10 May: Campaign Update

May 10, 2017 § Leave a comment

I’m just writing this as a brief update with thoughts on the ongoing campaign, which may be of use to others in some cases.

Events & Polling

We’ve had two major events so far since the campaign being called: the local elections and the CPS decision. The latter has, probably rightly legally albeit frustratingly, proven to be a damp squib. The former underlined what we already knew – that the real story this election will almost certainly be a giant UKIP to Tory swing that will move the Tories from majority territory into landslide territory. It’s extremely difficult to see how the other parties can turn this around at this point: without any real TV debates, with a fairly pliant media landscape, and with few obvious sources for curveballs, the Tories will not hope to walk this one home.

As to more detailed local election trends, it was very clear that the ToryKip swing was the big deal. Take the Lib Dem friendly area of North Norfolk: the Lib Dems gained three seats and lost two… but in both of the two they lost, they gained both raw votes and vote share compared to 2013. The Conservatives’ ability to gobble up the UKIP vote meant they could “leapfrog” the Lib Dems. This trend was evident right across the southwest of England and into Cornwall as well, which suggests that the Lib Dems will have great difficulty breaking through a “blue wall” in their former heartland. Liberal gains are probably most likely in areas that were either very tight in 2015 or where the UKIP vote is very low and the Tory vote quite soft/centrist (like parts of south London). There are some brighter spots for us, topping local polls across some key targets like Eastleigh, Lewes, and Cheltenham, but the overall picture of recovery is somewhat scattered.

For Labour there is basically nothing positive that can be said; failing to capture the West Midland and Tees Valley mayoralties shows their weakness in a lot of even semi-marginal areas, and the results in midlands council areas likewise indicate they’re in for a very bad night indeed. Their fortresses in Manchester and Liverpool will hold, and their vote seems to be remaining fairly strong in London and some southern cities like Bristol, but the party lacks places to go on the offensive and is getting hammered hard by May’s presidential-style “strength” message in its heartlands.

As to the polling, the following trends now seem to be clear:

  • There’s a massive UKIP to Tory swing as noted above, at least five points
  • The Labour vote has been consolidating/reverting to the mean by 2-3 points since the election was called, probably at the expense of the Lib Dems and Greens.
  • UKIP/LDs/Greens are all static or falling back a bit, definitely falling back in UKIP’s case and less clear in the case of the other two.

This isn’t what pundits seem to have expected: Labour’s hold on its voters seems to be pretty tight, and with both Corbyn and May disingenuously pretending the race is competitive the two larger parties are working hard to apply effective squeeze messaging to voters. The Lib Dem projected national share from the locals far outstripped their current polling, but it seems on balance that this is more likely to be the result of local/national differential voting than a genuine “shy Lib Dem” effect.

My current expectation would be that the Lib Dems can make some gains, but precious few of them (I’m going to suggest maybe six to eight seats gained and maybe one lost on current polling). Labour stand to lose fifty seats; they’ll be heartened by their somewhat consolidated vote, but unless they can peg the Tories down to the lower half of the forties they still stand to take very heavy losses indeed.

Policy

This is an interesting election for policy, and a complex one.

For the Tories, their initial wariness about policy seems to be evaporating with the fresh discussion of fox hunting. The idea that they’re throwing these ideas out as some sort of cover is implausible: instead, I think it’s simply a sign of confidence. The Tories haven’t really felt they can govern unimpeded since the early 1990s: getting hard-right policies and those that appease their financial backers out now means that they can claim the election result as a mandate for them (even if Tory votes are actually just centred on the dual issues of Brexit and leadership competence). They’re generally keen to avoid policy chat in general, and have avoided making Cameron-style big claims on tax or pensions. Avoiding questions is a sensible if frustrating precaution with a leader whose image relies on distance and whose ability to think on her feet is not widely regarded as one of her stronger suits. And, of course, as long as they can get away with not answering questions, why tie their hands by doing so?

Labour have not moved nearly so far left as one would think from the shrieking right-wing tabloids or some of their own tub-thumping supporters.  Their higher tax plans are still unclear, but they seem to be taking a fairly “soak the rich” attitude. This plays to their base well, and in theory is sound: as one keeps going up the percentiles, wealth exponentiates. Whether Labour’s taxes will be able to realise this wealth is another question; simply ramping up NI or income taxes isn’t going to obtain much extra given the high propensity of the wealthy to avoid tax. It’s worth noting that Labour policy on many issues hasn’t moved a lot: the party is still pro-surveillance, has moved right to a soft-Eurosceptic position since the EU referendum, is still pro-criminalisation on issues like drugs/sex work, is still in favour of a like-for-like Trident replacement, and is still stubbornly opposed to electoral reform. Corbyn has proven himself extremely effective at wielding his support base within the party, but his achievements in policy movement seem to have been almost exclusively on the economic axis.

