The previous article in this series, published a week ago, examined the idea that something was happening in the United Kingdom’s general-election campaign that was not being picked up by the great majority of analysts. The consensus at the time was that Theresa May was heading for a landslide victory on 8 June against a divided Labour Party led by the hopeless Jeremy Corbyn, who had been the subject of bitter and persistent rubbishing by large sections of the print media (see “The Corbyn crowd and its message“, 18 May 2017).
This column suggested otherwise, arguing that on the ground Corbyn was actually proving to be a popular and effective campaigner, attracting support from thousands of young people at meetings often arranged and publicised at short notice. The conclusion was that conventional wisdom might be wrong.
Labour’s prospects were quickly boosted by a manifesto published on 16 May. It promised a number of changes that might be labelled as ultra-left by the Conservatives and the great majority of their supportive newspapers but were also popular among many voters. They included the progressive nationalisation of the disjointed rail network, major increases in health and education spending and increased taxation for the top 5% of the population.
The Conservative manifesto launched two days later was, by contrast, something between a damp squib and a bit of a disaster, made worse by an absence of financial costings that quickly threw up some significant anomalies. By the weekend the Conservatives still looked on course for a substantial election victory, but there was far less prospect of a landslide, given the sudden move of the opinion polls in Labour’s direction.
By early this week many Labour supporters began to sense a previously heretical notion that the Conservatives might not even gain an overall majority on 8 June. This was probably wishful thinking but the very idea of Corbyn becoming an unexpectedly popular figure was enough to create an ever so slight whiff of panic in the upper echelons of the Conservative Party.
For the past four days, the election campaign has been utterly overshadowed by the terrible consequences of the Manchester bombing, but national-level campaigning by the main partners has now recommenced for the final fortnight before polling day.
An unexpected turn
This brings us to the matter of trying to follow up last week’s analysis. The core of the Conservative case before the atrocity in Manchester had been that Corbyn was unelectable, Labour was utterly incompetent in matters of economic policy and was also a threat to national security because of its wishy-washy attitude to defence.
Two of these forms of criticism have become somewhat problematic and this helps to explain the movement in the opinion polls. Because of UK election rules the main broadcast media are required to give broadly similar coverage to the major parties, unlike the print media. This means that Jeremy Corbyn is getting more relatively unbiased attention than at any time in the past two years. Moreover he has proved to be personally popular and even to enjoy campaigning, whereas Theresa May has come over as doggedly repeating the mantra of “strong and stable”, almost to the point where it has become a joke. At times, Jeremy Corbyn even seems electable.
The other problem is the difficulty of sticking with the issue of economic incompetence. For the best part of a decade the Conservatives have argued with great force that Labour wrecked the economy and that a painful period of austerity was unavoidable. While that idea has become embedded in political and public discourse, if not culture, Corbyn and his closest associates simply do not accept it, pointing to the widening wealth-poverty divide and the endemic tax-avoidance activities of the super-rich and many of the largest corporations.
The battle on these two issues is likely to continue for the last two weeks which means that most of the attention may focus on the third broad theme of presumed Conservative advantage – Labour as a threat to the security of the state.
In most circumstances this would be a very good path for the Conservatives to tread, and one has to say that a natural response to the terrible events in Manchester would be that support for the party of government that preaches security and stability would tend to increase. Although it may have had no connection whatsoever with the decision to raise the national threat level to “critical”, the highest level, such a move in the middle of an election campaign might further increase support for the ruling party.
Even here, though, it is proving difficult for Theresa May to make much headway, especially as it has become highly likely that the bomber was not acting alone and there may have been an active paramilitary cell that has been missed. This sense of a government not fully in control of events has been heightened by two serious leaks of information about the investigation to the US media that have been seriously embarrassing. In short, “strength and stability” looks that bit less credible than the Conservatives might have hoped.
As campaigning resumes, a new rash of opinion polls will be scrutinised closely. If they show the Conservatives returning to a substantial lead, then they might well get a stunning result on 8 June, but if there is no significant change from a week ago, and the latest polls do confirm this, then campaigning will resume with many Labour supporters buoyed by this unexpected turn of events. Assuming for now that this will be the case, how should the Conservatives be expected to react and how might Labour counter them?
A security focus
Whatever else they do, it is highly likely that much of their campaign will revolve around security, not least the war on terror. Some flavour of this was seen in the banner headline in that most pro-Tory of the tabloids, the Sun, in the wake of the Manchester bombing – “BLOOD ON HIS HANDS”, essentially blaming the Manchester attack on Corbyn for his claimed previous support for terrorism.
Much more of this is likely, coupled with renewed emphasis on Labour’s ambivalent attitude to international military intervention and to maintaining a nuclear force. These should be easy for the Conservatives to handle, but there are reasons to suggest that even they may not have the salience that might normally be expected.
On the nuclear issue, for example, the unpredictable and thoroughly worrying attitude of Donald Trump to North Korea and Iran, and the implication that he will start a war to prevent either going nuclear could come to haunt Theresa May. It will be easy enough for Corbyn or another Labour politician to ask why the RAF has recently trained with the South Korean airforce for the first time in history. Did Theresa May approve this and, if a crisis develops, will she back Trump?
Similarly, the decision of the Pentagon to send strategic bombers to RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire in June would ordinarily be seen as routine, but not with Trump in the White House and not when the head of US Global Strike Command states that the deployment is designed to send a message of reassurance in the face of a presumed Russian threat. Did Theresa May know about this deployment, did she approve it, and will she have a veto over any US military action from British soil if the worst happens and a crisis with Russia escalates.
Look at it this way. Corbyn and his closest associates do not believe that economic austerity is necessary – they simply don’t accept that there is no alternative, and that is now a reasonable subject for political debate when just a few months ago it would not even have been on the agenda.
Similarly, Jeremy Corbyn does not accept the received wisdom that the way to deal with al-Qaida and ISIS is by going to war. This is a risky stance, especially in light of the terrible events in Manchester, yet it might well strike a chord much louder than we expect. The blunt truth is that people feel no more secure in the UK than they did fifteen years ago, in spite of wars that have wrecked three countries, cost hundreds of thousands of lives and seem to have no prospect of ending.
It is difficult to discuss this whole issue rationally in the midst of a general election campaign that the incumbent party called, expects to win and will throw everything into what might become a very dirty campaign. Yet the point argued last week is still relevant. Something is going on below the political surface that is not easy to understand. So far this election campaign has not gone the way that the Conservatives expected and there may well be some real surprises still to come.