Reflections on General Election 2017


First off, I have learned that I need to give up on making predictions about elections. After thinking Ed Miliband would win a majority in 2015, right up until the exit poll last week I was pretty sure the Conservatives would win a 100 seat majority in the 2017 General Election. Unlike in 2015, this was not just based on the media, polls and pundits but also on my experiences helping the campaign of the Conservative candidate for Leeds North West, Alan Lamb (pictured below with the victorious Labour candidate, Alex Sobel, at the count in Leeds Civic Centre, a little before the formal declaration).

Apart from a small amount of token campaigning during the 1992 election while I was a student this was the first General Election I had taken an active part in. That was in the safe Labour seat of Oxford East and at a time when the expectation of an overall win was so low that the Oxford University Conservative Association hadn’t even organised an event to watch the coverage of the results, let alone a party to celebrate the possibility of a win. When the 2017 election was called, a victory looked much more likely, even though coming from third in Leeds North West itself not particularly so. Not that it was entirely out of the question on paper – back in 2015, had there not been tactical voting by those who voted Conservative in the local elections here on the same day to support the LibDem, Greg Mulholland, who’d campaigned on the basis of “don’t let the two Eds destroy what we’ve achieved with the economy”, and instead had voted Conservative in the General Election too, the difference between the three main parties would have been a mere 1200 votes.

I’ll not go too much into the minutiae of the data here or nationally – that’s being pored over by many people far more expert than me and will be filling newspapers and articles for months to come. Instead I’ll share some of the things I learned from being closer to the actual action.

  • People are nice

One of my friends had commented that he expected that going round leafleting and speaking to people on the doorstep for the Tories would mainly involve me spending the day being told to eff off. In practice, that did not happen at all, the nearest being a handful of people (out of about 1500 houses I visited) handing their leaflet back or saying “no thank you” (and a couple of those added “nothing personal, I just never vote”).

There is also a problem about people being nice. It means that their natural politeness makes them say what they think you want to hear. Some people are keen to have an argument or to vent their frustration at you for your party, but most know that those things aren’t really your fault and you can’t do much about them. So we all rub along with people who come to our door and don’t pick a fight. This is why things like knocking up on the day of an election to persuade people to come out and vote right now are effective – those who are wavering are unlikely to be so rude as to say no and at that very moment, not saying no means that they only have to walk a couple of hundred yards to go along with you to the polling station.

  • People pay a lot more attention to what they’re voting for than they’re often credited with- policies matter a lot

From the discussions I had on the doorstep, it was clear that lots of people had actually read the leaflets they’d received and had paid some attention to the main points of the manifestos as they’d been presented in the media. Unfortunately this was a bit of a negative for a Conservative, because the weaknesses in the manifesto and how it had been presented were picked up on (in particular the proposals for social care and the withdrawal of universal free school meals which had widely been understood to be a complete abolition of them for everyone). Worse still, where there were good explanations to give, the usual response was “well why didn’t they just say that then?”.

This shows the importance of having a good and positive story to tell. While there were many serious holes that could be picked in the policies which Labour had in their manifesto, those policies were popular and easy for people to understand would, if brought in, provide them with things they liked and wanted. As I’ve blogged before, the NHS has been very important for my family as my mother has been seriously ill for most of the past 20 years and has spent about half of the past year in hospital so rewarding the doctors and nurses who work for the NHS is a good thing and something I’d support where possible. Merely (as unfortunately some Conservatives too easily do, including disappointingly  Theresa May on the Leaders’ BBC Question Time programme) saying it is impossible without a “magic money tree” is not a good look. There are serious and real practical problems about how to balance out increased spending on the NHS while making the whole economy function but those cannot and should not be reduced to unattractive soundbites which reinforce the stereotype of Conservatives not caring.

The reality is that everybody (apart from the tiny minority of ultra-libertarians) would like to see public services maintained and improved. Last summer, when I went to one of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership re-election rallies, I was irritated by the implicit narrative that only Labour cared. This was continued to the extent of the speaker introducing Corbyn at an event in Manchester during this election saying “I want a leader who gives a toss about stuff”. After all the work to stop being the “nasty Party” (ironically coined by Theresa May herself) under Cameron, it is not an improvement to let it stick in people’s minds that we’re now the “don’t give a toss about you Party”.

