Can Silence Win Elections?

When actual policies become too risky

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

Do we think about elections — and politics — in the wrong way?

We think of them as a battle of ideologies between two (or sometimes more) political parties with diametrically opposed views. Each party lays out their answers for solving a country’s problems, their vision for the future, and then the population votes.

But a curious thing is happening in the UK’s current general election campaign (and it happened, to a lesser extent, in the last one too) — the ruling Conservative Party aren’t offering many answers. They aren’t doing much talking at all.

Can they win an election by saying nothing?

Boris Johnson, the prime minister, has done a couple of head to head debates with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party in opposition, but swerved a debate on the climate crisis (with Corbyn and the other party leaders) and is the only leader to have refused a prime time television interview with the BBC’s Andrew Neil, a fearsome political interrogator.

In addition, the party’s manifesto is light on policy detail and the costings document alongside it (that clarifies how policies will be funded) runs to a mere nine pages. In contrast, Labour’s is forty pages. Despite this, the Chancellor Sajid Javid made the spurious claim that it was “the most detailed” such document any political party has ever produced.

The Conservatives are the party in power and went into the election with a lead in the polls — but they are clearly aware that the lead is more down to Corbyn’s unpopularity than anything positive of their own.

Indeed, many of the problems the electorate want solutions to were caused by the Conservatives’ harsh austerity policies following the 2008 global financial crisis. It’s hard to claim that your party is the one to solve the nation’s problems when you created them in the first place. If you need a fire putting out you don’t ask the guy who was playing with the matches to do it.

They are also doubtless conscious of Theresa May’s disastrous 2017 campaign which saw the then-prime minister torpedo a virtually unassailable poll lead and lose her working parliamentary majority thanks to a combination of an unpopular manifesto and May’s own inability to connect with ordinary people.

They won’t risk that again.

Afraid to announce any unpopular policies such as the so-called “dementia tax” that so harmed May, their 2019 manifesto is light on detail — most promises aren’t given a timeframe for delivery — and contains nothing even slightly revolutionary.

And if May’s inability to form human connection was troubling, how would a moneyed aristocrat like Boris Johnson — with a history of personal infidelity and of racist, sexist and classist comments from his time as a right-wing newspaper journalist — do?

Thus the Conservatives are having a low key campaign, allowing the opposition parties to outline their policies then criticising them rather than offering any actual solutions of their own.

It’s a low-risk strategy that makes a kind of sense — after all, you can’t be criticised in policy detail if you don’t have any detail. Your party leader can’t say anything damaging in an interview if he avoids doing them.

Is this low detail, low-risk style of campaigning the future of electoral politics? Most polls show the Conservative Party with a healthy lead — albeit one narrowing as polling day approaches. Many people seem to have an inherent distrust of the ambitious plans of the Labour Party — which include free broadband for everyone and the re-nationalisation of many services, funded by a more corporation tax and tax rises for the highest-earning 5% of the population.

For sceptical voters, those plans sound pie in the sky and too good to be true. Meanwhile the, well, conservative and much more limited promises of the Conservatives — such as 20,000 more police officers (after cutting 21,000 while in office since 2010) and 50,000 more nurses (a figure which somehow includes 19,000 current nurses) — clearly appear much more achievable to the electorate.

If the Conservatives win in this unusual December election it could usher in a new era of political campaigning where parties don’t want to promise too much.

Instead, they will be cynical and hope that the population votes for the status quo, believing a real change to be impossible.

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