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by Hans Crusim

The corruption of character politics

Snap! And there it went. Early in the night when the BBC released their exit poll on election day , I gleefully imagined Theresa May drafting up a eulogy for her premiership. Unfortunately, even though her leadership may no longer be “strong and stable”, she was still the leader of Britain. The conclusion of the snap general election reminds me of the ending of Troy. The mighty Achilles storms the gates of Troy, leaving his one weakness open with no armour. He was always a man arrogant of his abilities, I’m sure that will remind you of Maidenhead’s MP already, and so he did slaughter his way into the city with such ease and comfort the legend himself did not notice an archer was pointing an arrow at his heel – you can guess how that concluded. Just like Achilles, Theresa May ignored the warning signs, and I do wonder whether she knew it or not, her weakness: her lack of appeal to young voters like me. I childishly hoped, like a classic Scooby-Doo villain, she quoted that classic line after the election’s disastrous result in dropping her party majority, and now in a situation where Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party can coerce them into a coalition: “I would’ve gotten away with it too, if it wasn’t for those meddling kids.”

This election was wrought with endless hammering of sound bites for a “strong and stable” leadership and this was seen as the chance to steer a new direction for Brexit, to create a new government that would be “for the many, not the few”. Let us not forget the Tory warnings regarding the “progressive alliance” that Labour, SNP, The Green Party or Liberal Democrats might create – dubbed as the “coalition of chaos”. If there is one insufferable element in the numerous political campaigns that we have had to endure these past two years, it is the constant repetition of promotional buzzwords and their replacement for realistic, fully “costed” manifestos.

Let me illustrate my frustration. Its as if May, Corbyn and all of the other party leaders, (a special emphasis on the Conservative leader), were waving a pocket watch in front of the cameras and making attempts to hypnotise us with cheap marketing tricks like the reciting of sound bites and hoping, just hoping that we would not see through the weak foundations to which some parties have built their manifesto promises. The Conservatives knew this, so they built a strategy surrounding the idea of fear mongering, as the right always do, and smearing Corbyn’s name. Repeatedly bringing up his past failures as the leader of the Labour party instead of actually defining, clearly and in depth, the meaning of a hard-Brexit. They informed us less about the intricacies of the kind of Brexit they want to deliver, the very issue that became the reason for declaring a snap general election, but instead, telling us how bad it would be if Corbyn were the one in 10 Downing Street. It would be easy to point the fingers at the much-maligned Mrs May, whose party manifesto was launched with hardly any consideration, as evidenced by the numerous U-turns the party took, but she was not the only one who acted this way.

Other party leaders can be said to be just as guilty. Let us take everyone’s favourite social justice warrior “Jezza”, the nickname of Mr Corbyn given to by young voters. Although Jezza did not participate in the sound bite jousting to a similar degree as Mrs May he is guilty of leaning into one promise in his campaign without having to explain to voters, clearly, his methodology. Jezza gave young voters like me the promise of heaven and earth: scrapping university tuition fees. A promise of free higher education, debt free after you get your degree and so we flocked to his side. Acquaintances I know who live in university cities, who are also just about to finish their A-Levels, like rallied on social media. One person, who will not be named, changed their profile picture to be plastered with “for the many, not the few” and an image of Jezza dabbing on the side so unaware of the toxic character politics to which this person is engaging in. It is as if we do not already have such an Americanised political system. This person, alongside the profile picture, posted, with no sense of irony, that the Tories had no better argument than the opposition. With the previously mentioned common criticism of Corbyn’s questionable leadership skills, that is all the ammunition that Theresa May has in this election also that voting Labour would be a better option because look how bad the other side is. In essence, using the same slander the Tories use against Labour. Note that this was a long and rambling post, with no single mention of any intricacies of any manifesto promises – fiscal or otherwise. What was mentioned was only what the two major party leaders have said about each other’s character.

And this is what the overuse of campaign tools, like sound bites, and vague manifesto promises has reduced British politics to: character politics. The reduction of information, detail, costing’s, and debates in these campaign trails have given the British public very little to go on, in order to make informed decisions. A flaw in British politics that was on full display this election. The personality, ability and character of party leaders has of course always played a part in British politics, but to the degree to which it has become what swings votes has exponentiated. Evident from the campaign taglines in most Tory candidates passing promotional leaflets: “Vote for Theresa May’s team.” With a very minimalistic manifesto this was the only argument to which voters could pick Conservative. Now why is this a problem? It adds to the oversimplification in which voters make judgement calls, which in turn may lead to a buyer’s remorse within electorates. As party leaders and their character become the important element, parties then lessen their efforts in tailoring manifestos with popular policies. With this, the direction in which parties steer the country becomes hidden in smoke. It becomes harder for the public to identify and choose which party are driving the country into a direction most favourable for them. This may not only lead to inevitable national regret, but it reduces the effectiveness of representative democracy as it transforms campaigns from a challenge of whom can best represent the wishes of the nation, to a contest of which party can best manipulate the electorate through political theatre.

Character politics is a much less effective way of measuring the ability of a party to represent the national consensus on issues, as it steers campaigns into being about the party personality than the ideas that they should represent. So let us get back into what really matters: ideas and direction offered by each whole party, because right now, character politics triumphs. The Tory manifesto was a flop, with constant U-turns because of how their ideas repeatedly backfired and enraged the public. Showing no strength or stability and yet their manifesto prevailed, they became the ruling party.