Election notebook #12: Manchester silence; polls-axed; Lib Dem “bed-blockers”?

by Stephen Tall on May 25, 2017

I went to bed Monday night poised to write this latest notebook the following day. There was lots to say: about the Tories’ dementia tax U-turn, Theresa May’s interview with Andrew Neil, Labour’s polling ‘surge’.

And then an “evil loser” (only time I’ll probably quote President Trump approvingly) strode into the Manchester arena to try and kill as many children and their families enjoying a pop concert as he could.

Suddenly it all seemed so small, besides the pain and loss those closest to them are enduring. It wasn’t the first, won’t be the last, indiscriminate act of slaughter; but the targeting of kids is a cowardly new low.

Life goes on for those of us lucky enough not to be directly affected (this time). Of course it does. It has to. But write about it? Or anything else straight after? Beyond me. I’ve scrolled through Twitter and Facebook and fair do’s to those who’ve shared their emotions — anger, sadness, incomprehension, defiance — but that’s not for me. I’ve just felt numbed, anaesthetised by it.

So, sorry, no pat answers, no epigraphic wisdom, no concluding one-liner. Just the words “why?” and “kids” ceaselessly reverberating in my head.

**

For most of us politicos, such tragedies also provoke uncomfortable questions: what impact (if any) will this have on the election? There’s no shame in that. It is possible to hold two or more thoughts in your head simultaneously, however glib or “too soon” it may seem. More accurately, it can be impossible to avoid your mind going there.

The assassination of Labour MP Jo Cox by a far-right extremist ahead of last year’s EU referendum was reckoned at the time to be a game-changer, the moment the Leave campaign’s xenophobia (remember that Farage poster?) over-reached. We now know that whatever impact it had was not enough to alter the outcome.

By the same token, it’s unlikely the massacre in Manchester will make a difference to voters’ views. True, it abruptly halted the campaign at just the moment the Conservatives’ feet were being held to the fire, having (rather bizarrely) chosen the heat of an election campaign to launch an ill-considered reform to social care which worries their best voter demographic, the elderly. The debate has, also and inevitably, shifted back to terrorism and security, which favours Theresa May over Jeremy Corbyn.

A few tin-hatted conspiracy theorists have even joined these isolated dots, creating an elaborate picture visible only to their eyes, which just goes to show what reading The Canary can do to your mind.

But the fundamentals of this campaign will not turn on this week’s events. As Philip Collins notes in The Times today, it is ‘invariably the case that the party in the lead at the beginning of an election period is in the lead at the end … a wise campaign is not a lot more than an elaborate series of lifts to the polling station.’

**

I’ve tried, as far as humanly possible, in these notebooks not to indulge my fascination with opinion polls. Journalists’ obsession with sooth-saying, as opposed to investigating and explaining, is my pet peeve about the media; especially as too few care about statistical probabilities to caveat their reporting with the uncertainty which is inherent to what data can tell us.

Actually I’ve found it less of a struggle in 2017 than I did in 2015, when I endlessly refreshed Twitter in anticipation of the latest YouGov etc. Partly because they got it sufficiently wrong last time (and they’re none of them convinced they’ve yet fixed the problem) that it feels pointless. And partly because the gulf between the Tories and Labour this time means that it actually is pointless.

Still, the narrowing in the Conservative lead — from 15-20% to 10-15% — got a few folk excited last weekend, understandably so in an otherwise remorselessly inevitable campaign. The likely explanation isn’t that Labour has persuaded a load of Conservative voters to switch; but that Labour-inclined voters have upped their self-assessment of how certain they are to vote for their party.

In one sense, that should cheer Labour; Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign, aimed squarely at Labour’s core vote, is having its desired effect. However, the recent jump in support for Labour is among those groups of voters who, historically, have proved least likely to actually turn out.

Those of us who recall oh-so-clearly the deflating Cleggmania balloon of 2010 remember those voters all-too-well. And on polling day 2015, I remember reading the final poll in the London Evening Standard forecasting a hung parliament, based on a turnout estimated in excess of 80% (compared with the actual 66%).

I’ve not done a final prediction yet. But my ‘nowcast’ is sticking at a 150-170 seat majority for the Conservatives, thanks to their huge lead among older voters and the large swings we’re seeing away from Labour in Leave-voting areas, especially in the Midlands and the north of England.

**

Finally, the Lib Dems. Hugo Rifkind published a provocative article in Tuesday’s Times, completely over-taken by events in Manchester, accusing my party of being “bed-blockers”, preventing a centrist liberal party from emerging:

There is a centre struggling to form in British politics. It would draw George Osborne from one side, and Sadiq Khan from the other, with room for Nick Clegg, Yvette Cooper and others in between. It would cherish metropolitan Britain, and concern itself with spreading metropolitan prosperity elsewhere. In the centre they may sit, but the Lib Dems are not that party and don’t even want to be. … They are the bedblockers in the delivery ward, preventing that party from being born.

There is an undeniable kernel of truth in what he says. Our tribal political identities have marked eccentric boundaries. Though this is just as true of a Conservative party which encompasses Ken Clarke and Dan Hannan, or a Labour party of John McDonnell and Liz Kendall, as it is of the Lib Dems’ Nick Clegg and Andrew George.

I’ve long said I’m a liberal first, a Lib Dem second. I’ve welcomed the idea of a new centre-left party, splitting off from Jeremy Corbyn’s hard-left idiocy. I suspect post-8th June there will be much such navel-gazing, and not just from me.

But Hugo Rifkind misses something rather essential about the Lib Dems which I don’t imagine a new metropolitan Free Liberal party would capture: an anti-establishment suspicion of power and those who wield it. It’s core to liberal identity and unsurprising it’s long been well-represented in the non-conformist celtic fringes he disdains, even and including the south-west’s Brexitism. If you don’t get that, you don’t quite get what makes the Lib Dems tick.