Annndddd theyyy’rreee off!
The general election begins and already Boris Johnson had donned his white NHS labcoat with Union flag emblazoned jogging bottoms. Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn hugs a nurse before slipping into his Xanax mode, oozing a quiet gentility that’s meant to convince the electorate that he’d never climb a barricade or march on the Winter Palace.
Isn’t it always the same? The general election clichés pile up quicker than a Lib Dem leaflet drop. Much of it is risible. Some of it is effective. Little of this is about you or me. It isn’t for those of us who read political websites. The next five weeks are about reaching that section of the electorate only ever asked to decide the most difficult matters. They are the politically indifferent, known in polite society as “the undecideds”.
It results in the kind of blatant grab for votes that seems like a good idea for however long that news cycle lasts. Not so good when you surprisingly go into a coalition government and that policy becomes the key promise you gruesomely sacrifice in the name of unity. “’I will never again make a pledge unless as a party we are absolutely clear about how we can keep it” said Nick Clegg, once the great hope for centrist politics and now doing media spin for Facebook. Tempus edax rerum, as our Prime Minister would say.
That was 2010. In 2019, we hardly seem to have moved on. Policy making of the hoof is more fashionable than ever. A ban on fracking? What a good idea! Except didn’t someone spend the past few years laughing off the concerns of old folk shaking in their Blackpool bungalows? And what’s that I hear? The first benefits raise since 2015 is coming next April? And by a whopping 1.7%? Just don’t let the mathematically challenged know they can’t do much with an extra £1.34 a week…
And, yes, of course, it is unfair to hammer the Tories. All parties use the power afforded to them when in government in order to grease the slipway ahead of their manifesto launch. It’s also foolish to treat manifestos in the absolute. After George W. Bush famously told America in 1988 to “read my lips” and promised “no new taxes”, it was rather honourable that he then broke that promise, despite knowing the political hellstorm that it would unleash.
Manifestos are about intent rather than prophesy but that does not mean that barefaced opportunism shouldn’t be called out wherever it exists. There is, after all, a difference between policy and ideology. The former can and should change according to circumstance, but the latter is meant to be the expression of your firmest held political beliefs. It goes to the heart of Labour’s Brexit problem. Just what does Jeremy Corbyn believe rather than what he now says he believes? And if austerity was a clear-sighted Tory solution to a national crisis (and many a good argument was made to that end) you can’t simply abandon it in order to throw cash at a general election.
Surviving a general election isn’t just about getting your mind around the staggering opportunism on display. We must also witness one of the oddest sights in the animal kingdom and that’s politicians promoting their manifestos by meeting actual members of the public. The media will, of course, “go ape” whenever the Boris Johnson gets heckled. But it tells us no more about the national mood than when Good King Corbyn is ecstatically greeted by his true believers at a rally.