It's Not Just Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn Failing This Election

During the 1992 General Election campaign, the Labour Party produced a Party Political Broadcast about a girl called Jennifer who had to wait a year for an operation for her glue ear, while a school friend, whose parents were able to afford private medical insurance, did not suffer as much.

Being what they call a tear-jerker, it received some praise and highlighted Labour's campaign issues of Conservative underfunding and mismanagement of the NHS. The trouble was that there was no Jennifer. Also, parents of the girl who played Jennifer were Conservative voters. The ensuing media storm became known as the War of Jennifer’s Ear.

Somewhere in the mess, the issue of healthcare got lost.

It would be heartening to think that in twenty-five years we had learned something. 

The leak of Labour’s manifesto and May’s aside that she would back a free vote on fox hunting ramped up the hysteria. Back to the 1970s! Tory toffs! It must be possible to discuss the level of spending and the role of private companies in public utilities without calling someone a Marxist: the policies can be debated on their merits - or lack of merit. Meanwhile, just because May supports fox hunting, it does not follow that she is Cruella de Vil or that she wants to bring back cock fighting and have it televised on BBC One.

It is Jennifer’s ear all over again. Somewhere it has gone missing that we are debating Britain’s future, including its relationship with the European Union. And while we can blame the press or politicians for trivialising issues, we are as much to blame. That retweet button is awfully tempting, isn’t it?

The issue is not just Twitter et al. It is us

When Theresa May called the election she made it perfectly clear that she did not want a head-to-head debate. Opponents pounced on her decision: it was an affront to democracy. They hurled accusations as if they had caught her stuffing ballot boxes with Conservative votes. Two weeks later, the only thing she hasn’t been accused of is kidnapping the Lindberg baby and being Lord Lucan.

It was noticeable that those who attacked Chicken May were more reticent in their comments when Jeremy Corbyn also backed out of the leaders’ debates.

Eventually, it was agreed that the leaders of the two main parties would face questions back-to-back in the format used in 2015. Democracy survived then. No doubt it will again.

The Prime Minister has also been accused of avoiding the press on her visits to factories and locations around the country. There is something unseemly about an election campaign that avoids scrutiny. However, isn't it equally unbecoming when a Labour leader misleads journalists then bans the news source that exposes his  inaccuracies? 

This is not to get too prissy about it. Politics is full of raucous debate and often theatre plays an important, and symbolic, role. However, social media has created a politics that is on steroids.

The issue is not just Twitter et al. It is us. Yes, the manner in which both leaders are conducting their campaigns is letting down democracy. But so are we. We have given into the temptation of criticising our opponents on issues that we would not condemn those whom we support. The aim is not some form of truth but to being right.

Partisan loyalty is not what is was. Voters switch parties to a degree not always seen in the headline figures of opinion polls or election results. Yet it has not gone away. Obviously instinctive party loyalty depends on the premises with which an individual lives. When this identity becomes too dominant then we are failing ourselves - we’re also failing democracy.

Our vote is our one hold over politicians

Lack of objectivity is inevitable. We are human. Perhaps the most dangerous person is the one who thinks they are truly objective. Yet, if we enter into the democratic process by saying that it is 100% certain that we will vote for a particular party or 100% certain we won’t vote for a particular party, we are willing leaders to let us down.

The adulation that Corbyn has received from his supporters has not necessarily helped him. He has been aware that he has their, sometimes, undying support, therefore has not needed to gather support from the rest of his party. The result is - lack of total objectivity acknowleged - that Labour is going into this election with a leader who is unprepared to be prime minister.

Equally, the fawning praise May has received from the right-wing press risks that she will not attempt to broaden her position on Brexit. Both are done for a reason but both are short-sighted.

After Tim Farron was quizzed about his views on homosexuality, May faced similar questions. She batted them away but faced, perhaps fairly, criticism for her many past votes on LGBT issues. How many of those criticisms acknowledged - even celebrated - that she went on to become the “unsung hero” of Equal Marriage?

Corbyn has put in some lamentable performances at PMQs. Not all of them have been though. How many of his opponents have praised him when he has shown real passion - like on grammar schools?

Our vote is our one hold over politicians. By giving it too easily, we allow leaders to be complacent; by withholding it too censoriously, we give little reason for change.

Twas ever thus.

King Canute stood on the beach and commanded the waves in order to demonstrate his impotence. #JustSaying

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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