Wednesday, 21 June 2017

General Election June 2017-What Lessons Did We Learn?

We are now two weeks on from the craziest election that most of us have lived through. An election invaded by two dreadful terrorist attacks and then followed by the tragic events of Grenfell Tower. It  was an election which most of us- myself included- thought could only end one way. A coronation for a triumphant Queen Theresa. Meanwhile poor Jeremy Corbyn would be consigned to the dustbin of history (as the Sun prophesied) and along with him the death of any hope of a future socialist government.

How differently it turned out! I have never been happier to be proved wrong on so many counts. Like many I prayed for a political miracle and we got one. OK it wasn't quite the miracle I'd prayed for-  a Labour government, but we got the next best thing- a Labour government in waiting. We saw a deflated, defeated Tory party, a Prime Minister who had arrogantly proclaimed herself as “strong and stable" with a plan for our post Brexit future, exposed as “weak and wobbly" and whose plan was no more than vacuous soundbites. Most of all we got a Labour party united behind an inspirational leader , with a genuine plan and vision offering the country real hope. As a lady once said, “Just rejoice at that news.”

Let's remember at the start of the election campaign Labour was polling at 18 to 25 points below the Tories and Theresa May's popularity was a staggering 40 points ahead of Jeremy Corbyn's. No opposition leader starting an election from such a low point had ever done anything but fail abysmally. Labour were heading for a car crash (or so we all thought). Yet in the space of no more of a few weeks the election was transformed. The only reliable pollster (yet again) was Survation and even by their measure on 12 May Labour was 18 points behind. But incredibly by 2 June only 3 weeks later and despite (or perhaps partly because of) two terrorist attacks they were in striking distance of the Tories. And that's where they stayed, finishing only 2 points behind them in the actual vote.

And since the election Jeremy and Labour’s popularity has only increased while Theresa and the Tories has continued to plummet. Two post-election polls by Survation (everyone else seems to have given up) showed Labour 3 to 6 points ahead of the Tories . And YouGov (who got the pollsters’ runner up prize) found that Jeremy now had a 34 point popularity  advantage over Theresa- a complete reversal of their positions at the start of the election.
So two weeks on what have we learnt from this extraordinary election?

Have a team of good advisers around you.
"Where there is no guidance the people fall, but in an abundance of counsellors there is victory.(Proverbs 11:14)

Theresa May seems to have prepared her much-criticised manifesto (“dementia tax” and all)  huddled  in a secret broom cupboard with just her two hired special advisers. There seems to have been little if any consultation with her cabinet. By contrast Jeremy Corbyn developed Labour's highly popular manifesto in consultation with his parliamentary colleagues and the wider Labour membership.

Have a vision that can inspire

"Where there is no vision the people perish." (Proverbs 29:18)

Whether you agreed with it or not, Labour offered a (fully costed) manifesto and vision of Britain that was transformative:  returning public services to public control and ownership, abolishing tuition fees, a new national investment bank and a huge reinvestment in the country's infrastructure to revitalise our flagging economy, giving our cash-starved schools and hospitals the funds they need to save them, 30 hours free child care for under 5s, a £10 minimum wage and much more besides.
 Meanwhile the Conservative manifesto promised little beyond vague concepts like a better Brexit and a stronger Britain. It frightened some of their core older voters with the proposal to remove the pension triple lock, means test their winter fuel allowance and the threat of the dreaded “dementia tax on their property to pay for social care in their homes. It offered nothing at all for young people.

Being nice beats being mean
“For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people.” (1 Peter 2:15)

The right wing press (i.e. most of it) tried every trick in the book to trash Jeremy's character, pouring vicious lies and bile over him, besmirching him in headlines like “Jezza's Jihadi Comrades” and “Don't chuck Britain in the Cor-bin". And Jeremy's response? “I hear some people have said some nasty things about me. I forgive them all.” The more they tried to darken his image the more the light of his good character shone through. He doesn’t fight fire with fire but with water, never resorting to the sort of spiteful personal criticism directed at him but focusing instead on policies and actions. And his kinder, gentler way of doing politics has resonated with many people and drawn to him far more than have been put off by the gutter press headlines. And as a Christian I have to admit his Christ-like example has both shamed and challenged me when I myself have been rather less gracious with my own political comments.

