party still managed to receive the largest share of the vote, and to remain the largest party – even if it was the most remarkably incompetent campaign in history. But, given where Corbyn started, the nature of the snap election and the massively pro-May and viciously anti-Corbyn press, it is almost impossible to not see the overall result as a victory for Labour – and, more importantly, Corbyn.

It was, like Brexit and Trump, an upredictable success for the anti-establishment promise of hope and change.

It is also a campaign with a fascinating aftermath, which I’ll cover in part 3.