Bill Jamieson: Election campaign has failed voters

Prime Minister Theresa May, at work on her campaign bus, has come across as a leader prone to change her mind and retreat at the sound of battle, says Bill Jamieson.
Prime Minister Theresa May, at work on her campaign bus, has come across as a leader prone to change her mind and retreat at the sound of battle, says Bill Jamieson.
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Very little light has been shed on Brexit, indyref2 or the state of the economy during the last seven weeks, says Bill Jamieson

oy, are we due a break. Seven weeks of soundbites, slogans and campaigning: our eyes have glazed over and our ears are numb with the saturation coverage of this general election.

Have there ever been more studio debates and leader interviews, extended coverage on radio and TV, hour by hour reaction, analysis and assessment after every encounter? Who scored? Who car crashed? Who’s gained? Who’s lost?

Soon all will be clear on who has won – or so we hope. But winning what, exactly? For despite almost two months of saturation coverage, what more do we really know about what this election has been about? What have we learned from it all?

After seven weeks of repetition, what does “strong and stable leadership in the national interest” mean?

Are we much the wiser on Brexit and the negotiations due to start on 19 June - just eleven days from now?

Who is clearer on the government’s plans for social care? How much exactly would a Labour government borrow? Is a second Scottish independence referendum off the table, or just postponed until 2019?

Most bizarre of all, how much more informed do we feel on the economy – the very heart of our well-being? Where were the specific policies to counter the slowdown and to boost investment, expansion and growth?

Across these key areas, a fog has descended. In truth, we do not know much more about them than we did at the outset of the campaign. Politicians have offered generalities about higher spending, infrastructure investment, higher taxes from Labour and a vague Conservative leaning against higher tax – but no firm commitment.

Little wonder that TV debates have not elucidated. Rather, they have reduced the campaign to point scoring, with broadcast interviews little more than a sustained attempt to catch out politicians. Policy interrogation has slid into bear–baiting.

It may be said that all elections are thus: passion contained by evasion, promises blurred in generalities, declarations qualified by future Green papers and reviews.

We are long inured to this. But seldom has an election focused more intensely on the personalities of the party leaders. Prime Minister Theresa May launched her campaign buoyed by a commanding 24-point leader in opinion polls. How, the pundits insisted, could she not win by a landslide?

But with every week, that lead has shrunk. Barely was the ink dry on the Conservative manifesto than there was a glaring U-turn on social care policy. It echoed similar reversals of view on national insurance increases in the Budget and indeed on the need to hold a general election at all.

All this has been amplified by a highly personalised campaign centred on Theresa May, with chancellor Philip Hammond almost invisible. Indeed, we cannot be sure if he will remain Chancellor if the Conservatives are re-elected.

What masqueraded as “strong and stable leadership” began to look like something else: a leader prone to change her mind and retreat at the sound of battle. Her self-promotion as a tough Brexit negotiator has come to look decidedly less convincing, while her rhetoric as a defender of national security has been blunted by reductions in police numbers on her watch.

By contrast, the ‘no-hope’ Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn – remember how 172 Labour backbenchers passed a motion of no confidence in him? - has performed much better than expected. Despite deep public misgivings over his far Left politics, his indicative support for the IRA, his shared platforms with Palestinian terrorists and his opposition to nuclear weapons, many have warmed to his authenticity and the calm and restrained manner in which he has set out his views.

He has also succeeded in drawing large audiences of young people – millennials on low-wage, zero hours contracts, with little prospect of getting a foothold in the housing ladder and most at risk from a slowing labour market.

But impressive though his personal performance has been, deep doubts persist in the public mind about the enormous cost in tax and borrowing of Labour’s proposals. Meanwhile ‘car crash’ media performances by Diane Abbott and her replacement as shadow home secretary two days before the election have underlined searching questions about the party’s competence as a government-in-waiting.

Hopes of a Liberal Democrat revival have foundered on the failure of its leader Tim Farron to galvanise and inspire Remain supporters. And Ukip without Nigel Farage has come to look irrelevant.

Only Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon can be said to have a ‘good’ campaign despite evident voter weariness if not outright irritation with incessant calls for a second independence referendum. And here is a paradox: a Scottish public with little evident appetite for the dominant policy of the SNP looks set to return the party as an overwhelming winner in Scotland today – notwithstanding an ebbing of support from the stunning near clean sweep of 2015.

Such an outcome speaks to the continuing deep voter disillusion with Scottish Labour, opening the way for the Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson to emerge as the undisputed gainer north of the Border. This ascendancy is likely to be further aided by the doubts that have been raised this week on Kezia Dugdale’s opposition post Brexit to a second referendum. So - are we any clearer on ‘indyref2’? Any clearer at all?

As for the economy, about which so little has been made, the omens are not good. A report by the Ernst & Young Scottish Item Club this week warns that Scotland’s economy is showing signs of slowing faster than the rest of the UK as consumer spending fades and firms remain reluctant to invest.

It predicts “below-par” GDP growth of 0.9 per cent this year - half that expected for the UK and well below the long run historical average of two per cent growth.

Retail is singled out as the sector that will be worst hit by “mounting pressure” on consumers. Employment in Scotland is also forecast to continue to fall this year.

The Item Club says Scottish households are “likely to endure a fall in real incomes” as a result in part of rising inflation and “weak” labour market conditions. It expects consumer spending to rise by just one per cent this year and by less than one per cent per year between 2018 and 2020, this against an average annual rate of 2.3 per cent over the past five years.

Dougie Adams, senior economic advisor to the EY Scottish Item Club, described the Scottish economy as being “stuck in the slow lane”.

After seven weeks of campaign hyperbole, raucous debates and relentless sparring, we wake up tomorrow morning to the election outcome. We may have been uplifted by pledges of well-being and promises of a fast track to spend-and-borrow prosperity. But what did we really hear about policies to boost business investment and raise morale in a dispirited small business sector? Thus the old order returns with a vengeance: “stuck in the slow lane” will bring us back down to earth with a bump.