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James Frayne is Director of communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion. The focus of this column is Theresa May’s conservatism for “ordinary working people”.

Theresa May was right to call an early election: the Conservatives are in a strong position to devastate Corbyn’s Labour. It would have been easy for May to duck what looks like a no-brainer, but in reality requires courage. Now the campaign has begun, the central challenge is not the usual one of persuading swing voters of the Party’s case, but instead persuading people to turn out in an election that looks a foregone conclusion. The Tories’ chief opponent is apathy borne of a sense of inevitability. 

A logistically competent turnout operation will only take the Party so far. Voter targeting has been a Conservative strength in recent times. Since 2005, it’s been working well (given the Party didn’t properly campaign in the EU referendum it would be harsh to say it failed last summer). However, while there are many options for local communications campaigns – based on the reality of the economy and life in different parts of the country – ultimately turnout will depend on the power of the national message.

The Party needs some high-profile dividing lines – rows with Corbyn and others that will motivate potential voters to actually show up. When she called the election, May chose the implementation of Brexit as her primary dividing line. This was the right decision: while it might irritate pro-European ultras in the South – voters that might go Liberal Democrat – polls suggest these voters are dwarfed by the number of people that want democracy respected. In short, it makes complete sense for the Party to take a calculated risk giving the Lib Dems a powerful campaigning message in the South, in the expectation people across the country will show up on the day to get the right approach to Brexit.

There aren’t that many other dividing lines the Party can choose – ones where there are obvious differences in policy, which the public care about (particularly the mass of “just about managing” C1/C2 voters) and where the Conservatives have competitive advantage. One of them, however, is tax – or, rather, one was tax. The Party could easily have made the case that a broad coalition of left-leaning parties was a threat to their living standards, and that the Conservatives would never raise their tax. Given incomes have been so static for so long – and given Labour, the SNP and the Lib Dems all feel like high-tax parties – it would have been a powerful message. 

Instead, the Conservatives have let this opportunity pass by.  When people hear politicians evading specific promises not to raise tax – as they have from senior Conservatives in the last few days – they hear their taxes are going up. The defensive Conservative line that taxes will always be lower than under Corbyn is irrelevant when the Party is positioning Corbyn as a hardlline socialist. Of course taxes will be lower than under Corbyn. The question is whether they’ll be higher than they are now (already high).

Political junkies are well-acquainted with former New York Governor Mario Cuomo’s line: “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.” The Conservatives seem to want to campaign in prose too – refusing to make promises that will restrict their movement in Government. At one level, this is to be applauded: they don’t like promises they can’t keep or will struggle to keep. But surely the point of calling this election was to win a landslide? There hasn’t been such an opportunity in years. 

Apathy is a formidable foe in politics and it could be so in this election. Against Corbyn, the Conservatives need anything they can that will cut through to the public and make them feel a sense of urgency. Without such issues, they could find themselves with a perfectly respectable majority but not the one they could secure. 

48 comments for: James Frayne: If the Conservatives really want a landslide, they must pledge not to raise taxes

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