Tuesday, July 04, 2017

The Emotions of Voting

Slightly longer essay today, addressing a question I have been pondering since last year.

I have been voting since 1973. So I have been trying to have a think. About how people feel. You see I am part of the liberal chattering classes. People who talk about stuff and enjoy doing it. And our political views tend to cluster around the centre. I have a lot of time for the Owen Joneses and Paul Masons of this world and the way they argue their cases. They may have seen something in anti-establishment post-capitalism that others have missed. If they are right the whole edifice of political understanding is going to topple in the next few months/years. At minimum they are on the side of the poor and that's no bad place to be.

But for the sake of this piece I want to use a working assumption that the people who think and talk about stuff balance each other out. It's good to talk. But getting an emotional change is important.

What have been the emotional turning points of the many elections I have witnessed?

In 1974 I lived in a true blue Conservative household. My parents ran fundraisers and were personal friends with our MP for Birmingham, Selly Oak, Harold Gurden. Another Harold, Wilson, had been PM 1964-1970, and was seen as the enemy by my parents and their friends. Wilson won a small victory (a minority government ensued). A West Indian, vox-popped on the TV news said he was voting Labour because it was '...about time someone got rid of pompous Mr Heath.' Heath wasn't awful but the wage demands he faced were gob-smacking. As a classical music conductor and highly experienced yachtsman he had leisure interests that were not exactly working class. I think the emotional trigger was indeed pomposity, perceived rather than real.

Wilson went to the country again later that year and came away with a very small majority of 3.

I had voted once aged 18 and once at 19.

In 1975 an advisory referendum was held re continued membership of the European Economic Community. Do you know I simply can't be certain how I voted, if at all. My views were probably swayed by my parents although I recall a vociferous geography teacher who I respected. I recall him. But not his views.

I voted Tory one more time in 1979 helping bring Thatcher to power. The trigger was those Saatchi and Saatchi posters showing dole queues - 'Labour isn't working'. That the unemployment figures never fell, were never that low again during Thatcher's rule and communities were devastated emotionally made it very hard for me to ever vote Tory again. I felt duped by about 1982.

But the left couldn't pull it back. In response to the '79 election Michael Foot took Labour away from the centre left. In 1982 Mrs Thatcher sent a task-force to win an unlikely military victory over Argentina in the Falklands and Foot was derided for wearing a donkey jacket at the Cenotaph. He didn't, but I think the newspaper reports that he did were the moment he lost in 1983.

The centre-left fell apart and some departed Labour. David Owen, Bill Rodgers, Shirley Williams and Roy Jenkins formed the Social Democratic Party and the 1987 election was Thatcher's third consecutive victory. Neil Kinnock pulled Labour back to centre-left and resisted the advance of the SDP, they in election alliance with the Liberal Party. He won more seats but it was still a Tory landslide. Those SDP/Lib votes cost Labour a few marginals. I voted SDP in one which the Tories won by 300 or so. I was rebuked by my Labour-voting friends. The popular press convinced swing voters that Labour was soft on defence, still riffing on Cold War themes. I can recall no one image that achieved this but I read that one Sun headline was 'Why I'm backing Kinnock, by Stalin'. An abiding image of Kinnock, which I still have in my head but couldn't date, was of him walking on the beach with his wife and being knocked over escaping a small wave. Turns out this was in October 1983 when he was elected leader of the Labour Party. It was used against him a lot.

Which gets us to 92. Thatcher had gone, knifed by her own party in 1990, and John Major was in. Against all odds he won. He went around the country with a soapbox and met people. Kinnock got a bit presidential. At a huge campaign event at Sheffield arena he went for the fist-pumping instead of a statesmanlike entrance. In his own words 'I inhaled'. He believed he had won and forgot to do the things that had got him to almost winning. Again the Sun hit him hard 'Will the last person in Britain please turn the lights out' they headlined. There was a massive swing to Labour but not enough. The pollsters were wrong (unusual then). But the small Tory majority of 20 disappeared in several by-elections and they couldn't shake the accusation of being sleaze-ridden. They hung on for five years, during which Major offered to accept a leadership challenge which he fought off. The emotions of the campaign, and the time leading up to it, was that eighteen years of Tory rule had run its course. Tony Blair won a landslide in 1997 having rebranded his party New Labour and convinced the city and the Murdoch press that he was to be trusted.

Quite soon afterwards he had a chance to express the feelings of the nation and he found the expression 'The People's Princess' to describe Diana, Princess of Wales after she died. He seemed to be able to do this regularly although once, commenting on breakthroughs in Irish politics he said 'This is not a time for sound-bites; I feel the hand of history on my shoulder.'

In 2001 Blair won a quieter landslide (he lost five seats) in a low turnout election. William Hague was the leader of the Conservatives at this time. I think the country looked at him and saw a number of set-piece images of someone who didn't look prime-ministerial. The emotional memory I have stored is of Hague and his advisors wearing team Hague baseball caps and getting wet at an amusement park water-ride.

Until the Iraq war New Labour was quietly getting on with things. Trusted but not loved. In 2005 they saw their majority cut from 160 - 66. The Conservatives under Michael 'Are you thinking what we're thinking' Howard picked up some seats but the anti-war votes passed to the Lib Dems under Charles Kennedy, a popular figure. The Lib Dems picked up 22% of the popular vote (6 million votes) but it produced a disproportionate number of seats at 62. What would they give for 62 seats now after their 2015 wipe-out?

