Derek Mooney: UK Election Has Some Lessons For Us, But Most Must Be Ignored

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From top: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at government buildings, Dublin during Brexit talks last September; Derek Mooney

Addressing the 1992 US Republican convention, the former Nixon and Reagan speechwriter and perennially unsuccessful right-wing challenger for the presidential nomination, Pat Buchanan, described that year’s Democrat convention as “…the greatest single exhibition of cross-dressing in American political history.”

Buchanan’s problem with the 1992 Democrat convention, and its selection of newcomer Bill Clinton as nominee, was that it wrecked Republican plans to paint them as liberal and disconnected.

Instead of going to the radical left as Buchanan and President Bush (1) had wanted Clinton moved quickly to the centre and reached out to the working-class voters who had backed Reagan at the two earlier elections.

Desperate to save the Bush strategy, Buchanan was now trying to claim that the Democrats were still fundamentally liberal (a dirty word in American politics) and were only “dressed up as moderates and centrists” to fool the voters.

Buchanan was wrong.

And not just in the past. Still writing and broadcasting, Buchanan continues to get it wrong in print and online.

Buchanan is a fan of Prime Minister Boris Johnson. He has likened BoJo to President Trump, so one wonders if Buchanan would level the same, crude, “cross dresser” accusation at Johnson’s Tory party for campaigning like an opposition, despite being in power for almost a decade.

Probably not. But he wouldn’t be the first man to attack others for practising what you preach.

Though I am appalled by the prospect of Johnson having his stubby little fingers on the levels of power for five years, part of me is still in awe of what he has done.

Not that Johnson can take all the credit. His victory is due as much to the unsuitability of Jeremy Corbyn to be prime minister as it is any great enthusiasm by the great British public to make Johnson PM.

A survey [by Opinium] of folks who voted Labour in 2017 but defected this time, found that 37% cited Corbyn’s leadership as the main reason for switching. 21% said they changed due to the Labour’s confused position on EU membership and only 6% said it was do with its economic policies.

This factor alone knocks on the head any idea that there was anything in the British campaigns that Irish parties should replicate here.

While Fine Gael and the Tories have some history of helping each other in the past, particularly on social media campaigning, there is not much in the Johnson playbook that Varadkar could try out here.

Unlike Johnson, who had only been prime minister for about 100 days when the election was triggered, Varadkar has spent two and half years as Taoiseach and 9 years, since March 2011, at the cabinet table.

Like it or not, he owns all the problems facing the country and – to judge from his somewhat tetchy and detached Saturday morning radio interview with Brendan O’Connor on RTE Radio One – this is something he is neither liking nor dealing with well.

While blaming health service problems on what Fianna Fáil did and did not do ten years ago may play well with the folks in Fine Gael as well as playing merry hell with my blood pressure, it can also been seen as a reminder that you’ve been powerless and ineffective for nine years.

The other Johnson trick that will not play here was his refusal to fully engage with either the opposition or with the media, particularly when it comes to debates and interviews.

Johnson’s Tories went into the campaign 10 points ahead of Corbyn. BoJo had nothing to fear from avoiding the tough scrutiny of Andrew Neil or others, apart from risking a chill on the kidneys hiding in a fridge to avoid the Good Morning Britain TV crew.

Varadkar is not in that position. He does not have a poll lead. Staying away from debates will not highlight his main rival’s weaknesses, if anything it will serve to emphasise his unwillingness to be challenged.

Varadkar’s team will instinctively strive to dictate how the media covers them, but it is not a one-way street. Their capacity to deliver that is more dictated by how the media, and the opposition parties, chose to respond.

OK, so those are the lessons we must ignore. But, what about the ones that should be learned?

There are three that immediately spring to mind.

The first is something I have talked about online here. We need to learn the lessons of online campaign abuse elsewhere and legislate now to ensure transparency in social media political advertising.

Fianna Fáil’s technology spokesperson James Lawless TD produced such a draft piece of legislation, the  Social Media (Transparency) Bill, over two years ago but this government has been stalling it since Dec 2017.

Second, if we really want to understand how to run a successful and engaged election campaign then do not look to the Tories, look up. Look to Glasgow and Edinburgh and take serious campaign notes from the SNP.

Sturgeon is easily the most effective political campaigner operating in any part of the neighbouring island. Her SNP started the night with 35 of the available 59 seats and finished up with 48.

All this apart from the fact that the SNP has been in office in Scotland for almost 12 years. That is how you successfully run as an incumbent with a record that you do not have to hide from.

Third, there are no such things as red green or blue walls, especially when the voters are volatile. These are blocks or groups of seats that a party traditional wins at an election.

At the 2016 US presidential election the Democrats thought their blue wall of democratic leaning districts across such old industrial states as Philadelphia, Ohio and Wisconsin would keep Trump out of the White House.

