Reflections on General Election 2017

First off, I have learned that I need to give up on making predictions about elections. After thinking Ed Miliband would win a majority in 2015, right up until the exit poll last week I was pretty sure the Conservatives would win a 100 seat majority in the 2017 General Election. Unlike in 2015, this was not just based on the media, polls and pundits but also on my experiences helping the campaign of the Conservative candidate for Leeds North West, Alan Lamb (pictured below with the victorious Labour candidate, Alex Sobel, at the count in Leeds Civic Centre, a little before the formal declaration).

Apart from a small amount of token campaigning during the 1992 election while I was a student this was the first General Election I had taken an active part in. That was in the safe Labour seat of Oxford East and at a time when the expectation of an overall win was so low that the Oxford University Conservative Association hadn’t even organised an event to watch the coverage of the results, let alone a party to celebrate the possibility of a win. When the 2017 election was called, a victory looked much more likely, even though coming from third in Leeds North West itself not particularly so. Not that it was entirely out of the question on paper – back in 2015, had there not been tactical voting by those who voted Conservative in the local elections here on the same day to support the LibDem, Greg Mulholland, who’d campaigned on the basis of “don’t let the two Eds destroy what we’ve achieved with the economy”, and instead had voted Conservative in the General Election too, the difference between the three main parties would have been a mere 1200 votes.

I’ll not go too much into the minutiae of the data here or nationally – that’s being pored over by many people far more expert than me and will be filling newspapers and articles for months to come. Instead I’ll share some of the things I learned from being closer to the actual action.

  • People are nice

One of my friends had commented that he expected that going round leafleting and speaking to people on the doorstep for the Tories would mainly involve me spending the day being told to eff off. In practice, that did not happen at all, the nearest being a handful of people (out of about 1500 houses I visited) handing their leaflet back or saying “no thank you” (and a couple of those added “nothing personal, I just never vote”).

There is also a problem about people being nice. It means that their natural politeness makes them say what they think you want to hear. Some people are keen to have an argument or to vent their frustration at you for your party, but most know that those things aren’t really your fault and you can’t do much about them. So we all rub along with people who come to our door and don’t pick a fight. This is why things like knocking up on the day of an election to persuade people to come out and vote right now are effective – those who are wavering are unlikely to be so rude as to say no and at that very moment, not saying no means that they only have to walk a couple of hundred yards to go along with you to the polling station.

  • People pay a lot more attention to what they’re voting for than they’re often credited with- policies matter a lot

From the discussions I had on the doorstep, it was clear that lots of people had actually read the leaflets they’d received and had paid some attention to the main points of the manifestos as they’d been presented in the media. Unfortunately this was a bit of a negative for a Conservative, because the weaknesses in the manifesto and how it had been presented were picked up on (in particular the proposals for social care and the withdrawal of universal free school meals which had widely been understood to be a complete abolition of them for everyone). Worse still, where there were good explanations to give, the usual response was “well why didn’t they just say that then?”.

This shows the importance of having a good and positive story to tell. While there were many serious holes that could be picked in the policies which Labour had in their manifesto, those policies were popular and easy for people to understand would, if brought in, provide them with things they liked and wanted. As I’ve blogged before, the NHS has been very important for my family as my mother has been seriously ill for most of the past 20 years and has spent about half of the past year in hospital so rewarding the doctors and nurses who work for the NHS is a good thing and something I’d support where possible. Merely (as unfortunately some Conservatives too easily do, including disappointingly  Theresa May on the Leaders’ BBC Question Time programme) saying it is impossible without a “magic money tree” is not a good look. There are serious and real practical problems about how to balance out increased spending on the NHS while making the whole economy function but those cannot and should not be reduced to unattractive soundbites which reinforce the stereotype of Conservatives not caring.

The reality is that everybody (apart from the tiny minority of ultra-libertarians) would like to see public services maintained and improved. Last summer, when I went to one of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership re-election rallies, I was irritated by the implicit narrative that only Labour cared. This was continued to the extent of the speaker introducing Corbyn at an event in Manchester during this election saying “I want a leader who gives a toss about stuff”. After all the work to stop being the “nasty Party” (ironically coined by Theresa May herself) under Cameron, it is not an improvement to let it stick in people’s minds that we’re now the “don’t give a toss about you Party”.

