Flat or Sparkling Campaign?

W Stephen Gilbert

People generally vote out of self-interest. Of course they do. The snag is that relatively few have any sense of where their self-interest lies.

Throughout the history of democracy across the world, the chasm between wealth and poverty has been sustained by the voting patterns of the nonaffluent, far too few of whom embrace political organisations that aim to take them out of poverty and want.

The largest single contributor to the warming of the global climate is the electoral support enjoyed by those who warm it. The wealthy are motivated only by short-term profit, by the freedom to exploit moneymaking opportunities without the intrusion of law and politics.

Insofar as they consider the state of the world beyond their own deaths (You Can’t Take It With You, as Frank Capra’s 1938 movie was entitled, was made when Capra’s anti-fat-cat comedies briefly struck a chord in an American public still suffering the effects of the Great Depression), these people make provision for their descendants to be safeguarded against the effects of global warming by gating them away from common humanity, and leave the rest to the mercy of the floods, droughts, fires, famines and tornadoes. Why wouldn’t they?

The only non-millionaires wealthy people ever encounter – apart from the politicians and other suckers who work as their fixers – are their own staff.

These exploiters have politicians in their pockets and ensure that those politicians get elected. The leaders of two of the largest democracies on earth, Bolsonaro and Trump (one of whom will be and the other of whom already is a billionaire), are not only climate change deniers but are actively engaged in projects that palpably damage the environment.

That small- and big-L Liberal hero Justin Trudeau trumpets his green credentials, but his Canadian government supports the biggest single pollutant project in the world, the gigantic Alberta oil sands corporation, as Simon Reeves discovered in his BBC television series The Americas the other week.

Yet these biddable politicians, who put big business before the survival of life on earth, are passionately supported by thousands who have most to lose under climate change. Truly, people get the politicians they deserve.

This is not just the case on green issues, but on all issues of redistribution of wealth.

Many more American voters are entranced by the notion that the so-called American dream should be available unfettered to all, than by the notion that access to that dream needs fundamentally readjusting to give it any semblance of democracy or equality.

Thus are preserved the advantages built-in for those who already live more of that dream than everyone else can contemplate. No wonder so many people buy lottery tickets.

Tragically, far more citizens of the world cast their votes out of profound ignorance and/or indifference to anything that really matters than those who mean the exercise of their democratic right to be meaningful.

Your cross on the ballot paper, born of your passion or ideology or long consideration or deliberate tactics, is neutralised by that of someone voting by whim or incomprehension or unexamined habit or sheer perversity. Electoral results are determined by mass senselessness.

In recent years, notably since Dwight Eisenhower and (thirty years later) Ronald Reagan were elected US president, celebrity has played a significant role in national politics. Many will vote for Boris Johnson simply because he is – and, more than his rivals, conforms to the broad perception of – a telly star.

Donald Trump benefitted from a similar demographic, as did Arnold Schwarzenegger in California, Imran Khan in Pakistan, Beppe Grillo in Italy, Israeli cabinet minister/news anchor Yair Lapid, footballer George Weah in Liberia and many others.

Think of the potential thicker end of such a wedge – Ant and Dec being thrust into Downing Street as joint prime ministers – and, unless you’re hopelessly starry-eyed, you will see the absurdity of this trend.

Trump has also impacted the operation of the political climate in an unexpected and highly damaging way. By his relentless departures from all the norms of political practice, he has inured himself against disapproval among all the electorate save those now deemed old-fashioned and conventional, which is to say those actually exercised by the upholding of honesty, respectful behaviour and the rule of law.

Trump has demonstrated that a self-confident politician can say whatever the hell he likes, however untrue, perfidious, vile or inane, and his fans will lap it up, while those who despise him are worn down by the said relentlessness. Trump’s Achilles heel is that the law may still destroy his presidency. It’s hard to see that the ballot box alone can be relied upon to do so.

Johnson has tapped into something similar. The shrugging response of his lieutenants – “it may be bollocks but never mind, it’s just Boris being Boris” – draws the teeth from his mendacity, his laziness with detail, his heedlessly insulting remarks and what, for David Cameron, was an unhelpful “toff” image.

But, like Trump, he has cottoned on to the power of a simple (simple-minded) slogan. “Let’s get Brexit done” is as easy to assimilate as “Let’s make America great again” and appeals to the same, politically indifferent demographic. It’s an easier sell to a broad audience than Labour’s nuanced appeal to rationality.

Johnson’s loudly trumpeted pro-Brexit stance is thought to secure him a tranche of votes, many of them among hitherto working-class, Labour-voting communities, his notorious havering over which stance on the EU to take (he wrote an article advocating each option and then waited to see which would do him the more good) no longer gaining traction.

