Wednesday, 19 April 2017
The election - a few thoughts
So we've an election. Genuinely a surprise election (anyone pretending otherwise is probably fibbing) and one that's set fair for a large Conservative majority. Not, of course, that I'm making predictions as I'm not very good at them and there are hundreds of other places making election guesses.
The irony, of course, is that the Labour Party could - a few months ago - have prevented this election happening by simply saying that we don't need an election and they wouldn't vote for one in a necessary House of Commons vote. Instead Labour leaders, and not just Jeremy Corbyn, made clear that they believed Theresa May didn't have a "mandate", was "unelected" and that the Party was well up for an election. Having said all this, Labour had no choice but to go into the lobbies all turkey-like to support the Government motion on an election.
Perhaps I shouldn't be so surprised in seeing the first salvo of the campaign being a barrage of essentially personal attacks on Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat leader. In one respect he brought this on himself by being altogether mealy-mouthed about LGBT issues but it is a reminder how difficult it is to be anything other than a Pretend Christian (a la Blair) in British politics. The questioning of Farron by quoting chunks of Leviticus at him presages an unpleasant approach from the media throughout the election.
The effect of all this is to make the Liberal Democrat leader look old-fashioned without the benefit of being a Tory. Instead of Farron's intended launch involving the endless repetition of the mantra "Brexit, Brexit is bad", we've the spectacle of atheist Liberal Democrats trying to explain evangelical Christian theology without actually admitting that, yes, lots of Christians (and Muslims for that matter) do believe homosexual sex is a sin. But then the same goes for (many such folk believe) sex outside marriage, abortion, female immodesty, and drunkenness. I would wish the Liberal Democrats well in this defence were it not almost entirely hypocritical.
Gazing into the fog of the campaign it seems to me that the media will be the shock troops of attack politics this time. Fed a line, as they were with Farron's Christianity, they will lead on their own attacks: Corbyn's IRA links or Tory election expenses. The actual issues will, as ever these days, get subsumed in agitated questioning about minor verbal errors or historical indiscretions. Most of this really won't achieve anything for anyone's campaign - it's like the Eton wall game, lots of shouting, mud thrown, accusations, eye-gouging and general mayhem but nobody scores.
I have a feeling that, for many voters away from this hubbub, their decision on who to support will be set by a combination of historical habit and their vote on 23 June 2016. It's hard to see a Leave voter, having been called all the names under the sun by Remain Ultras, voting for a party that wants to overturn the Brexit decision. Expect the more ardent Remain Ultras to face this dilemma as their opponents focus on this issue. And expect the use of 'Stop Brexit' as a campaign strategy to be pretty ineffective other than in a very few constituencies.
For Labour their problem is threefold - they've got an incompetent leadership, they're hopelessly divided on Brexit (the biggest issue of the election), and the public would rather trust the economy to a couple of old blokes down the pub that with Corbyn and McDonnell. The Party knows this can't be fixed even if Corbyn falls on his sword and has to deal with facing the prospect of an historic defeat. Some people, with good reason, suggest this is similar to the 1983 election but it seems to me that the better comparison is 1997, at least in terms of expectations and party morale.
For my Party the risks are complacency - not just in campaigners but in our voters. Right now our campaigning capacity is as good as it has ever been. We target better, have learned the Liberal Democrat trick of moving campaigners to where their most needed, and have a consistency of brand and message as strong as at any time in my 40 years as an active member. The weakness is that the political message is unexciting, more about being a safe pair of hands in challenging times than about what Britain should be like post-Brexit. Conservatives have an urgent need to get beyond mere competence and to talk about a positive, exciting future for the nation.
I won't be conducting a running commentary on the election and you know how I'll be voting. But if you meet candidates ask them for a positive view of tomorrow and how they will try and make this happen. Look beyond the Brexit negotiations and there's an exciting future - the biggest transport technology change since the internal combustion engine, the challenge of robots, how to deal with longevity and greater leisure time, and the decoupling of economic growth from resource consumption.
In the meantime, enjoy the election. I hope to. And the result, of course.