Friday, 12 May 2017

The Fifth General Election in Sixteen Years

Since the year of my birth, 1949, sixteen British general elections have resulted in nine Conservative governments and seven Labour.

Two or three took place every ten years throughout the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies, Eighties and Nineties. Since the Millenium we’ve had four and by June 8 those will be joined by a fifth: five general elections between 2001 and 2017; three since 2010 when the Conservative-Liberal-Democrat Coalition brought in fixed five-year parliaments. Didn’t last long, did it?

When you feel stumped to say anything remotely interesting or amusing about what should be an important political event in the life of the nation, you can always resort to nostalgia (fings ain’t what they used to be) and facts (16 elections since 1949).

Evidently I would like to say something about the current campaign; but what? Were I a betting man I’d be inclined to take a punt on Labour coming up on the blind side of the other parties and winning by a head on June 8. It’s only the polls that say the Tories can’t lose because they are 16 points ahead and the polls, as we know from the 2015 General Election, Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour’s Leader, and last June’s EU Referendum, are rarely wrong.

No, no, not fourth time around, according to media reports. Voters love Labour’s manifesto proposals to nationalise the railways, put more money into education and the NHS, scrap university tuition fees, guarantee the triple lock on state pensions and take more tax from people earning more than £80,000 a year. What voters don’t like or don’t trust is Jeremy Corbyn, they add.

I’ve heard stalwart Labour voters in various parts of the country say as much on television  news vox pops. None of them said Mr Corbyn was unlikable as a human being or untrustworthy as an MP: most of them just didn’t think the former backbench Left-winger had the right stuff to be prime minister.

Americans vote for a president, but we vote for prospective party political candidates. Only constitutional levellers such as those who adhere to the six Chartist-style principles of the Harrogate Agenda maintain that a prime minister should be voted in by the public during a general election, not chosen by party members afterwards. The British Constitution does not permit that, but that’s the way we think and feel about political leaders: they represent more than themselves. Personalities, by a process of metonymy, come to stand for, or even stand in for, party policies. Therefore, Jeremy Corbyn, whom people don’t like as a potential leader, represents policies that they do like. 

With Theresa May the other way round appears to apply: the public doesn’t care for Tory principles of privatisation, public spending austerity, tuition fees, the level of overseas aid, immigration, and much else; but they feel that Mrs May is strong and dependable. I have heard female Labour voters in the North East say so on television. 

What grounds they have for saying that I have no idea, because reporters never ask them to explain what they mean or give a couple of examples of strength and independence from a Prime Minister whose actions don’t always live up to her words.

The nature of the job inevitably means that is going to happen because politicians, not even prime ministers and presidents, control events. For example, a few months ago Mrs May maintained that she had no interest in calling an early general election; then on April 18 she called one. Surprise, surprise. Oh Laura Kuenssberg. Oh Robert Peston. Oh Andrew Neil. Did any of these oracles see it coming? 

The Prime Minister does her best to sound decisive and look leader-like in front of television cameras; but that’s precisely what I think she is: an impression, style without substance, though I’m not sure about the style either.

Her preference for appearing in public in those bum-freezer jackets, high-belted trousers and flat shoes has drawn much comment and amusement already. But when I bother to think about this, I ask myself if this slightly stooping, grey-haired vicar’s daughter really does have the political moxie to ensure that Brexit means Brexit when she comes up against the true enemies of Brexit – the hard Right of the Tory Party.

She’s better at giving impressions whereas Jeremy Corbyn struggles with sounding or appearing like anything other than he is. So the public apparently likes the manifesto policies he represents but doesn’t like him. With Theresa May the reverse applies, as though they believe she is able to and capable of adjusting reality to live up to their hopes and expectations.

Tony Blair was exceptionally good at that kind of political legerdemain. David Cameron also but to a lesser degree. Jeremy Corbyn, I would say, does not. He has four weeks to convince voters, at least the ones he meets at rallies, that far from being a charlatan or opportunist he really is as good as his word.

As I said, if I was a betting man I’d be inclined to wager against the polls. Just in case. And in the hope that the outcome of this election isn't as predictable as Masterchef.

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