Flip-flopping

The reality is that the “flip flop” is really little more than a catchy phrase that essentially capt

No sooner than Hillary conceded to Obama then the US presidential campaign got underway in earnest and with it came the usual rampant speculation.

Who might get top jobs in the next administration, dark whispers alluding to salacious details in each candidate’s alleged past; and, most entertainingly of all, the art of calling the “flip flop” on your opponent.

The “flip flop” is what people in Britain might call a change of heart or U-turn on a previously held position. In the current race, this translates recently into Barack Obama’s decision to forgo public financing in his campaign (in recognition of the immense amount of money he has managed to raise from small individual donors), or John McCain’s turn-around from being a Senator vigorously against off-shore drilling and tax cuts – to deciding that both are in fact probably good solutions to current issues (conveniently both are issues that appeal to a Republican base that remains tepid towards him).

There have been even more egregious shifts from both campaigns as we have gone along: John McCain went from calling the Christian right “agents of intolerance” to recognising that if he wants to win, he is also going to have to bring this crucial conservative constituency on-side.

A problem when one considers that in January 2007, James Dobson, head of the Focus on the Family - a leading Christian group - stated that “I would not vote for John McCain under any circumstances, I pray that we won't get stuck with him” (while he has since reached out to McCain, he has yet to give him the endorsement).

Barack Obama on the other hand was embarrassed when his heartfelt protectionist campaign rhetoric clashed with what his key economic adviser was running around telling concerned Canadians that “much of the rhetoric that may be perceived to be protectionist is more reflective of political manoeuvring than policy.”

Politics as normal one might cynically say. Well, yes, but last time the “flip flop” got thrown around properly in an American campaign was with John Kerry, when his “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it” (referring to a vote to allow a supplemental bill to get funding for troops in the field in Iraq and Afghanistan), became the “gift that kept giving” as Karl Rove put it.

Endless pro-Bush ads played on constant repeat highlighting what by Kerry’s own admission was “one of those inarticulate moments,” and Republican rallies became slipper waving affairs with speakers leading the crowds in “flip flop” themed chants. And when people went to the polls, the charge stuck, with Kerry losing and polls showing that 65 per cent saw him as a “flip flopper,” while Bush led the faithful with merely 36 per cent doubting him.

This may not have been the only reason for John Kerry’s defeat, but it was one of the defining features of the campaign – and neither the Macattack nor Obaminator want to be tarred with this losing brush (though they are perfectly happy for surrogates to throw it around liberally against the other).

This concern may actually be misplaced, as it is not totally clear that the public either care or trust one more than the other. A recent CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll reported that “61 per cent of voters polled said McCain has changed his mind for political reasons” and “59 per cent of those polled said Obama also shifts positions with the political winds”. The American public apparently holds both men with equal disdain when it comes to believing their promises.

The reality is that the fixation on the “flip flop” is really little more than a catchy phrase that essentially captures what politician’s have been doing for years. This is not to justify the sometimes openly mendacious things that they say, but merely another sort of reflection of the endless media coverage politicians are subjected to.

Any wavering away from message, contradiction with a previous statement, or an “inarticulate moment” will be likely captured on video, broadcast around the world, and over-analysed ad nauseam. This is true not only of “flip flops” but also open bigotry (witness Republican Senator George Allen’s “macaca” comment that managed to lose him one of the US’s most Republican states) and other errata (like former President Bill Clinton on the stump for his wife).

“Events, dear boy, events,” was how Harold Macmillan described things that steer governments off course – and this is equally applicable to any political campaign and any policy stand. Given we live in a world where time moves on, and things happen, why are we surprised when a politician’s stand might slightly alter or correct itself when some new information comes to light or something happens? On the basis of the weight given to the “flip flop” it would appear we need either politicians with an oracular degree of prescience – or we need ones who are so bull-headed that even in the face of overwhelming facts, they stick to their guns and let history be their judges.

That or we need to find a way of getting the world to stop turning until the election ride is over.

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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