The signal and the noise: general election 2017 days 1-8

Adam Somerset offers a personal reflection on the first 8 days of the election campaign

April 18th:  

1:00 PM- the Guardian’s headline story, election alert, has already clocked up 19,000+ comments.

4:00 PM- My contribution, for what it is worth, is a link on my own social media page to the election of 1931. I have memories of nine leaders of the Conservative Party. (That excludes the leaders outside England. I lobbed a question at Ruth Davidson at a public meeting this past February.) The Prime Minister of 2016-17 does not put me in mind of any of them, Douglas-Home to Cameron via Heath and Howard. My link-post has a picture of Stanley Baldwin. If she is anyone she is a Baldwin for our time.

11:00 PM. Television coverage is predictable, the journalists too shell-shocked to think up arresting questions. But Newsnight has got Stephen Bush in and up at speed for a sixty second piece. Filmed in a place of graffiti-emblazoned concrete brutalism in Islington he says that the focus for Labour is a double one. The second effort, in parallel, is to repeat 1987. Neil Kinnock did well, creditably enough to retain the right to continue.


April 19th:

General press grouse that the Conservatives are not saying much. I expect it will stay that way. They are defending a status quo. Labour is promising street activity as never seen before. “We will hire organisers across the country, order print and advertising and kickstart our digital campaigns” is the line.

Owen Jones, who took a temporary retreat this year after a cyber-mauling, disagrees: “There are 65 million people in Britain. Most people do not spend their time discussing politics (or seeking out political content) on social media. That’s just an obvious fact. Millions of people do get their information about what’s going on in politics, say, from watching a bit of the 10 O’Clock News, or listening to news on radio. Radio 2, for example, has 15 million listeners, four million more than voted Conservative at the last general election. A 2013 study found that 78% of adults used television for news.”

The main media issue today is whether it is to be a single-issue campaign. Emily Thornberry, on Newsnight, launches fierily into social care and school funding. As for the exit from Europe she repeats her honest line. The Party is split between Remain and Leave, a condition that makes it the true representative of the nation.

Michael Chessum is author of a pugnacious article in the New Statesman that advocates the opposite. The temptation will be the “attempt to make this election about anything other than Brexit…like successful electoral insurgents all over the western world, it must be clear about the issues that are at stake and hit its enemies hard.”  The campaign “must replace equivocation on immigration with a principled defence of free movement and a sharp alternative narrative about who to blame. And, above all, it must stop trying to change the subject. Labour can beat it, but to do so it must replace wonky, mealy-mouthed Brexit policy with a clear commitment to membership of the single market and to maintaining and extending the progressive aspects of EU membership.” This is uncompromising stuff.


Thursday 20th:

8:00 PM- Peter Hennessy is on the radio on the same subject. He has a long election memory going back to 1950. The warnings from history on a single-issue election are not good.   Heath went to the country on a line of  “who rules?” and the country replied “we thought you did, but not any more.”


April 21st:

Two political Marks are in Aberystwyth. I ask Mark Strong, a good councillor, whether Plaid has its constituency candidate. “Tuesday” he says. I pass Mark Williams, MP, who is moving at high speed to the Liberal Democrat office on Great Darkgate Street. It makes for a nice symbol. The political class all across Britain has been sent off on an unanticipated scuttle.

Mike Parker, Plaid’s 2015 candidate, admired Ceredigion as a cussedly independently-minded place with its propensity for sending different parties to Cardiff, Strasbourg and London. Mark Williams ought to be secure. The taint of Liberals in Cabinet  has dimmed and the county gave a big yes last June to Europe.


April 22nd:

11:00 AM- Skim a couple of papers in the library. It is the first time I have seen the word “halfwit” used in print by a broadsheet commentator about an MP. Admittedly the opinion-writer’s  subject gave a lamentable interview on radio but nonetheless there is a decorum in commentary to be maintained.

8:00 PM- The annual choral concert in the Arts Centre’s Great Hall and a hundred singers and musicians are on stage. Among them in the back row is Cynog Dafis, one voice contributing to a mighty sound. Good to see a politician, in Dennis Healey’s phrase, with a rich hinterland.


April 23rd:

Not much in the broadsheets other than a recap of the week. John Rentoul of “the Independent” is recommending a long essay by D A  Allington. Nick Cohen in “the Observer” also gives it a thumbs-up, bookmark it for later reading.

Twenty percentage points is twenty points. Skimming the comments opinion pieces on the election in France are increasing. “We are now presented with the task of taking transformative social and economic policies onto the doorstep” reads one. “A month ago, leftwinger Jean-Luc Melenchon was on 11 per cent in the polls. In a few weeks he could be the President of France.”

The author is young and full of hope but I do wonder if she has behind her the footwork of door-to-door canvassing. It is a good experience and I learned all sorts of things. But I doubt if I ever shifted anyone in a direction they were not inclined to anyhow. A vote is after all an act of cultural affirmation.


April 24th:

At Aberystwyth station meet by chance a former member of the Royal Welsh. Election discussion leads him to ask me “Do you remember what Aneurin Bevan said?” I estimate my companion’s age would make him around sixteen or so when NATO was formed. “You will send a Foreign Secretary, whoever he may be, naked into the conference chamber” he reminds me. There are a lot of old soldiers around of his like.


April 25th:

London is its own world. A lonely figure at the Underground entrance is preaching the message to the crowds who rush by. In my carriage forty passengers are within sight. Myself apart, just one other is above the age of thirty-five. No live politics to go to so attend a lecture from a professor visiting from Harvard. His chair at the Kennedy School of Government is in American-Asian relations.

Historians offer the refreshing long view. Relative power between states shifts. It is all there, he says, in the first chapter of Thucydides. He roams over Korea, China, the USA and Britain. The existential threats that states face, he says, always come from within. It looks true. I remember exactly a year ago Hilary Benn in front of a packed audience. “Blame the outsider” he declared “the most shameful of politics.”

A third of the audience is from Asia. If the lecture content is dispiriting the questions are cheering. The members of the new generation of young Chinese here are privileged but they are also alert, incisive, courteous and open-minded.

11:00 PM. A junior shadow minister is on late TV talking quietly and impressively on maintaining the customs union. I was there in 1991 when the single market was unveiled. All these years I thought the single market was the customs union. I have not a clue, not even the beginnings, of the difference.



Adam Somerset is a writer and critic

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