We are coming to the end of the first week of an election campaign that few were expecting when this week began. The parties are drawing their battle lines: the Tories are warning of a happy Vladimir Putin and a ‘coalition of chaos’ involving the SNP, Labour and the Lib Dems, while Labour is making this an anti-establishment election (though what precisely the Establishment is up to and which naughty coffee chains it involves remains vague, even for the party’s MPs promoting that message on the airwaves). The Lib Dems, meanwhile, had long worked out their pitch as the anti-Brexit party.
Of course, not all Labour MPs are talking about the way the Tories are ‘rigging’ the system or how Jeremy Corbyn proposes to solve that. The bulk of moderate MPs have decided to tell their constituents that Corbyn isn’t going to win an election and become Prime Minister so it’s safe to vote for them as a strong Labour Opposition.
The problem with this line – other than the obvious, which is that it is a desperate situation when someone’s opening gambit is that their party is definitely incapable of winning an election – is that it relies on voters being able to imagine Labour as a strong Opposition party. It did a reasonably good job performing this function under Ed Miliband, with a functioning front bench and good back room operation – even if the party didn’t manage to make itself electorally appealing it did manage to cause political rows and scrutinise the government. Now, it is a man bites dog event if the party actually produces a policy that gets any coverage or debate – free school meals being the most recent example – and even then, there is a risk of that policy changing several times in one day, as it did when Corbyn tried to work out Labour’s stance on single market membership live on air. Government U-turns have come about largely as a result of internal Tory opposition, not Labour campaigns.
Former frontbenchers such as Chris Leslie and Ben Bradshaw have been very keen to promote Opposition work using Labour backbenchers whose opposition to Corbyn has consigned them to exile. But the chances are pretty remote of voters noticing that Caroline Flint and Yvette Cooper have been asking some mighty fine questions at departmental questions.
The weakness of Labour both as an Opposition and a political force is usually seen as a bad thing for policymaking as it means there is far less scrutiny in the House of Commons. However, what is also bad for good policymaking is an election, as the pressure to win leads parties to make stupid pledges that look good on a leaflet but don’t actually work. The silly Tory tax lock which the party promised in 2015 is an example of this – and it led to the Treasury executing a quick U-turn over putting up national insurance contributions for the self-employed after the March Budget. David Cameron’s 2010 ‘read my lips’ pledge on pensioner perks such as the winter fuel allowance is another.
The Tories don’t need to make silly pledges to scare off Labour in this election. Of course, even the stonking poll lead that Theresa May enjoys doesn’t mean she’s going to start being honest with voters about what’s needed to ensure a functioning social care system, for instance. But even if politicians continue to avoid the really serious stuff in this election, they can also resist the silly promises that cause a great deal of grief later.