The sweet and sour British election

08-11-2019
GARY KENT
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The latest general election is underway and the result will be known in about long 800 hours. That’s maybe 2,000 truncated news cycles in which the media and an army of tweeters will compete for attention with shops drumming up the Christmas trade, each trying to claim a share of public money for their purposes or private money in a vital consumer season.

Just as consumers are fussier and have more options in the digital age, the electorate seems more volatile than in even the last two elections in which nearly half of them broke once long-established and often tribal patterns and switched parties, sometimes more than once. This is just is another way of saying no-one knows what the result will be.

Many of the gaffes and triumphs will be forgotten by polling day but some will be seen as decisive signs in hindsight as when one or more of the parties lost their narrative or even soul. Deciding which one is the trickier question.

Candidates so far include an asinine and unforced comment from the aristocratic Conservative Leader of the Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, that it would be common sense to ignore the fire brigade if they told him to stay put in a burning building. It was easy to portray him as implying that some of the largely poor people who perished in a scandalous fire in a tower block in west London two years ago lacked
common sense, and were, therefore, at fault. For many, it conjured up an arrogant and insensitive approach and could be a large albatross around the party’s neck.

Likewise, the decision by the Labour Deputy Leader, Tom Watson, to stand down as an MP and resign his position could, despite the superficially polite tone of his letter to Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn, be seen as the moment when Labour’s moderates decided that this was an election Corbyn should own, one way or another.

Or could it be the announcement from two former Labour MPs, Ian Austin and John Woodcock, advising people to vote Conservative on the grounds that Corbyn is unfit to be Prime Minister, mainly on security issues.They and Watson represented seats in the Midlands and the North, where Boris Johnson must make gains from Labour to balance expected losses in Scotland, London, and the south west.

As winter envelopes the UK, there is a blizzard of spending promises from all parties that signal the end of the age of austerity and turning on the spending taps to exploit low interest rates for borrowing, to renew Britain’s inferior infrastructure, decarbonise the economy, and create jobs.

They talk of billions here or there. But the question is how credible are their promises and if they go too far or not far enough. This is not a technical question but an emotional one that pivots on the trust that the parties can summon up from the voters. I am indebted to the Times columnist, Rachel Sylvester for her pithy way of expressing an old truth – that there are two aspects to this: aroma and argument.

In other words, voters may support specific sweet policies but be sceptical about any general sour taste. The Conservatives have often been seen as efficient with public finances but less than compassionate or even cruel about the social consequences, whereas Labour has often cornered the market in compassion but been perceived as flaky on the public finances. It’s not an iron rule but the Conservatives have succeeded historically in trumping their image, as the former Prime Minister Theresa May one put it, of being the “nasty” party and winning more votes for sound money than social justice.

Tony Blair, the last elected Labour Prime Minister, managed to square that circle but in the end ran out of steam and Labour hit the brick wall of being in office for too long after 13 years. The Conservatives have now been in government, either in coalition or alone, for 14
years.

Again, there is no iron rule about incumbency being the end of the matter. It is now increasingly difficult to remember either David Cameron or Theresa May’s government given the brutal u-turn carried out by Johnson just a few months back that exiled many prominent Conservatives associated with the ancient regime.

It reminds me of the fall of Mrs Thatcher in 1990 after 13 years and how her replacement, John Major convinced voters that his party was different from Thatcher and deserved another five years in power.

The polls so far show that Johnson has succeeded in distancing himself from May and indicate victory. But Labour has got off to a flying start and has so far grabbed headlines while Johnson has yet to get into his stride.

So much in the next 800 hours will depend on what significant numbers of voters sniff when they examine the offerings of the parties and their leaders and how they understand potentially iconic incidents.

The Rees-Mogg remark could hang around as a pungent sign of something more rotten and put people off the red meat being thrown their way in increased spending. And the poignant remarks of two former Labour MPs about the unfitness for office of Corbyn, allied with the resignation of the Deputy Leader, and some current if arcane shenanigans on specific candidates, some concerning antisemitism, could make it easier for some Labour voters to hold their noses and vote Conservative. Or both could be true to some extent.

There will be more gaffes and scandals, some blown out of all proportions by a media hungry for news all the time. There always are but the issue is whether they are merely stupid or reveal a deeper stench that repels voters, and maybe not so many of them in complex races in each constituency and region. This election can go several ways.

 

Gary Kent is the Secretary of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) and a Fellow of Soran University. He writes this column for Rudaw in a personal capacity. The address for the all-party group is appgkurdistan@gmail.com.

 The APPG is currently suspended ahead of the general election.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.

 

 

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