Sunday, 8 December 2019

It's Up For Grabs Now

We have entered the final straight of the general election campaign, which means the media will shortly be awash with statements about "Why I won't be voting Labour this time". As usual, some of the naysayers will be people who only voted for the party once, probably in 1997, and a few will only have cast a ballot in their minds. Many will be habitual Conservative or Liberal Democrat voters who insist that they are non-partisan, rational centrists, open to persuasion. It's just that they are persuaded not to vote for Labour in this election, just as they were in 2005, 2010, 2015 and 2017. Naturally, they will have ventured different reasons on each occasion, from civil liberties through fiscal responsibility to eating a bacon sandwich in an funny manner. This is the op-ed equivalent of the focus groups made up of "former Labour voters" where every one of the white, middle-aged sample turns out to be a committed Tory with a fixation on immigration, the inviolability of the monarchy and Trident missiles.

There will be some "lifelong supporters" who have converted - voter churn is a real thing, after all - but they will typically be of an age and social milieu where such a transition is quite normal. A middle-aged, metropolitan journalist who has recently started to wonder whether to educate their children privately is both the preferred profile for recruitment as a commentator by our newspapers and TV channels and representative of precisely the social cohort most likely to decide that their future material interest is best served by a Conservative government, even if they still insist that they are really a progressive at heart. Their self-justification will obviously ignore a demographic or sociological interpretation in favour of a dark night of the soul narrative in which they have regretfully decided that "It's not me, it's you". Words such as "betrayal" and "unconscionable" will inevitably figure.

One of the funnier examples of the species this time round was provided by Richard Evans, the historian of the Third Reich, who initially broadcast his intention to vote for Labour on Twitter and then rowed back when Anthony Julius among others criticised his lack of solidarity with Jews over the issue of antisemitism in a letter to the New Statesman. To make full amends, Evans has now contributed a piece to the same magazine in which he both commends Labour's manifesto and insists that Jeremy Corbyn must immediately resign upon his inevitable defeat next week. The mental gymnastics on display would not have looked out of place in a Soviet show-trial. The New Statesman, to nobody's great surprise, has refused to endorse Labour, essentially because of Corbyn, which goes a long way to explain its omission from the "hard-left extremist network" recently published by the Sun to widespread derision.

The red scare story that has garnered the most attention this time round is the claim that the government report on trade discussions with the US was leaked as part of a Russian disinformation campaign. Nobody has questioned the authenticity of the document, while even challenges to the veracity of Labour's claims have centred on pedantic nit-picking over whether actual hospitals are to be sold off. Instead the media has decided as one that the party made an error in using material that might have reached the public domain via the efforts of an "adversary nation", which is a bizarre charge for an industry reliant on leaks and stories placed to damage political and commercial opponents. What's remarkable is not just the thin gruel of the complaint, but the utter determination to make the story about Labour's judgement and questionable associations at a time when the evidence of how compromised the Conservative Party has become through its dealings with various Russian oligarchs is freely available despite the government's suppression of the Parliamentary report on the subject.

One feature of the election that is novel, at least in the belief that it really will make a difference this time, is the focus on tactical voting. Of course, a lot of this has turned out to be nothing more than a ramp to advance the Liberal Democrats' representation in the Commons, or to encourage those forces considered helpful in the long war against the Labour left, such as the SNP in Scotland. The liberal media focus on select London constituencies, which is clearly intended to save the political careers of favoured sons and daughters such as Chuka Umunna, Luciana Berger and Sam Gyimah, has probably served to turn off quite a few voters in other parts of the country who were prepared to cast their ballot tactically, and has certainly distracted from those Labour-Conservative marginals where an anti-Tory vote really will matter. Instead, semi-rural seats such as Bishop Auckland, where the Tories have always had a substantial vote, continue to be analysed in terms of ex-miners and their whippets abandoning the party of the workers.

