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Politics of fear – again

Politics of fear – again

Voters ask what May wants 

by John Nugée in London

Thu 8 Jun 2017

Seldom in recent years has a political party’s manifesto had as much influence as the one issued by the Conservatives for the UK general election taking place today. There may have been an era – before sound-bite politics and 24‑hour news – when manifestos were read diligently, but of late they have become peripheral.

Not so this year. The Conservative’s proposals, specifically the plan to charge elderly people more for care in their homes, altered the public’s perception of the party and its leader Theresa May. The reaction to the manifesto did away with expectations of a Tory landslide and even gave rise to talk of a hung parliament.

Probably May will win today and even get a slightly bigger majority – in the middle to high double-digit number of seats. But many people will consider this a poor outcome of an arguably unnecessary election, and May risks being confirmed in office with a larger majority but a much diminished reputation. In the negotiations that are about to start with the EU, that may be more significant than a few dozen extra MPs on the green benches behind her.

The response of the Conservatives to their rapidly reducing lead in the polls was revealing. They reverted to the politics of fear, branding Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour party leader, as a bogeyman and concentrating their campaign not on what they would do if elected, but on what their opponents might if they were not.

Such an approach has worked in the past – it defeated the Scottish nationalists’ bid for independence in 2014 and gave David Cameron a surprise victory in the 2015 general election. But it failed in last year’s referendum on British membership of the EU, and does not seem to be working in this election either.

There are a number of sentiments that determine how people vote. The first, and most basic, is hope – for a better future and that society’s problems will be solved. The second is fear – that if the result goes the wrong way, disaster (either personal or more generally) will follow. True to form, the Conservatives sought to use the fear factor after the terrorist attacks in London and Manchester by presenting themselves as the party of law and order – though how many people will change their votes on this basis remains to be seen. The message probably appeals mainly to those who would have voted Conservative anyway, and is offset for many by May’s responsibility, when home secretary, for significant reductions in the police force.

Hope and fear are the traditional sentiments that govern the democratic process, but there is a third, anger. It is even stronger because it can transcend rationality and is difficult to reason with.

Anger drove much of the Leave campaign in last year’s EU referendum – anger at immigration, at the perceived flaws of the EU and at the elite who seemed to have sidestepped most of the consequences of the 2008 financial crisis. Anger duly beat fear. The Remain campaign floundered and failed.

In this latest election, distrust appears to be the predominant sentiment among voters. Deceptions are perceived as too frequent, the inability to address Britain’s problems too blatant. The way votes are cast today will show whether distrust is stronger than fear. All the signs are that May has forfeited much of the electorate’s confidence and is suffering for it. Corbyn, despite his extreme policies, has retained and even enhanced his reputation as an authentic voice who holds to his beliefs.

Given the cynicism about the political class en masse, May was perhaps ill advised to make the election too much a question of voters’ faith in her personally. Her policy of saying nothing about Brexit – the most important issue of all – beyond the trite ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and ‘No deal is better than a bad deal’ risks making her look not statesmanlike but evasive. She has not had a good campaign and does not emerge from it with her reputation enhanced.

Assuming May is returned with the mandate she seeks, the question that remains is: ‘Given the many major issues facing the country, what exactly is she going to do with it?’

John Nugée is a Director of OMFIF and a former Chief Manager of Reserves at the Bank of England.

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