How many people have you knocked up so far?” “Knocking up” is an English phrase with two meanings, part of the ambiguity of language that is more poetically associated with William Shakespeare. It is usually a variant on a man making a woman pregnant, but it now has an additional meaning around election time. You “knock up” the locals when you seek their vote. This is a ritual of canvassing that all parties are expected to observe. Electors complain if their vote has not been sought, if they have not “been canvassed.” Canvassing during the campaign is a matter of identifying supporters, and “knocking up” is what is done on Election Day to get the vote out: asking electors to go and vote before the polls close at 10 P.M.
So what is it like? I have a friend, a Conservative MP in a marginal seat, for whom I canvas. I know from a conversation with another friend, a Cabinet member, that the government is worried about losing the seat. What, then, do the electors ask? Well first, this time, most of them are bored with politics. They have had a national election (2015), the E.U. referendum (2016), and, just last month, council elections. So, unless they are really interested, do not talk with them about politics. Indeed, it is fair to say that politics is the riskiest issue as it may lead you into trouble.
Canvassers can be treated like Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormon missionaries.
On the doorstep, electors adopt a number of methods to get rid of canvassers because, while expecting to be asked, they do not actually like the process. Indeed, canvassers can be treated like Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormon missionaries. At least they do not risk being shot. Some electors simply say, “We have not yet made up our mind,” which is an unwise response as they are likely to be bothered another day. Some talk about issues that are not within the competence of a national election, classically local issues such as the fate of post offices. The most difficult topic I have confronted is how best to grow tulips, for gardening and the weather are safe subjects, and notably so in my county, Devon, where the weather is very changeable: “If you don’t like the weather, wait half an hour and it will be different.” The one thing never to do when canvassing is to guess the sex of a baby or young child: the offense caused if you get it wrong can be extreme. And never get bogged down in a long conversation: you are not seeking to persuade but to identify support for later knocking up. Supporters of the other side often keep you talking to waste your time.
National issues tend to be approached in terms of personalities, along the line of “we don’t like him/her.” Labour is being hit hard, as in 2010 and 2015, on this issue and the literature produced by Labour parliamentary candidates is apt to make no mention of the national leader. In reality, the national policies the parties will adopt if elected are not really clear because so much depends on the response to circumstances.
Turning from the necessary quaintness of canvassing to a differently modern world of media-spinning and email offensives is to bring the British electorate centrally into the issue of foreign, i.e., principally Russian, intervention. If the United States and France, why not Britain? The prize is great, the track-record clear. Two prizes await Russia: first, the break-up of the United Kingdom through supporting a neutralist Scottish National Party (snp) and, second, a move of Britain leftward or, at the least, its weakening. Both were Soviet goals and methods during the Cold War, with Soviet support for the ira, for left-wing unions, notably the National Union of Miners, and for left-wing causes across a broad range. Russian news sponsorship in Scotland has already attracted attention, and “useful fools” are being cultivated anew in England, for example by invitations to appear for Russian news-outlets. The idea that this will not extend to fuller-scale attacks directed against the Conservatives is implausible. What this will mean is unclear, and not least because of the vulnerability of the political system to news-manipulation. The instinctive anti-establishment attitudes are conducive to this, as are a more general presence of envy and wishing to think badly of people.
Where then is the election at present? The Right has reunified around Theresa May and Brexit, which, to a degree, represents the ditching of David Cameron’s plan of steering for the center and dividing the Liberal Democrats, a plan to which he was advised by friends who made no secret of their loathing of right-wing Conservatism and its standard-bearer, the Daily Mail. Cameron’s years as the party leader of the Conservatives saw a marked strengthening of the further-right United Kingdom Independence Party (ukip). Now that party is in freefall, which strengthens the Conservatives, although also seeing off a challenge to Labour in many of its seats. Although May is moving to the Right, she is doing so selectively, and many of her instincts are centrist and interventionist. May is a Euroskeptic, anti-immigration One Nation Tory: she is a strong supporter of industrial strategy and wants to do much more to help develop the economies and life chances of people living in the Midlands and the North.
An awfully big political bet, however, is being placed on a successful Brexit. As a result, May, by holding an election very early, has bought an extra two years before the following general election has to be held in 2022, and that is more valuable politically than a bigger majority. Having won, as she is likely to do, May will then be able to play her hand when she sees how events play out. It is easier now for the “Leave” vote to consolidate around the Conservatives when no one knows precisely what Brexit will look like (but the Conservatives can say all the right things about what they want), while the “Remain” vote fractures around the other parties.
