Heavens above, political campaigners can be obstuse and dull: I was never so aware of it as I am now. Of course, what now seems obvious to me – that people are motivated by something different to the rhetoric they are presented with – may be wrong. It is possible that I am the obtuse one after all. Yet, think back to last time around and you will perhaps see what I mean.
After the 2017 election, I found myself writing about the shift – at least in my own psyche – brought about by the change in rhetoric following the previous London Bridge terrorist incident, which took place at a similar stage in the election to this one.
It was a shift in the language from fear to pride made by the then new Metropolitan Police commissioner Cressida Dick. I wrote about it here. She allowed us a little pride in ourselves – the fact that people had attacked the terrorists by throwing beer glasses at them and at great risk to themselves, and I felt a shift in the public mood:
“It wasn’t that she whitewashed the perpetrators – quite the reverse – it was that she declined to waste airtime on them. Instead she paid tribute to the courage of the bystanders. We all stood a little taller as a result.”
I wondered then, and wonder now, whether people vote a little less cynically when they feel good about themselves as a nation or community. The think a little more generously.
There was no statement that I heard from the commissioner this time, but perhaps it is now unnecessary: the statements by the Mayor and Prime Minister about “hunting down” and “standing firm” were too cliched to stick in the memory.
The problem last time for Jeremy Corbyn is that the spirit of individual heroism was not reflected in Labour’s rhetoric, as it rarely is on the socialist left. Nor was it reflected in Lib Dem rhetoric, which it could have been – there was something individualistic about it, linked with self-help and self-determination that could easily come from anywhere on the radical centre.
That is why I have been wondering whether Boris Johnson’s somewhat cynical camaign is threatened by the narwhal horn with which a member of the public floored the terrroist.
Yet there is a clear problem about why the other parties are unlikely to grab this opportunity. The whole language of general elections is about what alternative governments can do for people. It assumes a widespread and somewhat hopeless passivity. There is no obvious election language to draw down in praise of the idea of people doing things for themselves.
There are other reasons why this is important – not least of which is that, actually (as I argue in a forthcoming pamphlet with Steffan Aquarone) our political culture feels increasing discomfort about the idea of actually doing anything. So I fear that, by the time you read this, the moment will have passed.