The 2017 General Election was one nobody wanted but Theresa May was right to call it. Everyone involved – candidates, voters, journalists – is weary and longing for it to be over. General Election campaigns are searing experiences. Reputations are won or lost, temperatures reach boiling point and stay there. These days, social media amplifies the noise and speeds up the flow of information, rumour, gossip, news – fake or real. Over these weeks we have learnt interesting things about our leaders, our country and ourselves.
I have travelled around the country visiting a variety of different constituencies, listening and watching, discussing and debating the issues. Many of those issues are the ones the political parties want to talk about – Brexit, health, education, transport – and some are ones they are wary of discussing – such as community integration, family cohesion, where is the money coming from to pay for the services we all want. There are some issues that neither side want to talk about openly but which are serious and need addressing – including increasing racism, social division, the fracturing of the sense of togetherness.
The dominant issue, the one the General Election was primarily called over, is Brexit. Britain remains deeply and emotionally divided. David Cameron’s decision to honour his 2015 General Election manifesto promise was to bequeath to his successor a country fractured along social, regional, educational and economic fault lines.
But while politicians may call an election for a specific purpose, the electorate has a tendency to determine how campaigns go. As always it is important to distinguish between the campaign you are presented with by the media and the one that is happening on the ground. The media obsess about which aide did what to which minister, or a great sage emerges bleary eyed from the bar of their St James’s club to grandly inform us such and such a person must raise their game. This is mostly twaddle. Few of these luminosities have stood for office or canvassed a vote. Voters don’t care about political aides. Voters can judge for themselves about the competence of the party leaders. Even manifesto policy pledges barely make a mark in the world outside of Westminster. This may break the heart of policy wonks and Fleet Street hacks but few are paying much attention to them.
In constituencies up and down the country candidates are fighting individual campaigns in their own areas. Over these local campaigns the national campaigns washes like the tide ebbing and flowing. Parliamentary candidates have to negotiate the impact of the national campaign. They have to make their points in leaflets and hustings, and not do anything that attracts national attention, but somehow impact on local consciousness. It is not easy. Consistently though there is a clear sense that outside of London, always challenging terrain for the Conservative Party, Theresa May has – despite the headlines – made a huge and significantly positive impact in the minds of voters. Her insight before and throughout the election campaign that the Conservative Party could displace Labour in its heartlands is likely to be proved right on election day.
In the end there is a sense, formed over time, of whether a leader and a party can be trusted to deliver what is needed. Voters are on the whole too realistic to think they will deliver everything promised, that all will go without a hitch, but they look for the person who is likely to make the best fist of a difficult job. This time the job is particularly difficult and in the end the choice is not so difficult.
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Of course Jeremy Corbyn has done better than many expected. He has fought a campaign that is true to his long political career and values. It has been a scrappy, insurgent campaign based on incredible economic policies and one that goes against the grain of majority opinion in his own Parliamentary party and the country as a whole. Twice victorious in leadership contests for his party he has had every right to fight the campaign he has, but it is not possible to believe that a leader who suffered a no confidence vote at the hands of three quarters of his MPs could seriously form a government of the United Kingdom.
Meanwhile, Theresa May ends the campaign as she began it, on course to form the next government. General election campaigns are never easy or elegant. They are a rough and tumble scramble for votes and attention. They are the process of supplication and humiliation we demand of our leaders before we grant them vast and barely checked power.
For Mrs May it has been a tough campaign, but she is a tough campaigner. She came to Number 10 as neither the provoker nor the architect of the circumstances. She has faced bitter sniping from marooned Cameroons. The electorate understands this. Now she will assume office in her own right, at the head of a government she has led into office. Her government will have a mandate to deliver on the huge policy agenda that lies ahead. It is an historic opportunity, a defining moment for Britain and our role on the world stage. She deserves to win.