Theresa May, Poll-Dancer Extraordinaire

Last week saw the launch of the Conservative manifesto, and I thought that Theresa May had achieved yet another stage in her immaculate transformation into the Ghost of Margaret Thatcher Made Flesh. Thatcher was labelled ‘MilkSnatcher’ for her removal of free school milk for over 7s during her time as Secretary for Education under Heath in 1971, but May’s manifesto, cutting free school meals for children in England and Wales, had surely been enough to dub her ‘LunchSnatcher’. The celebrations of Thatcher’s death included plans to bombard her hearse with milk as it made its (near) royal procession through London – could Theresa expect to have sandwiches thrown at hers?

Theresa Mary May (née Brasier) has not sought to avoid the comparison with the Iron Lady (no matter how unpopular that would make her in Scotland in particular), the idea of the vicar’s daughter from Oxfordshire somehow resonating even more with the idyllic fantasy of England’s cricket-playing village greens than that of Margaret Hilda Thatcher (née Roberts), the shopkeeper’s daughter from Grantham in Lincolnshire. If May were to follow in Thatcher’s footsteps she would pay little heed to such opprobium from the mere public – but the Conservative manifesto launch contained other gems that certainly did make her core voters sit up and take notice.

The delayed announcement of the raising of the state pension age until after the election had caused suspicions to arise, as had the delay of 6 years to women born in the 1950s receiving their state pensions, so effectively publicised by WASPI (Women Against State Pension Inequality), losing up to £45,000 each in the process. In Westminster, the SNP leader Angus Robertson MP had read the way the wind was blowing and had correctly intuited an imminent threat to the triple lock protection on the state pension, pinning May during Prime Minister’s Questions as she refused to answer whether the lock would stay or not. Sure enough, in the Conservative manifesto the scrapping of the triple lock on pensions – the guarantee that ensures that state pensions rise in line with average earnings, inflation or 2.5 per cent (whichever is the highest) – was announced, as was the removal of the winter fuel allowance for the elderly, and the introduction of what was swiftly dubbed the ‘Dementia Tax’, wherein the appropriation of people’s homes to posthumously pay for their care costs became embedded in law. Given that a report last month showed a rise in pensioner poverty across the UK, it is perhaps less than surprising that Theresa’s core support group – the elderly – did not take kindly to being taken for granted, and over the last weekend her lead halved in two polls to only 9 points above Labour. Theresa did not take this change in polling fortune lying down, however, and set about spinning on the Monday morning – just 4 days after the manifesto policy was launched – at a press conference in Wrexham that there was always going to be a ‘cap’ on the homes affected (although this had been emphatically denied by ministers the previous week – but you can see why it would be an idea given the figures in the table above), to try and recover some political support from her ‘Greys’.

For Theresa Mary May is a Poll-Dancer. She called the snap General Election in April when two polls came in over a single weekend showing a 20-21 point lead for the Conservatives over Labour. Faced with the Crown Prosecution Service in imminent danger of removing her majority, and the certainty that the economy will progressively deteriorate (pardon the oxymoron) the further we get from Article 50 having been raised to leave the European Union, it only made sense to her to opportunistically scrap the Fixed Terms Act in order to call an early election under the pretense of it strengthening her supposed hand against Brussels in the forthcoming BrExit discussions. If she did not make a fast jump now, before times get really bad, the she would risk having to go to the country for an election in 3 years time, when expectations are that BrExit fantasies will have started to implode into a grim reality. In this way – one might suspect that she reasoned – she might be able to hold on to power until after the immediate start of the bite of the BrExit-generated austerity, and perhaps ride some kind of slow delayed slight upswing, with her political opponents having been annihilated by her new post-June majority.

And now she dances to the tune of the polls again – trying to pretend that her ‘Dementia Tax’ was not nearly so bad as had been said (much like the ‘Rape Clause’ of last month). Except that Theresa went into meltdown on live television twice in one day on Monday. First of all, in calling the press conference in Wrexham to announce that there was a cap (although what the cap value of the property was, noone knew, and she was not going to say), she took questions from journalists – something she is known to be poor at…and one from a Michael Crick of Channel 4 News. Michael is the journalist who pretty much singlehandedly dug up the story of the Conservative election expenses fraud when no other media outlet was acknowledging that it existed for over 9 months, which resulted in the Crown Prosecution Service receiving files from fifteen police services. Crick started softly, comparing May to Thatcher (which she obviously relished) with her ‘the lady is not for turning’ and ‘You turn if you want to’, pointing out that May’s U-turn not only set her apart from Thatcher, but far from being ‘strong and stable’ (as her election soundbite has wearingly been) this was “weak and wobbly”. May did not respond well – and ended up shrieking in an out of control fashion “Nothing has changed! Nothing has changed!” (ironically enough to a question from the Daily Telegraph). It is a shocking piece of video to watch, for someone who occupies the office of Prime Minister to crack like this – a friend of mine watched the tape back: ‘She looks like she is going to cry’, she said. That night, she went on to be interviewed live by Andrew Neill, and despite him being no enemy of the Conservatives, she looked adrift and lost, again reduced to repeating a limited number of vapid soundbites. She must have gone to bed that night wondering how she could turn things around, when she was losing her lead even with such solid support from the British press.

