As in the run-up to every Christmas, it is becoming colder, darker and there are lots of novel and expensive gifts on offer that many are willing to go into serious debt to acquire, even if it is only for short-term gratification. But this year no one believes in Santa, the people loitering on your doorstep are not carol singers and the sleigh bells sound more like echoes of despair. This is general election 2019, the election when, naughty or nice, everyone gets a lump of coal. A good thing surely then, that none of us care (apparently).
A live studio audience laughing mocking both contenders to be the next prime minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. A series of pledges that can’t withstand time or a simple fact-check. A fake fact-check that purposefully misleads. These are what make up the collage of madness that has become the new norm of our political discourse, turbo-charged (to borrow a favourite Tory campaign phrase) by an out-of-season electoral contest.
Following Tuesday’s ITV debate, YouGov found that neither Boris Johnson nor Jeremy Corbyn were considered ‘trustworthy’ by a majority of viewers. Just as concerning, at least 230 people out of 1646 people (or 14% of those polled) said Boris came across as not trustworthy but still ‘likeable’ and ‘prime ministerial’. More concerning, at least 29% of the polling sample believed Boris came across as ‘likeable’ and ‘prime ministerial’ but not ‘in touch’. Welcome to the post-truth times.
If Jeremy Corbyn supporters aren’t annoyed sufficiently by this (especially given that their man scored 29 percentage points higher on coming across as ‘in touch’), the one true oracle of psephology Professor John Curtice has written in The Times today that Labour’s policies are actually popular (as Corbyn has said over and over and over…), it’s just that people don’t have any confidence in their ability to deliver. People will of course have to work very hard to suspend their disbelief about this given how effective Corbyn and his leadership team have been in tackling antisemitism, leading the opposition against the government’s Brexit plan and getting the message out about their own Brexit solution…
Swing low Swinson
The Lib Dems, having slid in the polls since the general election was called and realising that the landscape is shifting against them with a more credible Conservative Brexit pitch and a Labour Party promising a second referendum, looked to secure some cut-throughs with their manifesto launch on Wednesday.
Perhaps as result of seeing their two bigger rivals coming out strong on fiscal imprudence, the Lib Dems decided to put forward their own eye-watering spending pledges including a commitment to provide free childcare for all children aged two to four, 35 hours a week, 48 weeks a year. That would involve more than a fourfold increase in the current childcare budget – an extra £13 billion if anyone is still counting.
So far there are no signs that the Lib Dems are returning to the polling highs seen earlier this year and what’s worse for their supporters is that Jo Swinson appears to be an electoral liability with her own popularity lagging significantly behind that of her party. The more people are exposed to her, it seems, the more likely they are to have an unfavourable opinion of her.
It is worth remembering that though there has been some very modest progress on reducing national debt in relative terms, the UK government a decade on from the credit crunch has not yet managed to run a fiscal surplus in any year since. The Lib Dems, who if you remember loved to claim that they saw the crash coming are now the only major party committed explicitly to reducing the national debt as a percentage of income. The country is almost certainly therefore heading for a rather more severe Boxing Day hangover when whichever government comes to power has their way with the public coffers.
Welcoming their hatred
Yesterday, Labour went to Birmingham City University to launch their manifesto, and it has given energy to many in his base who recognise that this is the document he would have liked to have published in 2017 but didn’t have the confidence or support to pull off.
You name it, it appears Labour wants to own and run it (or a new publically financed competitor) from a government office. Labour will also give public sector workers, of which there would be a great deal more of if they win, a guaranteed real terms pay rise each year, starting with a 5% boost next year.
But don’t worry if you’re not nationalised, you may still benefit from the introduction of a real living wage of at least £10 an hour, free broadband, free higher education, free retraining, free personal at-home care and free drugs (thanks to abolished prescription charges). From cradle to grave, there’s nothing that public sector borrowing can’t provide for you according to this new manifesto.
Conservatives running away with it
Looking at the polls and the betting odds in recent weeks, one would be forgiven for thinking the Conservatives were unassailable and that a Johnson-led majority government is a fait accompli. It is certainly comment-worthy that despite the prime minister being caught out misleading the public time and time again (Google his name and ‘40 hospitals’, ‘£500’ and ‘bulldozers’ as starters for ten) he never seems to pay for it.
But this general impression does not account for the fact that the electoral map is a nightmare for any party looking to form a majority. Winning more than 320 seats – with the electorate as divergent and unpredictable as it is today, with nationalists riding high in the devolved nations, the Brexit Party poised to secure a significant vote share in marginal seats and the Lib Dems running the campaign of their lives wherever they can get a foothold (not to mention the electoral pact between the Lib Dems, Greens and Plaid Cymru) – is a confounding task.
The Conservatives will of course be heartened that though the challenge may be stark, they are at least well-resourced. The Electoral Commission helpfully informed us this week that the Conservatives have raised 25 times more than Labour in registered donations (anything over £7,500) in the first week of the campaign.
So the biggest party in the UK has raised 25 times more than the second biggest party in the UK. If that’s not enough, BBC political correspondent Chris Mason has heard that the Conservatives have raised more than £4m in unregistered smaller donations since the beginning of the election campaign, or four times as much as Labour claims it has raised. Some might very cynically argue that Corbyn has a point when he claims the system is rigged…
Still no Russia report
And just as a gentle reminder: there is a report that contains an assessment of the level and nature of the risk of Russian interference in our general election process and our political system more broadly, which is believed to contain critical information about the integrity of said process and system, and the government has refused to publish it until after the general election. Meanwhile, the governing party is more than happy to accept a £200,000 donation from the wife of a former Russian finance minister who served under Vladimir Putin.
Searching for solace
All of the above may leave some with the impression that these are dark times and that this will be a truly dreadful political winter. If it’s any consolation, it won’t be over in any meaningful sense for many years yet so it’s conceivable we might just get used to it.
If you want to get in touch with our public affairs experts then email Ben Wheatley, practice director of Four Public Affairs, here.