My personal view is that despite having apparent costings set out, the numbers for spending and raising revenue in the Labour manifesto were unrealistic and could not be achieved in practice. This would have meant that the tax increases proposed would not have yielded the money which apparently neatly paid for the spending increases, so those increases in spending would not have in fact materialised, while at the same time, they’d have damaged the economy to make future prospects for raising the money to pay for such things even less likely. Regardless of whether objectively the Coalition government of 2010-2015 succeeded in striking the right balance between raising revenue, spending it in the right places and cutting or limiting increases in the right things, the successful and positive message of the 2015 campaign of having a “Long Term Economic Plan” communicated this response to promises focused on just spending a lot more on all the things everyone likes. But having made a break from not just the approach to Brexit of David Cameron’s time as PM but also apparently the overall approach to government and the economy under him, there was a vacuum in the Conservatives’ economic message in the 2017 election. It is perhaps no surprise in this context that the Conservative manifesto was noticeably lacking in any numbers and the Chancellor, Phillip Hammond, was conspicuously absent from the national campaign.

It did not have to be that way. The most interesting part of the Conservative Manifesto was its introductory section which spoke very clearly of a belief in the “good that government can do”. That could have been the platform for policies which were set out and explained as good in a persuasive way. Unfortunately it didn’t happen. Whereas Labour were relentless in promoting themselves as “For the Many, Not the Few”, the Conservative message ultimately seemed like “Not for the Any”.

  • Most people are not very partisan or can put their party preference to one side

Whether they were primarily supporters of Labour or the Conservatives, I only heard one person have anything bad to say about Greg Mulholland (and he’d voted for him anyway because he didn’t want Labour to win). Everyone else was quick to say that they’d appreciated what a visible, approachable and active local MP he was, even if they had reasons for supporting one of the other candidates this time. Similarly, I met a pensioner who proudly pointed to the signs he’d put up in his local community with his Conservative councillor to make it a “no door to door sales zone” who also said that he’d only in the last week gone for a pint in the pub with Mulholland.

  • Negative personal campaigning only works if it is a surprise

For me, there are several aspects of Corbyn’s history and preferences which would make the idea of him being Prime Minister horrific. Regardless of whether he believed he was making a genuine contribution to securing peace in Northern Ireland, I think that inviting convicted IRA terrorists to have tea with him in Parliament only days after other IRA terrorists had killed five people at the Conservative Party Conference in Brighton and hoped to murder the Prime Minister was a terrible thing to have done (as indeed the Labour leader at the time, Neil Kinnock said publicly). Ditto for his willingness to share a platform with people from Hamas and Hezbollah and to use “inclusive language” in describing them as friends. That contrasts with his refusal to share a platform with Cameron when he was notionally campaigning for Remain in the EU referendum and so meant to be on the same side. If you can be on the same side as terrorists whose violent methods to secure something you want by peace, you really ought to be able to stand alongside the Prime Minister of your own country when both urging people to vote to Remain in the EU. Related to his views on Palestine is the fine line between his opposition to the actions of Israel and the tolerance and support for anti-semitism which has reared its head among a significant section of his supporters.

But, all this and more is known and has been known by the public since at least Corbyn’s initial campaign to become leader. He’s been elected and re-elected as leader in that time. The only real conclusion on this that I can reach following the election result is that many people simply do not care very much about them, or at the very least are willing to accept very generous interpretations of his motivations in doing them. Much like at the opposite end of the political spectrum, many American voters were able to vote for Donald Trump even though he had provided multiple, recent, examples of views and behaviour which many others there and around the world thought appalling. These negatives have all already been priced in and do not reduce support. If anything, they might increase support among those who think it unfair to throw personal criticisms at their favoured candidate. Anything of this sort will therefore not have any adverse impact on Labour (or positive impact for anyone else) unless new and surprising because not of a piece with the stuff we already know. Short of Corbyn having acquired his £1m house in Islington by exercising his right as a council tenant to buy it at a discount and then released some equity to allow him to buy shares in Royal Mail, I’m not sure what would be in this category. Let it lie.