People value authenticity and honesty
“An honest answer is like a kiss on the lips.” (Proverbs 24:26)

One striking difference revealed between the two leaders was their sense of authenticity. Not everyone likes or agrees with Jeremy Corbyn but most can see that he's “the real deal.” His lines aren’t always the most polished but what he speaks he speaks with a genuine passion and conviction about things he really cares about. He did have certain favoured phrases like “for the many not the few" but he was able to articulate what he meant by them in terms of policy. Contrast that with Theresa May who too often just seemed to mouth safe soundbites and vague values which she would crow bar into her speeches and conversations where appropriate; “strong and stable leadership” “standing up for Britain”/ “for working families”, “no deal is better than a bad deal”, “getting on with the job”. You had no real sense of the substance behind these vague statements, either in terms of passion and conviction or policy detail. Strip away the costume and scrape off the grease paint and you had the suspicion it might all be a rather fake act. And that whiff of falsehood was only heightened when she appeared to directly lie to the watching world after she suddenly changed her “dementia tax” policy. She incredulously tried to deny that her sudden introduction of a cap so obviously missing from her manifesto just  hours before was not a change of policy. A look in her eyes told you she was lying.

People want a leader who connects with  them where they are
“And large crowds followed Him.” (Matthew 19:2)

Many (including myself) mocked Jeremy and his loyal supporters for the large crowds he attracted during his Labour leadership campaigns. We said he’s only preaching to the converted rather than reaching new people and that won’t win you votes in the wider country, not in 2017 anyway. How wrong we were. It was a key characteristic of Jeremy that shone through that he just loves to be out and about meeting and engaging with ordinary people where they are at. This was illustrated by the huge enthusiastic crowds he spoke to just as much as the more intimate one to one engagements. At the end of his BBC Question Time session you sensed he genuinely meant it when he said, “Is that it? But I had so much more to say!” By contrast Theresa May seems to be genuinely frightened of meeting ordinary people unless they happen to be carefully handpicked by her minders and wearing blue rosettes. This fear of engagement seemed to be what lay behind her refusal to take part in the leaders’ debates and in the few instances when we saw her engaging with ordinary members of the public she looked very awkward and ill at ease. At the end of the BBC Question Time you felt she couldn’t get off that stage soon enough. This stark contrast between Theresa and Jeremy has been seen even more graphically since the election following the Grenfell Tower disaster. Sometimes pictures speak so much more eloquently than words. None more so than the picture of Jeremy putting his arm round one of the distraught survivors and the picture of Theresa standing with the emergency services, aloof and apart from the victims. And in these days of instant social media and 24 hour news with their emphasis on the visual, pulling large enthusisastic crowds or pulling awakward faces matter- fairly or unfairly it communicates a message. Before the election campaign Jeremy had only been able to speak to the wider public through the prism of a national media  so very biased against him. However the strict impartiality required by election rules allowed him to freely communicate his message and his character. For the first time many saw him as he really is; a good, honest, thoughtful and compassionate man offering a message of real hope.

People don’t like being taken for granted
“... you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil.” (James 4:13-16 )

Most of the electorate rightly felt misled about the need for an election in the first place. We had been told seven times by Theresa May that there would be no election until 2020 as she just wanted to get on with the job of negotiating a “red white and blue” Brexit. In April she then suddenly announced an election on the pretext that she needed the electorate’s authority to negotiate Brexit. This is even though Parliament had just given her the article 50 authority she needed. The real truth was she saw a 25 point poll lead, worsening economic conditions and bruising Brexit negotiations. She realised conditions would never be so good to increase her majority and went for it.
These are totally understandable reasons for calling an election but very far from the reasons she gave . To many it looked like she was taking the public for mugs as she almost demanded them to give her a huge majority to strengthen her hand and negotiate the best possible Brexit deal for Britain.
She was seen to treat the electorate with further contempt by not turning up to a live TV debate with the other party leaders. (Instead sending a woman whose father had died that week).
She then offered up a manifesto promising virtually nothing of substance to anyone and her core older votes having various financial threats made against them.
No wonder many voters thought “stuff you Mrs May, you're not getting your landslslide and you’re not getting my vote.”

Pride comes before a fall
“Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” (Proverbs 16:18)

If you are going to rather arrogantly pitch a whole election campaign around yourself being a “strong and stable leader” you’d better actually be a “strong and stable” leader or are you likely to be found out. Arrogance is not a particularly attractive quality but if you can back it up people may put up with it. But what “strong and stable” leader runs from a live TV debate with her adversaries or u turns on key policies as soon as they meet strong resistance? As Jeremy Paxman put it that’s not a “strong and stable leader” but “a blow hard who runs at the first sound of gunfire.” For a leader to comes across as both arrogant and weak is a lethal combination.

Not all pollsters are equal
 “...the voice of one crying in the wilderness...” (John 1:23)

Survation must be doing something right! They were the only national pollster who forecast a small Tory victory in 2015 and one of very few who had consistently predicted Britain would vote to leave the EU in the referendum. Almost every other pollster had predicted a comfortable Tory victory this time . Once again Survation got the result right within a percentage point. Before election day the Tory pollster Lord Ashcroft had tweeted  (I assumed sarcastically) about Survation uniquely predicting a hung Parliament, “forget the rest.” Well whether he meant it or not he was right.