An awfully big political bet is being placed on a successful Brexit.
A compromise over Brexit is the likely scenario. It will cost the government support on the Right, where there will be shouts of betrayal, and on the center, if there are economic problems and a stronger opposition. Those are for the future and probably inevitable, with all sorts of difficult political consequences. As a result, having the election now and positioning it as the Conservatives now are doing is very shrewd tactically. That is for the good, although, as we saw with Cameron in 2014–16, thinking tactically can lead to strategic crisis, first over Scottish independence and then over the European Union.
Likely results? At present the Conservatives are far in the lead in the opinion polls and also did well in the council elections, notably winning the mayoralty election for Birmingham. The latter can be qualified on the grounds that most of the electorate did not vote, while local factors are often involved in these elections, including (amazing thought) the quality of the candidates. It is far better, however, to have done well than the converse. Moreover, in the United Kingdom the trend in local election results generally matches that in the national elections.
The Conservatives face the difficulty of incumbency and the attendant unpopularity, and, more seriously, that they captured many of the vulnerable seats in 2010 and, even more, in 2015. A lot of the Labour seats remaining are in areas where voting Labour comes in with mother’s milk. This is least the case in volatile London, where Labour indeed made significant gains in 2015, but London’s vote against Brexit is a key factor there, as is the extent to which many immigrants have been reluctant to vote for the Conservatives.
The latter will probably win new seats from Labour mostly in the Midlands and in the North-West; they are also hopeful in Wales. The Liberal Democrats may win back some seats they lost to the Conservatives in 2015 in London and the South-West, but their leader is singularly unimpressive and their support for “Remain,” while likely to win them some support, may well compromise their appeal to traditional Liberal Democrat voters in the Southwest. The more insistent media coverage now makes it much harder to say different things in particular constituencies; there is an inconvenient emphasis on consistency. If the snp, which has most of the Scottish seats, loses a few, that will also benefit the Conservatives.
Talk of a landslide is misplaced, unhelpful, and unrealistic.
Talk of a landslide is misplaced, unhelpful, and unrealistic, in part because, unlike for Thatcher in 1983 and, to a degree, 1987, the opposition is not divided between two strong parties, but May will possibly win a majority of about eighty seats. That will put her in a formidable domestic position. “Events, dear boy,” as Harold Macmillan said, will still be a problem, not least in the shape of Brexit and the economy, but domestic political stability appears reasonably assured.
There is a ready contrast with the French Presidential election, which delivered a victory for Emmanuel Macron, a Blair-like figure who, with his call to “Refonder l’Europe” and to “stopper la montée du populisme,” has in practice closely associated himself with the European project. This contrast suggests that Britain and France will clash politically in a fashion that was tempered during the Cameron and Hollande years. Again, this does not augur well for a harmonious Brexit negotiation, not least because Macron has already made comments about challenging the existing immigration controls into Britain. An interesting test of French relations will be the Defence Cooperation Treaty. The Conservatives are committing to a real-terms increase in defense expenditure even in low-growth years, in part because defense will be an important tool for Britain in remaining engaged internationally. Will a treaty that was beginning to work still be embraced by France?
If Germany also moves in a leftward direction in its elections, then there is the likelihood of a replay of the tensions of the Thatcher years. Britain, however, confronts the major problem that Trump is no Reagan. He lacks the solidity that alliances require and has already in fact made the cause of support for America more difficult in Europe, and not only there. May will thus find her international isolation increased, which will underline the dependence of politics on events abroad as much as at home.
Ironically, future failure in one count, in the shape of Scottish independence, would likely strengthen the electoral position of Conservatism in England. Much of the English population no longer appears to care greatly if Scotland goes its own way, and there is also more talk on the likelihood of the merging of Northern Ireland with Eire. The management of politics is becoming more difficult, which is why a clear election result is important.
May knew that she was taking a major risk in calling the election, but she is politically shrewder than Cameron and more in tune with her party and with a large tranche of Middle England. The bet has been made and fortunately for the patience of the electorate, although many are already bored, the result will be known a week from this publication.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 10, on page 31
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