I shot Bambi

I was the one behind the AV baby ad.

OK, it was me. I admit it. I shot Bambi. Or the contemporary political equivalent.

I was the one behind the AV baby ad. Though no babies were actually harmed in the making of that advertisement you understand. It wasn't a real baby, but a highly trained stunt baby. Please don't try to re-create an ad like that with your own baby at home.

I was spurred to this admission by an article written by my good friend Rachel Sylvester in Tuesday's Times (£). Rachel was upset. Not specifically at me (obviously she had no insight into my dark secret), but both sides in the Alternative Vote campaign. "This is turning into one of the nastiest, most negative campaigns I can remember," she wrote. Each side is "determined to reinforce everything that is bad about them in the voters' minds".

Rachel touches on two perceptions that are gaining currency among political and media observers. First, that the AV campaign is the most desperate and underhand since Richard Nixon thought: "I wonder what those guys in the Watergate building are saying about me."

And second that an electorate already disgusted by the antics of their parliamentary representatives are going to throw up their hands in horror, shout "Enough", and turn away from politics for good.

 

Let's examine the first. Is this really one of Britain's nastiest, most negative campaigns? Worse than the 1980s, when the Liberals were running around Bermondsey urging people to vote against Peter Tatchell, and for the "straight choice", Simon Hughes? Worse than 1997, when Labour was telling pensioners that if they re-elected the Tories evil John Major was going to evict them from their homes? Worse than the 1960s, when one Tory candidate was pushing the catchy slogan "If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour"?

By comparison, prime examples of the perfidy of the AV campaigners are my baby posters and a Yes advert that has a photo of Nick Griffin, with the lines: "He's voting 'No'. How about you?"

Now, some people may challenge the £250m estimate for the introduction of AV, though I think it's actually proved to be a pretty robust figure. But at a time when the police, the armed forces and, yes, the health service, are all facing significant cuts, asking whether the cost of a change in the voting system represents an appropriate allocation of public resources seems to be me a legitimate question. And even if it isn't, it's hardly the new Zinoviev letter.

In fairness to the Yes campaign, the same can also be said for its Griffin ad. If the BNP leader is voting No it doesn't seem to me to be a crime to point it out. A complete irrelevance, perhaps, but hardly an outrage to echo down the ages.

And from this flawed analysis of political history comes an even more flawed assessment of the impact on, and reaction of, the voters: "By mounting such negative campaigns against each other, both sides risk further undermining people's trust in politics. It's part of a wider problem of denial at Westminster."

Wrong. The people in denial are those politicians and commentators who think the public is prepared to be told, indefinitely, what the public's priorities are, and what they are not.

Who actually requested this referendum on the Alternative Vote? Not the 71 per cent of the electorate who voted for the Tories, or for Lib Dems, or for other parties at the election. Only Labour had a commitment to an AV referendum in its manifesto.

Where is the public clamour for electoral reform? The latest MORI tracker found that just 1 per cent of the population regards it as one of the important issues facing Britain today.

The Daily Express has been mocked for its campaign calling for a referendum on Britain's membership of the EU. But the number of people who regard the common market, Europe and the euro as significant exceed proponents of change to our electoral system by a margin of four to one.

We know what is about to happen. The AV trumpets will sound on 5 May. Less than half of us will appear to fulfil our democratic duty. And then the cry will ring out, "If only we'd had a more uplifting campaign. People would have been fighting to get to the polls."

It's rubbish. And the people who try to create this fiction are being much more disingenuous than any advert or claim from either of the AV campaigns

Because the truth is, on occasion, it's not negative campaigning that leads to voter apathy. It's voter apathy that leads to negative campaigning. When I helped created the baby campaign, it was partially because I was trying to frame the issue in a way that people worrying about their jobs, their mortgages and cuts to their services could relate to. I was desperately trying to make relevant a subject that 99 per cent of the public find a complete, utter, total irrelevance.

So I killed Bambi. Rachel, I apologise. But to be honest, if I had my time over, I'd do the same again.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser