Elections campaigns so often come down to hope against fear, but Liberal Democrats need to harness both to succeed this year, writes Ben Westwood
“Be afraid, be very afraid”. Hardly an inspiring rallying call in progressive politics, but scaremongering is a strategy that has won elections for left and right wing alike, and we cannot ignore that in this campaign.
The Labour party used that very slogan in the 2001 general election, depicting William Hague on a campaign billboard resplendent with a Margaret Thatcher hairdo, an image designed to give the British electorate nightmares. It worked and Hague’s Conservatives took a humiliating beating at the ballot box. It was a far cry from Labour’s strategy of hope from four years earlier – “Things can only get better”. But this is a well-known formula: a message of hope in opposition, and a message of fear when in government.
Little has changed since the days of Blair, but fear seems to have gained an upper hand recently. The 2015 election was a battle of who can scare who the most. Labour warned on cuts – “Next time they’ll cut to the bone” – but they couldn’t beat the Conservatives at their own game. The fear of Ed Miliband’s incompetence, sitting in the pocket of the SNP on campaign posters, won the day for Cameron.
However, voters can tire of endless scare-mongering, as seen in last year’s EU Referendum campaign. The Remain campaign allowed Leave to seize the hopeful message embodied in Boris Johnson’s bumbling joie de vivre, while concentrating on the dire consequences of EU departure. Remain failed in the face of patriotic slogans of regaining independence and spending money on Britain instead. But alongside these hopeful messages, the Leave campaign used fear in an effective counter-balance – Nigel Farage’s “Breaking Point” poster may have caused uproar but it struck a chord with millions of disenfranchised voters looking for someone to blame. And as for the “remoaners” – they’re an out-of-touch liberal elite, as former banker Nigel Farage pointed out, even as he visited Donald Trump in his gold-plated lift.
This fear of the liberal elite, used so effectively by Trump in last year’s US election, is going to be a big factor in the coming weeks. The Conservatives and UKIP would have us believe that the liberal elite is trying to defy democracy through the courts and in parliament. Only a general election can deliver us from evil enemies of the people. After all, what do judges know?
This Conservative narrative – however warped in our eyes – is a persuasive one because it combines hope for a brighter Brexit with fear of those trying to ruin the process. It helps hugely that the massive machinery of big money donors and media moguls are backing this message. The Tories outspent all the other political parties put together in 2015, and with the daily artillery fire on whingeing liberals and dangerously deluded Corbynites from Paul Dacre’s Daily Mail and Rupert Murdoch’s Sun, the odds are stacked heavily in their favour once again.
So between a heartless right wing machine and a clueless left wing opposition, where does this leave the Liberal Democrats who lost 49 MPs two years ago? With our yellow ‘liberty bird’ emblem, we have always been a party of hope, built on the principles of freedom, democracy, openness and free trade. We have never been an angry party, but now is the time to harness fear and righteous indignation because our principles are under attack.
The Conservatives’ strategy will undoubtedly be to keep the debate firmly on Brexit – an issue where Theresa May feels she has popular support – but that may backfire in Remain-voting constituencies such as mine in Lewes. We have already seen this in Richmond and we need to ensure it happens across the country so that returning to a powerbase of 50 or 60 seats is well within our grasp. People are fearful of a hard Brexit and, while we must champion our positive vision of Europe as a haven for freedom, we cannot ignore the fact that the Conservatives could be leading us off an economic cliff-edge. Businesspeople, many of whom have usually seen the Conservatives as their party of choice, need to realise that so many Tories are willing to lead Britain to the disaster of crashing out of the EU with no deal and reverting to WTO rules. Boris Johnson doesn’t think it’s a problem, and with his bank balance, why should he? It is businesses and their employees who will bear the brunt of this chaos.
However, we must not let the Conservatives make this election all about Brexit. A BBC Populus poll at the last election showed that the NHS and the economy were the biggest issues, ahead of immigration, and that welfare and education were far more important to voters than the EU. I doubt that has changed – people fear for their health, their bank balance, their safety net and their children’s future more than anything else.
We know that there is much to be fearful about another five years of Conservative government because we’ve already had glimpses of it. Let off the leash with no moderate coalition partner to keep them in check in the past two years, the Conservatives have happily hacked away at the welfare state. The NHS is in crisis with creeping privatisation, crippling debts and rock-bottom morale. Our schools are under threat from funding cuts, something that the Tories pledged not to do. The most vulnerable in our society are seeing their welfare payments cut – from the disabled to widowed parents, of which I am one.
Of course we cannot go knocking on doors scaring people like some kind of yellow peril, but there is a lot on the line in this election. The elderly, who so often vote Conservative, need to realise that the Conservatives are imposing cuts on social care budgets that mean nursing homes cannot cope. It is the Conservatives who allow waiting lists to lengthen and preside over a health system on the brink of collapse. Parents need to realise that the Conservatives are overburdening their children’s education with tests, while quietly cutting school’s budgets.
We cannot base our entire campaign on scaremongering but fear will play a big part in this election. We need to address these fears, harness the energy and indignation, and transform it into a positive message that we are the only party that combines compassion with economic competence, and that we will stand in the way of Conservative policies that will do harm to every sector of society, as we did with some success during the coalition government. We should be proud of that too and proud of our resurgence. Progressive-minded people across the country are flocking to the Liberal Democrats in their thousands. Both hope and fear can drive us forward. Be afraid yes, but be inspired too – this just might be the biggest political fight of your lives.
- Ben Westwood is a journalist, author and lecturer in politics and media at University of Brighton. [email protected]