Gordon Campbell on the twists in the UK election

The main reason Theresa May chose to call a snap election for June 8 in Britain was because the Tories firmly believed that a British Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn couldn’t and wouldn’t pose any threat. Instead, the Conservatives’ original 21 point lead has come tumbling down in one recent poll, to a mere five point gap. Margin of error territory, in Britain. Although the chronic unreliability of British political polling is something that polling expert Nate Silver warned us about from the very outset.

Nothing is proceeding to plan for the Tories. Blame it on May’s disastrous campaign style – the faux Thatcherist confidence, coupled with disastrous wobblings and policy U-turns on every other day, followed by bald assertions that no, no, nothing has changed. The result has seen the gap between the two parties begin to close substantially alongside a major tightening in the approval ratings gap between May and Corbyn. Reportedly, women voters are surging towards Corbyn.

As one former Tory politician has reportedly said, just as Clinton was the only person in America who couldn’t beat Trump, May seems to be the only British politician who can’t destroy Corbyn. These are very strange times:

A woman who changes her mind on everything, and days after she’s said something says the opposite, is running as the immovable rock in a turbulent world, while a man who hasn’t knowingly changed his mind on anything since 1983 is presenting as the pluralist, the one who can listen.

Not only is it uncertain just how genuine the apparent vaporisation of the Tories lead may be, no-one yet knows how this may play out at electorate level. In other words, Jeremy Corbyn could be facing the British version of Hillary Clinton gaining in the final days in the nationwide polls, while still losing where it matters, in the Electoral College. Part of May’s hubris was that she chose to call this snap election before the new electorate boundary changes – that would have made a Labour comeback virtually impossible – had come into effect. Riskily for her, this election is being held on the old boundaries.

We also don’t have a clue about how the Manchester bombing could have affected voter perceptions of May, whom the terrorists have blessed with a national platform to look prime ministerial, and with the related powers to rachet up the subsequent terrorist threat levels for her own political advantage. Callous though this may sound, the Manchester bombing could hardly have come at a worse point in the campaign cycle for Corbyn.

All of that aside, the fact that the polls have moved at all in Corbyn’s favour seems an extraordinary achievement. Since his rise to the Labour leadership, Corbyn has faced a level of media hostility unprecedented in recent British political history. Not only has Corbyn himself been ridiculed, week in, month out for everything from his tatty cardigans to his ‘hopelessly unreconstructed’ leftism. The splits in the Labour Party have also been relentlessly feasted upon, while similar cleavages among the Tories have been treated as mere management issues, amenable to a bit of judicious attention from the quarterdeck. In fact, the Tories can’t seem to stop falling over their own feet on the campaign trail, as witness this clip of Defence Secretary Michael Fallon trying to attack Corbyn, yet ending up criticising instead his own Cabinet colleague Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.

From a New Zealand perspective, the really interesting thing about Corbyn’s recent rise has been all to do with how Corbyn has ignited the Labour comeback. British Labour is winning ground – from UKIP and the Lib Dems – not by timidly taking ‘Tory lite’ positions or by running away from policies associated with Labour’s left wing traditions. Instead, Corbyn has run on a ‘radical responsible’ agenda under the tagline “For the many, not the few.” Some critics had described it as the most radical programme presented by a major UK political party in decades:

Promising renationalisation of some services, measures to curb corporate excess and end healthcare cuts, Britain’s Labour Party made its case… for voters to back its move to the left… Labour wants to fight Prime Minister Theresa May on domestic policies, particularly healthcare, at the June 8 election,… Alongside its manifesto, Labour also detailed how it would pay for spending commitments worth almost 50 billion pounds ($60 billion), through hikes in corporation tax, higher income tax for the top five percent of earners and new levies.

Predictably, the media had slammed him for it:

Critics say the manifesto evokes the party’s 1983 offering, described then by a Labour lawmaker as “the longest suicide note in history” for helping the Conservatives win… By moving to the left, Labour has cleared the way for May to put her stamp on the centre ground of British politics.

Such was the conventional wisdom. It has been a wisdom echoed here by NZ Labour and by the Greens, who seem to be preparing for this year’s election in September by planing away almost anything – eg a capital gains tax sufficient to deter housing speculation – that the mythical centre ground might find offensive, or threatening. It has been taken for granted that moving leftwards would be suicidal. Sounding like a nicer, gentler version of the Tories on economic management – and taking ‘strong’ stances on immigration and law’n’order that echo New Zealand First – has been embraced as the only savvy, realistic route to power available to the centre left. Well… at the moment, Jeremy Corbyn is showing Andrew Little that there has always been another way.

It is still unlikely that Corbyn will actually win the British election on June 8. Yet Labour’s apparent resurgence has re-focussed attention on what sort of victory May needs in order to justify this exercise. Victory can look like a defeat. Ask Tony Blair, who won a 66 seat majority in 2005 (down from 166) and never recovered from it. After all, May had justified this snap election as being necessary to strengthen her hand in the Brexit dealings with Brussels. This wasn’t a smart thing to do in the first place: far better to go into the two year EU negotiations with the ability to say “the British public would never wear that” than to go in tactically naked. In a problem entirely of her own making, May will now need a victory margin of about 70 – 80 seats to be able to claim a mandate to bargain. On current polling, she will be lucky to win that margin. Anything short of a 50 seat majority will look like a defeat.

Right now, the UK election campaign is at a crossroads.

The campaign enters its final lap against a backdrop of the attacks in Manchester and after a pause of several days in activities. Many MPs, including Lucy Powell, the Labour MP for Manchester Central, say they cannot contemplate, or quite face, the prospect of resuming normal election activity, banging on doors and courting support in the usual pushy way.

“Our hearts are not in it. It is very hard to motivate oneself to be bouncy and bubbly and all political. I know we should not let terrorism interfere with the democratic process, but it is hard. There are hundreds of schools and so many people directly affected.” Powell said she would go out with fellow Labour MP Jonathan Reynolds, the member for Stalybridge and Hyde, as it would be easier to campaign as a pair.

The terror attack will make campaigning over the next 10 days more emotional, potentially more highly charged, and possibly less predictable still.

It’s a family affair…

On the campaign trail, it is supposedly all about the future, and what we want for the kids. With that in mind, here are a couple of obscure soul tracks that are endearingly direct about the needs of family. Patrizia and Jimmy’s ‘Trust Your Child Pt One’ is an admonishment to helicopter parents everywhere:

And from Louisiana, here’s an equally heartfelt track from Frank Turner and the Silver Stars:

BTW the ‘Jimmy’ involved in creating “Trust Your Child” was the veteran producer/writer/session man Jimmy Robins… but just who Patrizia was and what became of her has been lost to history. Robins can’t even remember her surname.