Labour’s Brexit stance, routinely accounted for months in the media as confused and/or fence-sitting, as if this were an objective description rather than a tendentious judgment, is perfectly clear, and has been arrived at logically and in response to the developing situation in parliament as well as to the writhings of successive Tory administrations.

Labour will negotiate a more practical and mature deal with Brussels than Johnson managed – even Tories admit that his deal is even worse than Theresa May’s – and then put it to a further referendum, which is the democratic way.

Labour is the only party that doesn’t repudiate the wishes of one or other half of the electorate; instead, it’s looking for a better and a more widely accepted solution to this long melodrama.

Opinion polls and media commentators have long taken it as axiomatic that Labour will lose swathes of traditional seats in the north and the midlands of England, because supposedly “everyone” there voted Leave and they’re now “fed up” and consider themselves “betrayed” by Labour.

There may be some tenuous basis for these assumptions, though it’s always as well to remember that most opinion polls have been entirely unreliable indicators of what will happen in most elections at all levels on both sides of the Atlantic ever since the turn of the century. (I manage a Facebook page called Never Trust Opinion Polls and I commend it to you).

At the time of writing, the Brexit Party is still standing in Labour-held seats where the 2016 vote to leave was high. This may win them seats, but it equally well may also take votes from the Tories sufficient to split the anti-Labour vote. We may reasonably imagine that, in Leave-heavy seats, the Liberal Democrat share will also decline.

Naturally, Brexit exhaustion is generally felt, but considerably more keenly by those on whose lives it impinges daily – which is to say primarily politicians and political commentators – than anyone else. As with most subjects, most people have but a headline-sized grasp of the detail of Brexit.

If the headlines reinforce the notion in sufficient numbers of minds that Johnson is determined and unyielding rather than dogmatic and shallow-minded, and Corbyn dithering and appeasing rather than pragmatic and democratic, the vote may well go badly in these areas for Labour.

But another influence is the noise that Labour MPs and members have made in support of the Remain cause. They have perpetuated the impression of Labour being a divided party, just as the prolonged accusation that the party is anti-Semitic has sullied its fundamental and well-earned reputation for progressive and non-discriminatory policies and behaviour.

What is rarely heard is the left argument for leaving the EU with a practical and constructive deal. Under the terms of both the Rome and the Lisbon Treaties, it would be very difficult and controversial – perhaps impossible – for a Labour government to carry out many of the policies on which it will have been elected, specifically all the plans to bring the railways, the public utilities and parts of BT back into public ownership, and the extensive programme of public investment in infrastructure.

The creed of the EU (and before it the Common Market) is clearly spelled out in the Lisbon Treaty: “an open market with free competition” [Article 119].

People cry: “oh, but the French have nationalised trains. The SNCF is entirely state-owned”. True, but the SNCF predates the creation of the Common Market, as do all the state-run transport systems that obtain right across Europe.

Had Thatcher not privatised British Rail, we would still have a publicly owned rail system here, but Thatcher’s sweeping privatisation plan was carried out precisely under the assumption that it could never be reversed because we would always be EU members.

And in fact the EU is beginning to dismantle the existing national rail systems of Europe by obliging all member states to introduce a private element by 2023.

Italy’s recent governments have been at odds with Brussels over nationalisation schemes. Only this month, the Italians have had to set aside plans to take over a steel plant. If the EU won’t sanction the rescue of a failing steel plant, how would it sanction the taking into public ownership of businesses that it considers to be competitive in Britain?

Labour remainers discount this argument because they believe that the predicted economic cost of leaving outweighs everything. Leavers remember the urgent warnings that, if we voted Leave in 2016, the sky would fall in.

It cannot be denied, though, that there are elements in the Labour Party that favour a mixed rather than a command economy, MPs who won’t be warmly promising free broadband or state-run utilities on the doorstep, and such people are apt also to be remainers.

What they need to emphasise to fellow remainers is that the only route to the UK remaining in Europe is through the additional referendum that Labour uniquely promise.

Despite Jo Swinson’s hubris, there is not going to a Lib Dem government or even a Lib Dem/Green government. And the heedless Swinson has categorically ruled out working with either of the main parties.

The media have been hailing this as the “most important” and the “most unpredictable” election of modern times. I cannot remember a single general election that wasn’t sold as the “most important”.

After all, the media want your custom, so “not very interesting” wouldn’t be a strong selling point. If – to repeat – the opinion polls are constantly unreliable, then every election is, by definition, unpredictable because commentators base their predictions on polls.

The BBC, in particular, has only recently settled to its corporate stance on election coverage.

Since Corbyn first ran for the Labour leadership, its position (consciously or unconsciously, overtly or covertly) has been that he cannot and will not be prime minister. I will not tax my readers with another rehearsal of the outrages that BBC reporters and presenters have committed.

