Amid Brexit, a gaffe-rich U.K. election amuses but doesn’t engage voters

Britain's Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn speaks at the launch the Labour Party's General Election manifesto in Bradford, England, Tuesday, May 16, 2017. The British electorate go to the polls on June 8, in a general election. (Danny Lawson/PA via AP)

Every U.K. general election campaign breeds its own unique narrative. The spinners and strategists try their hardest to guide it and control the talking points. They try to cover every eventuality but, often enough, something slips through the political missile-defense shield.

Sometimes it is a verbal gaffe or someone is caught telling half-truths or the opponent produces a rhetorical killer blow—all eventualities that even the most detailed planning cannot cover. Advocates for democratic processes and the common good must be concerned about the very nature of political debate, especially at election times. Less and less are the contentious issues laid out for clear scrutiny and intelligent discourse; more and more the political campaigns are indistinguishable from advertising campaigns for, say, breakfast cereals.

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In this unexpected general election, it is indeed the slip-ups and mistakes that have caught the attention of jaded voters, rather than the slickly packaged political products. If so, we need more blunders, not just for a chuckle but because they may be the only way to encourage more democratic participation.

More and more the political campaigns are indistinguishable from advertising campaigns for, say, breakfast cereals.

The Tories have focused their public relations budget almost entirely on Prime Minister Theresa May. It is almost as if it were a presidential, not a parliamentary contest. You would be forgiven for thinking that she did not have a cabinet, so seldom do any of its members appear in any media.

Yet Mrs. May herself has been shielded from direct public contact by means of carefully constructed gatherings of Tory supporters, with tight-angle TV shots that turn small gatherings into multitudes and no debate on the issues, just a relentless repetition of key slogans. That public relations strategy has been accompanied by a sustained attack on Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s leader, gleefully picked up by most of the mainstream media.

The Conservative Party’s message is more on personality than policy: that Mr. Corbyn is unfit to govern. Labour’s election manifesto has duly appeared, offering a platform of left-leaning policies including gradual renationalization of the railways, big investment in public housing and tax increases for the better-off. But Tory attention has remained not on these policies, but on Mr. Corbyn personally as Labour’s polling numbers increase, perhaps because they increase. Former Chancellor George Osborne’s newspaper, the London Evening Standard, greeted the Labour manifesto with a picture of “Comrade Corbyn” brandishing it in little-red-book format.

Mr. Corbyn now polls better than his predecessor Ed Miliband at a similar point in the previous election, although the Tory lead is still substantial.

Some leading Tories have been silenced entirely, such as the unpopular health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, whose running battles with junior doctors in the National Health Service last year were judged to be bad for the brand. This is understandable when you consider what happened when, for a moment, someone let Boris Johnson out of the locked basement of Tory Party H.Q. He had no sooner glimpsed his first daylight for weeks than he had upset some Sikh voters at a community center in Bristol. His gaffe was to talk about how a putative post-Brexit trade deal with India would remove the import duty from whisky sales, suggesting that British Sikhs, whose religion forbids them to consume alcohol, currently had to bring the stuff in via the duty-free airport store. Furious Sikhs present got a muttered semi-apology, but the damage was done.

Another careless slip emerged when an eagle-eyed Facebooker noticed that Mrs. Theresa May’s “battle bus” bore the same license plate as the one she used touring the countryside during her ill-fated "Remain" effort. The bus has had a quick paint-job. It is Tory blue with four words in huge letters—“Theresa May—for Britain.” Nevertheless it is the same bus, and in an election campaign that, in England at least, is fundamentally about the best way to handle Brexit, this has amused many. Mrs. May campaigned against leaving the European Union and has tried to downplay that position ever since. Some say that she has had to be resprayed, like the bus. Others claim that the paint is peeling.

Our Roman Catholic bishops, in two of the hierarchies that lead the church in the United Kingdom, have issued guidelines for voters. Each episcopal conference, while taking care to avoid party endorsements, strongly encourages people to be engaged in the process and to vote. South of the Scottish border, in a letter to be read in every parish in England and Wales, the bishops have turned to Pope Francis’ “Evangelii Gaudium” for broad principles that might guide Catholic thinking during the vote. “[The election’s outcome] will determine how we can heal divisions in our society, care for the vulnerable, how our public services are run and whether we can remain a united kingdom,” they counsel.

Carefully avoiding letting any single issue dominate, the bishops use those principles to interpret a range of 10 concerns that will be features of post-Brexit Britain. They do not shy from the constitutional question of the looming breakup of the United Kingdom, still potentially a consequence of leaving the European Union.

In their own pastoral letter, the Scottish bishops say little about the ongoing independence debate, preferring to focus on human life, marriage and the family, poverty, asylum and religious freedom. The northern narrative has been mainly about the vaunted second independence referendum and Labour’s continuing struggles; the bishops there have tried to broaden the discussion. They called also for a more respectful dialogue and more toleration of difference, including of religious views.

Predictions about participation cause concern. June 8 feels a long way off, but there is anxiety that young people are not getting involved in the election. Studies suggest that an overwhelming percentage of over-50s will vote while roughly a similar proportion of under-25s will not. Many are not even registered yet. Their potential votes could change everything.

Jokes and gaffes, fun for the political junkie, mean little to the young; they are only distanced further from the process. This could be the biggest concern of all, but there is little sign that any party is addressing it.

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