  • Money is not the big issue for campaigns, people are

Leaflets are cheap. Even ones which are posted through Royal Mail. The £12000 or so spending limit locally is very ample to cover sending at least half a dozen publications to everyone in a seat, and on top of that can be added the communications sent out from the parties on a national basis. What money can’t buy is having enough people to deliver, to go and talk to people and to remind them to turn up to the polling stations on the day itself. That’s where having lots of members and active supporters makes a huge difference.  But it is not just in the month or so of an election that this is important – it is needed the rest of the time too. Having councillors who know their part of a constituency well and have spent the previous few years regularly going around and listening to people and helping them with their problems helps to target the messages you send out and to identify those who agree, those who can be persuaded and those who might not normally support your party but trust you personally.

A personal example of this was from my time living in Headingley where I’d had a grumble on twitter about my street not getting Brown Bins for garden waste. One of the local Labour councillors got in touch quickly to try and sort it out. We’ve since had friendly exchanges on twitter and finally met up and had a nice chat at the count. If I still lived in Headingley, I’d vote for him, particularly as in the 8 years I lived there and the 4 since moving one ward away, the Conservatives have only ever put up “paper candidates” in the ward (ie someone who has been nominated and appears on the ballot but does not in fact send out any materials or do any campaigning). Whatever the appeal of national policies or even the quality of the candidate for Parliament for the wider constituency, that counts for a lot when it comes to translating national appeal into the local action of voting.

  • Brexit

Leeds NW voted strongly in favour of remaining in the EU but Brexit was barely an issue locally. This might have been surprising in the context of an election which was supposedly called in order to give Theresa May a stronger mandate for negotiating Brexit, but as there is little detail about the specific choices to be made and the detail of the differences between the Parties on it, not so surprising.

The LibDems’ national policy of opposing Brexit and seeking a second referendum barely impacted on their vote in the one ward where they sent out leaflets about this (Headingley) – they didn’t even mention it in other wards where there were more pro-Brexit supporters or in that case the fact that Mulholland had defied his party’s position in Parliament to abstain from the votes on triggering Article 50. Hardly anyone that I spoke to mentioned it, let alone raised any detailed points or favoured “hard” v “soft”. The 3,000 who voted UKIP in 2015 largely seemed to vote Labour this time. I think at least locally, I’m not alone in just wanting it to be got on with as that is what we have agreed to do as a nation.

  • Everybody matters and nobody can be taken for granted

This might sound a bit trite, but one of the things which pollsters and pundits like to do is to segment populations into different categories – by age, class, whether they voted for Brexit, favourite TV programme, whatever. Certainly some segments of society can feel that they are not sufficiently listened to so will respond if directly addressed. It is no illusion that Labour were very good at enthusing and motivating younger voters, but even in a seat where there are a lot of students, it is too easy to put Alex Sobel’s win squarely in the hands of the students he persuaded to turn out to vote (as indeed he did in his speech at the declaration where he said his win was a sign that students should never again be described as apathetic).

It is true, from my experience at the count sampling the vote in several of the Headingley polling districts, that Labour had pretty much cleaned up in this demographic. Spotting Conservative and LibDem votes in the piles of ballots for Headingley was dispiriting – in some cases I’d tallied up over a hundred votes for Labour before getting to twenty for the sitting MP or ten for the Conservatives, but not as bad as for the Green Party agent stood next to me who often didn’t see a single cross next to her candidate’s name, to the extent that one of the counters paused and gave a little “yay” to make sure she spotted one! Turnout was somewhat increased too in the ward. However, the final healthy majority achieved on what was a slightly reduced overall turnout across the seat was likely to have been at least as heavily drawn from former UKIP and Green voters in wards which had fewer students and an older population. In fact it looks like overall the most significant rise in Labour support here and elsewhere was in adults going up to their mid-40s. In retrospect perhaps this is not so surprising – things like free university tuition might well ultimately have greater appeal to parents of teenagers who worry about supporting their children through university than to the teenagers themselves, who had already decided they wanted to go to university even with fees at £9,000 a year. They are also the age group most likely in a few years to have parents who might need care and the ones most likely to have children in school.

