Election notebook #14: a personal U-turn; Paxo’s stuffing; Labour’s offer; more LibDem pre mortems

by Stephen Tall on May 30, 2017

Six weeks ago, when this joyless election was called, I thought it would be good for all the main parties.

The Conservatives’ inevitable landslide would cement Theresa May’s authority. Labour’s drubbing would enable sensible, moderate Labourites to oust Jeremy Corbyn. The Lib Dems would reap the electoral dividend of a Brexit backlash. And the SNP would continue to reign supreme in Scotland.

Thankfully, I did at least add a caveat: ‘elections have a funny habit of throwing up tricky unforseens’. Because, as it stands, all my expectations look set to be overturned.

The Conservatives will, of course, win; but Mrs May’s authority has been damaged, perhaps irrevocably, by her lacklustre campaign. Labour will, of course, lose bigly; but Mr Corbyn looks set to beat Ed Miliband’s share of the vote and so claim a mandate to carry on leading his party unwinnably from the populist hard-left.

Meanwhile the Lib Dem fightback has spluttered to a halt and the SNP, while likely to remain dominant north of the border, find themselves on the back-foot, defending their mediocre record in government and separatist obsession.

It looks like politics will continue as usual, but worse.

Commentators draw parallels with the 1983 election, but May/Corbyn, the latterday Thatcher/Foot, are pale imitations of the originals. This is the worst sequel ever.

**

I, along with 3 million others, watched the Sky News / Channel 4 leaders’ debate last night, with Mrs May and Mr Corbyn facing 15 minutes of questions from a studio audience and then an interrogation by Jeremy Paxman.

It was Paxo’s performance which had my Twitter timeline huffing. Yet I thought he did well, the first interviewer yet to genuinely discomfort either party leader.

To Jeremy Corbyn, he highlighted the gulf between the Labour leader’s own views and those of his party’s manifesto (which is basically a Miliband re-tread). And then, in probably the most memorable exchange of the night, he bluntly asked the Labour leader if he would order a drone strike against a terrorist plotting overseas to attack the UK. “I would want to know the circumstances,” Mr Corbyn equivocated. Well, yes, but if you’re running for Prime Minister I suggest “I’d do whatever was essential to protect the lives of our citizens” is a better response.

To Theresa May, Mr Paxman highlighted the gulf between the self-image she projects — strong and stable — and the reality of her premiership: U-turns at the first sign of serious dissent (most notably, increasing national insurance for the self-employed and the ‘dementia tax’). “What one’s bound to say is that if I was sitting in Brussels and I was looking at you as the person I had to negotiate with, I’d think: ‘She’s a blowhard who collapses at the first sign of gunfire’.” Harsh, but fair.

Yet many complained that he’d turned into a parody of himself, interrupting too often and theatrically, failing to probe effectively. I’ll be honest, Jeremy Paxman’s brusque interviewing style has long irritated me, especially as it is too often an excuse for a lack of serious homework.

Last night, though, I thought his schtick was pitched just right. After all, this May / Corbyn contest is pure pantomime.

**

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. Theresa May doesn’t deserve to win this election. And Jeremy Corbyn deserves to lose this election by the heaviest possible margin. That’s a difficult circle to square, but essentially I agree with one of my Lib Dem friends who wrote, ‘The only thing worse than a Conservative victory on 8th June would be a Labour victory.’

I don’t say that lightly, as a one-time Labour member. But Labour needs to be shocked out of its current condition. It’s being lulled by gently rising poll ratings into thinking that perhaps it’s heading in the right direction: one more heave, and all that. That way lies continuing, and deserved, defeat.

“What does Labour offer,” Ed Miliband once lamented to his colleagues, “when there’s no money to spend?” It turns out Mr Corbyn has an answer to that: it keeps on spending anyway. And, what’s worse, spending on the wrong priorities: bribes to the middle-classes (such as abolishing tuition fees) rather than reversing swingeing benefits cuts to the working poor.

As for his past support for the IRA, and deceitful attempts to re-write history — as if Mr Corbyn spent the 1980s even-handedly doing his best to promote a democratic peace settlement in Northern Ireland rather than (the truth) being a full-throated supporter of those who backed armed struggle and sought for as long as possible to thwart any kind of demilitarised reconciliation — well, so much for ‘straight-talking honest politics’.

I have friends, plenty of them, who’ve reconciled themselves to voting for Labour in spite of Jeremy Corbyn. Your choice, but (and I say this lovingly) you will get the Labour party you deserve.

**

In a depressing-but-essential article for Prospect magazine, Peter Kellner has put forward five reasons for the Lib Dems’ continuing poll woes. They are:

‘They misjudged their ability to win over anti-Brexit voters.’ So much for the 48%: just 7% of voters who backed Remain say Brexit is the most important issue at this election.

‘The rules for broadcasters used to help the Lib Dems; now they don’t.’ In the past, we benefited from exposure as the default third party. Today we share the limelight with the SNP, Ukip, the Greens and Plaid.

‘The rating of their leader, Tim Farron, doesn’t help.’ It’s not so much that he’s doing badly, but that half the voters haven’t even formed an opinion about him yet.

‘Farron’s failure is as much about the party’s identity as his own character.’ Compromised by five years of coalition, the Lib Dems have been outflanked as anti-establishment insurgents by Corbyn’s Labour party. Are we the party for Remain-voting Tories or for anti-Tory progressives? Unsure of the answer, we’re attracting neither.

‘Tactical voting is far less likely to help the Lib Dems next week than in the past.’ Unsurprisingly, as we’re not the runners-up in half the seats (as we were in 2010), but just 70 — and in many of those, especially in the south-west, the Conservatives have a sizable Ukip vote to squeeze.

Kellner’s conclusion: ‘the party will need to search its soul more profoundly after 8th June than it did after its collapse in 2015, if it is to reclaim a distinct and significant role in British politics in the 2020’s.’ So that’s something to look forward to…