13th March 2017
–By Keith Nieland-
“Facts All Come With Points of View. Facts Don’t Do What I Want Them To”
By Jay McInerney, Bright Lights, Big City
Sadly, I am nearer to 70 than 60 so I’ve been around the block a few times including living through 18 general elections and I can remember them all vividly with the exception of the first 3.
My first recollection is of the 1959 election when I sat with my Labour voting parents in front of our newly acquired flickering black and white television with me filling in the results in a very handy pullout section from the Radio Times. I remember my mother complaining that Hugh Gaitskell had conceded defeat too early.
Watching all those elections into the small hours of the morning, even when my beloved Labour Party was doomed to defeat, has let me into a secret – the secret of winning general elections.
Do You Want to Know a Secret?
I do not need sophisticated opinion polls or university professors who specialise in politics, or TV pundits come to that. The secret of success is obvious and has been there to see in all those 18 general elections and it only has two parts.
The first is that party leaders must look like a prime minister in waiting. They need to look and dress the part, present as authoritative, articulate and in control whilst at the same time calm and sympathetic with a listening ear. They need to appear as being able to stare Putin down whilst at the same time being kind to dogs and willing to kiss any passing baby.
The second factor relates to how we feel a leader will manage the economy – more precisely each of our personal economies. Voters need to be assured their wallet or purse is safe in the hands of the chosen Prime Minister. Let me be precise here – not the national economy but our personal financial affairs. Voters don’t fret about the GDP, the difference between national debt and the deficit or the RPI but they are concerned about things that directly affect them. Watching those pre-Budget TV vox pop interviews reveals people worrying about their personal finances – tax credits, help with child care, pensions, etc. They do not demand major change but instead look to be better off at the margin. I suspect this is because voters rarely believe politicians who promise major change suspecting it will never happen and/or will be at the cost of increasing their taxes.
Down Memory Lane
So let’s apply my 2-part theory to those elections that kept me up all night. Macmillan won in 1959 because he said “most of our people have never had it so good” and that was how people felt. Gaitskell never had a chance as voters were harvesting the benefit of the post Second World War boom.
Come 1964 and the boot was very much on the other foot. Sir Alec Douglas-Home looked like a relic from the 19th century as Harold Wilson mocked him for doing economics with match sticks and spoke of “the white heat of technology”. Wilson looked like a PM in waiting and voters turned to him (narrowly) but even more convincingly in 1966.
By 1970 it was a turnaround again with voters doubting Labour’s ability to run the economy as inflation began to rise. The June general election brought Edward Heath’s Conservative Party to power with a surprise majority of 30 seats. I recall lots of TV advertisements rubbing home the fear of inflation and what it would do to families’ incomes. Never had the price of a loaf of bread been so hotly debated; but it meant a lot to voters.
1974 saw two elections with Wilson winning narrowly on both occasions (the first without an overall majority) as voters again turned to Wilson’s experience to resolve the industrial disputes damaging the economy. 1979 saw Callaghan soundly defeated by his inability to resolve “the winter of discontent” (a phrase that was to haunt Labour for years to come) and in strode the Prime Ministerial Margaret Thatcher.
In the eyes of some she may have been the “Marmite” PM, but a combination of an authoritative stance and an economy that served most people quite well, meant that she swept all before her through the 1980s. She may have overseen the decline of the UK as a manufacturing power but did it in such a way as to keep sufficient voters onside to ensure election victory after election victory. When she departed John Major looked sufficiently Prime Ministerial with an economy ticking along nicely to deliver a victory in 1992. 1997 saw the arrival of Tony Blair who knew full well the importance of both looking the part and not frightening the horses when it came to voters’ wallets and purses and this was followed by two further big election victories.
The crash of 2008 saw Gordon Brown given the unwanted label of incompetence when it came to managing the economy which delivered David Cameron into Downing Street in 2010 and 2015. Cameron knew enough about Blair’s route to power to recognise the dual importance of personal and economic credibility.
The 2020 Crystal Ball
So what does 2020 look like through the prism of personal and economic credibility? It looks like a battle between May and Corbyn but there is an outside possibility that the choppy waters of Brexit and Corbyn’s travails within the Labour Party might change the runners and riders.
In the spring of 2020 voters will ask themselves those two crucial questions again. Some will have made their minds up already, some during the campaign and some in the voting booth with pencil poised over the ballot paper. Even though, apart from in two constituencies, May’s and Corbyn’s names will not be on the ballot paper they will be very much in voters’ minds.
- Which looks most Prime Ministerial and as if 10 Downing Street is their natural home?
- Which will represent the UK’s best interests when at meetings in the White House, the Kremlin or Brussels (yes, Brussels still)?
- Who do they trust most to guarantee the nation’s security including against terrorism?
- Who will keep inflation low, deliver marginal increases in their income, and not raise their taxes?
- Most importantly: to which of those two do the voters trust stewardship of their wallet or purse?
So when it comes to personal and economic credibility will voters turn to May or Corbyn? The opinion polls suggest a clear answer with May’s Tory party around 18 points ahead of Labour and Corbyn’s credibility at rock bottom.
It is suggested in some quarters that Corbyn’s problems are because voters tell opinion pollsters what they want they to hear and that there is an establishment/media plot against Corbyn. I think we should give voters more credit and be less dismissive of the view they have come to about Corbyn. Labour would be best served, in the interests of wider democracy and those who need a Labour government to deliver their potential, if it were to focus on the skills of their leader and his offer to the wallets and purses of the UK.
If the present leader cannot establish his personal and economic credibility he needs to be replaced before there is a catastrophic collision with voters.