Nick Hargrave is a former Downing Street special adviser, where he worked under both David Cameron and Theresa May. He now works at Portland, the communications consultancy.
Millions of predictive words have been written about the result of the UK general election. In reality it comes down to just two: win expectations.
Political strategists are not deep sleepers by nature. But win expectations are the thing that keep them up at night more than anything else. Win expectations can really screw you in political campaigns if they get out of hand.
Consider David from Don Valley. He’s 55, has three children, four grandchildren and drives lorries for a cement company. He voted Leave and wants the politicians to just bloody get on with it. He knows that Boris Johnson has got a lot of baggage – but thinks that he at least has something about him and can break the deadlock in Westminster. He’s deeply sceptical about Jeremy Corbyn, who he sees as incompetent and most certainly not patriotic working-class Labour.
David has a lot of time for Caroline Flint though, the local Labour MP of twenty plus years. He has grudging admiration for her commitment to implement the result of the referendum, despite backing Remain in 2016. What’s more, he doesn’t think much of the Tory Party as a whole and he remembers the 1980s and what deindustrialisation did to parts of South Yorkshire. When he sees Jacob Rees-Mogg on the television he feels uneasy and tastes the animus of years gone by.
Megan from Battersea meanwhile has competing emotions but in a different way. Megan is in her early thirties. She’s a graphic designer who is killing it at work and has had two promotions in three years. She earns £58,000 per annum and is hungry to continue progressing. She does not like Johnson and the Conservative Party because of what they’ve said and done on Brexit. Many of her friends are more visceral and outspoken. She is instinctively leaning towards the Liberal Democrats this time round.]
That said, Megan is saving to buy a flat – and London is expensive even on double the national average salary. She is trying to put at least £100 into her savings every month but this involves a level of discipline well beyond what it should. She hears Jeremy Corbyn talking about plans to squeeze more tax out of those earning £80,000 per annum, sees his high spending promises flash up on the news – and questions whether that threshold might inch itself down if he ever got into Government. What’s more, she would like to be earning £80,000 herself one day.
On election morning, as they wake up, David and Megan’s conception of the closeness of this race will be critical. If they think the national result is in doubt, then they will believe their vote has more weight in determining the national outcome. They are more likely to use their vote to choose who they want in Number 10; Johnson or Corbyn. If you have to squeeze both to choose, it is more likely to be Boris Johnson as they cross the threshold into the polling station. Both will end up voting Conservative and a decent Tory majority is on the cards.
But if David and Megan think the result is a foregone conclusion, then they are more likely to use their vote in different ways. David could use it to reward his long serving, hard battling local Labour MP – believing he will still get Johnson as Prime Minister. Megan would feel safer voting on Brexit lines; Johnson is going to win anyway so why shouldn’t she send a message by voting for the cosmopolitan Remain party she identifies with the most? Both might simply not go out and vote at all given that it’s the run up to Christmas, it’s cold – and frankly they’re not sure any of the politicians in this election have covered themselves in glory.
This is how you get a hung parliament and perhaps even Labour inching towards a realistic governing unit.
David and Megan are obviously fictional characters but the situations are real enough. And the imperative is hopefully clear for the final ten days of this election campaign – when many voters are only beginning to focus in on the choice.
The Conservative Party must fight tooth and nail to narrate to all of its potential coalition that this election is volatile and that their vote matters. This time it also has the benefit of being true; the margins are small and everyone is a participant.
If the above feels unedifying and low minded, then I take your point. But this is what elections are fundamentally about. They are dynamic behavioural exercises. Your job is to motivate millions of people, with differing perspectives and values, to do the same thing on the same day. If you have a strong lead on the preferred candidate to be PM, then you need to force the choice.
Governing in the long-term interests of the country – and holding onto that fragile coalition you’ve assembled – is another matter altogether. It becomes significantly easier to do that though if you are able to win a working majority. Win the election first. Then you can win the peace.