“I have just returned from the Palace …” Woooh, and we’re off. The UK election campaign began with Prime Minister David Cameron paying a wholly unnecessary visit to the Queen to tell her that Parliament had been suspended. Since it had done so due to the Fixed Parliaments Act (which Cameron introduced) this was theatre, but it’s all theatre anyway, so what the hell.
Having performed these sacred duties, and then having announced them from a podium outside Downing Street, Cameron then launched into an attack on leader of the Labour Party Ed Miliband — “Do you want me coming back through this door or a socialist wrecker etc, etc” — and this was a departure. UK pollies usually keep to a measure of political decorum on the surface, separating state from politics. (On the surface: Thatcher observed them, while essentially using the whole state to attack the miners and the whole of the north of England.)
Cameron doubled down on his remarks throughout the day, adding that Miliband was a “Hampstead socialist” with a “we know best” mentality. This is a new departure in the Tory style, and something that must be emanating from the core strategy group within the party. I’d suggest that any reasonable observer would say there’s an “Australian” strand to this approach. Last time round, Cameron went in precisely the other way — presenting the Tories as a technocratic post-Thatcherite party, a green tinge turning them less Tories than Turquoises.
That’s gone now. There is one obvious target of this, and it’s not Labour, it’s UK Independent Party voters. The PM is taking on the very difficult task of being an outsider to the system of which he is the leader, by dispensation of a hereditary monarch, all based on an “unwritten” constitution (i.e. no constitution at all, but let’s keep saying there is a ghost one, so people don’t ask for a real one).
The challenge for the Tories is the equivalent of a 7-10 split in 10-pin bowling, which David Cameron did once, as a lark for Bunty’s 21st (“Darling, you have to wear special shoes! It’s too too fun!”). They have to ping off UKIP and into Labour’s returning voters, who had voted Tory to chuck out Gordon Brown in 2010. The Tories are aided in this by the Hampstead bearing of Miliband, whose haute-bourgeois intelligentsia mien makes Cameron look merely suburban, the bloke at the posh end of a mixed-class friendship group in a ghastly pub in a ghastly new town somewhere.
But, as to going in hard on the anti-elitism, well, I dunno. I really dunno. This could go very badly for the Tories, and I’m not sure it’s coming from a very rational assessment of the British polity. Cameron once said that they were all of course “Thatcher’s children”, and it must have pained them to publicly repudiate the old battle-axe so enthusiastically in 2009-10. But credit to them, as that’s what it took to gain power after the disastrous Michael Howard campaign of 2005. Miliband and shadow chancellor Ed Balls have never had sufficient of the latter to do the same thing to Gordon Brown, and that has limited their effectiveness.
But Thatcher was petit-bourgeois and never lost that positionality, even with the elocution lessons and the fashion do-overs. Cameron is an Eton-Oxford PR boy, a boiled ham in a suit, and is so identified with the establishment that he may lack that space, that parallax, to do the outsider trick. Politicians who get away with this — Howard (John), Bill Clinton, KRudd — do so, even from office, by being two people: the embodied sovereign leader and the bloke who happens to be in that office. It is exactly like a case of double-vision, where there is usually a main presence and a secondary presence of the object being seen.
But a British PM as embodied sovereign presence is really embodying another body — that of the Queen, and the sense of a nation’s being literally carried by her blood and bloodline. Associating with that is one reason why the Tories dominated the 20th century in the UK. Reversing out of it is no small order. This anti-elitist pose, touching on anti-politics, is a very new world, settler-state thing. Maybe they’ve got great polling on it, but I can’t help but feel that they have a touch of Australia-envy, more particularly of John Howard-envy. They want to be campaigning in the sort of place that would allow them to do this, because many of them believe it about themselves.
That desire may well be mis-shaping their strategic perceptions. Howard was the last Thatcherite in terms of political projection (in terms of social and economic policy he wasn’t significantly more Thatcherite than Keating). Buoyed by 9/11 and the War on Terror, he could project that combination of economic liberalism, social conservatism and anti-elitism as a natural whole. Class shift, the 2008 recession and the narrativeless mess that global affairs has become make that pose impossible now (which is why Tony Abbott is failing so badly, by giving it one last go).
