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.

The Power of Hope, Part 1: Context

Introduction

For me the recent general election result – a largely unpredicted hung parliament in which Jeremy Corbyn got within 2% of the Conservative vote, despite being over 20 points behind just weeks before – is part of a wider trend of people choosing hope over fear, the chance of change over the continuance of the status quo. This post is the first in a 3 part series – Context, Campaign and Aftermath – that attempts to put forward a coherent argument as to why political voting has changed so much since the financial crash in 2008 – and what this means for future elections and the direction of politics in general.

The Power of Hope, Part 1: Context

It seems like a long time ago that the UK economy was rising happily and steadily, with New Labour so confident in the stability of the bubble lifting it that they declared an ‘end to boom and bust’. That all came crashing down in 2008, and looking back it seemed an act of breathtaking collective denial that so few people saw it coming. We live in a world in which there is almost inconceivable inequality, not just between the rich and the poor of developed and underdeveloped nations, but within developed nations as well.

This inequality has meant it has become increasingly difficult for the middle and lower classes not just to cling onto the consumerist lifestyles that they are encouraged to, but just to exist at all. It’s important to recognise that rising inequality isn’t just about CEOs taking increased salaries or corporations increased profits out of an economy, it is also the fall in real incomes for almost anyone below this top 5% of earners.

In the beginning it was easier for the 95% to cope with lower wages because families largely relied on one wage earner, the solution was to send both parents out to work. This kept the illusion that growing inequality was sustainable. When even two-parent-wage families still couldn’t meet their commitments, another solution was offered: cheap credit. That meant normalising credit cards, loans, equity release from property values or anything else that encouraged the ‘we can all have the things we want / we can all take part in this boom’ culture. It sustained the illusion that free market liberalism was enriching us all.

But the truth was it wasn’t, it was creating obscene wealth for the few and putting the majority into unsustainable, unaffordable and often unpayable debt. The reality is that under free market liberalism we can’t all afford a house, even if the banks are willing to give us a mortgage. We cannot all afford big TVs, luxury clothes, posh cars or any of the other things that are sold to us from birth as being a vital part of creating our sense of worth and self-esteem – even if loans and credit are offered to us so we can have them. Cheap credit allowed a lot of people to be fooled into thinking that they were part of the boom, that they were enjoying the rewards of a growing economy.

But they weren’t. They were, in reality, poorer than their parents – working longer, harder and in less secure jobs for lower wages and poorer pensions. They faced property prices that were completely out of sync with real earnings and a rental market dominated by private landlords and extremely limited access to social housing. The reality is that all loans, credit cards and mortgages – no matter how cheap they may at first appear – need to be repaid. In 2008 a crisis in sub-prime mortgages spiralled into the realisation that a significant part of the global economy was built on credit given to people who had no capacity to repay it. The bubble collapsed and people realised a new truth: they were being hit with the bill – austerity, cuts, debt to pay down; whilst almost universally the banks were bailed out in an act completely out of kilter with the free-market economics that had led to their de-regulation in the first place.

And so we live in a slightly altered reality, one defined by hung parliaments, Brexit and Trump. The crash in 2008 created a groundswell of anger and disillusion, but this anger was never legitimately directed at those who had caused the bubble and the crash, or the wider system that creates the conditions for a boom and bust economy. Governments that had been so enthralled by the free-market economics of Milton Freedman bailed out their banks in an act that demonstrated that socialism could be applied to the rich, whilst the rest of us were left impoverished by unchecked capitalism.

The long-term consequences of the 2008 crash were unclear. In the UK it spelled the end of New Labour and the start of hung parliaments or barely squeaked majorities. The media narrative sold by right-wing newspapers were that New Labour had maxed-out the credit card and we’d all need to repay it via austerity (whilst ‘bankers’ received a few half-hearted attacks, the newspapers largely let them walk away with the obscene wealth they had siphoned off from the credit bubble). Politics became increasingly right-wing as the ‘centre ground’ moved further and further away from any kind of expectation that the state was able to invest in public services or the economy – and indeed whether they should even attempt to, with the idea of ‘small government’ more traditionally associated with the American right becoming increasingly popular.

David Cameron tried to sell us a sanitised version of this with ‘the big society’ in 2010, where – in its most positive sense – power was given back to the people, thereby shrinking the role, influence and power of government over the people. However, the darker reality was the big society was a rather vague exhortation that people should support themselves and their communities, rather than rely on support and investment from the government. Cameron certainly provided the financial austerity underpinning the vision and eventually gave one decision back to the people in the form of the EU Referendum. Here the Leave campaign utilised this anti-establishment, anti-government feeling, arguing explicitly that leaving the EU was about ‘taking back control’ from distant and unaccountable politicians. Trump would later echo this during his presidential campaign, explicitly telling the American people during his inaugural speech that “We are transferring power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back to you, the people”.

