Each week on Friday, ConservativeHome’s panel of James Frayne, Marcus Roberts, Trevor Phillips, and Salma Shah will be analysing and assessing what’s happening in the general election.
“So what is the doorstep saying this time?…There’s a quiet confidence, very quiet.”
There is a saying at election time, when someone comes to your door, looking for your vote, they will not only believe you when you tell them about the fairies at the bottom of the garden, they’ll tell you they’ll do something about them too!
A friend recalled it to me on my first trip out canvassing in the supposedly safe seat of the Cities of London and Westminster. We needed the laugh, it was the only source of heat in the freezing cold of this winter election.
Fortunately, I was out with stalwarts and their preparation was astonishingly good; fingerless gloves to cope with the cold and ensure the canvass cards were still legible, neck torches to see the names of residents in the dark and a glass of warming wine at the end of the session from a local business supporter. No messing, these people don’t take majorities for granted.
Door knocking often gets a bad rap, especially, in an election where the addition of social media to the air war arsenal makes human interactions seem even more inefficient and dated. Sure, no one really reads the literature and it takes a lot of energy to create and distribute but the value of door knocking isn’t about the sales, it’s about the intelligence.
When people tramp the streets on behalf of their party, more often than not, they are in their hometowns, talking to their neighbours and friends. They filter the information through the prism of the very real experience of their own communities. Activists get a feel for what’s happening, from the doorstep.
It’s unlikely that the doorstep pitch determines anyone’s voting intention but any fans of the OODA loop shouldn’t dismiss the data on offer, especially as it gets closer to polling day.
I recall conversations on the ground in 2017, challenging where activists were being sent to knock up, old hands who could tell you immediately that there are no Tory votes in this street or that building. It was intelligence that should have given us pause, or if it did it was probably too late to use it.
So what is the doorstep saying this time? Veteran members lament, “it feels like 1992”. People will decide at the last minute. The stakes are high, mistakes won’t be easily forgiven and there’s still the manifesto… But there’s a quiet confidence, very quiet.
Salma Shah was a special adviser to Sajid Javid from 2014 to 2019.
“Labour have a change narrative with irrelevant messages. It’s surely the Conservatives’ election to lose.”
Readers of this panel will know I think Labour’s change narrative is more compelling than the Conservatives’ optimism. Working class swing voters are desperate for change, which is why they voted to Leave the EU.
But since correctly framing this election about change, Labour have made a series of catastrophic misjudgements that give the Conservatives the chance to devastate them amongst working class voters in December.
Together, their effective commitment to continued large-scale immigration and Corbyn’s continued prevarication on Brexit provide the Conservatives with an entire campaign’s worth of ammunition in working class marginals. This week, it was as if Labour’s senior politicians had suddenly been re-programmed by CCHQ. In many working class seats, it’s now barely worth Labour candidates campaigning. (From the manifesto, welfare and defence offer similar opportunities).
Labour’s positive announcements and their manifesto won’t even begin to deal with this damage. While there are some attractive things in their manifesto – most obviously, a National Care Service, increasing the minimum wage, committing to lifelong learning, improving regional bus services, new resources for mental health – most of it is so irrelevant to ordinary voters as to be laughable. Electorally speaking, what a weird document.
Building a change narrative around the environment is bizarre. While undoubtedly existentially important to young middle-class voters, and generally important to all voters, it’s nowhere near being a tier one issue for working-class voters. There is a lot of potentially attractive regional economic policies in the manifesto, but all hidden in a narrative that seems to have been constructed by green activists.
Such is their commitment to cutting emissions, Labour even wants to make the Armed Forces prioritise it: “Reducing our carbon footprint can only happen with ambitious emissions reduction targets at the Ministry of Defence, one of government’s biggest energy users.”
And what of Labour’s broadband announcement? When colleagues tested it informally in focus groups in Oldham and Dudley this week (amongst working class and lower middle class audiences), most people thought it was pointless. It’s a fee that most people pay as part of a bigger bundle of entertainment services, and many people pay for a more extensive package. They just couldn’t see how it would help them.
Labour have a change narrative with irrelevant messages. It’s surely the Conservatives’ election to lose.
James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.
“Labour’s spending plans may promise Vesuvius; but the electorate has already mentally consigned them to the dustbin of imaginary alternative futures.”
A desultory debate and a series of frantic manifesto releases have kept political hobbyists busy. But, there’s little sign that voters are paying much attention to policy detail.
