Monday, 15 May 2017

Why the manifestos really won't matter

A common refrain from Corbyn supporters over the past couple of years is that we can’t trust the polls. It comes as something of a surprise, therefore, to see committed Momentum supporters actually quoting the research companies over the past week or so.

As Labour nudges up to a highly improbable 32% in a couple of recent surveys (five points ahead of their actual showing in the recent council elections), it’s taken as evidence of some kind of surge.

The Corbynistas also seize upon suggestions in research that specific Labour manifesto policies are popular.

A majority of people want to renationalise the railways, for instance. The public supports higher taxes for rich people and likes the idea of a higher minimum wage.

The narrative then becomes something along these lines: voters support socialist policies and like Corbyn’s radical agenda, but shy away from embracing Labour because of a relentless tide of negative propaganda from the pro-Tory media.

It may well be true that individual Labour policies command support. But take a look at some of the other policies that YouGov have discovered appeal to voters.

Most people endorse the idea of stopping benefits entirely for anyone who refuses to take up an offer of employment. They also support a Trump-style ban on any immigration for the next two years, the abolition of parole for murderers and an end to overseas aid. None of these are likely to be high on the Momentum wishlist.

The conclusion I would draw is that members of the public are entirely ideologically inconsistent – defying neat categorisation. But the more important point is that British elections are not decided on manifesto pledges anyway. The outcome rests on the perceived economic competence of the respective parties and the credibility of their leaders.

Voters weigh up the potential options and ask themselves some basic questions. Do I trust this party and the man or woman who will be Prime Minister? Do I believe they will help make our country more prosperous? Will they keep me and my loved ones safe?

Until those boxes are ticked, no one will give much thought to housing, schools or even the NHS. After all, our public services are worth nothing if there isn’t the money to pay for them and you can’t trust the person who is notionally in charge of them.

Individual policies only matter insofar as they signal something about that fundamental decision of trust. Corbyn’s known antipathy towards nuclear weapons, for instance, and lack of support for his own party’s renewal of Trident, makes many profoundly uneasy – a sentiment which surfaced strongly in Lord Ashcroft’s latest focus group research.

Another uncomfortable truth – not just for the Labour Party, but all serious politicians and parties – is that impressions and snapshots which people find revealing and memorable are actually far more important than policies.

Think of Ed Miliband, an impressive and capable politician at many levels and certainly streets ahead of Corbyn in terms of his intellectual ability and understanding of the modern world.

The bacon sandwich.

The second kitchen.

The so-called Edstone.

These were the glimpses that helped to shape people’s perceptions of the man. No worthy policy pronouncement carried more weight than these trivial vignettes.

And with Corbyn, the same rules apply.

His apparent inability to sing the national anthem.

His lack of a Prime Ministerial ‘look’.

His association with Irish republicanism.

His lack of support from MPs, who backed a motion of no confidence in him.

In focus groups, Jez is frequently described as ‘wishy washy’. One participant on a research panel referred to the state of the MP’s front garden in Islington, which frequently features on news bulletins when the veteran socialist is doorstepped.

The untidy property is no doubt seen as symbolic of the hard-left parliamentarian himself. Someone who is disorganised and poor at presentation. So why on earth would you choose to send him to negotiate a deal with the EU over Brexit?

If it seems unfair to judge Corbyn on what we see of him and hear about him, it’s time to be honest with ourselves. This is exactly how we form opinions in everyday life – of work colleagues and friends of friends. If our initial impressions are not good – and they are reinforced by stories we hear others tell – then no amount of remedial action by the individual is likely to change our view.

Labour is a tarnished brand and it’s dragged even further down by its cult of personality surrounding a leader many regard as ineffectual, out of touch and untrustworthy. Can Labour’s vote really dip below the 27% in the council elections? Could the party end up with its worst vote since the 1930s? Only time will tell. But if anyone can pull it off, Corbyn can.