So was it really such surprise that Boris Johnson’s “Get Brexit Done” campaign won the UK’s 2019 General Election for the Conservative Party and took some lifelong Labour seats across the Midlands and North of England in the process?
All the Conservative Party leader had to do in the General Election was avoid grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory in the style of his predecessor Theresa May by sticking to three little words: “Get Brexit Done”.
Hence, the Tory strategy of locking their comic-book character ‘Lord Snooty’ Jacob Rees-Mogg in a darkened box and refuse any kind of proper scrutiny of Boris Johnson by the likes of TV inquisitor-in-chief Andrew Neil.
That it led to the Prime Minister hiding in a fridge to avoid talking to Piers Morgan from Good Morning Britain and pocketing a journalist’s mobile to avoid looking at a distressing image of a four-year-old boy laying on a hospital floor were just operational measures when the wrong-type of media got too close.
The key to victory was coming up with a better three-word answer than Mrs May’s “Strong and Stable” to anything asked.
And once again the Tory version of the Prince of Darkness, Dominic Cummings, came up trumps with his “Get Brexit Done” slogan.
I can’t wait for the three little words to feature on the TV quiz show Catchphrase, with an image of blonde bombshell Boris boarding up the Channel Tunnel as a clue!
Like Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” in the US presidential election, the masterstroke was getting Boris Johnson to stick to the Brexit script wherever he went during the UK election campaign.
Annoying yes… but you just couldn’t get “Get Brexit Done” out of your head despite not knowing exactly what, or who, was going to get done!
It was even more effective than Cummings’ original hit with “Take Back Control” during the 2016 EU referendum, which smashed it for the pro-Leave gang. The getting Brexit done message helped destroy the chances of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party splitting the anti-Labour vote, except in one or two places like Hartlepool.
The challenge now for the Conservatives is trying to maintain their hold on Northern working class seats, as Mr Johnson’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings know only too well. Hence stories like the front page headline in The Times (December 27, 2019) of ‘Treasury to rip up rules in northern cash boost’. At the moment, many voters have only lent their support so that Boris really can get Brexit done!
Nice one from Nicola
So what did the other parties offer as alternative marketing messages to end the three years of political uncertainly since the EU referendum?
The most effective message was probably Nicola Sturgeon’s pledge to “escape Brexit and put Scotland’s future in Scotland’s hands”. Too many words for me, but it went down like a house on fire with the Scots who flocked to the Scottish Nationalists.
Jo Swinson and the Liberal Democrats began their campaign full of beans with the promise to cancel Brexit – ‘just like that’ – as Tommy Cooper might have said. No need for a boring second referendum, said Jo, until it was too late! That proved a disaster and she lost her seat in Scotland.
What about Jeremy Corbyn?
Now what about Labour and Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership style?
Well, it produced a manifesto and plenty of spending pledges to end austerity and the promise to save the National Health Service. And then it went into overdrive pledging to also tackle things like the pension-age hike for the WASPI women.
It was more like ‘War and Peace’ than a catchy election phrase! And it didn’t seem realistic to a nation reeling from nearly a decade of being told there was no money for anything.
Many thought Labour’s shopping list would have weighed down even the most generous Santa Claus – should he actually exist!
Losing faith in Father Christmas
And so, unfortunately, Labour’s campaign proved that a sizeable chunk of the older voting public had not only lost faith in Father Christmas but also in Labour’s chance of sorting out Brexit.
Jeremy Corbyn met the fate of a long line of former Labour leaders, with the exception of Tony Blair, being demonised by the right-wing media and getting a far rougher ride on telly than Boris Johnson, who either avoided tougher TV questioning altogether or waffled something that was probably a Latin translation of getting Brexit done
Anyway, it worked a treat for the Tories and will now go down in folk history as to how to win an election in this era of popularism and nationalism.
Yes the magic of Jeremy Corbyn in the 2017 General Election had well and truly washed off, but the degree of hostility towards the Labour leader in 2019 was something to behold, especially among northern working-class male voters.
I don’t think he can take all the blame for Labour’s disastrous performance despite a cack-handed campaign that tried to avoid talking about Brexit at all. But it did turn nasty with many voters across the North saying they couldn’t vote Labour while Corbyn was in charge or were voting Labour despite not liking the leader.
London centric Labour
Of course, Labour’s hold on its traditional strongholds has been on the wane in recent years. A combination of complacency and a new pro-EU mass membership largely based in big urban areas like London moved the Labour’s centre of gravity away from traditional areas like the North East of England.
My most memorable take from the election night coverage was when Momentum’s Jon Lansman clashed on the ITV sofa with Alan Johnson, who served in Tony Blair’s Labour cabinet, after the exit poll had predicted that Labour’s so called ‘red wall’ was about to crumble.
Lansman’s defence of the Labour strategy was that it was expected to win in leafy Putney in South West London. That was a tad insensitive to Labour supporters in working class seats outside the capital who were about to lose scores of constituencies across the Midlands and North of England.
So, where does Labour go from here?
There will be a new leader early in the New Year. Of names mentioned so far, perhaps Angela Rayner from Ashton-under-Lyne is the most interesting, even though she is only being talked of as a possible deputy leader at the moment.
She was Shadow Secretary of State for Education in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet and has a great life-story to tell, having left secondary school aged 16 without any qualifications to have a baby and then qualifying as a social care worker before going on to become a senior union official with UNISON and being elected an MP in 2015.
She was also one of the few leading Labour spokesperson I heard during the election campaign to give a coherent answer to the Brexit question, saying she would have voted to leave the EU providing Labour was able to agree a better Brexit deal than the Conservatives in a second referendum: a deal which kept the UK closely aligned with both the European single market and customs union.
Heck of a job
Whoever is chosen has a heck of job. First getting Labour to face up to mistakes in the campaign and then appealing beyond the party’s younger urban membership by bringing in some new talent at the top and speaking to the concerns of ordinary people across the country.
The Labour Party needs to regain the common touch on community issues that people are really worried about and avoid clumsy mistakes like handing the initiative in the Tees Valley Mayoral election to Tory candidate Ben Houchen and his pledge to save Durham-Tees Valley Airport by nationalising it.
Where I live, it took the local Labour MP Andy McDonald to knock some sense into then Labour-controlled Middlesbrough Council to prevent house building on a treasured urban green space before the last local government elections. The council is now under independent control, but at least the MP got re-elected in the pre-Christmas General Election!