Less than a week away from its second general election since 2015, England may yet be in for another June surprise a year on from Brexit. What many predicted would be a cakewalk to a hugely increased Conservative majority has turned into a battle for the Tories to remain in government, and Theresa May’s personal mandate to act as Prime Minister. By crushing Labour and earning her own mandate to rule (unlike Gordon Brown), Theresa May assured us that she would be able to return to Brussels with the legitimacy to effectively conduct Brexit negotiations resulting in the best deal possible for the UK, while simultaneously providing “strong and strong stable government”.
The Conservatives appear to have favoured a soundbite oriented campaign where snazzy buzzwords accentuated Theresa May’s political prowess and sneered incompetence at Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s putative “coalition of chaos” (a Labour-led bloc of progressives including the Scottish National Party, Green Party, and Liberal Democrats). While this may have seemed an adequate defence against poor public perceptions of Corbyn’s leadership skills, economic literacy, and members of his Shadow Cabinet such as Diane Abbott, within a few weeks, what had first been billed “strong and stable” became “weak and wobbly“. Huge poll leads have been transformed, with Theresa May currently trailing Jeremy Corbyn in certain areas, including London. Refusals to take part in traditional televised leadership debates have been very well publicised, along with a disastrous U-turn on social care and the so-called “dementia tax”. Also striking is May’s decision to hold a general election, despite repeated promises since she became Tory leader not to do so.
One of the few current electoral certainties is that the earlier assumed landslide Conservative victory will not be forthcoming, and this may largely be attributed to Jeremy Corbyn’s surprising competence, and possibly a good measure of Conservative incompetence too.
Theresa May is known for modesty, and shunning the slick PR-oriented approach to politics embraced by the now fallen Cameroons. In fact, in her own words, she is not “a showy politician”. Her political ascent to Downing Street began in Wimbledon’s local political scene, and went on to take her to become MP for Maidenhead (a “safe” Conservative seat) in 1997. Despite stints in senior Shadow Cabinet and party positions during the Tories’ years of opposition and eventual six years in the Home Office, May’s approach to political campaigning has remained remarkably low-key and unflashy.
As a campaigner, her approach seems remarkably traditional – or, depending on how you perceive it – dated. Her refusal to participate in televised debates has been replaced by old-fashioned canvassing in marginal seats, knocking on doors and going on walkabouts in town centres to meet undecided voters. While the media engaged on a feeding frenzy over awkward pictures of May eating some chips, they omitted the telling fact that it was in a marginal Cornwall seat the Tories are defending from the Liberal Democrats. In her mind, the numerous news show interviews are quite enough contact with the media, and she would rather remain above the undignified scrum of live multi-party debates. Presumably, a one-on-one grilling with Jeremy Paxman is more to her taste.
And, in contrast to this style of campaigning, Jeremy Corbyn show-cases his seemingly surprising competence. Hours before the recent party leaders’ debate where May had been replaced by Home Secretary Amber Rudd, Corbyn surprisingly announced that he would in fact be participating, and could be seen afterwards reaching through fences to shake the hands of attending well-wishers. Tories may criticise his preference for holding rallies exclusively for cheering Momentum activists, but they are overlooking a fundamental point: just how good such events look when broadcasted. They project an image of Corbyn being a man of the people, actually looking comfortable standing with the many rather than the few. Labour’s 2017 campaign slogan has been “For the many, not the few”, and Corbyn has seemingly lived by this mantra far more than May and her pledge of being “strong and stable”.
This article is not an endorsement of Jeremy Corbyn or the Labour Party, but when political and economic illiteracy, association with terrorists, anti-Semites, regressives, Assad apologists, and the potential of a clownish previously IRA-endorsing Diane Abbott controlling the Home Office and MI5 are put aside, Corbyn has seemingly campaigned far more competently than Theresa May and the Conservative Party. Previously demonised and branded as unelectable by even figures within the Labour Party, Corbyn has eaten into much of the Tories’ initially projected landslide victory. Perhaps this is due to poor Tory campaigning, but Labour owes much to Corbyn’s ability to effectively head a successful campaign, albeit with a national rather than local outlook.
However, this election will ultimately be decided by individual constituencies such as Harlow, Hendon, and Watford, not the popular vote. While seemingly competent, Corbyn’s campaigning may prove ill-suited to a constituency-based electoral system, unlike Theresa May’s more low-key, and what now appears as a smarter approach. After all, a general election is hardly a nationwide race to lead a party. By the morning of 9th June we will have found out whether seemingly competent or retrospectively smart campaigning has won out, but, for now, don’t knock Corbyn.