The Tories called it wrong on all the big necessities of a 21st century campaign, finds Siobhain McDonagh
Why did the Tories lose? Indeed, did they? Certainly against expectation. In reality, they still got the most votes and most seats. So how has the outcome of the election been Labour euphoria and Tory despair?
Hope and change always beat experience. People expect competence from politicians. But they want them to offer a better future. So ‘for the many not the few’ beat ‘strong and stable’ just as Donald Trump’s ‘making America great again’ said more to the blue collar workers of Pennsylvania than the wonderful Hillary Clinton’s ‘I’m with her’. It is not about the leader’s qualities, be they prime minister or president, but the voter’s hopes. And who would not want change? Seven years of wage reductions, less chance of a home to rent or buy, less security at work – how many want that?
If the United States elections were not enough, did the Tories sleep through the referendum campaign on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union, where hope of a brave independent future, however implausible, beat fear of change hands down?
Likeability may not be the most essential skill for being a good prime minister, but it sure is essential for getting elected in a 24-hour social media world. The leader has to be brave, engaging and accept that sometimes it is going to go wrong. I have known Theresa May for more than 40 years – including serving alongside her on Merton Council between 1986 and 1994 – and while she has many admirable qualities, none of them equip her to front a seven week general election campaign in the 21st century. Great prime ministers, such as Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee, had inadequacies too, but they were not trying to get elected in the days of Facebook and Twitter.
May was running a US-style presidential campaign but is the most British of politicians. Such a campaign is not innately unwise, but it must be all encompassing and a personality race cannot be won if the biggest hurdles (think televised debates) are not even tackled by the personality themselves. When every question is answered with the same buzzwords of ‘strong’ and ‘stable’, it is inevitable that repetition would become ridicule. Her horror of showing emotion and not needing to be friends with people put her much closer to some of the Queen’s ‘don’t complain, don’t explain’ attributes than the friendly, open, empathetic qualities of a Harold Wilson, Tony Blair or, dare I say it, Jeremy Corbyn.
If you do not like talking to people, pressing the flesh, or kissing the proverbial baby, I think that you are unlikely to do well heading up a 21st century general election campaign.
Elections have to be about the people but May decided that this election was not about them or their views but about how the Tories could capitalise on an opposition in difficulties. After a general election only two years ago, and a divisive referendum campaign last year, voters knew that this election was not for their good but for the good of May and the Conservative party. In fact, the prime minister even denied she would call an election only a month before she actually did.
People thought they had a grown-up as prime minister, straightforward and dismissive of political manoeuvring – but what they discovered was someone who was closer to the self-serving tricky politician caricature. If the people did not come first, why should they give her a huge majority?
In this election, manifestos made a difference. Labour’s gave loyal voters, considering switching to the Tories, a reason to stay. Values and hope were shared, and young people rallied. Meanwhile, the Tory full-frontal attack on pensioners appeared mean. My friend, Sally, a new pensioner herself, told me that it was not so much the individual changes to social care funding or axing of the winter fuel payments or removal of the triple lock, but all three at once that made the difference. So, if you are a Labour voter, but have doubts and are thinking of voting Conservative, there is nothing like an all-out attack on pensioners to make you think again.
In truth, there are some very hard questions to ask about how we fund social care in a society where some have huge financial assets and a growing number have none at all. But I was shocked that the Tories really did not understand their own policy and the difference in how the value of property is taken into account for older people in residential care, where they can be left with absolutely nothing, and home care where it is not touched.
The lack of understanding and lack of costings made it difficult for them to ever attack our manifesto. And yet we ask ourselves, do we really want to spend £70bn, over half our total spending on health in 2015/16, on renationalising the water industry? Personally, I would rather be building more hospitals or houses.
All politics is local
The great Irish-American speaker, Tip O’Neill, said ‘all politics is local’. Clearly the Tories did not think so, with their candidates entitled ‘Theresa May’s community Conservative candidate’: there is not much community in nationally identical leaflets or direct mail letters. Every Labour member of parliament who was re-standing fought on their record and what they were going to do for their local area and community. As the ties of party loyalty loosen, it is often the local face-to-face experience of an MP that you remember. The help in difficult times. It is the belief that your MP is that bit different from the rest that cuts through the cynicism about politicians as a whole.
If the Tory candidates were not interested in getting pot holes fixed and fly tips cleared, then why should those of us who care about these things vote for them?
The terrible terrorist attacks in Manchester and London Bridge shocked and saddened us all. As always, our remarkable emergency services were on the scene within seconds. The attacks brought May’s record as home secretary into sharp focus. Not just the cuts in policing, but the scrapping of Labour’s identity cards and e-border project at a cost of £830m, and even the removal of control orders which had allowed the police and security services to deal with those they had monitored and suspected of planning terrorist attacks.
On a personal level, as a former parliamentary aide to Labour’s wonderful former home secretary John Reid, I looked on in disbelief at May’s six years in Marsham Street. She always seemed to escape blame (and there is always a lot of blame to go around in the home office). Going to ground when the going got tough, the terrible attacks brought her record back with a vengeance, well exploited by Corbyn.
Will the Tories learn from their mistakes? As the most ruthless power seeking party of modern times, I suspect so. Next time I am sure they will try for a leader more able to stand the requirements of a 21st century election and make it much more of a team effort. Will they cost manifestos – theirs and ours? I would think so.
Re-reading this article, perhaps our next question is what do we do differently next time to win the 64 seats we need to get a majority. Or even to win back Mansfield, North-East Derbyshire, Stoke-On-Trent South, and Walsall North, where the working-class voters decided against local experience and national hope, and in favour of local inexperience and nationally no hope. But that is a discussion for another time.
Siobhain McDonagh MP is member of parliament for Mitcham and Morden. She tweets at @Siobhain_MP
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