‘Fake news, incessant trolling, and vicious caricatures have become the hallmarks of modern election campaigns’
Not so long ago politics seemed to be like a big boxing match. In one corner were the blues, in the other the reds: you knew what you were confronted with, you were aware that after many rounds the judges — the public — would decide who the winner was. True, there may have been a few below-the-belt exchanges and some pre-fight verbal aggression, but, all in all, both sides knew what were they up against and usually the stronger fighter would win.
Now, it all seems so different. While election politics may still be conducted like a boxing match in terms of the mainstream party machines, the traditional media and even some of the electorate, the real battles have moved away from the ring to the undergrowth.
Whether it be via mass movements and organisations, social media or real political intimidation, the type of politics as we traditionally know it — as a respected part of our national fabric — is both weakening and coarsening at the same time.
As so often, it is the hard Left which has been so adept at this. I say hard Left on purpose — ask the moderate Labour MPs who have proactively challenged the Corbynistas’ move leftwards and they will give you the same reply as many Conservative MPs and parliamentary candidates. They will say that this was perhaps the most vicious election campaign they have ever participated in.
In previous elections the hard Left would just deface the “Vote Conservative” campaign signs. The words “fascist scumbag”, the Hitler moustaches et al, would be taken with a pinch of salt, as part of the scheme of things. Conservatives would quietly replace the signs and move on.
A few years on, the coarsening has taken a few steps forward. This time, the defacing of signs came alongside paint thrown at houses, the words “Tory C**t” painted on walls, or supporters who put up Conservative posters being threatened with having their fence burnt down — and then someone actually doing it, as happened to more than one person I know.
If this involved just signs and houses perhaps we could live with it. But the real gelignite in terms of the toxification of the hard Left is social media. From the undergrowth, fake news, highly-organised and incessant trolling, vicious graphics and caricatures have become the hallmarks of modern election campaigns. This coarsening did not start under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership but once Labour went into opposition. Its trajectory forwards happened under Ed Miliband in the 2015 election right through to 2017.
If the moderate Right have been slower to adapt to and acknowledge the undergrowth politics of the Left, the Conservative Party cannot afford to be deaf to it. That does not mean meeting fire with fire. It would not succeed and would be morally wrong. Conservatives, for the most part, just do not behave like this.
However, this does not mean ignoring what is happening but developing a strategy to recognise this change. We need our own mass — benign — movement to rival that of Momentum: something like Vote Leave that can bring bring together young people and coalesce around a number of issues attractive to the centre-Right and the public. An organisation that has at its heart modern techniques of grassroots campaigning and is based around social media.
The takeover of the political undergrowth by the hard Left can be reversed, but only with a new generation of political activism on the Right that is both attractive and compassionate but hard-nosed enough to take on the real opposition.
New and older activists need to be trained not just in door-knocking and traditional ways of campaigning but as social media activists. There needs to be relentless campaigning on all platforms of social media, both in terms of positive messaging and sensible rebuttal of the continuous barrage that comes from the other side. Wherever coarsening occurs, wherever threats and intimidation and vicious trolling are prevalent, this should be highlighted as a wall of shame, as the Daily Mail successfully did during the election, when it highlighted some of the hard-Left vandalism up and down the country.
The coarsening of political discourse is not appreciated by the public, yet inevitably they are influenced by the media to which millions now go to find out what is going on, share information or just catch up with their friends and families.
Ironically, Corbyn understood this. He presented himself as very much a boxing-match kind of politician, a genial grandfather of the nation, speaking at old-fashioned public rallies in the manner of a 19th-century politician. Meanwhile, Momentum and the Socialist Workers Party had other ideas. The political Right were still in the ring.