When the election was called, I made a number of predictions which now appear somewhat ill-judged. Foremost among these was an assumption that Labour’s vote share will likely decline before polling day. So far, the opposite has happened. While the Conservatives have been hugely bolstered by the near-total collapse of UKIP, Labour has also experienced a surge in the polls, seemingly at the expense of the Greens and more interestingly the Lib Dems and maybe also UKIP. A YouGov poll released today has the party on 38% (it’s highest since 2014) with the Conservatives down a few points to 43%. If this poll is not a freak outlier, as it still may very well be, then Labour have essentially closed within five points what was, when the election was called, a twenty point gap.
As much as I’d want this to be true, jubilation will have to wait until we get to see more polls, however, that being said, what is increasingly beyond doubt is that Labour has experienced a surge (the proportions of which are highly debatable) over the past few weeks.
The former Tory Leader, William Hague, once stated that his party has two modes: Panic and Complacency, and the latter I believe is now a significant factor behind recent developments. Personally, I don’t think that the Conservative Campaign is quite as bad as some say, largely because, just as in 2015, a significant part of it is invisible and focused on digital targeting, however, it is still pretty darn abysmal. It still shocks me that the same people behind Cameron’s 2015 surprise win are capable of running such a poor operation, although perhaps the spirit of complacency has gotten to their heads too.
I mean, gosh, where to begin? Theresa May seemingly looked at her initially giant poll lead and assumed that she could start drowning puppies on live television and still win in a landslide. She must have thought that the British public hated Corbyn and adored her so much that (perhaps as Thatcher had done decades earlier) she could get away with a number of deeply unpopular, albeit allegedly necessary, policies.
First, there was fox hunting, which is still a really big deal for some reason (I mean, honestly, aren’t schools and hospitals a little more important than the welfare of some occasionally cute mammals that shit on the lawn and eat your garbage?). Hunting is still vehemently opposed by the overwhelming majority of the UK population, and those that do like it would have voted Conservative anyway. And then there was the ‘Dementia Tax,’ a plan to fund social care by forcing the elderly to sell away their homes, as well as the end to the pension triple lock. It really shows just how certain the Tories were of victory that they dared to attack the elderly (the one part of the population that is certain to vote).
Meanwhile, encouraged by her high approval ratings, Theresa May decided to run her campaign as if it were a Presidential run. Conservative branding was stripped from party literature in the North of the country, instead replaced with talk of “Theresa’s candidates” and “Theresa’s Team,” while actual policy substance was disregarded. Last year, another female politician tried a similar strategy against an anti-establishment outsider with solid, populist, messaging… It didn’t go well. Meanwhile, the lack of returns from the overwhelming focus on Brexit has shown what I’ve believed to be the case for a while – That Brexit is nowhere near as important of an issue to most people as pundits believe. Most Britons think that that battle has already been fought and now just want the government to get on with it, and therefore Labour’s strategy of largely ignoring the issue while focusing on domestic policy was probably the correct decision.
Speaking of Labour, and of policy – To seemingly everyone’s surprise, the party has been running a very good campaign. Messaging so far has been solid, and capable of penetrating into minds of those who don’t stay up at night thinking about politics. Popular policy pledges have been consistently repeated on radio and television, and they seem to be getting through. A recent YouGov survey has asked voters about what they perceived to be the main policies of the two parties. For Labour, the top two are scrapping tuition fees and increasing NHS funding. For the Conservatives, the ‘Dementia Tax’ and “Going ahead with Brexit.” While, in the wake of the Manchester attack, the Tories still lead on issues of defence and security, perhaps Labour’s message about cuts to police budgets under the current government may also have a positive effect. Corbyn himself has done a rather good job so far, and while most voters still really don’t like him, perhaps he’s a negative factor which increasing numbers of them are willing to overlook. So yeah, to my surprise, the Labour operation has managed to find within itself a healthy dose of competence.
And then we come to the Lib Dems, the one party who seemingly had little to lose and everything to gain from this election. Personally, I expected them to make modest gains, unlike some who apparently expected Tim Farron to become the Leader of the Opposition. However, even that seemed to have been too optimistic. To the surprise of most, including myself, who expected moderate Labour voters and some pro-remain Tories to defect to the Lib Dems, the opposite has happened. Former Lib Dem supporters who voted for the Tories in 2015 have barely moved, while considerable numbers of the party’s remaining backers have switched to Labour. Now there is even talk of Nick Clegg losing his seat in Sheffield.
UKIP’s collapse is a peculiar phenomenon, and I have a strange feeling that it may not necessarily be the godsend that the Tories expect. The predominant belief right now is that those seeking to predict individual constituency results should simply take at least half of the UKIP vote and give it to the Conservative candidate. I think that’s a huge oversimplification because it completely ignores regional context. UKIP’s 2015 vote can be largely split into two groups. Former Tories who were angry about the European Union, and former Labour and BNP voters who were angry about immigration. The former group, who largely reside in the South, are obviously going to go back to the Conservatives now that Brexit is dealt with. However, the latter group, who largely reside in the North, is a far more open question. Many of those people really do not like the Tories, and never did. They are the reason that Paul Nuttall feels obliged to bang on about the NHS, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they either stick with UKIP or maybe even go back to Labour. Therefore, the result would be Theresa May piling up extra votes where she doesn’t need them while Labour clings on to its heartlands.
Now for some caveats. While current polling trends are good for Labour, actual election results are not. The local elections on the 5th of May made for grim reading, however, that was before Labours apparent surge towards the end of the month. Secondly, there is also a danger of Labour piling up votes in safe seats, as YouGov’s regional polling might suggest. Go and ask Hillary Clinton about how an absurdly unrepresentative voting system can make irrelevant one’s national support. Thirdly, once polls start predicting a tighter race, Conservative fear tactics about a Corbyn-led government propped up by a “Coalition of Chaos”, a prospect most only recently thought impossible, will be far more effective. Fourth, polls almost always overestimate Labour’s support – that may very well be what we’re seeing now. Fifth, there are still two weeks to go, so expect CCHQ and their (plenty) allies in the media to go absolutely nuts.
Perhaps that Conservative landslide which we thought inevitable might not be such as foregone conclusion after all. If Theresa May comes away with a majority similar in scope to what she possesses now, don’t be surprised to see her ousted as leader of her party even before Jeremy Corbyn.