What has complicated their mission is that, in the same semi-conscious way, the BBC’s corporate stance on Brexit has been in favour of staying in the EU. Boris Johnson’s arrival at Number 10 loosened the BBC’s instinctive support for the Tory government.

The unruly and frequently risible demeanour of the new prime minister, coupled with his unabashed support for leaving the EU, gave the BBC two targets to aim at. That there might be a scenario in which the Lib Dems, the Greens and the SNP jointly prevailed in the next parliament encouraged the Corporation to choose ‘trust’ as its major theme for election reporting, because the notion supposedly undermines both Johnson and Corbyn.

Is the BBC biased in favour of Nicola Sturgeon? Though it imagines (and claims) that it covers general elections in a strictly balanced way, that claim clearly doesn’t apply to Scotland. The editorial implication that the SNP equates to the other parties throughout the UK is false.

Sturgeon is daily on BBC news bulletins but when did you last see the leaders in Scotland of Labour, the Tories, the Lib Dems, the Greens or Brexit? Could you even recognise or name any of them, unless you actually live in Scotland? And how would the BBC play it if any party other than the SNP formed the Holyrood government?

I don’t remember any sense that Donald Dewar or Jack McConnell were favoured over other Scottish party leaders in general election coverage when they were Labour First Ministers.

It may be that, viewed from Scotland, the balance between the native parties seems more fastidiously observed, but Scotland receives the same nationally broadcast news bulletins and fully networked currents affairs programmes that the rest of us do, and there the SNP is featured in a way that the other Scottish parties are not.

If Sturgeon’s argument prevails and she is admitted to the nationally televised debates, shouldn’t the other specifically Scottish leaders be featured too? It’s true that the SNP is represented in the Commons – indeed is the third-largest party – but Sturgeon does not sit in the Commons and there are no elections for Holyrood in December.

Shouldn’t the broadcasters insist that only Ian Blackford, the SNP leader in the Commons, can partake of such debates and indeed shouldn’t national news coverage concentrate on him rather than Sturgeon?

For Labour, there is much to hope for and much to fear. The most ambitious and far-sighted programme it has offered since 1945 will certainly fire up the base and should convert many who detect opportunity for themselves in these undertakings.

Corbyn’s skills as an electioneering leader have been honed over many more campaigns than any of his opponents; only Sturgeon rivals him.

The polls, on which so many base their assumptions, will narrow. But if the possibility of a Labour win becomes impossible to discount, the establishment will go into overdrive to prevent it. No dirty trick, no illegality, no desperate measure will be overlooked. The 11th hour sensation, however dishonest, will be trundled out. It will get unprecedentedly ugly.

But of course Labour could fail without resort to extreme measures. It’s often suggested that the electorate is becoming fractured and volatile, that familiar voting patterns are a thing of the past.

Brexit is most blamed for this, but such developments have occurred all over Europe and beyond, with many long-established parties swept away and new political configurations springing up, often with none of the usual credentials to underpin their appeal. Most worryingly, the far right is on the march everywhere and in some nations taking power. In several countries, coalitions are the norm.

So it would be unwise to pooh-pooh the possibility of a hung parliament, or a parliament in which one or other or both of the largest parties suffers a serious rebuff, or indeed one in which the far right enters in some strength.

If everyone is agreed that politics has become unpredictable, no outcome can be ruled out, not even a coalition government including Brexit Party nonentities who cannot even define the word ‘democracy’ and whose nominal leader hasn’t even run for a seat.

If Labour should fail, a painful bloodletting would surely follow.

The future of progressive politics would be on life support and nothing ailing can anticipate much help from a renewed Johnson government, with or without the active participation of Nigel Farage.

Those who unwittingly vote against their self-interest would soon learn the pain of being denied their medication because it has suddenly become too expensive for the NHS to supply, of their public transport disappearing and broadband becoming even slower because they live in an unsexy, unprofitable part of the country, of fearing to venture out because of the unpoliced gangs roaming the streets and the shame of the legions of homeless sleeping rough, of the rich continuing to get richer and hence, inevitably, the poor growing poorer so that food banks (perhaps formalised into a private business – Virgin Food anyone?) spread and become the norm, of seeing native wildlife decimated further because farming is deregulated, fox-hunting decriminalised and, at Johnson’s behest, bullfighting introduced in Britain.

Never mind the Union or a referendum. Scotland, then Wales too, would surely declare UDI.

Those of us who have longed for a truly reforming, Socialist government all these decades will continue to fight this election to win, canvassing, leafleting, posting, tweeting, arguing and nagging till we drop.

But, as I wrote at the outset, people are apt to vote against their own self-interest, even while they imagine that nasty parties will benefit them. And the logical end of that particular phenomenon is that the planet will become uninhabitable long before the sun burns it to a crisp.

We’re all doomed, really.