In my piece yesterday about the process of picking target seats and candidates, I mentioned that the Conservative Party is eyeing up some seats with large – over 8,000 vote – Labour majorities.
One reason for that is the size of the current Conservative poll lead, but another is that Labour is caught in a vice, with its vote being squeezed from four different directions. Here are the forces at work:
- The Lib Dems appealing to Remainers. Labour’s position on the EU referendum wasn’t clear to most voters at the time, and its campaign was worse than lacklustre – many Remainers blame Corbyn for the defeat, with some justification. If you’re one of the minority who disliked the result so much that you still want the result stopped, then Labour doesn’t offer any of the intransigent denial of the Liberal Democrats. And if you want the outcome accepted but watered down, Labour’s confused position still doesn’t offer very much. Tim Farron is out to capitalise on Corbyn’s ineffectiveness and muddled stance, seeing it as his party’s route back from the brink.
- The Conservatives appealing to Leavers. Somewhere over a third of 2015 Labour voters voted Leave in last year’s referendum. For many of them, it was the first time they had ever voted against the Labour Party on anything – and Corbyn’s failure to look in any way convincing on implementing the outcome will have deepened that sense of a breach with their old party. If you’re a Labour Leave voter, and you want Brexit to happen, where do you go? Labour don’t offer a plausible and confirmed route to implementing it. The Lib Dems are opposing honouring your vote. And UKIP are tearing themselves apart. By contrast, the Conservatives are making Brexit happen, just as you wanted – indeed, there are signs that ex-Labour voters who switched to UKIP in 2015 might already be going blue this time, with the “People’s Army” acting as a gateway drug to voting Conservative. At the same time, Theresa May’s appeal to the “just about managing” strikes at many of the concerns that working class former Labour voters share.
- Corbyn repelling traditional Labour voters. Intensifying that disconnect which many traditional Labour voters feel over Brexit is Corbyn’s peculiar brand of hard left Islington leftism. There was already a feeling among many in the Blair years that the modern Labour Party wasn’t as in touch with working people as it once was. Now, voters who already had those doubts find themselves presented with a Labour leader who has had tea with terrorists, called for the abolition of the British Army and opposed every single reform making work pay more than welfare (amazingly, Diane Abbott has publicised a website that repeats several such concerns). Even among those who can’t bring themselves to vote for another Party – particularly in areas where “Tory” is still a dirty word – it isn’t hard to imagine a lot choosing to stay at home instead.
- Concern over a “coalition of chaos” scaring off waverers. We all remember the posters of Ed Miliband in Alex Salmond’s pocket at the last election. The message was that Labour would be dependent on the SNP to govern, and would therefore be held hostage by interests inimical to most voters – particularly in England. It worked, and the Conservatives are out to repeat it, but in more stark terms. CCHQ has been pushing out adverts warning of a “Coalition of Chaos” between Corbyn, Farron and Nicola Sturgeon – not only seeking to deter a vote for Labour, but also a vote for either the Lib Dems or the SNP. Last time round, Miliband was slow to counter these claims. This time, Labour has gone one worse and privately briefed the Daily Mirror that Corbyn would “cut a deal over Brexit” with the minor parties in the event of a hung Parliament.
Each of these factors keeps Labour MPs up at night. They can’t avert the first and second threats simultaneously, and paralysis may ensue which ensures that they avert neither. They can try their best to keep Corbyn away from their local campaign – removing him from their leaflets, for example – but they can’t stop him appearing in the national media, nor can they prevent Conservative leaflets from featuring him prominently.
As for the danger posed by the “coalition of chaos” message, their best hope on that front is for everyone to assume that Labour is so hopeless that it has no chance of getting anywhere near power. That is not a message they can express in public for obvious reasons, and Tory expectation management is already trying to address it.