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Be afraid, be very afraid?
“How’s that hopey changey thing working out for ya?” Sarah Palin’s infamous jibe at Barack Obama back in 2011 didn’t stop him winning re-election. But it did underline that it’s very, very difficult to win power solely by accentuating the positive. As Obama’s own attacks on Mitt Romney proved, going negative works too.
And in this British election, Labour and the Tories must believe that hopey-changey thing isn’t working out for them. Instead, Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson have both gone all-in with attack lines and attack ads on each other. Negativity has ruled.
Yes, their eve-of-poll messages included attempts to uplift the nation’s spirits and raise voters’ eyes to the horizons ahead. Johnson said overnight that he wanted to get Brexit “done” and to spread “opportunity and hope” across the whole UK. Corbyn said: “My message to all those voters who are still undecided is that you can vote for hope in this election.” He even had a new video yesterday focusing on “hope”.
But as they went on last-ditch journeys via planes, trains and automobiles down the spine of the country, the fear factor was more obvious than ever. Corbyn’s new (and rapidly spreading) Facebook advert quotes Johnson saying “inequality is essential” and carries images of Grenfell alongside claims he lied about cutting fire cover in London. Labour’s main message in the whole campaign was also based on stoking fears that the Tories would “sell off” the NHS to Donald Trump.
For their part, the Tories have also gone low. We’ve seen ads claiming Labour would impose a “homes tax” and attack lines suggesting there would be 150 more sexual assaults and 52 more murders a year under Corbyn. Most constant of all has been the undercurrent that Corbyn is a friend of terrorists, or at least a “terrorist sympathiser” for groups like the IRA, Hamas and Islamists.
On the Today programme, Nick Robinson put this terrorism charge directly to Corbyn and the Labour leader’s reply is worth quoting in full:
“I answer that by simply saying I want to lead a government that will bring real security to people, real security of a decent job, a decent home and public services that matter, a government that’s serious about issues of cyber security and terrorism on the world stage… It won’t be a government that throws loose words around.”
That answer was a study in why Corbyn’s supporters love him (thoughtful, refusing to play the “security game”, a promoter of peace). But it was also why many of his candidates think he is toxic to working class voters (no direct answers, not forceful enough in rebutting such charges, too metropolitan). Jack Merritt’s father has effectively defended Corbyn’s emphasis on rehabilitation. Yet only today 100 victims of IRA terrorism wrote an open letter demanding a meeting and an apology from the Labour leader.
All these attack ads seem more American than ever. The UK has historically welcomed US imports, from Hollywood movies and TV shows to a recent trend for kids’ Halloween nights and teenage high school proms. But this British general election has seen two further US habits that have unnerved many: Trump-style “fake news” and presidential campaigns that focus on leaders more than parties.
For all the fact-checking websites and journalism that does great work in calling out lies and deceptions, the torrent of untruths seems unstoppable. The Conservatives have deployed Facebook, Google and YouTube adverts that doctor opponents’ and journalists’ words, while Twitter has become a place that lies spread swiftly. Labour once thought the online battle would help it bypass print media, but instead it’s finding that the unregulated space of the internet can be just as hostile.
It’s true (as we revealed here in early November) that Labour has outgunned the Tories once more on organic metrics such as Facebook views (Corbyn’s 69m to Johnson’s 11m), re-tweets (2.4m to 372k) and shares (2.2m to Johnson’s 262k). And some of the smartest, slickest adverts have come not from Labour HQ but from Momentum and the trade unions (GMB’s today is a neat play on the idea it’s just five minutes to vote but the outcome decides the next five years).
But the Tories have raised their online game significantly since 2017, using hard cash to promote YouTube ads and even having the wit to deploy some humour (my kids and their peers have noticed the ‘meme’ of the lo-fi ‘boriswave’). Worst of all for Labour is the kind of mad fake tweets (like the one about the boy on the Leeds hospital floor) that sow doubt into the minds of key wavering voters who were thinking the NHS at least the best reason to vote for Corbyn.
Most importantly, Johnson’s efforts to turn this into a US-style presidential campaign seem to be working, as he targets working class men in particular. Just as The Sun in 1997 urged readers to “back Blair” [not Labour as such], so in 2019 many vox pops have seen Labour Leavers saying they’ll “vote for Boris” [not the Tories as such].
I remember on the day of the last People’s Vote march seeing some middle class protestors arrive at a train station, which was coincidentally full of working class Wimbledon fans on their way back from a match. “Up the Brexit!” one fan yelled at the sight of the pro-EU badges. It was politics as football, with England v EU trumping the usual tribal red v blue loyalties.
Perhaps the greatest irony of this election is that Johnson has tried to turn it into the very thing he claims he doesn’t want: a second referendum on Brexit. With ruthless tactics and message discipline reminiscent of Vote Leave, he could end up with a similarly narrow but historic result.
The genius of Vote Leave’s 2016 campaign lay in converting decades of working class frustration into “send-them-a-message” action, rather than the habitual inaction of not voting at all.
If Labour Leavers do send a message to Corbyn, rather than stay at home, president Johnson may end up with his biggest victory yet. And the twin fears of losing Brexit and of getting Corbyn in No.10 will have done it. The promises of a better life outside the EU, Brexit’s very own “hopey-changey thing”, will have to wait until after polling day.
Quote Of The Day
“They should look at themselves in the mirror”
Jeremy Corbyn on the 15 former Labour MPs who placed a newspaper ad claiming he was not fit to be PM.
Wednesday’s Election Cheat Sheet
Boris Johnson started the day with claims he tried to hide in a fridge to avoid an interview with GMB’s Piers Morgan. After delivering some doorstep milk, he produced an ‘oven-ready’/already baked pie in Derby, flew to Wales and headed to London for his final event.
Jeremy Corbyn began in Glasgow, went to Middlesbrough, then Rother Valley and Bedford before heading to his own London rally.
The PM used a private jet again to travel from Derbyshire to Wales. He was criticised earlier this week for travelling from Doncaster to Darlington by plane, a journey that takes 53 minutes by train.
HuffPost found Tony Blair’s former seat of Sedgefield was on a knife-edge as the Tories targeted Brexit voters.
Independent candidate David Gaukesmashed Twitter again as he ridiculed Johnson’s attempted fridge exit (Fr-exit, anyone?)
The Independent revealed that EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has said privately a full UK-EU trade deal is unlikely to be concluded by the end of 2020. “It is unrealistic that a global negotiation can be done in 11 months, so we can’t do it all,” he said.
Tactical voting against the Tories in just 30 seats could deny Boris Johnson a majority in the general election, a new analysis of YouGov’s authoritative latest poll suggests.
What I’m Reading