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.

Photo: Getty
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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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