And then the bomb went off at Manchester Arena after the Ariana Grande concert, killing 22 and injuring a further 59 in the (predominantly) young female audience.

Even without going down the tinfoil hat conspiracy line that this ‘intervention’ seemed almost too perfect for her agenda (this is not to ignore that it plays very well to other external agendas), it is undeniable that this has given her breathing space which she will be grateful for: political campaigning has ceased, she gets to deploy  5,000 army personnel on the streets (she cut 19,000 police officers as Home Secretary, so there are not enough armed police to cut it anymore) under Operation Temperer and bask in reflected military strength (not unlike Thatcher sending off the Falklands task force when her popularity was waning with the public), to feed off the inevitable ‘anti-immigrant’ feeling that will strengthen her hardline BrExit stance, and give the public time to forget – even if just a little – her horrendous crumpling under modest pressure on live television. At a time when politically she had – entirely through her own doing – landed herself on the ropes, she will be able to regroup once more in time to restart the campaign next week, aided by cartoons and comment in the Daily Mail and the Telegraph that seek to remind people that her opponent Jeremy Corbyn ‘associated’ with the IRA while trying to make progress for peace, and thus insinuate that in some unspoken way he bears a ‘responsibility’ for what happened in Manchester.

As Jon Stone has noted in The Independent, Theresa May has developed something of a penchant for u-turns in her ten months as Prime Minister, willing to swiftly reverse unpopular announcements from BrExit (Remain before, Leave after), increasing National Insurance for self-employed workers, calling a General Election before 2020, amongst several. What poll trend she jumps to the rhythm of next will be interesting to see – but instead of strong and stable she has instead looked startlingly inconstant and all too desperate to court public opinion. In conjunction with the recent changes in the Labour Party’s fortunes, it starts to look as though the survival of this Poll-Dancer as PM would actually be something of a surprise. But one thing is for sure – the only thing that will be ‘stable’ in the run-up to June 8th will be Theresa May’s desperate dance and willingness to reverse for the favour of the polls, lest her electoral gamble fall to dust in her hands.

“She is hitting older people with a classic Nasty Party triple-whammy: Scrapping the triple lock on pensions, removing the winter fuel allowance and forcing those who need social care to pay for it with their homes.” (Jeremy Corbyn responds to the Conservative manifesto launch)

A distant second: From Glasgow to Scotland in 5 years…or Everyone Wins – Except the Winners

The last week has been a fond journey into nostalgia for me. Five years ago, I had a wake-up call to overt bias, while watching television coverage of the council elections. I detailed the experience in an earlier blog – the short version is that the BBC reporting of the Glasgow Council elections was nakedly at odds with all other television channels, by virtue of (solely for Glasgow) counting the defections from Labour’s group as representing ‘losses’, and therefore the reelection of those Labour council positions as ‘Labour gains’. This was the only deviation from their otherwise uniform accounting of council changes on the basis of comparison with the 2012 result: it was plain, it was done almost with an arrogance – in the election studio, they laughed at anyone pointing out that saying Labour’s ‘gains’ in Glasgow outnumbered the SNP’s was erroneous. And yet they were the only channel reporting the Glasgow result in this idiosyncratic fashion.

Fast forward from May 4th 2012 to last Friday. The results come in – and the SNP have increased their number of council seats from 425 to 431. But hold – the BBC say that it is a drop of 7 seats? Over the ensuing days, as BBC journalists confessed they had no idea where the figures had come from, it slowly emerged that the figures had been ‘adjusted’. Apparently, if subsequent boundary changes had been in place, the SNP would (‘probably’) have won 13 more seats in 2012 – seats which they in 2017 ‘lost‘. It is a bit like ‘seasonally adjusted averages’ – those unemployment figures that first made you start to doubt the veracity of the UK Government in its reporting of unemployment in the UK – where the adjustment (however it is calculated) becomes more important than the upfront real figure. Surely the modification is a secondary figure, and should not have the headline position? It is somewhat misleading – to say the least – if not introduced by the broadcaster with the appropriate caveats.

But the raw data come out like this: the SNP increased their votes by 21% with over 108,000 more first preferences in the transferrable vote system (39.6% turnout in 2012, 46.9% turnout last week) while holding their vote share on 32.3% from the previous council election (pedants may wish to quibble that the vote share dropped by 0.03% – does not really show up when figures are being reported to one decimal place). In contrast, Labour’s votes fell by 21% (20.2% vote share, so down 11.2%) – Conservatives were up 12% (25.3% vote share) – a straight accretion of the unionist vote, coalescing around the Conservatives as it drifted from Labour, as the SNP vote held up (indeed, with more turning out, held up very well indeed) – as shown by the graphic above. (Indeed, it is striking how poorly the Conservatives did, coming in 155 seats behind the SNP, compared to Labour being only 31 seats behind in 2012.) Yet the Conservatives were hailed as ‘the winners’.

