Boris Johnson’s shameful, specious and spineless campaign represents defeat for many of the tenets of true democracy, argues LIZ GERARD.
That’s it then. We’re sunk. Boris Johnson has been returned to Number 10, thanks to the votes of those who will suffer most when he “gets Brexit done” – whether it’s at the end of next month or the end of next year.
We put up a good fight. But now, as the Leavers crow, we Remainers are left to lick our wounds and pray that the government doesn’t rub salt in them.
It’s already threatening to, with page 48 of the manifesto promising to change the law so that it is no longer unlawful for the government to break the law as it did over prorogation.
Where did it all go wrong? Could we have played it differently? Better? Well, obviously, since we’ve lost. But we weren’t well served by David Cameron’s lacklustre referendum strategy; Jeremy Corbyn’s obfuscation; Stuart Rose’s near invisibility – remember him? He was supposed to be leading the ‘in’ campaign, in 2016. By sympathetic MPs in the last parliament who were too afraid to follow their consciences and, latterly, by the imploding People’s Vote movement and the failure of the opposition parties to work together to beat the Tories.
Against all of those, and with the benefit of hindsight, Theresa May looks almost competent. She did at least get a withdrawal deal that treated all corners of the UK the same.
We can beat ourselves up and find scapegoats, but there are two real reasons why we are in this predicament: Jeremy Corbyn and the lying.
Corbyn has been the biggest hurdle from the start: an ambivalent (to put it kindly) Remain campaigner before the referendum and an unpopular leader among his own MPs as well as in the country at large. While his devotees insisted that his radical policies were the only way to bring about a fairer society, that Tony Blair was a stain on the party’s history, millions were crying out for a return to just such a leader.
With government incompetence ratings in the 70s, people still saw the Tories as a better bet. Poll after poll showed that the country didn’t just dislike, but actively loathed Corbyn, that with another leader, Labour would be streets ahead. But his party re-elected him with an even bigger majority. He was what he was and – for all the sneering – his Brexit policy did make some sense, so Remainers urged each other to vote tactically for him if necessary to block Johnson. That didn’t work.
Labour will now presumably, belatedly, take action to try to make the party electable again. That will, eventually, come right and we shall, eventually, have a proper opposition.
What is less easy to deal with is the lying. And that should be our bigger concern now.
Whatever that bloke in the caff says, it hasn’t always been like this. There used to be honour, then came spin, then came half-truths and then, in 2016, the fibs. Written on a bus and in innumerate headlines about immigrants stealing all our jobs. And when they were swallowed whole, they turned into full-blown barefaced lies about dozens of non-existent hospitals and thousands of “extra” nurses who are already working for the NHS.
Over the past four years voters have been inoculated against the truth. “They’re all the same.” No, they’re not. But that view has been allowed to flourish because it suited the liars to let people think that everyone was at it.
In the referendum the crime of the bus was supposedly matched by the misdemeanour of George Osborne’s extrapolations from GDP to family finances (the same sort of extrapolations that both sides – and economics editors – have been indulging in during this campaign).
This time round, bogus Conservative claims about health service funding or historical tax cuts were seen as no more concerning than whether Corbyn really watches the Queen’s Christmas broadcast. As with the referendum, false equivalence abounded.
Until you looked for an independent view. The international fact-checking organisation First Draft reported this week that nearly 90% of the Conservatives’ 6,000-odd Facebook advertisements last week were misleading – against next to none of Labour’s, although another fact-checker found that some Labour efforts were also at fault. Then there was the doctored Keir Starmer video, the fake websites and other dirty tricks.
All this happened against a background of journalists not doing their jobs, accepting anonymous partisan briefings from “senior Tory sources” and not bothering to check.
“Boris says” front pages were all over the newstands. Corbyn was a national security threat – says Boris. Corbyn would rig a second Brexit referendum – says Boris. The Conservatives added up all of Labour’s 2017 manifesto ideas, costed them, doubled some of the numbers and came up with a figure of £1.2 trillion. This assumption – when no one knew which, if any, of the policies would be included in the as-yet-unwritten 2019 manifesto or when they would be implemented – became the splash for the Sunday Times and Mail on Sunday and was repeated across all media all day and the next day.
On the other hand, when Corbyn produced a dossier that he said showed the NHS was on the table in trade negotiations with America, it was denounced as the out-of-date work of Russians.
Scepticism was perfectly reasonable; the document related to talks while Theresa May was still prime minister. If only the doubting antenna had worked as well when the Conservatives made their claims about Labour plans.
They did at the Mirror, Guardian, i and, occasionally, the Times. But these were again outweighed and outmanoeuvred by the skewed approach of the right-wing press in pursuit of a project – Brexit – that is entirely in the interests of wealthy politicians and not the people they represent, in the interests of newspapers’ proprietors and not their readers.
Anyone who stood in the way was belittled, denounced, demonised. And top of the list was Magic Grandpa, the unpatriotic, anti-Semite, terrorists’ friend.
Tabloids have always had a capacity for nastiness, but over the past six years this talent has been honed. Kinnock as lightbulb and Miliband eating a bacon sandwich were as nothing to the venom directed at Corbyn. For a group of newspapers that attacked the Remain campaign over “Project Fear”, the negativity of this election has been breathtaking. Setting aside coverage that could be regarded as neutral, the Mail has run 148 pages attacking Corbyn against 61 spelling out what Johnson was offering.
On the other side, the Mirror has devoted 51 pages to reporting Labour’s policies and 91 to rubbishing the Conservatives’ record – with almost all of its coverage focused on the NHS.
As to Johnson, he proved accountable to none, evading all genuine scrutiny. He didn’t have time for Andrew Neil or Jeremy Vine, but managed Holly and Phil on This Morning and a series of interviews with friendly newspapers.
