On the eve of the election campaign the Tories held a lead over Labour of around 20 points. It began with Theresa May determined to focus the election on Brexit. The healthy lead in the polls and the voters perception of her as a strong leader had persuaded her to call a snap general election. But as Harold Wilson once said, “a week is a long time in politics.” And so it proved. Within a few weeks the political landscape changed as Labour successfully switched the focus from Brexit to the bread and butter issues of falling living standards, the desperate housing shortage, and the crisis in the NHS and social care. This particular battle is being won by Corbyn and the new enthusiasts who rally behind him.
May had declared early on that she needed a large majority to ensure a good deal for Britain in the Brexit negotiations. This is a red herring. She needs a large majority to silence her critics on the Tory backbenchers, once the deal is done. But why should voters trust her with a large majority when her Brexit strategy boils down to simply saying she wants to get the best possible deal for Britain? Of course voters expect the best possible deal, but it isn’t guaranteed. Anything else, a bad deal or no deal at all, would be disastrous for the British economy.
May clearly believed she was on to a winner in fighting a presidential style election, focused on herself as a “strong and stable” leader, presiding over a safe, secure Britain. Her strictly controlled campaign with few appearances by senior colleagues, is in sharp contrast with Corbyn’s who has been on the hustings since the first day. She has rarely met members of the public, her appearances being almost exclusively among friends and supporters. On one of her few public outings she was confronted by an angry voter who had had her disability benefit cut. May had no satisfactory explanation to offer her. In stark contrast, the more voters see of Corbyn in the flesh, as opposed to reading scare stories about him in the Tory-supporting press, the more they warm to him.
When Labour launched its election manifesto, with detailed costings, the Tories attacked it for its planned profligate spending. They ignored the fact that a large chunk of the spending is designated for capital projects. To the dismay of the Tories, the commitments to abolish tuition fees, to remove the 1% cap on public sector pay, and to provide extra funding for the NHS and social care, have resonated well with voters. This was quickly reflected in increased support for Labour in the opinion polls, creating panic in the Tory ranks and further personal attacks on Jeremy Corbyn.
In contrast to Labour’s manifesto with its detailed costings, the Tories’ programme offered a few uncosted policies: An ambition to bring immigration down, yet again, to the tens of thousands. Increased spending on the NHS. And reform of social care, including what Labour referred to as a “dementia tax.” However, within a matter of days, following attacks by Labour and with the ink barely dry on the paper, the Tories announced an unprecedented U-turn on a Manifesto commitment. Their social care reform was in tatters. May blustered and stuttered, claiming nothing had changed, but her alleged strength was ebbing away. And when asked to explain how the commitments would be funded, May retorted that it would be all right on the night, as under her “strong and stable” leadership the Tories would continue to deliver a “strong economy.”
Theresa May criticised Corbyn’s speech on defence and foreign policy, accusing him of exploiting the tragic Manchester bombing for political reasons. Like many others seeking re-election she denies that terrorist attacks are in any way connected with Western foreign policy. May, the church attending Christian, rightly mourns the slaughter of children at the Ariana Grande concert. But May the politician sells weaponry to Saudi Arabia which are used in the war in Yemen, where thousands of civilians, including 900 children, have been killed. No May mourning for them. Ironically, it is Jeremy Corbyn who holds the Christian position on these matters, while the vicar’s daughter is apparently indifferent to the multitude of deaths in foreign wars supported by her government.
The Tory attack on Corbyn quickly switched from defence and foreign policy to his alleged support for the IRA. In spite of repeated denials that he supported terrorism, May and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, outrageously suggested that Britain would be less safe from terrorist attacks under a Corbyn-led Labour government. (See David Morrison’s article in this issue for a rebuttal of this). And on ITV’s ‘Peston On Sunday’, (28 May), Defence Secretary Michael Fallon deliberately distorted Corbyn’s views on terrorism.
The deliberate distortion and misrepresentation of Jeremy Corbyn’s views on a range of issues has been a Tory tactic throughout the election campaign. Gutter politics at its worst. And yet no Labour member outside of the shadow cabinet has come to Corbyn’s defence, or provided any kind of support, whatever the Tories form of attack. Perhaps, like Lord (Peter) Mandelson, they are praying for a Tory victory.
The priority for the Tories has always been to gain power and hold onto it whatever it takes. This includes stealing the opposition’s ideas, for example: They initially opposed the idea of a minimum wage in 1999. But then displayed wild enthusiasm for an increase in the minimum wage, rebranded as a national living wage, in 2015. Ed Miliband’s energy price freeze proposal in 2015 attacked as “Marxist” and of bucking the market. By contrast May’s price cap in 2017 using the State to buck the market is helping the “just about managing.” The U-turn on the “dementia tax”, while brazenly claiming nothing had changed and attacking Labour’s proposals for improving social care. There is no limit to what the Tories will do to hold onto power.
Whatever May claims, it will be business as usual following a Tory victory. She will alienate Tory backbenchers, friends and financial supporters if she sullies the Tory brand with a form of left Conservatism to appease traditional Labour voters in government, as distinct from an election campaign. We can therefore expect a sharp reverse in her intended direction if the Tories win on 8 June.
A vote for a Corbyn-led Labour government on the other hand, is a vote for a clean break from the failed policies of the recent past. It is a vote for radical change that will address the unequal distribution of wealth and power in Britain. And that is why he is constantly attacked and misrepresented.
[This was written shortly before the actual vote. Unlike many other things written at the time, it stands up very well after the event.]