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Lord Richard Balfe of Dulwich

The Hopeless Election

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I can say without hesitation that this was the worst election I have known in my sixty years of election watching. A seemingly insuperable lead of over 20% disappeared as blunder after blunder was made by our supposed team of brilliant strategists.

We have had two recent votes; firstly in May 2016 the election for Mayor of London. The Conservatives fielding an anti EU candidate in a strongly pro EU city then proceeded to denigrate the Labour candidate ending their campaign by trying to link his Muslim faith to him being associated with terrorism. This campaign was found to be revolting by many progressive Conservatives and their candidate (an extremely rich billionaire or multi-millionaire – does it matter when you are getting by on an average wage!) lost clearly.

The EU referendum followed a few weeks later, in this the Remain side constantly played on negative images whilst the Leave side was positive. Whilst our Chancellor of the Exchequer (Finance Minister) talked of emergency budgets if the leave side won they spoke of taking back control stemming migration etc. There was of course no emergency budget and although personally I regret the outcome of the referendum the fact is that nothing terrible has yet happened and it was fair to conclude that after two campaigns based on negative campaigning it should be abandoned.

But this was not to be. Firstly we did not need this election, Prime Minister May had repeatedly said this and her change of heart was, to put it mildly, seen as opportunistic. Labour started with the Press deriding the leader Jeremy Corbyn and did not significantly let up for the whole campaign.

Many in the Conservative Party felt marginalised and – as just a small example – the Party in Cambridge City where I live, was refused the right to choose a candidate and had one imposed from on high. The net result was that some Party workers disappeared and many did not campaign with enthusiasm. The image was of central control and contempt for the ordinary member.

The manifesto appears to have been written by aides to the PM and was interpreted by many as being unfair. A proposal for what became known as a dementia tax, a particularly ham-fisted attempt to sell a policy of taking money from the estates of people who had ended their days in residential care was particularly difficult to sell. So much so that the PM did a swift U turn and then denied she had done one.

Meanwhile the unflappable Jeremy Corbyn with shades of Bernie Sanders fought a brilliant campaign using electronic media.

Much Conservative effort went into a campaign to link him to the IRA and draw attention to things done in the early 80’s. One student said to me “was that the same IRA that John Major met and Tony Blair persuaded into government with Ian Paisley”.

On TV debates Jeremy Corbyn brilliantly wrong footed Theresa May by at first refusing to take part in a debate with all other Party leaders and then changing his mind and challenging her to do the same. She sent along the Home Secretary who did a competent job but it was still six Party Leaders and a substitute as far as the viewers were concerned.

Overall the image was of a complacent and negative Party indulging in negative campaigning and having a very unsure touch.

Even so the result surprised many. Many conclusions can be drawn but let me just mention two.

Firstly negative campaigning just does not work. Constantly denigrating the Labour Leader when his answer was “I do not do personal politics” lost the Conservatives votes. Similarly, attacking every expenditure plan of Labour’s, however reasonable, just made the Conservatives look like people without a plan.

Secondly the impact of social media is much more significant than was expected. But any Party that looked at how Trump and Sanders – and for that matter Macron in France – campaigned should have seen this coming.

So where do we go from here? The current Government seems to have patched up some sort of deal with the Ulster based Democratic Unionist Party. These are probably the most illiberal group of politicians in the House of Commons. It is hard to see this Government lasting its full term and already people are looking round for a new Conservative leader.

Meanwhile Jeremy is closer to number 10 than many ostriches imagine.