Despite the Liberal Democrats' best efforts to convince us that the precedent for this contest was the 37% turnout European Parliament elections in May, most observers have focused instead on 2017 as the benchmark. For much of the media, this is because they fervently desire a result that will consign the election two years ago to the bin marked "anomaly". The through-gritted-teeth mea culpas of the weeks following that result cannot be unwritten, but they can now be superseded by the inevitable "I was right all along" think-pieces that have been in preparation for months. The dream of a hung parliament, in which Labour loses seats and Keir Starmer magically takes over as leader, probably isn't going to happen. Though Labour is closing the gap, the solidity of the "Get Brexit done" phalanx means that a small Tory majority remains more likely. The danger is that 2019 turns out to be a repeat of 2015, when the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote coupled with the disaffection of too many Labour supporters gifted the Conservatives under Cameron a large majority and set in train the sequence of events that led to the 2016 EU Referendum.

If there has been one defining characteristic of our politics over the last decade it is not the right's contempt for truth or the left's crippling caution but the political centre's utter incompetence. From the failure to challenge austerity, through the inept EU Referendum campaign, to the Labour leadership contests of 2015 and 2016, we have seen ample evidence that our corporate-friendly technocrats are simply clueless. The last three years have been devoted to the self-defeating and self-indulgent inanities of the People's Vote campaign, while the attempt to finally kill off Labour through the risible charge of institutional antisemitism and launch "a new kind of politics" produced the policy-free, vainglorious farce of Change UK. With this in mind, my fear is that the result on Thursday will be another own-goal in which the Liberal Democrats will distinguish themselves by handing more seats to the Tories than they manage to take while the conniving media will insist that it was Corbyn who put Johnson into Number 10.

Reasons to be cheerful include the fact that a lot of people clearly haven't made their mind up yet as to how they will vote. As there can't be too many people still not sure of their attitude to the antisemitism charge, or to the claims that Corbyn and his Stalinist inner circle are secretly in league with Russia, there is good reason to think that the undecideds may veer towards Labour as the messaging in the home straight is reduced down to the relative merits of "Change" and "Brexit". One factor that hasn't received as much attention as tactical voting is differential turnout, and there are grounds to think that it's the hope for change that will be a more effective motivator on the day than the weary desire to never have to hear about Brexit ever again, not least among the young who have registered in greater numbers ahead of this poll than in 2017. Perhaps the much-anticipated youthquake will finally put in a decisive appearance. Here's hoping.


  1. Herbie Kills Children13 December 2019 at 18:44

    You really should have listened to me more carefully. Your so called deep analysis digs so deep it misses the bleedin obvious.

    The Brexit vote was a racist shriek, pure and simple. And this election simply bakced it up.

    I live in the laughably called Labour heartlands, all my life I have wondered how the BNP didn't win every time given the views I heard on a daily basis. Finally the views people have in their heads and voice every day has translated into a vote that makes sense.

    This vote is a vote of racism by racists on behalf of racists. And digging any deeper won't get you an nanometre closer to the truth.

    1. On the question "why do places with the fewest immigrants have the most anti-immigration sentiment?", how much is it because racists move to places with few immigrants ("white flight"), and how much is it because such immigrants as do exist are more likely to be asylum seekers (who are sent to places with surplus housing) rather than economic migrants (who go where the job opportunities are)?

    2. Herbie Kills Children15 December 2019 at 13:33

      "how much is it because racists move to places with few immigrants"

      How did you arrive at this statistic? I would say this is a case of lies, damn lies and statistics.

  2. The thing we need to ask then is "why do people become racists?"

    And this is clearly a global problem given how many countries have seen success for right-wing ethnonationalists: the USA (Trump), Brazil (Bolsonaro), the UK (Johnson), Italy (Salvini), Hungary (├ôrban), Turkey (Erdo─čan), Israel (Netanyahu) and India (Modi).

    1. Herbie Kills Children14 December 2019 at 09:36

      I agree this is the question, but its a big one!

      One reason I believe is the belief that we are competing for resources, of course under a global capitalist system this is true enough. And the ruling classes of all nations will try to foster the idea that this competition is along identity lines, such as ethnicity. They drive this home all the time, with their divide and rule methods.

      The class distinctions do not get a look in and are not promoted, for obvious reasons.

      The issue is why are people so open to these divide and rule tactics?

      There was a belief that the internet, technology would break down these barriers. There is no evidence for this yet, so racism does seem to have some link to human nature or at least human culture. Given we are visual creatures I sometimes wonder if racism is something natural and something we need to be educated out of!