But what defines the politics of hung parliaments, Brexit and Trump isn’t actually the drive to transfer power from the few to the many, but rather the message of hope and the promise of change that is sold alongside it. Brexit came down to a simple choice, remaining in the EU and maintaining the status quo – the reality of which for many, many people is poverty in every sense; of opportunity, health, education and even hope itself – or leaving the EU, ‘taking back control’ and creating new opportunities of trade and progress as a free nation again.

The ‘remain’ campaign focused on staying in the UK primarily because it – almost undoubtedly – made economic sense to do so – that our growth and prosperity depended on it. Just imagine – you may not even need to – being one of the millions of people living in abject poverty in the UK, watching the current economically strong and secure system make cuts to social services, education, the NHS, local councils, community centres, libraries and so on. To them the reality of the status quo is one that serves only to impoverish them, ‘project fear’ – about the disastrous outcomes of leaving the EU – wasn’t just a negative campaign, it was one utterly powerless to strike fear into people who already felt as if they had nothing to lose. Indeed, telling poor people that staying in the EU was the best way of keeping them economically prosperous seems closer to a sick joke than an effective campaign.

The Leave campaign was able to win, even if only by a slither, because it offered hope. If the known quantity has led to poverty, austerity and division, then it is far more tempting to risk the unknown, because at least that holds the chance of a better future. The choice was simple: change and hope offered by Leave, or the status quo and fear offered by Remain.

Trump framed his election in the same way, Hillary Clinton represented the continuance of politics as usual – which has left millions in abject poverty in the richest nation on earth, Trump represented change and hope. It’s ironic that Obama perhaps created the politics of hope as the foundation for a political campaign, only to see it put a Republican President in the White House after he served his final term. That this President was Trump added significant insult to the injury.

This was the context in which Theresa May decided to call a snap election, one that seemed to guarantee her a crushing majority and might even end Labour as an electoral force. I’ll look at her campaign in Part 2 of this Power of Hope series.

Theresa May’s Littlejohn moment

So Theresa May repeated the 2009 myth that an immigrant was allowed to stay in the UK because they owned a cat. Worryingly, her speech had – according to Left Foot Forward – been checked by no less than David Cameron, Nick Clegg, George Osborne and Danny Alexander. Oh dear. For the record (in case you somehow missed this)  this is what she claimed in her speech:

“We all know the stories about the Human Rights Act. The violent drug dealer who cannot be sent home because his daughter – for whom he pays no maintenance – lives here. The robber who cannot be removed because he has a girlfriend. The illegal immigrant who cannot be deported because – and I am not making this up – he had a pet cat.”

To be fair to her, she wasn’t making this story up – that is the job of our wonderful press which can do so safe in the knowledge that it faces no sanctions for doing so. The story originated in the Sunday Telegraph and, even though it was clearly rubbish, it was copied by the Daily Mail, Daily Express, The Sun and the Daily Star.

As I’ve written so many times before: dishonest journalism has consequences.

It has only been a few days since David Cameron attacked the Human Rights Act based on nothing more than an incident he read about in the Daily Mail. Needless to say, that Daily Mail article was utterly dishonest and was discredited here long before Cameron repeated it. It seems to me that the main problem with democracy in the UK is that all politicians can ever focus on is the next election and therefore they feel they are always at the mercy of public opinion. They therefore discuss what they think the country cares about, which largely means that they (having no knowledge of the country as a whole) simply look at what the newspapers are writing about and base political discourse around the same few tired narratives – most of which are extremely distorted.

Thus every time a politician wants to appeal to the electorate they feel as if they must go for the short-term topic of the day and that they can only connect with the public by repeating some crap they read in the newspaper – as if newspapers are some magical conduit to our souls. This is why in a time of a world financial crisis politicians think our main concerns are the 100 or so illegal immigrants who we fail to legally deport each year due to the Human Rights Act, or weekly bin collections, or immigration or council tax or people on benefits or whatever else is easy to attack, say or promise. We are treated as if we were selfish children, unable to see past our own immediate wants.

I don’t think we are, and I think – increasingly – we are becoming more and more conscious of just how poisoned political discourse has become in this country thanks to the distorted media narratives created by a largely amoral and unregulated press. It might at first seem pretty funny that the home secretary should make such an obvious gaffe during a big speech. But it isn’t funny, at all, because it happens far too often and on most occasions it is rarely challenged.


In case you are wondering, yes, Richard Littlejohn did cover this story.