Where next?

I don’t know, but I really hope there isn’t another election any time soon! But I do urge everyone that whatever their political preference, they should get involved to the extent that they can make time for it. Despite having always taken an interest in politics, I think I’ve learned more in the past few weeks of being actively involved than in all the years previously. But, despite having even gone to the effort of printing it out on the day of its launch, I don’t think I’ll ever now get round to reading the LibDem manifesto.

 

– the only blue in Leeds NW on 9th June 2017 was the early morning sky

Winning the Peace

A week and a half has gone by since the people of the UK voted by a margin of over a million in a referendum to leave the EU. Even though it seems longer as so much has gone on since; the Prime Minister, David Cameron, resigning, a campaign to replace him having seen the former favourite, Boris Johnson pull out after fellow Leave campaigner, Michael Gove stood citing Boris’ unsuitability, and frankly incomprehensible chaos surrounding Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, losing half of his shadow ministers after he sacked his shadow Foreign Secretary, Hilary Benn and finding that more than three quarters of his MPs voted for a motion of no confidence in his leadership.

Now, the real focus is on who will or should replace Cameron as Prime Minister and how they will effect the changes that should flow from the Referendum result. Cameron resigned because, having campaigned for the UK to Remain in the EU, he did not believe he was the right person to negotiate the terms for the UK’s exit. While I think he could have done so, perhaps by appointing prominent Ministers who had campaigned for exit (such as Gove, fellow leadership contender Andrea Leadsom and Boris) to run the negotiations while he and the rest of his ministerial team continued to deliver the domestic programme of government they were elected for barely a year previously, the decision to hand over in the Autumn to a successor makes sense.

The question is, what should the next PM do and who should it be? Many from the Leave campaign insist that the next PM can only be someone who campaigned to leave the EU. In particular, this is to disqualify the Home Secretary, Theresa May, who was a quiet part of the Remain campaign and who has a commanding enough lead on the first round of MPs’ votes to make it near certain that she will be one of the two MPs put to a vote of the entire Party membership.

However, I think this is based on a misunderstanding of where we actually are today and what the Referendum result means. Many on the Leave side have taken the result literally as one of Leave meaning Leave, with the detail being relatively unimportant. That perhaps explains why there was no single unifying answer to the question posed during the campaign of “what would Leave look like?” (an alternative view on this is that Gove and perhaps even Johnson believed that Cameron would be responsible for what came next so they didn’t need to plan for it – oops). From this perspective, the only thing the UK wants is to be out of the EU so all that is needed is a PM who will pull the trigger on the process by notifying the EU under Article 50 TFEU (though what the process actually entails is somewhat controversial and there’s a respectable school of thought that the longer that passes after 24 June 2016 the less likely it is ever to happen). That would then mean that after no more than 2 years, whether a deal has been struck or no, the UK would no longer be a member of the EU. Job Done.

This approach is based upon seeing the campaign to leave as a war which will not be won until the UK is out of the EU. I believe this is a mistake and one which ironically goes against the accompanying reminder that its adherents have that “the people have spoken” by voting 52% to 48% in favour of leaving. It does so by relegating that decision in the Referendum to being the winning of a battle in the war rather than, as I think makes more sense, to see it as the winning of the war itself. The people have  decided, and the opposing general has conceded defeat.

It is therefore better to consider what comes now as the peace process following the war. For any peace process to be successful it needs to take into account the views of everybody, both victor and vanquished. Otherwise it ends in a Treaty of Versailles situation where there remains a tension which could ultimately lead to arms being borne again (hopefully in the present scenario, only metaphorical ones!).

That is why it is not essential that the next PM be someone who was on the Leave side during the “war” of the Referendum but should instead be whoever, whether on the Leave or Remain side, can secure the best and most lasting solution for the most people. Going too far in the direction of one or other extreme – appeasing just the 52% who voted to Leave or doing what the large minority of 48% who voted to Remain won’t do this.

