General Election Week One: Where are the Tories?

Steve Beauchampé reviews the campaign’s opening week.

Barely a week into the 2017 General Election campaign and it is apparent that the Conservative Party manifesto is likely to be a rather thin document. As in 2015 the party’s campaign strategy, orchestrated once more by Lynton Crosby, is centred around the now familiar ‘project fear’ tactic, with Prime Minister Theresa May and her colleagues using the phrase “coalition of chaos” ad nauseam to describe the prospect of a Jeremy Corbyn-led government and stressing that only May herself is capable of taking charge of the forthcoming negotiations with the European Union on the terms of the UK’s departure from that organisation.

Thus, other than a proposal to cap energy bills, policy announcements by the Tories have been largely absent and one can’t help feeling that the Prime Minster would prefer to disappear for the next six weeks (rather as she did for almost three months during the EU referendum campaign) and hope that the sight of Corbyn on the nation’s television screens every evening will be sufficient to deliver her the votes she needs.

That might be a little over-optimistic and the Conservatives might well have to reconsider their tactics as the campaign progresses. Corbyn clearly excels at campaigning, revelling in his rôle as the outsider, warming to the adoring crowds who attend his public appearances and clearly enjoying, as he might put it, “taking it to the Tories”. In contrast to the party of government, Labour have been spewing forth policy announcements: increases in both carers allowances and the minimum wage, repeal of trade union laws, more public holidays, tighter controls on air pollution, the creation of a Public Investment Bank, an end to private sector outsourcing of NHS contracts. All this, and a slight derailment over Labour’s policy on renewing Trident. Come on everyone, do keep up…

Under the circumstances, Theresa May was probably correct to dismiss the notion of participating in television debates with other party leaders. These events both dominated and diminished the 2010 General Election and were subsequently avoided by David Cameron both in 2015 and during last year’s EU referendum campaign. Nonetheless the all-encompassing media focus on the main party leaders constitutes a particularly depressing (if wholly predictable) aspect of the election coverage.

Placing such an intense focus on a very few individuals is unhealthy for democracy whilst conveying to the public a wilfully misleading picture of how our non-Presidential, parliamentary political system works. Thus senior figures across the political spectrum have so far been all but sidelined, effectively denied a national platform as the vast amount of mainstream coverage concentrates on the movements, actions and speeches of the party leaders.

With the early agenda largely set by Labour, Brexit has perhaps featured less than might have been imagined. The Lib Dems will nonetheless play the issue for all it is worth, and leader Tim Farron’s uncompromisingly direct attacks on Theresa May and those ultra-right Conservatives who want out of the single market, customs union, as well as the repeal of vast tracts of EU law, will likely appeal to many who abandoned or otherwise eschewed the party in the post-coalition 2015 General Election, thus delivering a Lib Dem resurgence of sorts on June 8th.

The lesson for Labour, who have so far ignored the most seismic event in British politics since the end of World War II, is surely that the social justice ticket on which they are standing can only be delivered if the UK follows a ‘softer’ Brexit than that which the Conservatives seem to want.

With a combined total of over 5m million votes in 2015, and just two MPs to show for it between them, both the Greens and UKIP can once again expect to be peripheral players. The Green’s estimable Caroline Lucas MP shows time and again how a credible, charismatic candidate of the left can hoover up votes with policies that are both coherent, and appealing to those under 25s usually excluded by the mainstream parties. One imagines that both her party’s stock and vote share will rise further this time out, although the likelihood is that the UK’s ‘first past the post’ electoral system will yet again deny them a fair allocation of seats.

UKIP’s main policy seems to be getting women to take their clothes off (albeit only women of a certain religious persuasion). With ex-leader Nigel Farage passing up the opportunity to face his eighth public rejection at a UK general election, and both current leader Paul Nutall and influential donor Aaron Banks indicting that they will not stand either, many of those 4m votes from 2015 will need redistributing, with the Tories likely to benefit more than Labour.

Considering how much turmoil the party is already afflicted by, Farage’s remark last week that Nutall has six weeks to prove himself is either a mathematical miscalculation or a veiled (no pun intended) threat that the not always so affable Scouser might be ejected from office just before polling day.

With Labour running on a ‘traditional’ left ticket, at least this time voters have some genuinely different agendas to choose from. Whether the Conservatives’ refusal to rule out increases in general taxation and suggestions that under them pensioner benefits may no longer be protected will cost the party votes remains to be seen, although early opinion polls indicate their support holding up. But at some stage between now and June 8th, they will have to get on the pitch.