The turnout is important – it was the highest for a council election (when they have not been held on the same day as the Holyrood elections) since 1977, and that can perhaps be attributed to Theresa May’s attempt to hijack the council elections to give some sort of ‘anti-second Scottish independence referendum’ position. Although increased, it is still nowhere near the levels of turnout that we would expect for June 8th’s General Election 2015 rerun.

With the figures for the Lib Dems (6.8%, up 0.2%) and the Greens (4.1%, up 1.8%) added in to the mix, one can read it as an overall 0.6% increase for pro-independence parties since 2012. So, with an increased voting percentage for pro-independence parties, that will be Theresa telt, then?

Well, not so much…of course. Even although they have been making noises about vote share and seats, the Conservative Government just wants one good statistic to say ‘drop in SNP support’, to try and legitimise their resistance to the Scottish Parliament’s support of the SNP’s elected mandate to have a second independence referendum as a direct consequence of the result of the EU referendum. If Nicola Sturgeon engages with that game, then it will be a perpetual one – the electorate supported you this time? Well, then it has to be next time as well. Supported by the electorate again? Well, best of three, surely. It starts to sound like the IRA after the Grand Hotel bombing in Brighton – they only have to be lucky once, we have to be lucky all the time.

The SNP were right not to play that game – they would have undermined their already existing mandate, preemptively won at Holyrood last year if they had. To paraphrase Derek Bateman, how many votes do we need to emphatically record-beatingly win? When your record of support has set records in both the Westminster and Holyrood parliaments, then what can be obtained by repeating them time after time, except by giving the Unionists hope that you will inevitably one day fall as you jump through an infinite number of hoops coated with increasingly flammable materials.

As I have said before, trying to hijack the council elections for a national/constitutional issue is a grossly irresponsible approach of the Conservative Prime Minister – and perhaps shows how much they truly value local government (although given their contempt for devolved governments in the UK, that is not really a huge surprise). Fundamentally, using council elections as some sort of referendum on a national issue skews the quality of representative elected – their intention in standing is not one driven by local issues, but purely to serve the national party leader. This started to manifest itself with depressing speed, as the announcement that a series of Orange Order candidates had succeeded in being elected (without declaring their membership of said organisation, as required) to BOTH Labour and Conservative council posts was followed by some of their somewhat extremist Twitter account activity. A Moray independent councillor (who had, like many notionally independent candidates, stood as a Conservative candidate 5 years earlier) resigned, and a new Dunblane Conservative councillor  (swiftly exposed as an extremist BritNat troll) was under pressure to do the same – but had been ‘talked out of it’ by the Conservative Party.

Two out of nine Stirling Conservative councillors had similarly had their Twitter ‘backstory’ brought to light. On the one hand we can see a ‘barrel scraping’ exercise in terms of trying to get candidates for the unionist parties (particularly Conservative in Scotland) at this time – on the other there is a chill that these ‘shock troops of the union’ have been called upon, and a true indication that there is no level of racism, hatred or violence that will not be stooped to by the Union’s defenders, in order to oppose the assertion of self-determination in Scotland.

And in Stirling we might also see the exception that makes the rule of council elections have nothing to do with national or constitutional issues that are not in any way a part of the remit or competency of councils to handle.

For, in 2014, Stirling Council had an impact on the referendum question, in their approach to host Armed Forces Day in Stirling over the same weekend that commemorated the 700th anniversary of the battle that consolidated Scotland’s independent status, Bannockburn (as seen here, here and here). As it turned out, their little escapade – trying to divert numbers from the paying 700th anniversary event to the free ‘British’ event – did not exactly work out, with noteably larger numbers paying to attend Bannockburn. But they provided the opportunity for the media to parade something packaged as anti-independence, and ignore something more related to Scotland’s history as an independent nation. That had an impact, in the run up to the referendum that year.

In the end, that is the same role that is fulfilled by Theresa May trying to make every election another means of casting doubt on the SNP’s mandate – an excuse to distract, undermine and ignore. The truth of it – as shown by the reportage of the council election results, where some in London and abroad assumed that the Conservatives, with a mere 22.5% vote share, finishing 155 seats behind the SNP, had ‘won’ the election – does not really matter: it is just an opportunity to misrepresent and shout as loudly as possible – knowing the mainstream press will happily only listen to – and volubly echo – that narrative.

Last week, the Conservatives (assisted by Labour and the LibDems) threw everything they had at the SNP, to try and break through against them…even producing leaflets that mentioned no council-related policies – only ‘opposed to another independence referendum’. The SNP vote held firm. The press – led by the BBC – ignored that, adopting something akin to a New Labour education approach, where ‘everyone wins’ – except the winners. The result did not matter – they already had the script. And the script is about momentum for a very specific narrative – and not one that ends with self-determination.

 

“How many elections can we win hands down and still be angling for another referendum – like dookin’ for apples? I see the Unionist Press now indicates that the loss of any SNP seats [in the General Election on June 8th], which seems inevitable to me, will be taken as failure and loss of credibility even if Yes parties win an overwhelming number of seats and 50 per cent of the vote. They, on the other hand, have only to win a seat or two or even hold Edinburgh South to claim a major victory. This is the world of distorted democracy we inhabit.” (Derek Bateman, 19/4/2017)