Jeremy Corbyn’s crew were convinced that a red wall clump of previously Labour supporting-constituencies across the North of England would stop, or at least reduce the chances of Johnson getting a majority.

Both were wrong. This is the simplest and most basic lesion of politics, take your voters for granted and they will have no compunction about switching sides.

The blue line of FG seats across the south and east of Dublin city are now far more vulnerable than they were. If the Taoiseach is hoping that traditional Fine Gael voters will stick with him no matter what, then he is in for a shock.

The same applies to Sinn Féin. Its view that once it takes a seat it never loses it. This was blown asunder by SDLP leader Colum Eastwood MP, after his stunning win in Derry. Just as with the Local Elections down here, Sinn Féin saw its vote halved in Derry.

While last week’s UK general election was a single election to a single chamber, in reality it was three very distinct elections, in three very different countries with three very dissimilar results.

While Johnson won the elections held in England and Wales quite easily, he lost the ones held in Northern Ireland and Scotland.

The consequences of this dichotomy will dominate Johnson’s five years in government and have an increasing significance and importance here.

Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010.  His column appears here every Monday.Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney

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24 thoughts on “Derek Mooney: UK Election Has Some Lessons For Us, But Most Must Be Ignored

  1. Joe Small

    Derek, if you’re talking about people running on their records, the Fianna Fáil leader was a member of the government that came closest to the collapse of the State since 1922 and he was a key member of that cabinet. Luckily for Fianna Fáil, people seem to have remarkably short memories and, in spite of the multi-party system here, there are few conceivable alternatives to a FF or FG led government..

    1. Spaghetti Hoop

      Speaking of short memories, the government has collapsed since 1922. Sixty years later in fact, with the fall of the FG-Labour coalition.

      1. John

        I think he said collapse of the State not the government,
        Governments have collapsed multiple times. Very nearly bankrupting the state is another matter.

  2. Rob_G

    “While blaming health service problems on what Fianna Fáil did and did not do ten years ago may play well with the folks in Fine Gael as well as playing merry hell with my blood pressure, it can also been seen as a reminder that you’ve been powerless and ineffective for nine years.”

    That’s one way of looking at it. Though FG could claim, with some justification, to have spent the first 5 or so years in government cleaning up the fiscal mess wrought by FF.

    The Brendan O’Connor interview was a strange one – B O’C did fairly stick it to Leo when he had him in the studio with him. But then the next day on the newspaper panel, perhaps on the basis that Leo wasn’t there in person to answer any of the charges made by other panelists, O’Connor seemed to go quite soft on him, tempering criticism of him with ‘well, in fairness to him, he did address x,y,z…”

  3. GiggidyGoo

    Funny that we have Derek Mooney, staunch FFer and ex advisor, AND Dan Boyle, Green Party, writing articles weekly here. The two parties that destroyed this country not so long ago preaching to us. Kinda laughable really.

    No FGer, SFer, PBPer etc. writers about?

    1. Zaccone

      The overall editorial theme of the site is quite close to PBP. And quite a few of the regular commentators, like ‘Cian’ are possibly FG social media interns. There have been regular SocDem columns too. So it all balances out more or less really I’d say.

    2. Rob_G

      Rory Ahearne had a regular column for a long time, he’s PBP

      Paul Murphy has contributed the occasional piece.

      I don’t know if he was a paid-up member, but Mercille has spoken at an SF summer school, and was certainly sympathetic to their politics.

  4. scottser

    well i think ron needs his own column here every week to tell us daw jaws what’s really wrong with us.

  5. f_lawless

    “His victory is due as much to the unsuitability of Jeremy Corbyn to be prime minister as it is any great enthusiasm by the great British public to make Johnson PM.”

    I agree but in the sense that he was unsuitable in the eyes of the British establishment and a propagandiised public. From the moment Corbyn became leader there was a relentless and unprecedented campaign across the board in British media outlets – from the Telegraph to the Guardian to the BBC – to demonise, smear and misrepresent him. See this analysis from the London School of Economics & Politcal Science:
    http://www.lse.ac.uk/media-and-communications/research/research-projects/representations-of-jeremy-corbyn

    On top of that, I think the constant messaging that Brexit was what mattered most had a decisive effect over the British public. Objectively, most of the public are worse off than they were before the last nine years of Tory policies – austerity, record levels of household debt, cut backs to health services, etc. Why then would so many of the electorate vote against their own interests for the same party which has been largely responsible for their worsening living standards and which offered no real solutions, instead running primarily on a campaign of “Get Brexit Done”? Because the media’s focus on Brexit and its propaganda campaign against Corbyn’s Labour had diminished their capacity for rational thought.

