So now we’re into the second – and, one hopes, final – phase of the general election, what have we learned?
First, Theresa May is an even worse campaigner than we thought. The wooden poses, the stilted language – these we knew about. But the panicked backtracking last weekend on a key manifesto policy is something else altogether. That smacks of lack of resolve, which is meant to be her strong suit.
Admittedly, the proposal on funding social care was a hard sell (and, I believe, misguided), but it was undoubtedly coherent and serious. Particularly when it was up against a Labour manifesto that studiously avoids mentioning inheritance tax, leaving you to draw your own conclusions. But if you can’t defend a policy, then you shouldn’t put it forward in the first place.
The abrupt reversal was not terminal; it was incompetent. As my old music teacher used to say: Right or wrong, play it strong.
Second, the Tory strategy of focussing so heavily on Jeremy Corbyn is a mistake. Partly this is because there are plenty of other targets. Any decent Project Fear campaign would have posters of Diane Abbott and John McDonnell, asking if we wanted them to run the police and the economy respectively.
But it’s also a mistake because it underestimates the Labour leader’s ability to communicate. Nearly two years ago, after the first of the televised hustings for the Labour leadership back in June 2015, I wrote that Corbyn wasn’t quite the joke figure as he was being painted:
Forget policies, however, and the values he espouses are not too far removed from the image the British have of ourselves as a nation. When he talks of principles of fairness and equality, of community and public services, he resonates in a way that Ed Miliband never achieved.
Just to be clear: I didn’t then expect Corbyn to become leader. I thought that Labour members would have more sense. Now I don’t believe he’ll become prime minister – I think the electorate will have more sense. But I was wrong then, and may yet be wrong again. For the record, I’m still predicting – as I have been throughout – a Tory majority in the mid-fifties. Say fifty-four, for the sake of offering a hostage to fortune.
As a caveat, though, I’m also reminded of something else I wrote during that 2015 leadership campaign:
Someone on Twitter (I apologise for forgetting who – let me know it was you) suggested that, if this [the next general election] were a dice game, Labour needed to throw a six to win, and that Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall could only manage threes and fours. Corbyn, on the other hand, offered the chance of either a one or a six…
The task of choosing a new leader is to find someone who can articulate a sense of hope for the future, to persuade somewhere around a quarter of the electorate that he or she can help us build a better society. At the moment, there’s only one candidate who’s being seen in those terms. But I suspect there’s only one six on his die (if that) and that the other faces are all ones. And I fear that Labour might actually need a double-six anyway.*
One final thought from the election thus far. As everyone has noted, there’s been a surge of anti-establishment, anti-expert populism evident around the world in the last few years. But despite the contribution of UKIP, it’s notable that in Britain this mood has been effortlessly contained within the existing party framework. May presents herself as the Voice of Brexit, Corbyn as the Voice of Discontent: both are anti-establishment positions, but both remain part of the established system. The British ability to absorb and channel new tendencies is truly remarkable.
* Note that this was written when boundary changes were expected before the election.