Gday from sunny London


On 5 May the Tories will find out how successful their policy-lite scare campaign has been. The polls have not moved much since the election was called. Labour have been steady on about 39 per cent and the Tories have tottered around the 32-33 per cent mark; this would translate to a reduced majority for Labour of about ninety seats.

Lynton Crosby’s cookie cutter campaign consultancy has injected a dose of fear into the electorate but whether this will translate into electoral success is openly debated in the many pubs around Victoria Street, Westminster; the street along which both the Tories and Labour are headquartered. The look de rigueur for all staffers at this stage of the campaign is the thousand-yard-stare while holding a large glass of warm beer.

Coming from 160 seats down, success for the Tories will be measured by both how many seats they gain and the degree to which they can establish a foundation for the 2009 election. These targets are interrelated but, as the polls remain static, concern is rising amongst recently retired and fringe Tories (those who feel free to criticise) that a modest gain in seats will be largely on the back of an aging Government and a contentious war (which the Tories enthusiastically supported) and not on the value of their worth as an alternate government.

The concern is that, particularly if they gain only a few seats, their party will be left with the skunk-like odour of a cheap campaign, being challenged from the rear by the Liberal Democrats as the primary opposition party and with bugger all left to build upon for the next five years.

The bookies today have Labour at 1/33 and the Tories at 16/1.

Negative campaign tactics are inherently defensive; they are best used from a position of strength to debase opponents. Opposition parties are far more susceptible to debasement as they have far fewer achievements or facts to fall back on. If, from their position of a distant opposition, the Tories have some success with these tactics, then Crosby Textor (Lynton Crosby’s company) may well live up to their hype.

The warmest and wettest instrument in the scare campaigner’s tool box is the dog whistle. It’s not racist to impose limits on immigration – that’s the Tory twenty metre poster-sized dog whistle on immigration. Political dog whistles work like this: you put out a factual message that has undertones that appeal to various swing voters. The subtexts in this case being ‘ruinous immigration is unlimited because of overbearing political correctness’, ‘we will impose far lower limits’, ‘there should be fewer immigrants’ and ‘immigrants are making life hard for recently arrived legal immigrants, people who don’t like immigrants and racists’.

UK Conservative Party leader, Michel Howard

UK Conservative Party leader, Michel Howard (2005)

Of course, none of these subtexts are actually spoken out loud. Spoken out loud they are incoherent. The handy thing about subtexts is that people interpret them as they prefer, the same dog whistle will say different things to different people. Michael Howard has refused to say what his immigration limit actually is or what exactly is wrong with the current immigration scheme. It’s the thought that counts.

A British comedian last week lampooned Howard by saying, ‘It’s not racist to join the Ku Klux Klan.’ Technically, there is some truth to the statement, free association is free association, but the subtext screams racism such that the perspective is overlooked. With dog whistles like, ‘We will decide who will come into this country and the manner in which they come,’ the message is sufficiently subtle. The subtextual message is convincingly conveyed to those that want to hear it and the face-value doesn’t offend anyone that matters.

The interesting change in the Tory campaign in the last week is that perhaps because subtle messages like their ‘policy’ on schools, ‘What’s wrong with a little discipline in schools?’ don’t appear to have harmed the Government, they have ramped up the scary rhetoric to the point where, on face value, it appears to be putting moderate Tories off. Calling candidates liars and being exposed sending pro immigration leaflets to immigrant areas and anti immigration leaflets to predominantly white areas, all within the same constituency, has disappointed some supporters.

With just a few days to go, the Tories have blown their whistles so hard their faces are red. After the election we’ll certainly be hearing from the Tories whose ears have popped.

There are two big differences that distinguish UK politics from Australia’s: 1) the first-past-the-post election system (with the Liberal Democrats being a strong third party, ~ 22 per cent) and 2) turn-out variability.

Without the dog whistles, the Tories were just as negative last election.
Posters from the 2001 campaign.

In more than a few seats party A holds the seat with a small majority and parties B and C are closely matched. Voting is not compulsory here and so, depending on campaign topics, the weather and the demography of swing voters, turn-out can range widely (e.g. 59.4 per cent in 2001 to 71.4 per cent in 1997). This complicates campaigning and polling.

Q. ‘Who will you vote for if the election was held today?’
A. ‘Oooh, Labour, yes yes, definitely Labour, Tony Blair, yes.’
Q. ‘Do you intend to vote on 5 May?’
A. ‘No.’

So all responses have to be adjusted by a guesstimation of whether the survey sample will actually vote.

It will be very interesting to see how close the new generation of internet, focus group, telephone and street polling techniques prove to be.

Last week Michael Howard played the usual underdog card by declaring that he would loose the election (‘we’re 2-0 nil down at half time’) and urged everyone to post a protest vote to ‘Wipe the smile off Tony Blair’s face’, a theme he will no doubt continue up until polling day. In a voluntary, first-past-the-post, three party election, this move should have some effect but one that will probably benefit the Liberal Democrats as much as it will the Tories.

The bottom line is that Britons are better off than they were when Labour was elected in 1997. Interest rates are lower, unemployment is lower, wages and house prices are higher. Like Australia and many other developed countries, the UK economy has enjoyed stable growth over the last several years. Importantly though, and what will give Labour a winning edge this Thursday, is that Labour have used this growth and demonstrably raised the standard and equitability of health care, childcare, education and opportunity in the UK.

Only a few days to go.

For the best speech of the campaign see Tony Blair’s in Dover Friday week ago titled ‘Concern over asylum and immigration is about fairness’. In it he squarely addresses the Tory scare campaign, pretty encouraging.

Why does new labour stand for nothing? by Josie Appleton, sp!ked-essays

The end of Blairism? by James Heartfield, sp!iked-online

‘The Lib Dems are little more than a dustbin for everyone’s frustrations with mainstream politics.’ That’s a ‘real alternative’? by Josie Appleton. sp!ked-politics

Iraq still isn’t an election issue by Brendan O’Neill, sp!ked-politics

More UK Election articles plus:
Naima Bouteldja on why French Muslim school children are not celebrating the first anniversary of the ‘headscarf ban’. At Red Pepper

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.