The Tories have every reason to be very afeared. The economy is on the uptick (on paper at least), suspicion of Labour as economic managers remains high, and Cameron is now an assured and confident presence. Ed Miliband still looks like a younger brother, or the Muppet version of his actual older brother: his voice is funny, he’s awkward, his campaign team is shambolic, too many of the frontbench are Blair-Brown era leftovers, suspicion about possible tax raises is high in the swing seats. Yet for all that, Cameron can’t get clear blue water between himself and Labour. The polls are at best tied, on around 33.5% each, at worst showing Labour with a 1-3% advantage — translating to a 2-6% lead for Labour, given biased distribution. For months Cameron has had the natural advantage of incumbency, on the news every night, with the meeja constructing Nigel Farage of UKIP as the de facto opposition leader and trailing him more or less to the bogs for a piss after he’s downed four pints in four photo ops.
That has allowed the Tories to get away with a lot of unchallenged claims — the roaring economic recovery, for example. This is good as media rhetoric, nonsense on the street. Of jobs created under Cameron since the recession, only one in 40 is an actual full-time job. The rest are zero-hours contracts, part-time or casual. Purchasing power has declined, household debt is about to take off again, and public debt has risen from 800 billion pounds (A$1.6 trillion) to 1.2 trillion pounds (more soggy Aussie dollars than there are in the universe).
People feel this on the street, not least in the huge rise in US-style “food banks” and the fact that many of their users are not benefit recipients but people put onto short-term contracts and precarious work, and an increasing number of people who never expected to be poor — skilled working-class and middle-class people who never got back into the job market after 2008.
For these reasons and many others, Cameron has been desperate to avoid a head-to-head debate with Miliband. Not out of fear of Miliband’s debating style — the man can literally be bested by a bacon sandwich — but because such things will be fact-checked, Miliband can reel off a slew of them, and the Tories would spend the rest of the campaign on defence.
Last week, instead of a debate, after much wriggling by Cameron, there was instead two separate interviews (the Tories know that the “why won’t you debate me?” thing doesn’t play long or well for anyone; extended overmuch, it quickly sounds obsessive and weirdly concedes the other player a sort of silent power). Tories everywhere thought they’d won it. Polls showed Miliband had, 60-40, which freaked them out no end.
So now they’ve come out fighting. They are blessed by the near-total incompetence of the ’80s political caste which now constitutes the core leadership of the Labour Party. And they got Labour a beauty in the last parliamentary question time last week. Chancellor Exchequer George Osborne had previously failed to rule out a possible rise in VAT (i.e. GST) after the election. Miliband asked Cameron if he would rule it out — and of course Cameron said yes, he would, and Miliband’s whole strategy collapsed. The whole thing was a trap, and Labour never sussed it.
That said about the Tories, their great advantage — that they’re a sleazy crew of chancers — is also a big risk for them. They hit the news shows yesterday evening with a claim that Labour would cost every household an extra 3000 quid. This was a triple-gazumped figure — it used only working households, it aggregated over several years, and its base figure of commitments minus revenues was exaggerated by as much as 900% — leaving a real figure of around 150 quid, maybe less. It got a brief media flurry, then it was unpacked and even its most enthusiastic supporters in the media had to unpack.
It wasn’t helped by the fact that the man sent to sell it was party chairman Grant Shapps. A former web marketer, Shapps is the sort of person that Tories really like and admire, and thus fail to see how much the rest of the populace loathe him. A smirking clown, his web business, selling insta e-books, was done under a pseudonym, using false testimonials and bulk spam. He is, in other words, the source of much of your 21st-century everyday minor pain — this is the actual man you never get to meet as you bang your laptop on the desk and wish you could, so you could hurt him. He’s really one torchlit parade away from being burnt in a giant wicker man, and the idea of putting him front of the cameras shows how out of touch the Tories can be.
So on we roll, with all the usual accoutrements of a UK election campaign — the great processional tours that try to look like US processionals, which are mostly done as day trips about 50 ks out of London, to swinging electorate No. 127; the mic-still-on gaffes, which these days have to involve an actual murder confession to attract our attention; the giant chicken following the leaders around, a tradition so established that I was surprised not to see one behind Henry VIII in the TV version of Wolf Hall; the Monster Raving Loony Party, struggling to find a role now that UKIP has risen to prominence, and with past “loony” policies — from passports for pets to public shaming (i.e. anti-social behaviour orders) — now passed into the mainstream; the particular gleeful know-nothingism of a certain type of British voter (“they’re all the same … the NHS — you can’t touch the NHS! … they’re all the same”); the now-calendared spectacle of UKIP deselections; election night itself, where in every constituency, including the PM’s and opposition leader’s, the candidates will line up for the reading of the results like the usual suspects without a height chart behind them, a spectacle both magnificent and bogus at the same time; and, finally and with a bit of luck, a result so chaotic that it makes formation of a durable government impossible and forces the system towards change.
Ah, well here we go, apples and pears, clickety-click turned out nice again musn’t grumble eyes down for a full house …