‘Death and foxes: why certain issues have the power to turn a political campaign’, Prospect, 7 August 2017

British Election Study research released last week not only confirmed that the campaign made a big difference in 2017, but also gave us an insight into the issues that may have changed voters’ minds.

Two or three things on the list—neatly illustrated by an animated wordcloud—stood out straight away to anyone who’s been following the discussion over what went wrong with Theresa May’s campaign, particularly among those who helped her fight it on the ground.

To those who don’t follow Tory politics as closely as sad-sacks like me, combing through the below-the-line comments on posts on ConservativeHome probably sounds about as tempting as taking a swan-dive into sewage. But everyone ought to try it sometime. Reading the pretty-much unmediated views of Tory activists often counters the common wisdom as much as it confirms it: they’re not all ridiculously right-wing headbangers. Many of them care as deeply about the welfare of the majority of the people living in this country as self-styled progressives do; they just have a different view of how best to promote it.

What those activists also care a lot about, of course, is winning elections, and winning them well. So—surprise, surprise—they’re not feeling too happy right now. Indeed, some of the most interesting stuff on the site recently revolves around what put off those voters who, they’d hoped, might deliver their party a massive majority on 9 June. These discussions are conducted both above- and below-the-line by people who spent much of their free time this Spring canvassing for the Conservatives.

Interestingly—and, for academics and pollsters, reassuringly—the testimony of those who help the Tories out at elections (some of them members, some of them probably just supporters) dovetails with much of what the professional survey research seems to have uncovered.

The issues that mattered

Although a little reluctant to admit it, those posting are willing to concede (or at least imply) that the Maybot’s lacklustre performance mattered, as did her refusal to turn up to the big TV debate that Corbyn agreed to do at the last minute: a decision which made her look as if she were running scared both from him and from the voters. (Although, given her infamously patronising ‘magic money tree’ response to a nurse who did get to question her later on live TV, one can perhaps understand why she took that risk.)

Also important, predictably enough, was the dementia tax: not just because it was proposed in the first place, and not just because the ensuing U-turn made May look ‘weak and wobbly’ rather than ‘strong and stable’, but because May then went onto insult voters’ intelligence with her near-maniacal insistence that ‘nothing has changed’.

That move, however, was not the most mystifying of the election as far as Tory activists were concerned. That particular prize goes to a mastersroke neatly encapsulated in a below-the-line comment from ‘ManFromKent’ on a post-election ConHome post on what went wrong:

Young Voter: ‘We can’t afford homes, we’re saddled with student debt, public services seem to be falling apart, what are you going to do?’

Conservative manifesto: ‘We’re going to give rich people the chance to rip small animals apart for fun, like they used to do before you were born.’

Not the most compelling argument, is it?

No way was fox hunting the most important issue of #GE2017. But, according to those wearing what passed for Conservative boots on the ground in May and June, the announcement that the PM would be backing a free vote on the issue came up again and again on the doorstep, as well as on Facebook.

What future campaigns can learn

That it did so tells us something worth knowing about issues that are capable of swinging a campaign this way or that—if not in isolation, then as part of a package of ideas.

May’s support for hunting with dogs mattered because it enjoyed a campaign half-life even after it disappeared from the headlines after a day or two. In part that was because the activity, in and of itself, is incredibly unpopular.

But it was also because the Prime Minister’s apparent support for it suggested the Tories were, despite their insistence to the contrary, still led by a bunch of people who didn’t really seem to care too much about the real concerns of twenty-first century Britain. The same went for the dementia tax and debate debacles.

None of us knows whether predictions are still worth making in such volatile times. But if they are, and if we’re thinking about the issues that could turn an election or a referendum campaign, then we should surely keep our eyes peeled and our ears cocked for proposals that are not only tangible and/or emotive enough to cut through the media fog, but which also speak volumes (or can be made to speak volumes) about those advocating or opposing them.

Precisely what those issues will turn out to be is likely to become apparent only as any campaign to come kicks off. But, in the meantime, feel free to start guessing…

Originally published at https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/politics/taxes-and-foxes-why-certain-issues-have-the-power-to-turn-a-political-campaign

 

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