Wednesday 3 July 2019

The Next Tory General Election Campaign

When an unnamed senior civil servant briefed the press that "we" were concerned for Jeremy Corbyn's health and he might be too frail for the rigours of office, three things immediately came to mind. I was touched, positively moved that Whitehall mandarins fret about the wellbeing of the Leader of the Opposition. There's professionalism, and then there's going the extra mile. The second was how ridiculously desperate the powers that be are to avoid a Jez-led Labour government. Of course, there is a ridiculous pretence in British politics that the civil service are neutral, and anyone can form a government and the machinery of administration will grind into action whichever way the Prime Minister decides to set it. Nice if it were true, but it's not. Attempts to reset and remake the state and redress the balance of power in the British economy will meet ruling class resistance from business, from bosses' organisations, and from within state institutions themselves. It's not for nothing that Papa Miliband, in his last book, argued the fist job a socialist government should attend to was a round of redundancies as far as the state's upper echelons are concerned.

And the third? We're going to see more like this in the next general election campaign.

It's true, we don't know when the next one's going to be. It might be Autumn. It might be next year. It might be 2022. But we do know it will follow past strategies to an extent. Over the course of the last weekend, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt have been spraying about cash around like confetti. Money is no object when it is deployed for self-serving ambition - it's only a problem when you want to help people. Yet there still isn't much of a clue about how it can be used to float Tory boats. Johnson talks about giving public sector workers a pay rise, as if a modest sliver of cash can make up for past pay freezes, or the memory of working in run-down services and the uncertain stress of facing the threat of redundancy. Hunt thinks writing off student loans for successful new entrepreneurs will get young people onside. Whichever flavour of PM we get, there's little either can offer that can appeal to a broad coalition of voters. Which is why they might not bother, and try and build something around a right-populist core of no deal Brexit. Which, if not Hunt's approach, is certainly looking like Johnson's.

When we look at how Dave and Theresa May built their 2015 and 2017 coalitions, they were able to exploit two things, albeit with different results. In 2015, the character assassinations on Ed Miliband were about establishing him as weird, weak, and in the pocket of the Scottish nationalists. In 2017, May monstered Corbyn as a man who, um, wouldn't incinerate millions and wanted to spend money on fixing public services. In both cases they tried making the election an issue of character - in Ed's case, a PM who would sell out the country and break up the union, and in Jez's someone who'd turn the place into the GDR. And on this basis, they would inculcate fear. For Dave, Labour was coming for people's houses via the mansion tax and would let the deficit balloon out of control. And a Corbyn government would pave the way for Russian tanks rolling down The Mall. Hate and fear, these are staples not just of the Tories here, but of so-called centre right parties the world over. America, Canada, France, South Korea, all in some way try and establish an illegitimate but indelible link between their political opponents and an existential threat.

We can imagine how this might look in the hands of Boris Johnson: a mix of bumbling and red baiting and Brexit betrayal, you could almost write the ha ha hilarious script for him. But there is something else we need to think about. While all Tory campaigns exploit fear and loathing, they don't always do so in the same way. And we saw a permutation on this theme recently in Australia. Here, we almost had a replay of our 2015 general election. The Liberal Party's Scott Morrison played up a Dad-next-door persona vs Labor's (apparently) uncharismatic Bill Shorten, and it was fought on a presidential basis. The Liberal-led coalition emphasised their economic competence over Labor's tax and spend, and ran a targeted and tightly disciplined campaign. And here came the something new. Rather than promising anything, Morrison's coalition gave next to nothing away - apart from some last minute tax cuts. By way of contrast, Labor were policy heavy and spoke about their manifesto at length. While this was a tremendous boon for Labour in 2017, for Labor in 2019 the right, having no policies to offer or defend, simply attacked, attacked, and attacked again. Labor's policies were front and centre during the election, but it was their costs and practicalities that dominated. And with the Liberals offering nothing it was difficult to make return attacks stick - especially so as the right wing press are so much more dominant than here.

Now, this isn't the main reason Labor unexpectedly lost, but it certainly helped firm up the coalition's coalition. However, given the close relationships between British and Australian politics, particularly on the right, could we see this 'do nothing, attack everything' approach imported to these shores? Arguably, we already did with Dave's deficit determinism (making it, I guess, an export), but with a Tory party bereft of ideas and faced with Corbynism it could be tempted to have a go: a couple of modest and relatively non-threatening policy items, and nothing but attack lines. Nevertheless, the Tories are disadvantaged in a number of significant other ways. The electorate is likely to become more, not less polarised with Johnson in charge, and no doubt Labour will dust down those unused referendum posters with Johnson in Nigel Farage's pocket. This is also a party with a record, and a miserable one at that, and also a party being harried from the right - assuming there is no Tory/Brexit Party accommodation (then the poster comes in doubly handy). And crucially, while the press are still a power in the land it is, like the party they tend to support, in long-term decline.