In the last week of the campaign he clocked up the Evening Standard, Express, Sun, Mail, Telegraph and Sunday Times – “my 120th interview”. All “exclusive”, all sold as “Boris talks to our readers”. All chummy and full of “Let’s get Brexit done”. There was more in the Sun on Wednesday, when he “turned on the charm” for readers – producing the you-couldn’t-make-it-up headline “Bojo’s big on family values” – and a “personal” letter to readers on polling day.
Stage-managed was fine with Johnson throughout the campaign – but the unexpected was a big no-no, so that he confiscated a television reporter’s phone rather than look at picture of a sick child on a hospital floor and hid in a fridge rather than face Piers Morgan unprepared.
Ever since taking office, he has preferred to commune with voters ‘direct’ rather than face questioning from professionals who may not be on his side, whether through Facebook ‘question times’ with carefully vetted questions, orchestrated photo-ops holding a giant fish or driving a JCB through a pile of polystyrene, or social media videos – the final being a reworking of a Love Actually scene that sensibly omitted the card reading “At Christmas you have to tell the truth”.
And it wasn’t only Johnson avoiding scrutiny. Big beasts all round were kept locked up for fear of straying off-message. Where were Patel, Javid, Truss, Williamson (we know why Mogg was sequestered)? For that matter, where were Starmer and Abbott? Cable and Farron?
The whole campaign on all sides was characterised by suppression; by narrow agenda-setting. The leaders were interested only in Brexit, the health service and fantastical spending promises.
Defence? Only when it came to asking Corbyn if he’d push the button. Education? Only when one of the party leaders was sitting in a classroom with a hand up. Environment? The most important issue facing the world? A billions-of-trees auction of who could plant the most to save the planet and a television debate in which two ‘participants’ were melting ice sculptures.
Where were the media to question and challenge? The i was alone in the print sector to adopt a truly neutral stance, to take policy issues subject by subject, and detail where each party stood. Every other outlet – including the ‘serious’ papers and broadcasters – cherry-picked random topics with occasional vague “let’s have a look at this…” specials, preferring to follow the leaders’ caravans.
Their notion of something broader was to venture out of London to a former mining town as though they were trekking across the Sahara to a long-lost tribal village. Once they got there, they invariably found someone to say “I just want it over”. And then they went home again.
Meanwhile the real battle was being fought out of sight on the internet with closely targeted ads and viral videos. Buzzfeed’s Alex Spence reported this week that Momentum’s meme machine had garnered 50 million views on Facebook, more than most of the professional organisations covering the election. Its take on Nicky Morgan’s attempt to explain the “new” nurses who already work for the NHS to Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid on Good Morning Britain was watched more than eight million times. Altogether, pro-Corbyn posts were seen 175 million times, dwarfing the efforts of those pushing Johnson. All of this material is promotional, emotional, rather than fact or policy based.
Does any of this matter? It’s all just larks, isn’t it? Good old Bozza. Does anybody care?
Yes it does, because voters have been deliberately kept in ignorance, blindfolded, led into a dark valley and told to hold their noses and vote.
The Conservatives – supposedly the champions of freedom of expression – have repeatedly tried to control the information available to the public. Johnson’s refusal to answer taxing questions is just the part of it: There were the threats to the BBC licence fee, the complaint to Ofcom over Channel 4’s ice sculpture, the refusal to allow the Mirror’s reporter on to the battle bus, the blackballing of Sky’s Kay Burley over James Cleverly’s empty chair.
And when this happens, the apolitical majority will just take what’s thrown at them, while those who really care will go in search of information for themselves. Which may be a good thing, if they know what they’re looking at and how to sort the wheat from the chaff. But it is also a concern.
As Buzzfeed’s Spence wrote of the internet campaigns – on which the parties have spent a total of £6 million: “The rapid rise of this partisan ecosystem has enabled wider participation in the democratic process and aired viewpoints overlooked by the traditional media — but it has also amplified the discord and division. Regulators and policymakers have been caught flat-footed. There are few rules and little oversight. Misinformation has flourished and new channels have opened for ‘dark money’ to secretly influence elections and policy-making.”
For the second time in four years, lies, nastiness and the avoidance of scrutiny have won. The cosy relationship between politicians and press, which was supposed to have been examined and sorted by the Leveson inquiry, is even more entrenched. If you get away with something once, you’re tempted to try it again. When you get away with it twice, there’s a danger that it will become habit-forming.
The telling moment in this campaign was the little boy at Leeds General Infirmary. The BBC finally led on a story damaging to Johnson. The Tories tried to deflect attention by falsely alleging that Matt Hancock’s aide was punched by a “Labour activist”, a claim promptly spread by the political editors of the BBC, ITV and the Sun. Meanwhile, the Telegraph’s Allison Pearson and a brigade of trolls piled in to accuse the child’s mother of staging the photograph; finally the Sun claimed that the mother had complained to the press regulator that the case she herself had highlighted was being exploited by Labour as a political football, a story repeated in essence the next day by the Mail. In fact she had sought advice on damping down future press coverage.
This episode captured in a nutshell all that is wrong with our politics and our media – both mainstream and social.
This isn’t about whether the government is Conservative, Labour, Lib Dem or Green. It isn’t about Leave or Remain. It’s about allowing our society to be built on lies, deceit and dishonesty.
People saw their prime minister refuse to look at a photograph of a sick child; people who already knew that he had lied to them and “discounted” it. They watched him bluster and dodge and dive. And they didn’t care. They still believed that he had their interests at heart, that his Brexit would be good for them, that Corbyn would bankrupt the country. And so they voted for him.
And that is why we are sunk.