2015 was the year of ‘shy Tories’. Could 2017 be the year of the ‘shy Corbynites’?
Originally posted at 21:56, 07 June 2017 at actualnews.com
2015 was undeniably a public relations nightmare for pollsters — advanced polls for the UK’s 2015 general election estimated a hung parliament, likely ending in a minority government under the leader of the opposition, Labour’s Ed Miliband. Private polling by Labour was less optimistic, but by no means a dire warning; Labour thought they could still, possibly, pull it of the bag.
Then came the exit poll; the incumbent Conservative Party had not only retained their count — in an unprecedented turn of events, they had actually increased it. The Liberal Democrat vote collapsed, and a surge in UKIP and SNP support acted as a volatile mix, eating deeply into Labour’s core support.
But hidden within this kaleidoscope of political swings there was one underlying, overlooked group of people that had finally come into their own — the ‘shy Tories’.
The Conservative Party has long had a reputation as the ‘nasty party’, a notoriety so pervasive that it even affects how the party’s own promotion. Conservatives willingly style themselves as pragmatic, and a party willing to make the ‘difficult decisions’ that other parties are not. Cruel, it may appear — or so the cold Conservative logic goes — but necessary. Nevertheless, underlying this sacrifice there must be a goal — a place that we wanted to end up. A ‘vision’ of a ‘better Britain’ — we just have to pull our socks up to get there.
Few were better at marketing this than David Cameron. Trained in public relations and with experience as a Conservative speechwriter, he knew exactly how to galvanise people’s aspirations and biases to divert scrutiny. Austerity may have had a lingering and damaging impact on many thousands of people, but Cameron’s seemingly progressive social policy — promoting green issues and marriage equality, for example — were morsel reminders that it was an investment in the future. We simply had to endure some hardships now, but ultimately we would be reap the benefits in years to come.
These scattershot progressive social policies were an integral bargaining chip for swing voters. It gave them something to cling on to, something, however scarcely tangible, in return for their investment and their vote. Furthermore, these social policies helped convince swing voters, many of whom were outwardly embarrassed to be voting for a party seen to be stealing food from the young and welfare from the disabled, that, although the Conservatives might seemingly be making cruel decisions, there was an end-goal in sight that was socially constructed — and end goal that cared.
After the 2015 election, there was a tangible shift in the air. Buoyed by a sudden realisation that they weren’t alone, these ‘shy Tories’ finally felt able to express their pent-up views, and conservatism enjoyed a positive surge. David Cameron was seemingly unstoppable; his progressive agenda had launched the Conservative Party into the modern age, and Labour seemed like it was being left behind. The Labour Party looked on the brink of collapse.
Further galvanised by the sudden clarity that political plurality was alive and well, especially on the political fringes, voters demanded an end to the status quo. For years many politicians had been retreating into inoffensive sycophancy, unwilling to risk their careers for genuinely progressive or innovative policy. Fresh faces in politics felt at best mediocre compared to the older titans fading from public view — the boring ‘new breed’ of ‘polished’ MPs seemed symptomatic of a public broadly divided by bellicose and indifferent attitudes to politics. People demanded something real, something new, and something exciting — but no one knew what, when or how. “Clear out the swamp”, the call went from the Alt-right, whilst the Labour party swarmed to previously sidelined movements like Momentum. The political establishment needed a refresh, and the public were desperate for blood.
Ultimately, this manifested as Brexit; Cameron left and Theresa May took charge.
May’s tactic was rather different — gone was the shiny PR of Cameron, the bartering and the distracting focus on socially progressive and green politics. Andrea Leadsom — a historic questioner of the consensus on climate change — was put in charge of the Environment Brief, whilst recent manifesto commitments promised more government support for the oil and gas industries. Liz Truss stepped in as the new Lord Chancellor, displacing Michael Gove and his much-praised efforts at prison reform; and Jeremy Hunt was drafted in to tell bold-faced lies about pay cuts in the NHS, whilst real wages continued to fall. The suggestion of sacrifice was doubled down, but suddenly the forward-facing direction and progressive ideals had been lost. Theresa May wanted us to sacrifice more — our money, freedom and civil liberties — but she could never articulate why.