My personal view is that despite having apparent costings set out, the numbers for spending and raising revenue in the Labour manifesto were unrealistic and could not be achieved in practice. This would have meant that the tax increases proposed would not have yielded the money which apparently neatly paid for the spending increases, so those increases in spending would not have in fact materialised, while at the same time, they’d have damaged the economy to make future prospects for raising the money to pay for such things even less likely. Regardless of whether objectively the Coalition government of 2010-2015 succeeded in striking the right balance between raising revenue, spending it in the right places and cutting or limiting increases in the right things, the successful and positive message of the 2015 campaign of having a “Long Term Economic Plan” communicated this response to promises focused on just spending a lot more on all the things everyone likes. But having made a break from not just the approach to Brexit of David Cameron’s time as PM but also apparently the overall approach to government and the economy under him, there was a vacuum in the Conservatives’ economic message in the 2017 election. It is perhaps no surprise in this context that the Conservative manifesto was noticeably lacking in any numbers and the Chancellor, Phillip Hammond, was conspicuously absent from the national campaign.

It did not have to be that way. The most interesting part of the Conservative Manifesto was its introductory section which spoke very clearly of a belief in the “good that government can do”. That could have been the platform for policies which were set out and explained as good in a persuasive way. Unfortunately it didn’t happen. Whereas Labour were relentless in promoting themselves as “For the Many, Not the Few”, the Conservative message ultimately seemed like “Not for the Any”.

  • Most people are not very partisan or can put their party preference to one side

Whether they were primarily supporters of Labour or the Conservatives, I only heard one person have anything bad to say about Greg Mulholland (and this was a neighbour who’d been very active in a campaign to stop a proposed housing development on nearby greenfield at Tetley Field who felt he hadn’t been supportive, but he’d voted for him anyway because he didn’t want Labour to win, even though his own daughter in law was a Labour MP). Everyone else was quick to say that they’d appreciated what a visible, approachable and active local MP he was, even if they had reasons for supporting one of the other candidates this time. Similarly, I met a pensioner who proudly pointed to the signs he’d put up in his local community with his Conservative councillor to make it a “no door to door sales zone” who also said that he’d only in the last week gone for a pint in the pub with Mulholland.

  • Negative personal campaigning only works if it is a surprise

For me, there are several aspects of Corbyn’s history and preferences which would make the idea of him being Prime Minister horrific. Regardless of whether he believed he was making a genuine contribution to securing peace in Northern Ireland, I think that inviting convicted IRA terrorists to have tea with him in Parliament only days after other IRA terrorists had killed five people at the Conservative Party Conference in Brighton and hoped to murder the Prime Minister was a terrible thing to have done (as indeed the Labour leader at the time, Neil Kinnock said publicly). Ditto for his willingness to share a platform with people from Hamas and Hezbollah and to use “inclusive language” in describing them as friends. That contrasts with his refusal to share a platform with Cameron when he was notionally campaigning for Remain in the EU referendum and so meant to be on the same side. If you can be on the same side as terrorists whose violent methods to secure something you want by peace, you really ought to be able to stand alongside the Prime Minister of your own country when both urging people to vote to Remain in the EU. Related to his views on Palestine is the fine line between his opposition to the actions of Israel and the tolerance and support for anti-semitism which has reared its head among a significant section of his supporters.

But, all this and more is known and has been known by the public since at least Corbyn’s initial campaign to become leader. He’s been elected and re-elected as leader in that time. The only real conclusion on this that I can reach following the election result is that many people simply do not care very much about them, or at the very least are willing to accept very generous interpretations of his motivations in doing them. Much like at the opposite end of the political spectrum, many American voters were able to vote for Donald Trump even though he had provided multiple, recent, examples of views and behaviour which many others there and around the world thought appalling. These negatives have all already been priced in and do not reduce support. If anything, they might increase support among those who think it unfair to throw personal criticisms at their favoured candidate. Anything of this sort will therefore not have any adverse impact on Labour (or positive impact for anyone else) unless new and surprising because not of a piece with the stuff we already know. Short of Corbyn having acquired his £1m house in Islington by exercising his right as a council tenant to buy it at a discount and then released some equity to allow him to buy shares in Royal Mail, I’m not sure what would be in this category. Let it lie.