Labour’s tax-lock plan for most workers is definitely a sound electioneering tactic, and enables them to fend off the Lib Dem plans which do involve taxing middle-income workers more. On the other hand, it’s terrible economic strategy, tying the government’s hands if stimulus spending turns out to be needed, and means that their “soak the rich” taxes will need to come with a very convincing plan. It’s also a traditionally right-wing strategy that Labour may find hard to sell coming this close before an election with an electorate already saturated with the idea of Labour as high-tax left wingers and with a lot of big spending pledges that they’ll need to persuade people they can pay for. McDonnell’s strategy seems to be to try and outflank the Conservatives at their own game economically, emphasising low tax and fiscal responsibility alongside higher spending. Whether this triangulation works is unclear, and probably obscured by Corbyn’s crushingly low favourability ratings.

The Lib Dems, in contrast to Labour, have made a sharper tack to the left than anyone seems to have noticed; the social liberal core of the party have reasserted themselves strongly in the wake of 2015. The Lib Dems’ proposed 1p in the pound rise in income tax, which is recieving some bizarre attacks from Labourites, is a broad-based progressive taxation measure which has the solid bonuses of being up-front about what it’s there for and potentially coming on-stream to help plug the NHS funding gap pretty quickly. Commitments to infrastructure & housing spending also underline a centre-left economic stance, moving further from the Tories. The party has moved to more radically liberal positions elsewhere, too, especially on cannabis where legalisation is now party policy. This could potentially provide another billion a year for healthcare taking into account savings on police budgets and potential taxation revenue. It’s unlikely that much Lib Dem policy will get a good airing, especially with Brexit being such a core line for us (which in the short term may not pay off in seats: see below), but even a brief glance will reveal a very different party to that which was electorally massacred two years previously.

There are two particularly interesting spectres hanging over both parties, one obvious, one less so.

Brexit is the obvious one. Labour seems to keep fudging just enough to hang on to remain supporters, many of whom continue to insist in the face of quite a bit of rhetoric to the contrary that Labour will deliver a “soft” Brexit (that is to say, retaining EEA membership) when in power. Whether it will be able to continue this game after the manifestos are published remains to be seen. For the Lib Dems, this election may be something of a Brexit write-off: we have thus far largely failed to persuade big voting blocs of Tory and Labour remainers to switch our way, and there’s not a lot of time left. In certain seats such as Oxford West the “remain breakthrough” seems possible still, but there are few of those. The party has without a doubt consolidated its core, a necessary step after the loss of direction that accompanied the coalition years, but this may have come at the expense of, rather than as a springboard for, electoral success in 2017.

So, here’s the non-obvious policy issue for both Labour and the Lib Dems: land value taxation. For Labour, it’s the most obvious sensible answer to make their sums add up: a tax that’s hard to dodge and hits high-value wealth. They’ve expressed interest in the idea, but whether they have the foresight to put it into the manifesto will be a real test. For the Lib Dems, the issue is similar but different: whilst the party doesn’t necessarily need LVT from a pure budget maths perspective, a land value tax is party policy (most recently confirmed at Spring Conference 2016). If Labour prominently adopt the issue and the Lib Dems fail to make it a manifesto pledge, it robs the Lib Dems of one of their potential economic ace-cards for the future. Needless to say, I think my party should put LVT in its manifesto: whether either party does remains to be seen.

What next?

The headline news is grim for the Tories’ two main opponents. The cavalry are not coming to save anyone (and nor are the CPS). The size of the likely Tory majority is still far from set, though, especially as the polling for the Lab/Con battleground is really in a “slide zone” (that is to say, where a small amount of polling movement can cover a lot of seats). A Tory part of 350 seats versus one of 420 is an immense difference in mandate and outcomes, and that’s the kind of board we’re probably playing across now.

For the Conservatives, the strategy is mainly to keep on hammering on at the current lines. As long as they can protect the Prime Minister from heavy policy scrutiny, they can probably ride out anything else in the election and finish with at least 43% of the vote, enough for a solid majority. For Labour, there are two options: “wagon circle” and “barnstorm”. The latter strategy would be to get Corbyn and McDonnell publicly speaking in basically every vulnerable seat in the Midlands as fast as possible: both are competent speakers, though Corbyn’s baffling refusal to do a debate without May might have cut the possibilities here. The other option, the wagon circle, is to leave the national campaign and the most vulnerable 20 seats for dead, and try to pour resources into boosting the local candidates in the 20-30 seats after that. The Lib Dems didn’t manage this one very well in 2015, but there are potentially arguments for it nonetheless.

For my party, most of the variables have been set: focusing on the target seats as hard as possible is of course vital. It would be good to see Norman Lamb being used more and making the 1p pledge (far simpler than the party’s somewhat complex Brexit strategy) a more core pillar of the campaign. Returning Vince Cable to the position of economic spokesman may not have been optimal strategy – whilst Cable’s experience is immense, his less than enthusiastic position on free movement sits badly with the party’s overall stance, and it would have been good to see for example Kelly-Marie Blundell or Julian Huppert in more prominent roles.  There are definitely still a wide range of possible gains for the Lib Dems in the course of this campaign, and even an achievable polling gain of 2-3 points would put us in striking distance for a respectable double-figures gain in seats.

Still a good few weeks to go – I’ll try and write another update in a couple of weeks, and then one in the run-up to polling day.

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