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30 March 2024

Have the Tories even been to London?

In a much-mocked campaign video, the Conservative Party appears to have lost touch with reality.

By Jonn Elledge

In 1981 the film director Harold Baim hired one of the US’s top TV stars to narrate a trio of short films about the sights of unlikely British cities. “Birmingham’s road system is revolutionary!” Telly Savalas gushed, in his broad Noo Yoik accent. “A four-mile circuit of dual carriageways, tunnels and overpasses, linking up with the main arteries of the city and the Aston Expressway!” Savalas – then famous as Kojak, a New York cop whose love of lollipops was rivalled only by his love for his catchphrase, “Who loves ya, baby”? – had never even visited Birmingham, or Aberdeen or Portsmouth, come to that. But my god he sounded excited by the place. 

I’ve found myself wondering this week if someone at Conservative campaign headquarters (CCHQ) is familiar with these cinematic works of art (the result, incidentally, of a badly drafted 1927 law which required cinemas to include a certain proportion of British-made films in their programme). That’s because the Tory party’s latest campaign ads feel like a mirror image of those films. They retain the baffling American voiceover, and the stock footage of British – mostly! – cities. But they’re not using these clips for good, like promoting the jewel of the Midlands. They’re using them for evil, like telling lies and scaring people into voting Tory.

The first, which appeared on the platform all right-thinking people still call Twitter on Monday, concerns “London, a city steeped in history. But tonight,” it goes on, Americanly, “its ancient streets bear witness to a different tale. A tale not of kings and queens, but of crime and desperation.”

If you think all this sounds like the trailer for a Batman movie, you’re more right than you realise. The much-mocked first version of the video, featuring footage of people running in terror from an unseen urban catastrophe, turned out to show New York’s Penn station back in 2017. That version has since been deleted and replaced by a much-mocked second version.

Footage of the wrong city entirely, though, is really the least of the ad’s oddness. Consider its claim of an increase in crime “since the Labour mayor seized power”, which is a fascinating way of saying “since he twice handed our own party’s arse to it, in what should have been more competitive elections”. Or the warning of “squads of Ulez [Ultra Low Emission Zone] enforcers dressed in black, faces covered with masks”; as a cyclist and public transport user, I must say this sounds brilliant, but it remains, alas, fantastical. My favourite thing here, though, is the claim that “in the chaos, people seek a desperate reprieve”. This is perhaps an accurate way of describing an urge to vote for the Tory mayoral candidate Susan Hall. It just isn’t one I’d expect the Conservatives themselves to acknowledge.

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It’s nonsense, of course – overall crime in London is low and falling, and policing levels here are in any case driven largely by national government, through Treasury budget and Home Office oversight. But it’s a brand of nonsense the Tory party is clearly committed to, because on Tuesday it released another ad. “Birming-Ham, 2024,” it begins, mirroring Savalas’s pronunciation precisely. “Amidst the bustle of this Midlands gem,” it continues, over exciting footage of council meetings, graphs and piles of rubbish, “a tale of mismanagement and fiscal irresponsibility unfolds.”

That much, at least, makes sense. Yet the reason council tax is rising and councils are going bust is Tory austerity. It’s also confusing, because Andy Street, the serving mayor of the West Midlands, is a moderate Tory. Then it ends with this: “In life under Labour, the scales of justice are balanced by a force beyond mortal comprehension.” I have no idea what this is even supposed to mean. But they’ll be mocking Keir Starmer up as the Joker any minute now, mark my words.

I can think of two possible explanations for all this, one of them cynical, the other really cynical. The merely cynical one is that this is a sincere attempt to appeal to voters who they believe are, not to put too fine a point on it, completely bloody mad. The reason the Tories are losing is they’ve messed everything up and Labour has a 20-point lead. But the recipient of the most recent drift in their polls has been Reform.

These voters are more likely to be older people, who were scarred by the Winter of Discontent in the 1970s and think there’s something, they can’t quite put their finger on what, a bit off about Sadiq Khan. I don’t imagine these videos are meant to do much to win over voters in London, or in Birmingham either, come to that. (If Street is re-elected it’ll be mostly by the region’s five outer boroughs.) But by reminding those abandoning the party for Reform that cities are both Labour-run and scary, the Conservatives might be trying to stem the bleeding in the rest of the country.

The even more cynical explanation is that CCHQ knows exactly how ridiculous these videos are. It’s just that, the madder they make them, the more likely it is that the rest of us will mock them, inadvertently spreading the “Labour = bad” message further, reaching those who might be susceptible to it in the process.

Oh…

[See also: I’m a British woman in America. Do I need to buy a gun?]

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