    The power that advertising and marketing have over the human mind is indisputable – propaganda in other words – and the fact is that in the main its the mass media which has control of public talking points and sets the direction they take.
    .

  6. f_lawless

    “His victory is due as much to the unsuitability of Jeremy Corbyn to be prime minister as it is any great enthusiasm by the great British public to make Johnson PM.”

    I agree but in the sense that he was unsuitable in the eyes of the British establishment and a propagandiised public. From the moment Corbyn became leader there was a relentless and unprecedented campaign across the board in British media outlets – from the Telegraph to the Guardian to the BBC – to demonise, smear and misrepresent him. See this analysis from the London School of Economics & Politcal Science:
    http://www.lse.ac.uk/media-and-communications/research/research-projects/representations-of-jeremy-corbyn

    On top of that, I think the constant messaging that Brexit was what mattered most had a decisive effect over the British public. Objectively, most of the public are worse off than they were before the last nine years of Tory policies – austerity, record levels of household debt, cut backs to health services, etc. Why then would so many of the electorate vote against their own interests for the same party which has been largely responsible for their worsening living standards and which offered no real solutions, instead running primarily on a campaign of “Get Brexit Done”? Because the media’s focus on Brexit and its propaganda campaign against a Corbyn-led Labour had diminished their capacity for rational thought. Not so long ago the idea of Brexit was unknown to most.

    The power that advertising and marketing have over the human mind is indisputable – propaganda in other words – and the fact is that in the main its the mass media which has control of public talking points and sets the direction they take.
    .

    1. :-Joe

      +100%.. Thanks for the link. Very useful and interesting info.

      A silver lining of light in an otherwise empty black hole vacuum of pr spin…

      :-J

  7. Mé Féin

    “Fianna Fáil’s technology spokesperson James Lawless TD produced such a draft piece of legislation, the Social Media (Transparency) Bill, over two years ago but this government has been stalling it since Dec 2017.” I’d sooner have the internet in all its messiness sooner than have Fianna Fail try to regulate it.

  8. :-Joe

    derek, you’re having a laugh, surely?…. and/or taking the complete piss with your contemptable pr-spinning manure for your masters in the establishment F-f/g binary choice polemic illusion of democracy party.

    No mention of billionaire owned media wanting Corbyn/Labour(Tax increases even lower than France / Germany btw) OR any non-austerity movement.. destroyed and then also supporting the tory’s in all their lies and dirty tricks with almost zero accountability.

    The anti-semetism smear campaign created, encouraged, supported by the far right extremist, murdering, racist, apartheid, genocidal, israeli zionism political party that supports and props up their leader to hide what they do against the palestinians.. a.k.a Banjaxed WhatAYahoo and the tory israeli lobbying/funding/bribing which Corbyn/Labour removed from all elements of the party structure.

    No mention of pathological racism, intentional lies, blatant corrupt tory policy and actions within a corrupt oligarchy for not just the last decade of austerity but more than the past 100years.

    No mention of Dominic Cummings, Arron Banks Leave.eu and the Brexit party takeover and the trading of data for social media targeting, psychological profiling and direct access to key voters for manipulation.

    Three years of actively targeting, refining and re-focusing propaganda lies and smears against any opposition to the tory scumbag project of singapore on thames. -IMO.. Most of the details of this will remain unknown for years until it eventually is leaked or whatever up to 25 years down the line.

    No mention of Dominic Cummings history of living in Russia and his connection to Norman Stone and his education and skills as a pr spin – political advisor from emulating Russia’s right hand man and political idealogical spin master for the dominance of Putin himself, the one and only Vladislav Surkov(A real spin master compared to your paltry efforts I might add)

    I could go on and on, it’s just a waste of time other than other people read your drivel and might be influenced by it. An influence always biased by your devotion to a corrupt F-f/g establishment and their lies and deceit that treats the Irish public like serfs and eejit’s.

    If you can’t have the decency to be honest and tell everyone what you know about the inner workings of F-f/g that you experienced and do know about and maybe become a whistleblower or at least a true journalist for the public good then there is no hope for you.

    I know how you pseudo flag-waving intellectual political wonks obsess over reputation, achievments and legacy.

    You’ll be remembered as another f-ing 1st class insider traitor trying to take advantage of every situation.. Like an evil zombie hyena lurking in the ditch waiting for another opportunity to be blatently and obviously grotesque with your intentionally biased analysis to benefit the needs of F-f/g order of the day. Tabloid gutter snipe at best.

    It’s all meaningless, as long as you keep the conversation between both halves of the same problem of the F-f/g party then the establishment will tolerate and support you, isn’t that right?…

    I gave up reading your article about half way in… same biases, lies and pr-spin attempted mind manipulation as usual….

    Pathetic nonsense….

    :-J

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