The much-heralded passing of the Prime Ministerial baton to Gordon Brown took place in 2007. I always felt his dour manner and partial-sightedness were not in any way relevant to his ability. Indeed I recall him breaking his first holiday after many months, on day two, to chair the response to a new outbreak of foot and mouth. That it was contained (unlike the previous outbreak) was hardly reported. Then came the financial crash. It is clear that Brown and a few other key players took some emergency decisions that averted an international financial meltdown. That the Cameron Conservative campaign in 2010 managed to pin him with responsibility for the recession that followed, rather than foolhardy investment bankers, led to his downfall. That and, in my opinion, the  moment when he was rude about a woman he had just met whilst not aware he was still mic'd up. She didn't hear his insult but a journalist felt it was in the public interest to make sure it was delivered to her. I would have liked to have experienced a longer Brown premiership.

But the country had still not turned to the Tories. They managed to form a government in coalition with Nick Clegg's Lib Dems who had kept their 22%, increased their vote by another million, and lost 5 seats. Go figure.

The coalition lasted a full five years but Lib Dem supporters never forgave Clegg for campaigning on no university tuition fees and then surrendering that pledge in coalition. In 2015 Cameron got a small majority, the Lib Dems lost all but 8 of their seats and the Scottish National Party wiped out Labour (distancing itself from New Labour now) in Scotland. If a country gets an image to wrestle with it was one of Labour leader Ed Milliband eating a bacon sandwich badly. Which of us could say that a photographer would always catch us eating daintily? It contributes to the behaviour of those seeking election, whilst in the public eye, being far from normal. Would you want a man with sauce on his chin leading the country? Well? That was what the election came down to. That and the Ed stone, about which the less said the better.

During the coalition a referendum was taken on introducing an alternative vote system. Laughably it was argued that first past the post produces strong government.

In 2016 the referendum on leaving the European Union took place. It was an appalling campaign. The energy was with those who wanted what came to be known as Brexit because it is much easier to campaign for change than to keep things the same. Even though most people don't like change but this may have been about changing back. A campaign for Scottish independence had failed roughly 55% to 45%. But the much reproduced lie, written on the side of a campaign bus driven round the country and on a leaflet posted through my door even on the day of the referendum long after it had been denounced and disowned, that £350m a week could be given to the NHS rather than the EU, seemed to convince the electorate. The outcome to leave 51.8% to 48.2% showed a divided country. And thus it has remained.

Cameron resigned. None of the leading lights of Brexit stood for leadership and a staunch remainer became PM. A year later Mrs May went to the country to seek a stronger mandate to negotiate and lost her majority completely. Emotionally her lack of emotion, spontaneity or encounter with real people hurt her. She also produced a manifesto that many of her party did not contribute to. She chugged out bland phrases -strong and stable; Brexit means Brexit - Jeremy Corbyn, fighting his first General Election as Labour leader got out and about and seemed to speak human.

And now, in 2017, we have a minority government, propped up by the 8 seats of the Ulster Unionists. We don't know how Brexit negotiations will go. We suspect that the majority view in the country has changed to remain (which would only involve 2 in 100 changing their minds). And we worry that the nasty, anti-foreigner sub-class is being fed false hope for its obnoxious views.

Obviously there was far more going on than these freeze-frame moments; but for me they carried more weight than a single image or incident ever should have done.

I read recently that the part of our brain which is activated when we are physically threatened is the same part that lights up when when long-held views are challenged. Our response to argument is therefore based on flight or fight. Anyone who has faced vehement opposition in debate only to discover later that the opponent has quietly changed their mind will be familiar with this.

What does it mean for campaigning? Big adverts, lie or not, don't change the minds of any but they cement the views of the already loyal. Mind-changing happens when there is an emotional breakthrough. When I look at someone and decide I can trust them.

There is some irony in the fact that Jeremy Corbyn, who campaigned for Remain but was criticised for failing to put his heart and soul into it, may only be able to put his renationalisation and subsidisation social democracy into effect outside the constraints of the EU. But he is hoovering up votes from young people who were 75/25% Remainers.

It is worth remembering that a liberal was originally a free person. Liberal chatter was that which was denied to the owned, to slaves, for fear that if educated in liberal ways they might realise a way out and learn to organise themselves.

Those of us who love being part of Europe, in more than just name but in Union, are wondering how it came to this. And what we can do about it. Our emotions are more stirred than at any time in our personal history.


Simon Nicholls said...

A good and fair analysis I think. A couple of minor quibbles: firstly the Tories are currently propped up by the Democratic Unionists - the Ulster Unionists are a different party and a shadow of their former selves; secondly, I don't think there is anything in EU law stopping renationalisation - plenty of EU countries have nationalised utilities.
I am disappointed in Corbyn to the extent that he made, to my mind, the best positive case for the EU (and what it could be) on his appearance on The Last Leg last year. That he and Labour now seem set on pursuing Brexit makes it hard for me to give him the support I would wish for his other policies.

Steve Tilley said...

Thanks Simon.