John Humphrys - A Disillusioning Election?

November 22, 2019, 2:21 PM UTC

We are now roughly halfway through the election campaign. Excitement among the electorate is, it could fairly be said, something short of irrepressible. Indeed if the impression I pick up from those I talk to is anything to go by (and for once I’m not talking to politicians but to people often patronisingly labelled ‘ordinary’), then the mood out there could be described as somewhere between glum resignation and outright despair. It might be summed up in the notion that voters want ‘none of the above’. Is this a uniquely disillusioning election, or is this just too glum an assessment of the public mood? 

There was a time when election campaigns were all done and dusted in three weeks. Now they are required to go on for almost twice as long. That alone may explain the mood I detect: people are quite simply bored. And we’ve had quite a lot of elections recently. In the last four years there has been only one year, 2018, when we weren’t asked to go the polling station to vote either in an election or a referendum.  As ‘Brenda from Bristol’ famously complained when the last one was called: “Oh no – not another one!” 

I doubt there ever was a time when those who weren’t actively engaged in campaigning positively enjoyed elections. To such politically inactive people (the vast majority) elections probably always seemed to some extent an exercise in political narcissism on the part of those seeking their votes. But even so, they still recognised it was a necessary endurance and at least having the opportunity to turf out governments and install new ones was a great deal better than not having that opportunity. 

No doubt many of those who are moaning about the current election would acknowledge that too. But it does seem to me that there is an order of difference in the widespread sense of disillusion I detect around me this time. So let’ try to articulate why this might be. 

First, there is the fact that Brexit hangs over the election like a dark cloud. The issue of ‘Europe’ has rarely been high on the public’s list of priorities and the fact that it is right at the top now is not a reflection of a sudden passionate interest among the populace in the geo-political future of Britain, whether in or out of the EU, but simply a wish to get shot of the damn thing. This is evident in the fact that Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn are campaigning on virtually the same slogan: the Prime Minister says the Tories will ‘get Brexit done’ and the Leader of the Opposition says Labour will ‘get Brexit sorted’. Their focus groups must be telling them the same thing.  

Yet the public knows in its bones that it’s not going to be quite as simple as that whichever party wins the election. A Tory government re-elected with a majority might swiftly be able to get its withdrawal agreement through Parliament at last, but then another slog begins: negotiating a long-term trading relationship with our old partners in the EU. No experts believe that will be either easy or swift. And should Labour get into government it has promised a renegotiation of the withdrawal agreement and another referendum. That means Brexit  staying at the top of the political agenda for months if not years to come and that’s unlikely to get most of us cracking open a bottle of Krug – even assuming we can afford one in the first place. 

Then there are the promises the politicians are making. Cynics of a certain age will say they have heard them all before and don’t believe a word. But there is a strikingly different feature of the promises being made at this election: all the parties are promising to spend, spend, spend. Now, after nearly ten years of austerity on public-spending it is probably fair to say that there is a national consensus that more needs to be spent on public services, many of which have suffered savage cuts in their budgets to the point at which some could be said barely to be functioning. So voters probably think it right that all the parties should be offering to make things good to some extent. But when voters hear politicians accompanying their promised largesse with assurances that it won’t be them, the voters, who’ll pay the bill but ‘others’  they tend to smell a rat. They have been told too often before that there is no such thing as a free lunch or that magic money trees exist only in kids’ books for them not to suspect they are being taken for a ride. 

And then there is the matter of respect for the party leaders themselves. One of the most extraordinary innovations of this election came in the leaders’ television debate earlier this week, when the studio audience laughed in derision at answers given by both Mr Johnson and Mr Corbyn.  If opinion polls are a guide, the Labour leader has long struggled to establish the status of a credible would-be prime minister. And as for Mr Johnson… given his reputation for his attachment to the truth it’s hardly surprising that the audience roared with laughter when he said he believed trust was an important issue.  

Even the shiny new Liberal Democrat leader, Jo Swinson, seems not immune to this widespread scepticism about the quality of the party leaders. Her claim at the beginning of the campaign that she could emerge as prime minister on 13 December was treated with a ridicule that questioned her seriousness, since everyone knows she won’t be. She’s conceded ass much herself.  Polls suggest that her approval among voters has (to use the phrase cruelly used by commentators) gone on the slide ‘as the public has got know her’. 

Finally there is the issue of hope; that elusive but vital element politicians try to invoke in those whose votes they seek. All the most significant elections since the war have hinged on it. In 1945 Labour won a landslide by offering the hope that an entirely new sort of society could be created if those who had run the show before the war were swept out of office and socialism was given its chance. In 1951, the Tories offered the hope that Britain could be ‘freed from controls’. Labour, in 1964, set out a vision of a modern Britain governed not from the grouse moors but ‘forged in the white heat of technology’ and even if it wasn’t quite clear what exactly that meant (if anything), it certainly seemed to offer hope. In 1979 Margaret Thatcher offered a radical break from the stagnation of the 1970s and in 1997 Tony Blair put hope baldly right at the centre of his campaign: ‘things can only get better’, he promised. 

Of course our current crop of politicians is also offering various visions of hope: they’d be mad not to. The difference is that beyond their own activists, few people seem to believe them. Indeed there is one massive change between the current election and those that have gone before. Back then, people simply assumed that things would get better because they always had: that was what economic growth and social progress inevitably entailed. But that is no longer assumed: quite the opposite. Surveys indicate that increasingly people believe that such an assumption no longer applies and that for any number of reasons their children will end up living tougher lives than they do, and irrespective of what politicians can offer. That is the new background against which politicians struggle to engender a sense of hope. 

And that dwindling sense of hope is compounded by another thought: that this election may well make no difference at all for the simple reason that it may not produce a decisive outcome, namely a government with a workable majority and able to do things. Current polling evidence suggests that the Conservative Party stands the best chance of winning such a majority but, despite its lead, that is far from certain. It takes something for any party to come top four times in a row and its election strategy entails sacrificing seats it now holds in the hope that it can gain others it doesn’t, a high-risk strategy that could well backfire.  Meanwhile Labour will need a miracle in the last few weeks of the campaign to turn its historically dire poll figures into a parliamentary majority.All that means that another hung parliament is a high probability. Hung parliaments tend to mean stalemate and the prospect of yet another election coming along sooner than anyone can really bear. This alone may explain the mood of disillusion.

Normally in these columns I put the counter-argument to any case. But on this occasion I’m not sure I can see what it might consist of. So that’s your job. If you think all of the above is far too depressing and defeatist and that there really are grounds for being excited about this election, tell us what they are. Or, of course, if you don’t, say so too. Either way, we want to hear from you.