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”.
The Government’s suggestions that some prisoners might be allowed to vote defy political belief. In what appears to have been a planned background briefing rather than a leak, the Ministry of Justice indicated at the weekend that prisoners sentenced to less than a year, and who are let out on day release, will be allowed to return home to vote. The nature of the briefing is such that it’s unclear how firm the Government’s plans are. There’s still time for them to “clarify” and backtrack, which they must do immediately.
Let’s put aside the morality of the issue and focus on electoral politics. The Conservatives are running a minority government; the Party has been trailing Labour narrowly for weeks; Theresa May’s own approval ratings are poor and barely stable; and the Government is struggling to keep high-stakes Brexit negotiations on track. In this climate, why would you announce a policy as unpopular as this?
The polls don’t suggest narrow opposition to a ban. They suggest massive opposition to a ban. A YouGov poll in January 2015 showed that 69 per cent of people favour a continued total ban, while 16 per cent said some prisoners on shorter sentences should be allowed to vote and 8 per cent said prisoners should be able to vote. Figures might have moved a little, but surely not by much. As those that keep a close eye on the polls will know, a near-70 per cent opposition rating for a policy is an astronomically high figure.
Unsurprisingly, it’s less affluent voters that take the hardest line. In the YouGov poll, 74 per cent of C2DE voters said they favoured a continued total ban, compared to 66 per cent of ABC1 voters.
This working class opposition is important to note, as we’ve just heard that the Cabinet have been shown a long polling presentation by Party strategists, making the case that working class Labour voters are up for grabs and provide a target electorate for the next election.
According to James Forsyth, who was given a read-out of the presentation:
‘The other electoral conundrum for the Tories is that the greatest hostility to Jeremy Corbyn is among traditional Labour voters, not those who switched to Labour at the last election. This suggests the Tories’ best chances of winning a majority at the next election lies in traditionally Labour seats where the Tories came close last time, such as Bishop Auckland, in the North East, which Labour has held since 1935. I am told Gavin Barwell, the PM’s chief of staff, is particularly convinced of this.’
As readers of this column will know, I completely agree with this fundamental analysis. A combination of Labour ambiguity on Brexit, and their radical shift to the left on issues of identity and culture, together mean that their hold on the working class has been fractured. Constituencies like Mansfield are now blue and many, many other traditionally working class seats can now be considered target seats.
With this in mind, the announcement on prisoners voting is extraordinary. More extraordinary still is in another suggestion at the weekend, that returning jihadis that have fought for ISIS might receive council accommodation to ease their integration back into society. Again, the details are unclear, and to be fair this does look like a leak of a policy proposal from officials rather than a planned briefing, but the Government ought to clarify that these were the musings of junior officials that will of course never see the light of day.
How worried should Conservative activists be at these two suggestions? Leaks of daft policy documents happen and you have to live with them. A simple lack of policy and comms coordination is something that can be rectified. If, however, the Party believes it is actively courting working class voters and can’t see stories like these as being totally counterproductive, then there’s a more serious problem.