In short, we know what's coming. Scaremongering, character assassination, relentless negativity. You cant say you haven't been warned.


Alan Story said...


1) Thanks for reminding us that the civil service is NOT neutral. Labour took a very different view when "Doc Gate" broke on the weekend.

2) It will be very interesting to see how Labour responds to the rising tide of red-baiting from the Tories. It has been going on for some months now. Corbyn is a Marxist, he will usher in a communist government, etc. etc. Perhaps I have missed it...but I have not heard any comeback from the LP. We can be sure of one thing; the Tories are certain to keep at this theme. In fact, Corbyn is not a Marxisr. He is a centrist social democrat.

Anonymous said...

It is a matter of competency. Some MPs have done little work outside politics prior to entering parliament. Recently we have seen the stark reality of behaviour, which if you were employed within the public sector would be taken seriously- that is the public articulation of misogyny, racism, sexism and evidence of assault. Yet we have people that represent us, in all parties who just seem to get away with it. Hardly something to respect, or people we want representing us. As for the Labour Party the focus should be on these people not the Leader of the Party- there should be no space for such people in the party.

David Timoney said...

In a first-past-the-post electoral system, demoralising your opponent's supporters can often be more effective than energising your own. The emerging Tory strategy is less about scaring off "swing voters" and recruiting them to the blue cause, which is made problematic by Brexit, and more about convincing Labour supporters that "Corbynism is over" so they might as well not bother. This is astute because it dovetails neatly with the strategy of the smaller parties ("we wouldn't support a Labour minority government") and a significant section of the PLP (you know the drill).

Anonymous said...

Yes the press do get a bit OTT. Front page of press today regarding 'MPs threat of reselection'. Rubbish. Councillors in the Labour Party get reselected each term. What's the big deal? Its just about being even handed. Guess they think its a story.

Speedy said...

In my experience, the civil service from bottom to top leans toward Labour (if not Corbyn). If you think about it it makes sense - people who are drawn to public service are more likely to want to spend money than save it. One wonders who these "civil servants" actually were.

Dialectician1 said...

The study and art of rhetoric is centre stage in our public schools and has been for hundreds of years. They teach it and practise it and understand its theory. Top civil servants, top judges, top newspaper columnists & editors, cabinet ministers etc who attended these schools all have a deep understanding of the 'dark arts': how to win arguments, set the agenda and the science of persuasion. The rest of us are mere plucky amateurs. To be surprised that the Tories and the establishment will run a negative campaign, using scare tactics and distract the electorate with minutiae reveals what wide-eyed innocents some of us are. Following the 2017 GE disaster, the Tory machinery will be well oiled and ready to smash Corbyn & Abbott and any 'lefty' with the gall to raise the head above the precipice. If Labour still manages to win a working majority, they will destabilise the economy with treats of flights of capital etc.

Anonymous said...

Entitlement is learned behaviour, and buffons can be taught confidence, but brighter and better people who are organised are capable of changing the status quo.

Blissex said...

«The second was how ridiculously desperate the powers that be are to avoid a Jez-led Labour government. Of course, there is a ridiculous pretence in British politics that the civil service are neutral,»

As the usual wild-eyed optimistic leftoidism, where top civil servants are "culturally" tory.

There is alternative explanation that explains a lot more: "the establishment" are terrified that if J Corbyn becomes PM he will be willing and able to re-open dirty stories like the Skripal conspiracy theory, because he has not been complicit in any of them, Iraq etc.
Most likely civil servants have been promoted only if absolutely willing to compromise themselves and become complicit. Not only their political masters, but they too are threatened if someone "clean" comes to have the keys to all the dirties files.

Consider again this Early Day Motion by the New Labour "stay behind" contingent and their accomplices:
That this House unequivocally accepts the Russian state's culpability for the poisoning of Yulia and Sergei Skripal in Salisbury using the illegal novichok nerve agent

That is dated a few days after the event, and obviously owned nothing to the investigative talents of the signatories. My impression is that the signatories simply wanted to demonstrate their zeal in being complicit with anything that "the establishment" wants, to prove their "reliability" if promoted to government.

Blissex said...

«In both cases they tried making the election an issue of character»

Unlike certain very public sociologists I am sure that they know that elections are first about southern house prices and rents, and secondarily about turnout. Their extraordinarily nasty election campaigns (remember the "daemon eyes" posters against Blair in 1997?) are mostly about turnout of the more impressionable members of their own base, who are usually older women terrified of any change, because they believe that the no longer have opportunities, only risks of losing their comfortable affluence and security.