Poster boy Dave and the coming campaign

Are you thinking what we're . . . Hang on, scrap that

Election posters are rarely targeted at the passing eyeballs on the Hammersmith Flyover. Rather, they are designed to create a media event that in turn gets TV, newspaper and, yes, blog coverage worth far more than the price of even the highest outdoor rate card.

And so, here we are again. The pre-campaign skirmishes will be punctuated regularly by these billboard launches, Sky News cameras in tow. In 2005, Labour used this period to launch some of its most memorable (if contentious) posters, including its attack on the Tories for their supposed £35bn cuts in public services.

This time, it's David Cameron's Conservative Party that's first with the ladders and paste. So what can we divine from poster number one?

1. Dave is going to get top billing. It's "David Cameron (featuring the Conservative Party)" and not the other way around. Given his popularity compared to his party's, that is understandable. For now, at least. But as Mike Smithson asks over at PoliticalBetting, could the Dave-specific approach become a hostage to fortune?

2. The Tories are hoping to have it both ways on policy. "I'll cut the deficit," says Poster Dave, demonstrating his economic credentials and his willingness to take tough decisions. But "not the NHS", he quickly adds, with a nod and a wink to those disenchanted Labour voters of 1997, 2001 and 2005.

It will be the Labour strategists' role to try to make a nonsense of this Janus-like approach. For example, as my colleague George Eaton notes elsewhere, the Tories may come unstuck over claims that a higher inheritance-tax threshold will be revenue-neutral. Again, two-faced: tax cuts, but not at the expense of "front-line services".

3. The Tories have ditched the dog whistle, for now. You'll remember the Lynton Crosby-inspired "Are you thinking what we're thinking?" campaign of 2005, which played to presumed fears over immigration, dirty hospitals and violent crime (see picture below). No sign, so far, of this kind of appeal to the base and, to be fair to Cameron, much of his four-year leadership has been spent repairing the damage.

But if the polls start to tighten once the campaign proper begins, there's every chance the tactics will get dirtier. After all, Michael Howard, who put his name a manifesto titled "Are you thinking what we're thinking? It's time for action", began his leadership trying to move the Conservatives back towards the centre ground.

Incidentally, you may not recall the man charged with pulling that 2005 manifesto together. His name was David Cameron.

 

Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

Photo: Getty
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The beggar used to be friendly – now he was ranting at everyone

What was I doing, dismissing him with maximal curtness – and not caring?

The first beggar was walking but still wretched. Probably in his early twenties, clearly ravaged by more than just alcohol, he made a beeline for me, as if he had an appointment. He was not to know that I was in a mood from hell, though the look on my face would have told him, if he’d been in any kind of state to register it.

“Excuse me, have you got 10p for…”

“No.” And I walked on.

Why? I am almost invariably a soft touch for this kind of thing. But as I said, I was in the foulest of tempers.

Also, this was East Finchley. For those who do not know London, East Finchley is a northern suburb, which at one end hosts the wealthiest street in the country – the Bishops Avenue, where multimillionaires tear down houses and erect new ones even uglier than those they have replaced – and at the other end a typically seedy, dull collection of terraced houses.

The main supermarket is Budgens, a name so ungainly that it could only have belonged to a real person, either too proud or unimaginative to think of something else.

But what, I asked myself, was someone this wretched doing in East Finchley? And what was I doing, dismissing him with maximal curtness – and not caring?

The second beggar, further up the street, I met the next day: much older and clearly mad, rather than chemically poisoned. He asked how I was doing.

“Not so well, as it happens,” I replied.

“Would you like me to say a prayer for you?”

“Why not?” I said, and he placed a clenched fist to my forehead and made a brief incantation, something like an exorcism, and then kissed the large white plastic crucifix hanging from his neck.

I half-expected to feel a jolt of faith, some kind of divine restructuring. This time I gave him money: a pound coin and a 50p coin. But then later I thought: why didn’t I give him more? I’d been doing some tidying earlier and had retrieved a heavy pocketful of change; I could have given him a generous handful.

The third beggar was in Shepherd’s Bush. I knew him from the days when I lived there: a skinny, middle-aged guy who would occasionally stop and rant in a friendly way at me, just sane enough not to ignore. That was ten years ago. Now he was raging at everyone, accusing the teenagers queueing in the kebab shop of being batty boys and saying “bloodclaat” a lot. (Batty boy: homosexual. Bloodclaat: tampon.)

The people he was addressing knew perfectly well what he was saying. They shrugged it off. I got on the bus; so did he, and the whole bus knew about it. There was nothing friendly in him now, and I wondered through which hole in the increasingly threadbare welfare safety net he had been allowed to slip.

That’s it, I thought. I’m getting out of London, its pampered core oblivious to the surrounding anguish. The world in a nutshell. Luckily, my great friend S— had asked if I could cat-sit for her in Brighton. I know her cat, and I know Brighton. Also, I know about a dozen people there who I keep meaning to see, so why not? London was making me ill, and possibly a bad person. So S— invited me down a couple of days before she was due to go on her holidays, and I took the first train I could.

And now I find myself sitting on a sunlounger in a tiny backyard, in a charming house just abutting the North Laine, and the mood is palpably different to the capital’s. It is like a city ought to be: compact, diverse and funky. There is no reek of High Capitalism. It is healthily decadent. It would appear to be full of people who have rejected the idea of London. It still has an enormous number of beggars, but more people were dropping money for them than I ever saw do so in W1, W12 or N2.

So this is what it’s like to fall out of love with the city of one’s birth. What most surprised me was the speed and force with which it happened. I’d made my mind up over a nice lunch that my friend N— was buying me, to cheer me up.

“Don’t you have to stay in London? You know, for book launches and things like that?”

“I don’t go to fucking book launches any more,” I said. I was taken aback by the vigour of my reply. I’m only here for ten days but I have plenty of people to see and dozens of memories, all good, to bump into. I’m already feeling better. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem