Last night on UK television there was an audience question time and an inquisitor interrogation time (from the supposedly formidable Jeremy Paxman) for both Theresa May, UK Prime Minister, and Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour opposition. These were held separately, not as a debate, owing to May’s risky ineptitude and her increasingly evident weakness. Somewhat to my surprise, they showed that Jeremy Corbyn had managed to learn from his previous grillings how to handle himself much better. In particular, he passed the Turing test easily.
Alan Turing was a British mathematical genius hounded to his death by the UK authorities in 1954. As part of his contribution to understanding science, he proposed a test to judge whether the answers to questions posed could be judged as coming from a human or from a machine/computer. If the answers from the machine were answers that an observer could distinguish from those a human would give, then it had failed the Turing test. These days, many establishment politicians would fail too, as was seen most embarrassingly in the case of Marco Rubio in the US presidential election campaign in 2016, which led to his nickname ‘Marcobot’.
Theresa May, unelected UK prime minister, has also failed to pass the Turing test since her time in office. She is desperately seeking to find legitimacy in the 8 June UK general election and, in the past month especially, her PR advisers have given her a small set of vacuous phrases to use safely and not risk tripping up. So much so that a growing portion of the electorate wonders whether it is hearing a corporate answering machine: ‘Press 1 for Strong and Stable Government, press 2 to Get the Best Brexit Deal Possible, press 3 to oppose a Labour-led Coalition of Chaos’. In the TV discussion last night, Theresa May continued to fail the Turing test.
By comparison, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn looked convincingly human. The UK media attacks on him have been so relentless – a supporter of terrorists, willing to abandon nuclear weapons, not supporting the Queen, etc – that this has raised some popular scepticism about media bias. As a result, Corbyn’s steady message in favour of national welfarism paid for by higher taxes on ‘the few’ seems to have gained some traction in an electorate worried about continued austerity. From a deficit of some 20 percentage points compared to the Conservative party a month ago, Labour is now more like 5-12 percentage points behind, according to the latest set of varied opinion polls. The Conservative message of needing a ‘Strong and Stable Conservative Government’ to lead the UK into the sunny uplands post-Brexit now looks less plausible.
This narrowing lead ahead of 8 June, compared to the previously expected devastating Conservative victory, was one factor that forced Theresa May (unconvincingly) to renege upon a manifesto commitment to curb welfare payments on older generation people who were more likely to be Conservative voters. An electoral lead of some 5%+ might still translate, although far from precisely, into a decent majority of seats for the Conservatives. But it would be far less than they had thought, and so will look like a problem for them. It would also be another stage in the disintegration of traditional UK politics.
Tony Norfield, 30 May 2017