As Stephen Bush’s piece last week highlighted, there are a finite number of messages a political party can run on. Typically, these positions don’t change between elections because they are so simple: “things would work better with us in charge”. 2017, however, was a turning point for both parties.
When Jeremy Corbyn rose to victory in Labour’s leadership election in 2015, he did so on the back of a promise of a new type of politics. Many chose him because he offered something the other three candidates seemingly did not, and that was hope. Corbyn famously asserted he would bring a new straight talking, honest politics into the Labour party, something he really hasn’t done. He was meant to be the politician who could finally energise the dwindling youth vote and bring non-voters out into the voting booths for the first time.
Fast forward to June 2017, and Labour had returned from a near 20-point deficit in the polls to force a hung parliament. A dismal campaign from Theresa May gave Corbyn the wind in his sails, and policies such as the abolishment of tuition fees had on the face of it galvanised the youth to an astonishing spike in turnout. However, as we now know, this wasn’t exactly the case.
Recently, the British Electoral Survey found that turnout did not increase among 18- to 24-year-olds at the 2017 election, although it did increase in areas with larger numbers of 18- to 24-year-olds. The noteworthy changes were actually found in the 25-44 age group, where turnout increased significantly and swung in great numbers towards Labour. The groups of voters Corbyn aimed to bring out in force did not turn up, and despite a successful campaign, Labour’s Plan A had failed.
When Corbyn became leader, moderates were not only fearful of the direction he would take the Labour Party, but they also thought that Corbyn would be easy pickings for a well ran Tory campaign. To say that Corbyn has a shady record in politics is an understatement. With links to the IRA, and more recently Hamas and Hezbollah, as well as regular appearances on Russian and Iranian state TV, the right-wing media had plenty to run on.
In the 2017 election, the Tories media campaign went into full attack mode. But the result showed it wasn’t effective. After 2015 and the EU referendum, why hadn’t the right-wing media outlets such as the Mail and Express delivered a victory? Firstly, I think it’s overplayed the role that smears had in 2015. The idea that a picture of Ed Miliband eating a bacon sandwich swung the election is barbaric. Whatever you think of the pair, Cameron and Osborne were a well-oiled machine who was a lot more attractive to the public than Theresa May was last year.
It was Theresa May who back in 2002 at the Conservative Party Conference called for her party to work to ditch the ‘nasty party’ tag. It was Cameron and Osborne who worked hard to deliver it. By 2015, the Tories had ditched the label, campaigned through a solid economic message after the 2008 crash, and most thought that Cameron actually was a rather decent PM. Fast forward to 2017, and due to Brexit, cuts, and stories such as the Dementia Tax, the nasty party tag had returned. Although the smears would have cut through to a small section of the electorate, it didn’t make a difference with swing voters.
There was a multitude of reasons for this, the most notable being the slow decline of print media’s influence. The difference with 2016 is that newspapers had been campaigning against the EU for years. The 2017 campaigns were fought on social media, where Labour ran rings around the government. Sure, the Conservatives can throw money into advertising, but the oppositions large supporter base meant their content was shared across the country; and people are more likely to watch videos or click on links shared by family, friends, or colleagues rather than a political party.
Another reason is the Corbyn factor. Yes, a huge section of the electorate probably does find Corbyn a little weak on foreign policy and untrustworthy with the economy, but very few believe he has the capacity to be a Commie spy or a grave threat to the country. The Tories planned a campaign of fear to increase their small majority, but their Plan A had failed miserably.
The problem with an opposition campaigning through hope is that if there is any hope to be found, it usually means things aren’t too bad under the current government. Sure, you can tell voters about the good things you’d do, but you need to convince them why they shouldn’t vote for the other party. Being in opposition is highlighting every piece of bad news, giving reasons to be fearful, and saying “things cannot go on like this”. Labour’s recent political broadcasts highlight this.
With Brexit, austerity, healthcare, and the trend of the economy, this is the right campaign. In a recent poll commisioned by Britain Elects, 50% of the public now believe “the UK is going in the wrong direction”, up from 43% in November. Just 30% of people believe we are heading in the right direction with Brexit, and 44% believe they are worse off financially compared to a year ago. On top of that, rough sleeping in England has increased for the seventh consecutive year. This figure has increased 15% from last year and is now the highest level since current records began.
Along with healthcare, rough sleeping is often a big indicator to the electorate regarding the direction of a country and was a big factor in Labour’s landslide victory in 1997. These are the stories that will spread with ease across social media, the stories that make news, and the stories that can allow Labour to put their message forward. This is Labour’s new plan, or Plan B.
As was highlighted in the Independent earlier this month, the Conservatives are yet to have a clear local election plan in place for May. They lack a clear message to take out to the public and are still relying on attacking the opposition leader as their vote winner. This might be prudent if they were focused on the economy a la Cameron and Osborne 2015, but they continue to press on foreign policy, something that often bears little weight in the mind of voters.
The Tories know that Theresa May will not be leading them into the next election so they may be counting on their next leader being more popular with the public. Two problems arise from this. One is the favourite is Rees-Mogg, someone who would have little popularity outside of his core remit. The second is that Corbyn is 68, and it’s not out of the question he may hand over the reigns to a younger successor on the left wing of the party before the next election in 2022.
The Tories need to start putting forward a positive message of their own, not only to energise their core but to try to win back the 25-44 age group that abandoned them in swathes for Labour last June. They are worried about education and health cuts, are struggling to get on the property ladder, and are fearful of the effects yet to come from Brexit. The Tories will be owning Brexit, so this is where their positive message will need to come from to mop up the ‘Leave’ vote. But they are yet to find a message to satisfy remainers. This should be the Conservative’s Plan B.
Both party’s original plans leading into 2017 focused on their core voters and failed to branch out across the political spectrum. As such, we saw big splits across the country, a return to two-party politics, and a hung parliament to boot. Ironically, each party’s plan B copy that of the other’s originals; the Labour Party need to ditch hope for fear, and the Tories need to swap fear for hope in the face of Brexit. In such a volatile political climate the players and events of now may not be here in 2022, so the plan B’s become oh so important.