Young people will engage and vote if you give something worth engaging in and voting for
Let no one despise you for your youth...” (1 Timothy 4:12)

Only 44% of 18 to 24 year olds voted in 2015. This time 64% voted - an increase of nearly 50- and overwhelmingly they voted Labour as did all under 45s. And in a number of constituencies it was Labour's youth vote that made the difference. The shining example of that was Canterbury which had been held by the Tories since long before the Labour party even existed. However, in Canterbury there was a huge untapped pool of student voters who potentially outnumbered older voters. Labour student activists there like my daughter Josie (pictured on on the far left of the picture above) helped ensure that thousands of students registered to vote in the first place. Then when those students saw a party offering them things that so obviously benefited them- most notably abolition of student fees- for once most of them actually voted.  And this is why Survation were confident they were right to forecast such a close contest- because they could see Labour were offering young people something they would get out and vote for.

Jeremy is a far wiser man than most of us have given him credit for
“Let days speak and many years teach wisdom.” (Job 32: 8)

Even as a Labour supporter I have quite often disagreed with Jeremy Corbyn's positions, sometimes over policy but more so over political strategy. I’ve quite often thought his positions rather naive. However, looking back over the election and then at the many years before then I now have to admit that where I disagreed with him he was mostly right and I was mostly wrong. He is a man of conviction and principle who has very often been out of step with others even in his own party. This voted against his own party's whip 600 times. And yet it seems to me that on the large majority of those occasions when he took a stand against his fellow mps it was they and not he who were in the wrong. History increasingly suggests rather than being naive on most occasions his position was wise and right even if it put him in a minority at the time.
I would point to the following examples where I believe Jeremy has been proved right:
·         Supporting  disarmament of Britain’s expensive but pointless nuclear “deterrent”
·         Supporting sanctions against apartheid South Africa
·         Opposing Britain's military interventions in the Middle East
·         Opposing counter-productive and illiberal “anti-terror” laws
·         Opposing the extension of private interests to own and run our NHS and other public services
·         Supporting increased taxes on the rich tougher action on tax evasion and avoidance
    Greater state control of our banks
·         Renationalizing key public services like our railways
·         Opposing austerity and the starving of our public services and the slashing of welfare support
·         Accepting the result of the EU referendum and the triggering of Article 50
·         Recognising most people don’t want a hard Brexit and would prioritise the economy and free trade over immigration
·         But recognising also that most people don’t  want to re-run the referendum even if they disagreed with the result
·         Agreeing to the Prime Minister’s call for an early election
·         Prioritizing the complete abolition of student tuition fees.

You don't have to win from the centre ground -you can move the centre ground left
“Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.  See, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. (Isaiah 43:18-19)

I believe this is now a time of change. What was considered extreme left I believe is becoming mainstream . A political earthquake is happening and the centre ground is shifting. Some of Labour’s supposedly most left-wing policies were among their most popular- supported by many who didn’t even vote for them. These include renationalizing our railways, building more council houses and increasing taxes on the rich and larger corporations to fund better public services.
After careful and prayerful examination of the issues and the evidence I am convinced that the Conservatives (and to an extent New Labour) have been taking this country in the wrong direction.  This has already caused much misery and suffering and the loss of opportunity for so many. A continuation of the same can only lead to things becoming even worse for nearly everyone.  I am convinced that the society they are building is one that is increasingly alien to the biblical Kingdom of God values that I and most of the country believe in (whether they share my Christian faith or not). 

But under Jeremy Corbyn Labour now offer a genuine alternative. A “transformative” agenda in which people throughout the country are increasingly believing (or at least hoping). It is not simply about putting more money into our failing public services, desperately though they need it. It's about a different way of running the country- “for the many, not the few.” This isn’t just another meaningless slogan.  This is at the heart of Labour's policy agenda. And it’s not only about building a more just and equal society. It’s also about using our national resources more sensibly and efficiently so that they go further and taking a longer view to invest for the future rather than making short term savings at a longer term cost.

This cause isn’t going away because it’s a cause whose time has come. During the election Labour already won over many people who could see that we need to turn this ship of state around. When things only get over the next few weeks or months or  years before the next election (as inevitably they will for most I fear) I believe many more will follow them. Labour I am sure will stand firm in its position, waiting for them– taking a stand for them, the many against the privileged few, for a redistribution of wealth, power and opportunity to build a fairer, more equal and efficient society and economy. We are now preparing for the next election whenever it may be when I am confident Labour will finish the job of winning the nation’s hearts and minds to this cause. I am confident that they will then secure a  majority and lay down their roots. And in time I am hopeful that this cause will no longer be considered left wing at all but sensible and moderate. It’s where we are now that I believe is foolish  and extreme. And as the centre ground moves, even the Conservative party in time I believe will move with it, just as it did in step with Clement Attlee’s earlier transformative Labour government over 70 years ago.

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