GQR Vice President Peter McLeod has been writing a weekly column on the U.K. General Election. In this final piece he predicts the most likely outcome and looks back on what went right and wrong for the Labour Party over the campaign.
What has in many ways been a remarkable campaign looks set to end quite unremarkably. Despite Labour’s poll surge the Tories should win on Thursday with an increased majority, most likely in the 80-100 range. An unelected Prime Minister who enjoyed a huge polling lead converting that lead into her own electoral mandate will be the big non-story of 2017. The real news will come in the second half of the year as Brexit starts in earnest. The most historic aspect of the election itself may simply be Labour losing among its C2DE working class base for the first time. The party should start thinking about how to win it back.
This column covered the reasons I think the Conservatives will win comfortably at some length already, but this week we have new data to back that up. The key poll of the past week was not from any of the usual media pollsters, but from NatCen (the National Centre for Social Research), which doesn’t generally get involved in election polling. NatCen has a robust panel built through face-to-face recruitment off the back of the massive British Social Attitudes Survey. It spent a month on the fieldwork to make sure it got every demographic properly represented, so in theory the data is not subject to differential response bias, wherein supporters of a party become more enthusiastic about taking surveys when their candidate’s campaign appears to be going well.
NatCen’s survey did not measure voting intention but it measured likelihood to vote and found that under-30s will not turn out in significantly greater numbers than in 2015. If this turns out to be true, those pollsters like ICM and ComRes that weighted their results to reflect turnout in past elections will be the ones that get closest to the final result. Beyond the polls, canvassing returns from Labour foretell real trouble, even a possible wipeout outside the big cities, reflecting both the effectiveness of the Tory campaign at targeting swing seats and the limitations of a Labour strategy that focused on young people who cluster in big cities.
While the new government sets about its daunting agenda, Labour will need to reflect on a mixed campaign in which it has made a lot of the running without ever really looking like winning. The campaign operation itself was a success, coming up with a series of strong, memorable retail offers and making the most of Corbyn’s ability to draw big crowds for impressive-looking events. The leader’s image problem was addressed in two ways: his team got him to put on a smart suit every day, and he came across as natural, passionate and charismatic on the campaign trail and in the media. It helped that the election meant the media focusing on policy not management, but it also helped that Labour had policies out there; for too much of the past two years it had too little to talk about. The party was also sharp in reacting to campaign events like the Tories’ manifesto u-turn disaster, picking up and running with the diabolically effective “dementia tax” label for May’s social care plans. Labour also found a smart way to counter the inevitable attacks on Corbyn’s record in the wake of the two awful terrorist atrocities, tying police numbers into their wider narrative about Tory cuts.
So besides the misguided focus on young and non-voters, what held Labour back? Listening to voters before and during the 2015 campaign it was clear there were three big problems: the perceived weakness of Labour’s leadership, lack of trust on public spending and immigration. These plagued the 2015 campaign and it’s fair to say the party never found a way around them. And looking at Labour now, it feels like it has gone backward on two challenges while the third has been neutralised through no especial effort of their own.
In 2015 those Tory posters showing Ed Miliband as Alec Salmond’s puppet were as much about leadership as about the concept of a coalition. They simply crystallised the way people already felt about Miliband. Now, the party has stalled on leadership. Despite the improved appearance and effective performances, people do not forget that Corbyn and members of his core team have failed to answer basic questions about their policies in live interviews. People also know that he has an at-best equivocal attitude to some of the basics of defending the country and maintaining people’s physical security; and they know that most of his colleagues in Parliament did not want him as leader. These weaknesses overwhelm the positives of Corbyn’s performance over the past 6 weeks and explain why – despite Theresa May’s utterly lacklustre campaign – he is still miles behind in perceptions of who would be best Prime Minister.
In 2015, it felt like the rest of the nation was getting to experience a little bit of my job when this voter (at 1:10) on the BBC’s Question Time special tore into Ed over Labour spending. Focus group after focus group we had heard that Labour were the ones responsible for the state of the economy because they had spent too much money. The issue was not that people thought Labour had bad spending priorities: generally, people know they are for the NHS and helping the least fortunate people. It’s more that Labour is seen as the party that increases spending as the solution to whatever problem is put in front of it. This time around, Labour put a lot of effort into reassurance on spending, producing a supplement to the manifesto showing how they would raise all the money it promises to spend. This shows that they understood there was a problem, but they came up with the wrong cure. People don’t doubt that it would be possible for the government to raise more money through taxation: they doubt that Labour should be spending it.
The issue that did not hobble Labour in 2017 was immigration. Two years ago immigration was seen as a root cause of every problem from schools to hospitals to housing – and Labour as the lot who “opened the doors in the first place.” We didn’t guess that just over a year later Britain would vote to leave the EU. Brexit has remade the immigration debate: when challenged on it, Corbyn can now simply say that when we leave the EU, free movement will end. He had a wobble against Paxman where he couldn’t promise lower immigration under Labour, but it felt far from a defining moment and there was no repeat in the subsequent TV setpieces on the BBC. In this respect, backing Article 50 and accepting our departure from the single market was smart, especially given that Corbyn only ever gave the EU a 7/10 anyway. The challenge in the coming years will be whether the party is prepared to seriously oppose the Tories’ economically ruinous immigration cap.
So without addressing fundamentals around trust in leadership and spending – and pending a resolution of the immigration question – it’s difficult to see how Labour can be elected anytime soon. The positives of this campaign and Corbyn’s performance must not be ignored, but it does not feel like more of the same message is what’s needed to be truly competitive again. It’s also hard to imagine the Tories running as bad a campaign next time around.