With renewed commitment to centrist policies and a gutting of progressive ones, the status quo was equally doubled down. Running on a platform of ‘stability’ reinforced the commitment of Theresa May and her cohorts to change as little as possible, and the rare occasions of principle fell apart at the first sign of public opposition with humiliating u-turns — there was absolutely no courage or conviction. Theresa May’s ascent, some analysts thought, may yet prove to be the ultimate stagnation in British politics.
Brexit, too, had been seen by many Conservative back-benchers — and many voters — as a defiant act of taking back control, a defeat of ‘meddling, bureaucratic foreigners’ and the UK being able to progress on its own terms. But, taken more objectively, this further underscored a retreat from progressive values, collaboration, and cooperation with our close trading partners, allies and neighbours. Suddenly this pay-off seemed less and less real, and the sacrifices more and more damaging. More and more swing voters — even those who supported and continue to support Brexit, and who had been slickly lured to the ‘modern Conservatives’ — were starting to get cold feet.
This reached a fever pitch last week, with the astounding announcement by Theresa May of the so-called ‘dementia tax’. The older demographics, long a bastion of Conservative votes, were now not only being asked to sacrifice their winter fuel allowance or their bus pass for the wider society, but indeed their home and inheritance too. What they had spent a lifetime building was suddenly open to pot shot, and still Theresa May could not provide any return for their investment other than support for global businesses by cutting corporation tax. The progressive values were gone, leaving only blind sacrifice.
Nevertheless, it seemed that there was nowhere for voters to go. The media response to Corbyn — leader of the Labour party — had been ruthless. Indeed, the Conservative campaign has been particularly brutal too, even raising formal complaints. By using misleading, out of context quotes to paint Corbyn as a ‘terrorist sympathiser’, the Conservative Party had sought to paint themselves as the only party of competence — Corbyn, it seemed, was untrustworthy, unpatriotic and a national embarrassment. No one would surely want to vote for him?
But the Labour leader’s manifesto is remarkably popular. It offers a future, an end goal, a repayment for the years of sacrifice under austerity. It promised investment, returns and protections. Unlike the Conservative Party, it was fully costed — the Labour Party were willing to put their economic policies out for scrutiny. Whilst arguments raged between independent think tanks about the questionable accuracy of their costings, the support of direction was undeniably strong. Overstatements were inevitable, but the manifesto was brave and forward thinking, a genuine challenge to the status quo; suddenly, the tables were reversed.
The persistent problem for Labour is that Corbyn’s media perception has been so historically poor. Even during the fanfare of the manifesto launch, there remained doubts about his competency, and whilst his manifesto — and the Labour party in general — achieved favourable ratings, Corbyn did not. For Theresa May and the Conservative Party, the opposite was very much the case.
As time wears on, a strange thing has happened — many life-long Tories, some of whom had decried Corbyn as a ‘lunatic’ and a ‘communist’ — were suddenly starting to change their tune. It is surely awkward for these voters, given the consensus from many prominent media outlets that Corbyn ‘cannot be trusted’, or is ‘unfit to run the country’. The broad opposition to him was strong, and many Conservative voters felt embarrassed not only to be warming to the Labour Party, but the Labour Party under such left-wing leadership. Perhaps, it can be argued, these are ‘shy Corbynites’ — those whom in secret agree with the socialist-leaning manifesto, but feel under pressure to nod publicly to the ‘accepted leader’. Under intense media scrutiny, these hidden Corbynites may be unaware of how impactful their numbers may yet prove to be, and only time will ultimately tell.
Perhaps, despite the media furore, the public will yet see that Emperor May wears no clothes, and just as 2015 saw the rise of the ‘shy Tories’, in 2017 the ‘shy Corbynites’ may yet bounce back.
Corbyn may win yet.