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Thu, 18 July 2024

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By Ben Guerin
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The Conservative Campaign Is Accused Of Ignoring Its “Big Lib Dem Problem”

Rishi Sunak delivers a speech to launch the Conservatives' manifesto in Silverstone, England, on June 11, 2024 (Credit: Benjamin Cremel, Pool Photo via AP/Alamy)

5 min read

We're more than halfway through the campaign and Labour still has a big lead over the Conservatives. “It's going so badly, Isaac Levido’s beard has turned white,” one Tory candidate says of their campaign chief.

The Reform distraction

The first poll showing Reform overtake the Tories came out this week. With Reform’s vote inefficiently distributed, that may only have a symbolic power, but many believe it is also an unhelpful distraction shaping the Conservative campaign. They ask: where is the Lib Dem strategy? The lack thereof is something even Labour HQ have noticed and are puzzled by.

“I definitely think they've got a Lib Dem problem. It's a big Lib Dem problem. Because of the focus on Reform, you are broadly giving the Liberal Democrats a free pass in lots of places,” More in Common UK director Luke Tryl tells PoliticsHome.

In Chichester, Education Secretary Gillian Keegan’s patch, Tryl reports that voters are “wavering in what should be a solidly Tory seat” and “hadn’t heard a Lib Dem rebuttal message”. The only hesitation they cited about voting Lib Dem was the broken tuition fees promise. In Greg Clark’s Tunbridge Wells, Tryl adds, “people said they seem more normal than the Tories these days and not obsessed with weird things”.

“It's really hard to have a Lib Dem strategy because they stand for something different in every part of the country – even in different parts of the constituency,” says a new Tory candidate who is currently neck-and-neck with the Lib Dems.

The other distraction

Some Tories are being distracted by another election altogether: the future leadership contest. Candidates re-standing in seats with 20k+ majorities are getting calls from leadership hopefuls asking for their backing – even though their own chances of returning as MPs are in doubt.

“If I was back in Parliament, I'd be sitting in the tearoom having a gossip with everybody, but – in the nicest possible way – they can all fuck off. I'm getting on with my own campaign,” says one candidate who has fielded calls from two optimistic contenders.

You’ve got mail

Postal votes are already landing, so – aware that “election day” is a misnomer – the Conservatives decided to intensify their core vote strategy this week. They went for the “emergency break glass” option: warning of a Labour “supermajority” if their traditional supporters don’t turn out.

Instead of only putting out this messaging locally – as Labour candidates sceptical of Jeremy Corbyn’s electoral chances did in 2017 – Tory ministers have taken it to the airwaves too. This is not without risk: former Downing Street comms director Lee Cain says it only depresses votes on your own side when used as a national message.

We are also seeing hyperlocal postal campaigns. Conservative candidates are sending materials only to postal voters and targeting them with local newspaper ads. Some are betting on electoral dividends from funding allocated to their constituencies over the last few years, while the national ‘triple lock plus’ policy aimed at pensioners is expected to appeal too.

Labour has been focused on getting supporters registered for postal votes for some time. PoliticsHome hears the party has a new tool whereby if a canvasser collects a phone number on the doorstep, that voter receives an automatic text urging them to sign up for a postal vote. Activists have also been giving out nifty cards with QR codes for registration.

In battleground seats, postal voters get personal letters. In non-battleground constituencies, they usually opt for ‘knock and drop’ in areas where churn is low and voters are often older: knock on the door and if there’s no answer simply drop the postal vote letter in the letterbox.

Yorkshire march for Gaza
Dewsbury, Yorkshire march for Gaza in January 2024 (Credit: Neil Terry/Alamy Live News)
Labour’s Gaza problem

“Conservative voters are switching to Labour – that’s just happening everywhere. There is a bit of fragmentation of the Labour vote, but nothing major,” one Labour candidate touring the country tells PoliticsHome.

However, while the party’s positioning on Gaza may not be seriously affecting their vote, it is having an impact on turnout of volunteers – particularly affecting seats such as Dewsbury and Batley in Yorkshire, sources say. “Outside London, it is a problem in some places. The last election where there was this few volunteers was 2010,” the candidate adds.

In London, activists say the key issues coming up on the doorstep are Gaza and Labour’s plan to apply VAT to private school fees – “but almost everyone is happy to overlook that,” one canvasser notes.

The anti-politics election

Candidates on both sides suspect low turnout on the day. But there is always feedback along the lines of “you’re all the same” on the doorstep – is this election really any different?

“It's not just an anti-politics sentiment, in the sense of ‘I don't trust the buggers’, it is much more, ‘I also don't feel that they can deal with the challenges that we face’. There's this sense of hopelessness – that whoever wins, it's not going to be any different,” says Tryl.

For the Tories, he says, this is “existential” in the devastating impact it could have on their vote. For Labour, except in select seats such as Thangam Debbonaire’s Bristol West where this could actually lose it for them, people’s low faith in politics is expected to be more of a long-term problem.

“They're going to get what looks like quite a broad but shallow majority and there is a risk that in government if things don't go well – they may, but if they don't go well – they lose votes to the Greens at one end and Reform on the other,” Tryl explains.

Remember Sue Gray’s “shit list”? Labour is well aware of the huge challenges coming its way. And yet, while Labour figures are pleased with the coherence of the manifesto and the message discipline leading up to it, there are concerns the party has boxed itself in on tax (Ed Balls called it a “straitjacket”) – and delivery in government will be key if Keir Starmer wants a second term.

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