Fear is a powerful electoral tool. For every voter who has tribal allegiances, there have always been voters prepared to vote against things rather than vote for them. But that dynamic has changed and fear of electoral outcomes is driving much moire campaigning and voting decisions than ever before.
It’s quite difficult to pin down precisely why it should be that the dynamics of elections have changed. It would be easy to point to Brexit and the referendum but it could well be that the surprising referendum outcome was the result of this new trend. For every “take back control” or “£350m to spend” there was the balancing “fear argument” of how the economy would crash and job losses rise after the referendum — something which, of course, has not happened. On the other side the fear of losing what we have played a big part in the remain campaign.
Being negative is a lot easier than running a positive campaign. For a party in government, it means you can distract from what you may or may not be doing and concentrate your fire on the fear of the alternative. For the opposition, a Government is an easy target for negativity. Social media has driven this activity faster than every other medium. The combination of fake news, half-truths or downright spin now dominate a space in which intelligent people find it difficult to separate truth from reality or humour from parody.
The 2019 election was different. For the first time in my history of fighting elections, I witnessed something I have not seen before, something very sinister. People were genuinely fearful. That fear was breaking down party allegiances of the strongest type as everyone is huge numbers of voters used their vote to vote not for what they believe in, but against what they don’t believe in. Yes, there has always been tactical voting and parties have always used “wedge” issues to attempt to make voters move against one party in favour of another. But that has tended to be based on policy or party allegiances — the “Tax Bombshell” or “Save the NHS”. and getting one party’s voters to vote for another party in an attempt to unseat the party they both wish to defeat. Whether it be Brexit, the pseudo-Marxist Socialism of Labour or the Scottish Independence driven ideology of the SNP, voters were being driven to the polls based on the fear of what the other might do. Boris is supposedly a “hard Brexit merchant” — vote against him. Corbyn is a Marxist — vote against him. The SNP are breaking up the UK — vote against that.
In a sense, so what? Whilst politics has always supposedly been about the battle of ideas and we are merely mimicking the US when we resort to personalised attack ads and the Lib Dems use personal attacks a core strategy in their electoral playbook. However, the fear campaign has now alarmingly spread from fear or policy or personalities stoking fear through race and religion in a way which has not been seen in the post-war settlement. We should all be worried.
Prejudices exist. We all have to accept that. Whether it is Islamophobia, Anti-Semitism, black, gay, being Northern, Scots or Irish it exists. We all like to believe that prejudice can be eliminated but prejudice is not always seen or heard so how can we know if it had been eliminated. In London, we have a view that our liberal capital has a modern view of prejudice and we happily sit in our expensive townhouses believing we have stamped it out (single-handedly) but the shock news is it is now being weaponised as an electoral fear tactic in a worrying and disturbing way. What’s odd is that it is not even the parties themselves that are doing it (they all have degrees of a problem with this issue) but it was the third-party groups who are finding their electoral wings and stirring “fear” as an electoral force. Whether it is the Muslim Council of Britain or the Chief Rabbi they took a view on our Leaders and our parties and are happy to let us know what those views are. Might it be that their fear-mongering works because it is driven by fear itself? Maybe the cumulative effect of the political system taking votes, voters and the country for granted has stirred up tensions that have broken into the open as a consequence of the referendum, but that has been lurking, soundless, beneath the political veneer. No one can argue that the Jewish community (and even Jewish MPs) are not now fearful of the type of country that will be unleashed by a Corbyn Government? Maybe dyed-in-the-wool remainers are truly fearful of the future of our country were we to leave the EU, with or without a deal? Maybe traditional Labour voting areas were convinced by “Get Brexit done” but that their lending of votes to the Conservatives was cemented by the abject fear of Corbyn.
The commentariat and the Politorati must recognise that the first role of a Government is not to tax and spend but to settle the fears of the nation and that is now the job of this Parliament, especially once we have left the European Union. In the election, Boris talked of “bringing the country together”, Corbyn said “heal the divisions”, but has anyone the faintest idea what they mean? The debate in 2020 will be whether the 2019 election, with its continuing and divisive stoking of fear, has settled the nation or merely given rise to an even more virulent form of prejudice few in the country would wish to see.