According to Lord Ashcroft, when asked what election stories they had noticed, 42 per cent of voters replied “None”. This makes Daniel Finkelstein’s observation that people will plump for a party largely through association with one social grouping or another – occupational, ethnic, geographical – even more credible.
Right now, the best proxies for these identity-based preferences are of course, “remain” and “leave”. Miranda Green’s clever FT column this week charted the extent to which these emotional labels have sunk their roots; in spite of a lot of belching of smoke, John Prescott’s tectonic plates are yet to be dislodged by any policy announcements.
Labour’s spending plans may promise Vesuvius; but the electorate has already mentally consigned them to the dustbin of imaginary alternative futures. In short, nothing much has changed in the landscape.
However, for those of us maniacally scanning the horizon with our telescopes, a couple of things may be coming into focus. First, that this really is a two horse race; whilst the Tories retain a double digit lead, the big two parties are squeezing their smaller rivals into a sub-30 per cent zone. That makes the outcome far more predictable than experts supposed, especially if the Tories maintain their double digit lead.
Second, we now know who Labour wants its enemies to be. As we’ve seen, the British tend to judge members of the royal family by the company they keep. Politics does the opposite; we know our leaders by their enemies. The wiliest politician of my acquaintance, Ken Livingstone, spent forty successful years defining himself against whoever happened to be the leader of the Labour Party at the time, except when Margaret Thatcher was available as Chief Bogeyman. She in turn used both Livingstone and Arthur Scargill to devastating effect.
This week, Jeremy Corbyn chose Britain’s billionaires, and the corporations he thinks they control. He didn’t quite say “Bilderberg” but the conspiracy theories to which his followers subscribe might just as well have been written in flaming letters across the set of his launch platform. When we get the Tory manifesto, I’m betting on an equally colourful depiction of Labour as a Leninist claque, brought to you by way of Venezuela.
On the media: journalists used to define party leaders by comparing them with similar (or dissimilar) predecessors. Some still claim to see Harold Wilson’s shape-shifting in Tony Blair, others bought Thatcher’s claim to Churchill’s late-career Tory bulldog. This is hard to do for an electorate weaned on 24-hour news cycles and Twitter, to whom Blair already seems like ancient history and any study of Wilson is filed under “archaeology”.
Still, I suspect the candidates themselves play a prime ministerial version of the game “Who Will Play Me In The Movie” in which they try to imagine which of their political predecessors they want to emulate. Jo Swinson is evidently aiming for Shirley Williams, Nigel Farage probably for mid-career (Liberal, free-trader) Churchill.
Next week, I’ll speculate on the Johnson’s and Corbyn’s dreams; and the likely real-world nightmares. Suggestions welcome.
Trevor Phillips is Chairman of Green Park Executive Search and a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange.
“Long term, the Conservatives should note with apprehension the popularity of a markedly more left-wing politics.”
Boris Johnson’s 51-49 debate win this week was more than a tactical success as his leadership polling edge over Jeremy Corbyn would have taken a severe expectations hit had he lost. Clearly, Johnson was wise to focus more on addressing voters rather than seeking to score debating points against Corbyn.
Add to this the fact that there’s no sign as yet of the election being about non-Brexit issues and the blue team’s relief must be all but palpable.
Despite hoping for a non-Brexit focused election, Labour continues to find it difficult to gain traction with voters despite the popularity of policies such as higher taxes on high earners (64 per cent), rail nationalisation (56 per cent), a third of company board seats going to workers (54 per cent). Underpinning this problem is a lack of voter trust in Corbyn’s Labour – simply put, voters would like these things to happen but fear the policies are unaffordable (53 per cent), would lead to tax increases (67 per cent) or that a Labour government might lead to a recession (57 per cent).
Long term, the Conservatives should note with apprehension the popularity of a markedly more left-wing politics (for example, 79 per cent of Britons favour raising taxes on billionaires and 51 per cent believe that no one should be a billionaire). In the hands of a more popular, more trusted Labour leadership this appetite for big economic change could well prove a real electoral threat to the Tories. But for now, Corbyn’s continuing ‘best prime minister’ deficit and the predominance of Brexit seem to be suppressing Labour’s policy pluses.
Since the start of this campaign I’ve urged readers to watch the ‘best prime minister’ number (44-22 to Johnson), track the extent to which the election is about Brexit (66 per cent) versus something else, and mind the potential for tactical voting to affect marginals that will decide the election. So far, on two out of three the Conservatives are continuing to have the election they wanted. We’ll take a closer look at the last current major threat to a Johnson majority, significant anti-Tory tactical voting, next week.