  • Money is not the big issue for campaigns, people are

Leaflets are cheap. Even ones which are posted through Royal Mail. The £12000 or so spending limit locally is very ample to cover sending at least half a dozen publications to everyone in a seat, and on top of that can be added the communications sent out from the parties on a national basis. What money can’t buy is having enough people to deliver, to go and talk to people and to remind them to turn up to the polling stations on the day itself. That’s where having lots of members and active supporters makes a huge difference.  But it is not just in the month or so of an election that this is important – it is needed the rest of the time too. Having councillors who know their part of a constituency well and have spent the previous few years regularly going around and listening to people and helping them with their problems helps to target the messages you send out and to identify those who agree, those who can be persuaded and those who might not normally support your party but trust you personally.

A personal example of this was from my time living in Headingley where I’d had a grumble on twitter about my street not getting Brown Bins for garden waste. One of the local Labour councillors got in touch quickly to try and sort it out. We’ve since had friendly exchanges on twitter and finally met up and had a nice chat at the count. If I still lived in Headingley, I’d vote for him, particularly as in the 8 years I lived there and the 4 since moving one ward away, the Conservatives have only ever put up “paper candidates” in the ward (ie someone who has been nominated and appears on the ballot but does not in fact send out any materials or do any campaigning). Whatever the appeal of national policies or even the quality of the candidate for Parliament for the wider constituency, that counts for a lot when it comes to translating national appeal into the local action of voting.

  • Brexit

Leeds NW voted strongly in favour of remaining in the EU but Brexit was barely an issue locally. This might have been surprising in the context of an election which was supposedly called in order to give Theresa May a stronger mandate for negotiating Brexit, but as there is little detail about the specific choices to be made and the detail of the differences between the Parties on it, not so surprising.

The LibDems’ national policy of opposing Brexit and seeking a second referendum barely impacted on their vote in the one ward where they sent out leaflets about this (Headingley) – they didn’t even mention it in other wards where there were more pro-Brexit supporters or in that case the fact that Mulholland had defied his party’s position in Parliament to abstain from the votes on triggering Article 50. Hardly anyone that I spoke to mentioned it, let alone raised any detailed points or favoured “hard” v “soft”. The 3,000 who voted UKIP in 2015 largely seemed to vote Labour this time. I think at least locally, I’m not alone in just wanting it to be got on with as that is what we have agreed to do as a nation.

  • Everybody matters and nobody can be taken for granted

This might sound a bit trite, but one of the things which pollsters and pundits like to do is to segment populations into different categories – by age, class, whether they voted for Brexit, favourite TV programme, whatever. Certainly some segments of society can feel that they are not sufficiently listened to so will respond if directly addressed. It is no illusion that Labour were very good at enthusing and motivating younger voters, but even in a seat where there are a lot of students, it is too easy to put Alex Sobel’s win squarely in the hands of the students he persuaded to turn out to vote (as indeed he did in his speech at the declaration where he said his win was a sign that students should never again be described as apathetic).

It is true, from my experience at the count sampling the vote in several of the Headingley polling districts, that Labour had pretty much cleaned up in this demographic. Spotting Conservative and LibDem votes in the piles of ballots for Headingley was dispiriting – in some cases I’d tallied up over a hundred votes for Labour before getting to twenty for the sitting MP or ten for the Conservatives, but not as bad as for the Green Party agent stood next to me who often didn’t see a single cross next to her candidate’s name, to the extent that one of the counters paused and gave a little “yay” to make sure she spotted one! Turnout was somewhat increased too in the ward. However, the final healthy majority achieved on what was a slightly reduced overall turnout across the seat was likely to have been at least as heavily drawn from former UKIP and Green voters in wards which had fewer students and an older population. In fact it looks like overall the most significant rise in Labour support here and elsewhere was in adults going up to their mid-40s. In retrospect perhaps this is not so surprising – things like free university tuition might well ultimately have greater appeal to parents of teenagers who worry about supporting their children through university than to the teenagers themselves, who had already decided they wanted to go to university even with fees at £9,000 a year. They are also the age group most likely in a few years to have parents who might need care and the ones most likely to have children in school.

Where next?

I don’t know, but I really hope there isn’t another election any time soon! But I do urge everyone that whatever their political preference, they should get involved to the extent that they can make time for it. Despite having always taken an interest in politics, I think I’ve learned more in the past few weeks of being actively involved than in all the years previously. But, despite having even gone to the effort of printing it out on the day of its launch, I don’t think I’ll ever now get round to reading the LibDem manifesto.

 

– the only blue in Leeds NW on 9th June 2017 was the early morning sky

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