Thankfully, the reality, as I see it, is that while the Referendum had a clear binary split because there were only two options available, people’s views about what they actually wanted covered a much broader spectrum. There will have been very few people who voted to Remain who thought that the UK’s relationship with the EU or indeed the nature of the EU itself were perfect, whether on the basis of what they are now, the relatively limited package of reforms negotiated by David Cameron ahead of the Referendum or some other measure (such as Corbyn’s “campaign” to remain in a social EU which does not exist and is almost entirely inconsistent with the one which does).

Similarly, while there is a sizable proportion of Leave voters who simply do not care to have anything at all to do with the EU and would like to tear up everything the EU ever touched in the UK, I’m not sure they even form a majority of the 52% who voted to Leave. Instead, significant proportions of them would favour retaining the UK’s position of access to the EU’s single market, whether as members of EFTA, the EEA or some other means. Some of those would not be averse even to retaining the free movement of persons which are currently guaranteed by EU membership, provided that it was something which was chosen by the UK government and capable of being changed in the future were there to be a government elected with that aim.

This spectrum of opinion can be seen running from Cameron (who obtained a degree of renegotiation) through May (who had been among the leading critics of the related but separate impact of the ECHR, albeit that one of the first things to go in her leadership bid was a pledge to exit the ECHR) to Leadsom (who only a few years ago argued that leaving the Single Market would be economically disastrous)  and Gove (who argued during the campaign that the best approach would be to have trade with the EU regulated only by WTO rules). Apologies to Stephen Crabb, the other contender for the leadership, who unfortunately seems to have been forgotten in all this by everyone, including me. Fewer apologies to Liam Fox who I don’t think should be running at all because of the circumstances of his resignation as Defence Secretary (we can’t have someone who didn’t see there was anything wrong with having his mate hanging around the Ministry of Defence without any formal role or security clearance as PM). [Since writing these words about Crabb and Fox and going off to give my son his tea (he’s northern), bath and bedtime story, the first round of MP votes has led to Fox being eliminated, Crabb ending his bid and lending his support to May and Leadsom and Gove remaining to fight over who would come second and compete for the votes of Conservative Members – told you events were flying thick and fast!]

The question is now which of these candidates to replace Cameron can best come up with a solution which balances out the requirements of enough of those who voted either way in the Referendum to be acceptable to the highest proportion of the public. And can they also demonstrate that they have the skill , diplomacy (so anyone appointing Farage to any role is immediately debarred in my view) and persuasiveness to ensure that their solution can be accepted by the EU and implemented by Parliament, whether by maintaining complete discipline among Conservative MPs with a small majority or by seeking a new, larger mandate following a General Election.

My hunch is that Theresa May will win on all of these grounds. Both Leadsom and Gove’s pitches on the EU issue have been at the more extreme/pure end of the spectrum, Leadsom having gained the probably unhelpful endorsement of many connected with UKIP (who won’t have a vote) and Gove taking his typically idealistic/intellectual stance which makes compromise more difficult. Each would therefore find it more difficult to stay true to their stated position while being palatable to enough of those who favoured milder forms of exit or would have preferred not to leave. Gove also has the handicap of being (somewhat unfairly, in my opinion) a totem of unpopularity outside the Tory Party for his largely successful battle against the education policy establishment as Education Secretary as well as having generated a degree of resentment within the Party for his ruthless destruction of Boris Johnson’s bid for the leadership. May on the other hand is clearly tough enough (described today approvingly by Ken Clarke in an off air moment captured by Sky News as “a difficult woman”) to be able to do the job without being obviously too much for either Remain or Leave.

The other consideration that comes in here is that the whole process must be done while continuing with the everyday work of government and working towards being capable of winning the next General Election. There’s no point for any Conservative to choose a quick, painful and unpopular Brexit which would ultimately lead to the worst of all worlds consequence of electoral defeat to an opposition which had suddenly been given a whole load of new powers to reverse what the governments of the past nearly 40 years have done. At the moment the threat of serious electoral challenge seems dim given the civil war seemingly about to take off within Labour, but I’d prefer not to rely on that (and as Cameron put it in PM’s Questions last week, it’s not in the interests of the country even if it is in the interests of the Conservatives – for heaven’s sake, man, go!). What about UKIP? Well, I think that Nigel Farage has by resigning its leadership agreed with me that the war is won and should only be re-entered in the event of “betrayal” by the government. Under new leadership it can decide whether it would like to pivot to make a concerted push to build on its gains of support from disaffected Labour voters in the North and Midlands who’d never consider voting Conservative.

