Whatever the Narrative, Both Parties are Running Poor Campaigns

It will all soon be over. We should thanks the (non-existent) gods for small mercies.

When Theresa May called the election, it was expected to be a walkover.  Then it started to go wrong, and the narrative changed: it is now May who is under fire and Corbyn who is surging. An election that was meant to be about Brexit has turned into anything but. Her embarrassing u-turn on her signature social care policy started a backlash that she made worse by denying it was a u-turn when interviewed by Andrew Neil.

The Manchester bomb attack paused the campaign and turned the focus towards national security. Resuming campaigning, Corbyn ran into the storm by addressing his foreign policy views in a speech. By trying to own the issue rather than focus on domestic priorities, he gave license to a series of attacks upon him.

An analysis by YouGov has shown May facing a hung parliament. The narrative is still one of Labour’s good campaign and the Tories disastrous campaign.

The trouble with narratives is that they tend to be black and white: May bad. Corbyn good. Sophisticated dialectic lost. Because if the previous narrative was wrong, then there is an equally good chance that the current one is too.

The weaker she becomes, the more reliant May is on her right-wing

May is running a pretty cack-handed campaign. Her manifesto u-turn was unprecedented. The attempt to deny it as such was worse. The campaign has shown us that May lacks campaigning grit and nous. What she is not (yet?) is the political reincarnation of Norman Wisdom in better footwear.

The campaign and the u-turn tell us a fair amount about May’s leadership style, but not what Labour are trying to persuade people. All we know is what we knew already, May is a rather average politician, lacking the political craft of her predecessor who understood the importance of mood music to politics. It is rather ironic that Cameron, a keen hunter, never found himself facing the same barrage of hostility May has done over foxhunting; the former prime minister would also not have taken on elderly voters with such a tough policy. If he had, he would have better finessed the dumping of it.

Even before his premiership began, Harold Macmillan had been accused of being “first in, first out” over Suez but he went on to serve for six years and win a landslide election. The distance between the end of the beginning and the beginning of the end can be a political eternity.

May’s poor campaign does not mean she will not handle Brexit negotiations well. There is a world of difference between responding to public pressure on domestic policy and political negotiation. May has a fair track record in Europe as Home Secretary and is known as a stubborn operator.

Her danger is perhaps greater. The weaker she becomes, the more reliant May is on her right-wing. “No deal is better than a bad deal” may be a risky negotiating mantra for her (and good politics) but for many in her party it is more than that.

The other side of the narrative is that Labour is having a good campaign. At first glance, this is hard to dismiss: their poll numbers are buoyant and Corbyn’s public performances have met with some approval. It is not the complete picture though.

Labour have risen in the polls but very little of their support has come from Tory voters: May’s stratospheric numbers have gone but she still averages in the mid-forties. Much of Labour’s rise is soft. The average of polls in 2017 shows a three to four-point bump on 2015. Not so much a surge as a spasm.

And for every good performance, he puts in a bad one. He has had more positions on whether or not he will unfreeze benefits than a well-thumbed copy of the Karma Sutra, has told untruths about his connections with the IRA and hardly a day goes by without Diane Abbott blundering through an interview. Labour is benefitting from low expectations. That Corbyn does not vomit on his interviewer is taken as a sign of his statesmanship. His supporters like to cry that the media is unfair to their man. If anything, he has got off lightly.

If Labour is running a good campaign, I would love to see their disastrous campaigns.

when we buy into narratives that suit our purposes, it makes it a little harder to fight those that don’t

In 1987, Labour’s campaign was widely praised for its sleek public relations; they repackaged Neil Kinnock to impress the media bored with a shambolic Tory operation that saw a presidential Margaret Thatcher tour a voterless country. Labour still lost by a landslide.

In 2007, the nation was so tired of Tony Blair that when Gordon Brown took over his every move was praised. Even the most banal utterance was reported as if it contained Cartesian profundity. Then he changed his mind about an early election and suddenly he could do no right: even when he “saved the world” he received little credit. 

Narratives change. And when we buy into narratives that suit our purposes, it makes it a little harder to fight those that don’t.

This election that was meant to be about Brexit might turn, in its final days, to be about Brexit - it is the event that will define the next parliament. Then the narrative will shift again.

Narratives are easy. They’re also unavoidable fictions. That does not mean we have to play along with them though.

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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