8 June 2017

Election day is a mighty moment


It has been, almost everyone agrees, a truly dismal election campaign. The plain people of the United Kingdom have been given the grisliest, least appetising, electoral choice since, well, the last appalling electoral choice they were presented.

But remind me, pray, when last you thought “By jove, regardless of the outcome, this has been a campaign to savour, a contest to make you proud, an election about which we will fondly tell our children”?

I hazard no such election has ever taken place. Thatcher vs Foot? Come on. Major vs Kinnock? Come off it. Blair vs Hague? You’re having a laugh. Blair vs Howard? Get outta here. Cameron vs Brown? Hahahahaha. Cameron vs Miliband? Pass the sick bucket. Who governs Britain? Except when it’s “the wrong buggers”, the answer is always “Someone, alas”.

Remember this: except in cricket, there never was any Golden Age. Yesterday’s giants were perceived as pygmies at the time. Thatcher was just a little woman, Blair was merely a spin merchant and Cameron was only a pink-faced charlatan. It’s a point of view and one liable to please the “News Quiz” but it’s also the case that, most of the time, politicians are granted a greater measure of grandeur the longer it is since they last held significant office.

Theresa May will slink back into Downing Street on Friday morning because she possesses one great advantage over Jeremy Corbyn: she is not Jeremy Corbyn. That is both a necessary and sufficient condition for winning this election. And yet, awkwardly, she remains Theresa May. Even as she wins, there is the delicious prospect that Mrs May will lose in the court of general opinion; not a Pyrrhic victory, just a near-Pyrrhic one.

That’s deserved because campaigns are revealing. This campaign has shown the Tory leader to be what she is: a suburban governess of limited imagination, little flexibility, and even less empathy. She is not a natural campaigner and now you realise why she played such a small part in both the Brexit referendum and in previous Tory election campaigns.

It’s true that this has not been an especially elevated campaign and also true that much of the blame for that rests with the governing party. Mrs May has successfully demonstrated that a bloody difficult woman is not necessarily a bloody popular woman.

No one in the game – by which I mean members of the press and parliamentary cohorts – can now mouth the words “strong and stable” without smirking. Maybe there’s nothing there with May; might it be possible she may not be the answer? To which the sensible verdict is, at best, not proven. She may not be entirely guilty but nor is she wholly innocent.

And yet, even so, all the carping misses something important. Regardless of the choices available in individual constituencies, or even nationally, there remains something stirring about an election campaign. It is fashionable to claim – and complain – that we inhabit different worlds these days, that entire and large sections of the population are little more than ships that pass in the night, that we are an atomised people, carefully constructing our own warm cocoons for ourselves into which no alternative view can penetrate.

Well, maybe. But once every four or five years – or more often if the pundit class is lucky – that changes. There is  something mighty about an election day. It is a moment of ecumenical unity. A solemn moment, too, and something that should be cherished no matter how ghastly everything seems. Because it could be worse than this, you know. To be born British is not life’s only winning lottery ticket but it’s not a losing ticket either and it wins you something more than whatever is available in, alas, too much of the world.

These are the moments in which we glimpse alternatives even if we only vote on the basis of averting the worst. It is the existence of those alternatives that counts. That and the appreciation that however significant the stakes in any given contest, the realm can withstand any of the even modestly plausible outcomes. Be not afraid, you know.

Although I voted Labour in 2015 (a doomed attempt to jam a thumb in a dyke about to be swept away by the SNP) I could never vote for Mr Corbyn’s Labour party. That is less a reflection of my view of his policy preferences – though I think most of them misguided – but, rather, a reaction to his tawdry, exhaustively documented, worldview. I didn’t leave the Labour party, as they say, the Labour party left me.

Still, and despite that, let me say something nice about Jeremy Corbyn. His campaign has been a credit to him; the manner in which he has inspired the hopes – however misguided – of so many younger voters is not something to be sneered at. The Tory party, if it retains its wits, should take note of this.

“Hope not fear” is a smug, self-satisfied cliche, but, like most cliches, still something that says something true. Corbyn might have the wrong answers, but he is right to insist that at an election there is no such thing as There Is No Alternative. For that, if not much else, he deserves some credit.

You might think his acolytes misguided or, worse, perniciously mistaken, but he has tapped into something real: a yearning for a different approach. This remains the case even if you think that different approach should have been costed honestly.

A tiny cheer, too, for Tim Farron who has stuck to his guns despite them misfiring all campaign long. The admiralty could always forgive a captain who fell on his quarterdeck and it will not think too unkindly of Mr Farron for perishing on his poop instead. The Lib Dem misjudgement of the electorate has been one of the more plangent features of this election but no less entertaining for that. Out of possibility, they have fashioned ruin.

Even if we weigh the campaigns and find them wanting, however, these are moments blessed with a certain dignity. That, especially after Manchester and London Bridge, is worth something too, you know.

The cast doesn’t matter; the play’s the thing. Be happy in your vote.

Alex Massie is a political commentator