Most people are almost certainly very close to being sick and tired of the whole topic so it would have to be a very clear and egregious betrayal to make it worth restarting hostilities. Reasoned practical delays probably won’t get the blood of activists pumping while the stated government intention is to exit (eg to pass legislation, to formulate a detailed plan for what we’d like post-EU Britain to be like, to focus on any short term economic shocks, to put Brexit on hold if the EU starts a more general Treaty change process, perhaps even to wait for the outcome of next year’s elections in France & Germany to make the negotiating environment more stable over the 2 year process, etc…).

Kippers!

Kippers really stink the house out. I discovered this a few years back on holiday with a group of friends where we were all staying in a large house in Bideford and one of them decided that he rather fancied kippers for breakfast one morning. Despite his best efforts – waiting until everyone else had finished their breakfasts, opening the window of the kitchen/diner and shutting the door, the aroma still spread around the whole house. They are, however, a traditional British dish, very healthy as being rich in Omega-3 fatty acids and considered very tasty by some. As a breakfast, from a nutritional perspective they may well commend themselves over carb-laden Continental fare like croissants and muesli.

In many ways, kippers are a lot like their namesakes, Ukippers. Ukippers are stoutly traditional British folk whose central aim in freeing us from the EU is to restore our national sovereignty. Having more control over our own laws and having more freedom to decide things in the national rather than European or global interest is a good idea.

However, as with kippers, the problem with Ukippers is that we can’t just look at the good without considering whether we can bear the bad. I’m not saying that Ukippers smell, but so many of the underlying things so many of them like and which they’d like to do were we no longer to be in the EU are somewhat stinky.

These come out most readily in the context of immigration. It takes no more scratching of the surface to release a pungent odour of racism from many Ukippers than taking a kipper out of its packaging. While Nigel Farage is able, perfectly sincerely, to talk in terms of wanting to be open to doing business with the world and welcoming those who wish to trade with us from wherever they may come, rather than just focusing on the EU, most of his supporters I’ve had contact with would prefer to seal up the borders. Most would be proud to be seen as the heirs to the caricature of Enoch Powell – while resisting the impoliteness of the BNP (whose ex-members they apparently ban) and the current government’s “Go Home” vans, they still agree that “nobody asked them” if lots of foreigners could come and change the character of the country and would rather like it if they went away. The more thoughtful line taken by Farage on the topic is no more than a good blast of Febreze (or perhaps Oust!) which doesn’t quite mask the whiff.

But, maybe that particular smell is just one that is actually generally present in society. Maybe it is like the odour of pub carpets which only really hit us properly when the smoking ban was introduced and we lost the mask of cigarette fug so had to bear the combined unspeakablenesses of years of spilt beer, sweat and pork scratchings ground into the floors of our locals.

Worse is the way that UKIP panders to these underlying failings. So, after starting out as common sense libertarians who wanted people just as much as the country to be treated as grown ups who could be trusted to make their own decisions, as it has grown in popularity it has shed these inhibitions to become increasingly populist. It’s not many people’s most pressing issue and the world hasn’t ended, or begun to end since its introduction but UKIP’s opposition to Same Sex Marriage is a case in point. As a band of self-styled insurgents against what they see as a LibLabConspiracy anything goes if it is popular.

But, unlike the kippers I maligned earlier, the whiff of Ukippers is not so easy to shift. The smell of my friend’s ill-advised (but for him, enjoyable) breakfast had dissipated by the next day. Ukippers on the other hand, are more persistent and they want to be. Supporting and voting for them won’t make any of the things they want happen, but will make it most likely that the very opposite of what they want will happen. They won’t win a seat in 2015 but will help to ensure we get Miliband PM. The hope seems to be that by hastening a large Labour victory in 2015 the Tories will be forced to adopt their agenda and so march on to victory or be swept aside by UKIP as the Liberals were when Labour established itself as the party for working people.

If they’re like kippers, Ukippers are like ones which have gone off and will make people tempted by them very sick indeed.