Shaun Bailey’s campaign for the London mayoralty has not, most commentators agree, got off to a flying start. Groups he seems to have alienated, either with past remarks journalists have dug out since his candidacy was announced or with brand spanking new comments made just this week, include Muslims, Hindus (in the latter instance getting special points for conflating following Hindu religious practice and speaking the Hindi language, offending two groups for the price of one), single mothers and anyone who knows any single mothers, people who use buses, everyone in Thamesmead, and, in a spectacular flourish, all women.
Even before this month, little about Bailey’s political career was encouraging; his path from contesting a winnable seat (Hammersmith) in 2010 to contesting an unwinnable seat (Lewisham West & Penge) in 2017, via failing to be selected for any of the winnable or safe he tried out for in 2015, does not suggest a political high flier. His policy positions are reliably traditionally Tory, deeply uninspiring or both. (The most notable thing about that 2010 election loss was another peculiar story, if not exactly gaffe, concerning Bailey’s Wikipedia page.) Bailey’s campaign looks like a lost cause, and as a one time champion of The Big Society, he should know a few things about lost causes.
Nevertheless, I have every confidence that Bailey, gaffe-prone though he may be – and despite the near certainty that several other groups will have joined the list above by the time you read this – will be elected mayor of London. The reason for this is simple: it’s exactly the kind of thing that happens nowadays. Political norms have been suspended. Things that obviously can’t happen, that go against all political wisdom can and do happen, and no one believes in them even as they happen.
A friend of mine recently claimed we were living in “the banter timeline”: a version of reality where things that obviously can’t happen because they’re ridiculous, that could only happen as a joke, are now routine. The word ‘banter’ has become justifiably toxic, referring to a particularly obnoxious kind of male behaviour, and it’s a good fit for where we find ourselves. Running ridiculous campaigns and systematically alienating huge chunks of the population, whittling them off your block of potential voters in stages, isn’t enough to stop you being elected president of the United States, so why on Earth should it stop you being elected mayor of London?
Indeed, it was another London election that kicked off the ‘banter timeline’: the elevation of a gaffe-prone Conservative candidate who was largely hidden from view by his own campaign during the election, so worried were they of anyone actually seeing or hearing him. (Whatever happened to him?)
There is a lot of this about. Recently Tory MPs who support the Prime Minister and her approach to Brexit were reported to be considering triggering a vote of no confidence in her – confident that she would win, because, under the party’s byzantine leadership election rules, anyone else would be barred from challenging her for a year. In other words, challenging here would secure her position.
Whether that would have worked in practice, of course, is a different question, and in the end the MPs thought better of it, presumably someone tipped them off about the nature of the reality in which they live.
If there’s one thing the last few years should have taught anyone and everyone, it’s that politics cannot any longer be gamed. Witness the almost endless hilarity that ensued from Zac Goldsmith’s vanity by-election loss to Sarah Olney in 2016 where, seemingly uninformed by David Cameron’s then very recent attempt to do the same thing, he forced an unnecessary election in order to get people to endorse a decision he’d already made, and found out that, in an actual democracy, that sort of thing doesn’t work as often as it does.
This isn’t a phenomenon confined to the right, of course. Some on the Labour Left have considered getting Jeremy Corbyn to fight a reselection ballot, just to make a point about the innate fairness of compulsory re-selection. Like a pre-emptive challenge on an unpopular Prime Minister, that strikes me as something that could easily have an outcome other than that its advocates expect. (And yes, I am acquainted with North London Labour Party members, as it happens.)
Many years ago a then flatmate of mine, a Labour voter and sometime member, admitted he had voted for a Liberal Democrat council candidate, who also happened to be our landlord, “for larks”. The joke was that said candidate, standing in a solidly Labour ward, didn’t want to be a councillor, and had just been pushed into being a paper candidate by his local party. He hadn’t even campaigned. His election would have annoyed him sufficiently that it would have been, briefly, hilarious.
These days, he’d end up Prime Minister. Assuming Shaun Bailey doesn’t get there first.
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