Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Thursday 4 May 2017

This stage managed, policy free election

The real drama of the election so far was provided after the GMB union called a strike at Nestle’s York factory to protest at the management’s announcement that they were going to shift production of Blue Riband to Poland. Although the company merely talked about cutting costs, the local Labour MP blamed Brexit.

The day began with Theresa May, frontrunner in the forthcoming election, visiting both company management and union leaders to discuss the situation. The real drama began when Tim Farron, leader of the Liberal Democrats, who is campaigning to allow another referendum on Brexit, ambushed May by visiting workers who were picketing the factory. The anti-Brexit candidate shook hands and took selfies, and later said there was no doubt that the job cuts were a direct result of Brexit. I’m on the side of the workers who will lose their jobs as a result of leaving the EU, he said.

But Mrs. May was not to be outdone. After her talks she too went to talk with workers on the picket line, despite chants from some of the workers of ‘we want a second referendum’ and ‘Farron for PM’. She talked with them for an hour, and although she might not have convinced them that she could help, she did win the respect of some.

This is fiction of course, apart from the job losses at York. But those who read this Guardian article, or who live in France, will know that this is exactly what happened in the presidential run-off, with Le Pen performing the ambush and Macron having the courage to subsequently talk to the striking workers. As the article pointed out, this French political drama is in complete contrast to the stage managed campaign of Theresa May. In addition Macron has not refused to debate Le Pen for tactical reasons, as both May and then Corbyn have done.

This and the last election have been about selling brands, but unlike advertising there is no requirement to tell the truth. 2015 was all about a strong economy in capable hands: the economy was not strong and the hands sacrificed the economy for political gain but they kept on saying ‘long term economic plan’ and won. This time they are selling Theresa May as strong and stable, strong enough to bow to pressure on self-employment tax and stable in her views on Brexit, but again the marketing will win.

There is no doubt that something is very wrong when politics becomes about selling advertising slogans that are not true. But who is to blame for this situation? Janan Ganesh says the problem is that there are just two attitudes among the public about politics: indifference and obsession. I often think that the indifference is summed up by the phrase ‘all politicians are the same’. Taken at face value this assertion is clearly wrong, but what I think it means is that the person talking does not have the time or inclination to work out how politicians differ in a way that matters to them.

But this indifference does not stop people forming political opinions, often quite strong opinions. So why are we getting an election where the Prime Minister wants to avoid debate or questioning as far as she can? Krishnan Guru-Murthy is right that the media should try and discourage this way of running elections. But that needs to involve more than telling people when meetings are completely stage managed. The media needs to look at why spin doctors might want to minimise encounters with the media. For part of the answer you only need to look at how it puts gaffes before policy, as Diane Abbott discovered on Tuesday. Guru-Murthy’s own news program led with it, and all the discussion was about gaffes rather than police numbers.

Justifications along the lines of how this can reveal something about the competence of the person who made the gaffe may sometimes be true, but as a general defence it is not very convincing. As Mark Steel tweeted, if she had only put the numbers on a bus she would have got away with it. The real reason broadcasters make so much of gaffes is that they make great television. Who doesn’t want to see a politician embarrassed? But the consequence is politicians retreat to gaffe-proof platitudes. Labour politicians used to speak in a strange manner that seemed to be designed to avoid giving ammunition to the Daily Mail. It was one of the reasons Jeremy Corbyn, who said what he thought, won the Labour leadership.

If the broadcast media saved all the time they currently spend commenting on the polls and instead used that time to talk about policy, it would allow viewers to connect their own opinions to each party more easily. We do not want to end up like the last US election, where the average voter who just watched the nightly news on the non-partisan TV channels saw more time devoted to Clinton’s emails than all policy issues combined. That way we will end up with an incompetent, dishonest leader running a party whose policies will harm the country. Oh, wait...


  1. You opine about the present system as being all about advertising and show rather than substance.

    If you read the works of Hans Herman Hoppe you see a view that the sort of democracy we have is structurally inclined to this way of doing things. The system is inherently short termist in nature and no politician has an interest in pursuing the long term goals because they won't be around long) that may be advantageous to the populace. The inevitable result is that we get the sort of politics you criticize but this is a result of the system itself, not as an aberration from it; that is why one of Hoppes books is entitled "Democracy: the God that failed". The remedies you suggest will not change this.

    1. So why are education, environmentalism, economics etc big issues? There's no reason democratic politicians can't think long term. Especially if society holds their feet to the fire on these issues. You're just reheating old monarchist thinking.

  2. An interesting situation at York.
    It would appear that Nestle (a Swiss company) does not foresee any problem in shipping biscuits from EU to UK after Brexit. Do we know whether (Swiss, so not in the EU) Nestle received EU assistance in setting up its Polish operations? i.e. did UK workers pay the EU to take their jobs away?

  3. «Labour politicians used to speak in a strange manner that seemed to be designed to avoid giving ammunition to the Daily Mail.»

    Or they were using the Daily Mail as an excuse to talk like that, or they actually were courting the Daily Mail readership.

    «It was one of the reasons Jeremy Corbyn, who said what he thought, won the Labour leadership.»

    And the J Corbyn attitude to the media is to give for granted that they are hostile, that their readers will never vote for socialdemocracy as along as house prices are booming under a Conservative government, and to try and get some Labour-oriented people who have stopped voting to vote for Labour again. Also because there is some significant evidence that the press does not swing votes (I suspect because each newspapers marketing is about preaching to their own choir):

    Regardless I really agree with you that the press would do a much better public service if it discussed the policis (and those presenting them). If newspaper were in other words a kind of "policy (and politicians) buyer's guide" rather than politics gossip and scandal diaries.

    1. MSM needs to be more than a guide.
      It must hold politicians to account, it must publish deep, expert, analysis and critique (i.e. not just opinion op-ed pieces) of policies proposed by parties, to expose inconsistencies, costs, and likely outcomes, intended or otherwise.
      IFS and other such independent think tanks, plus independent academics, can provide analyses where MSM lack skills (almost universally). But these analyses must be published far more widely to achieve effect.
      MSM must not just do he said, she said.

  4. I was expecting to see something about the only electoral college vote won by Trump in New England - which also happened to be the only New England vote won by a Republican since 2000 - but then I realised I misread the title of the blog as "Mainely Macro" ...

  5. I think in this specific instance. The May team have calculated that they can afford to bypass the media on this campaign, because they know the media will not flatter her opponent in her absence.

    Typically May would have to bowing to media and public demands for debate, interaction and scrutiny of policy. But as the entire media world would absolutely despise a Corybn government, they know that the media will not cosy up to, or go easy on Corbyn simply because May is nowhere to be seen.

    1. Indeed.. after Cameron had problems in the 2010 debates, they seem to have decided that a no-show is better than having a debate.

      Tory policy in this election seems to be to try to win without making any manifesto commitments, promises or policy statements whatsoever. I'm not looking forward to the results.

  6. The next few years I imagine will feel like a race against time to stop Britain-cum-England from turning itself into the New New Zealand, only without the statist excesses that preceded the free market failures.

  7. Where are all the pasta recipes ? You need to improve your act Mainly Macaroni !


Unfortunately because of spam with embedded links (which then flag up warnings about the whole site on some browsers), I have to personally moderate all comments. As a result, your comment may not appear for some time. In addition, I cannot publish comments with links to websites because it takes too much time to check whether these sites are legitimate.