Just before parliamentarians dashed off for Summer Recess, Four Public Affairs held a breakfast meeting series entitled: 3 People, 3 Parties, 3 Perspectives. Leading lights from the Conservatives, Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats came to give their perspective on the election result, their own party’s performance and prospects, and how we can expect political events to unfold in the months ahead. In an uncertain political climate our speakers engaged in candid discussions, offering political analysis and unique insight.
The series kicked off with Liberal Democrat Lord Oates, former chief of staff to Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, throughout the Coalition Government. Andrew Gwynne MP, Labour’s Co-National Campaign Coordinator and Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, joined us on day two and Rob Wilson, former Cabinet Office Minister for Civil Society and MP for Reading East, wrapped-up our mini political festival.
Lessons from the general election campaign trail
With polling that predicted wipe-out for the Labour Party and a strong Commons majority for the Conservatives, it seemed to many like a no-brainer to call an early general election for the 8th June. Yet in the end, whilst May gained a higher share of the vote than any Prime Minister since Margaret Thatcher and Labour fell short of victory, the Party gained significant ground. Winning 30 more seats than in 2015, Labour grew its share of the vote to 40%; its highest since 2001. As Andrew Gwynne put it, “never before has losing a general election felt so much like winning one” for the Labour Party.
So why did the polls – and the parties - get their predictions so wrong? What could the Conservatives have done differently, and how did Labour succeed in gaining such ground during the election campaign?
Rob Wilson recalled how, as a Conservative MP representing Reading East - a heavily remain-voting constituency with a large student population - he had sensed a problem on the horizon for the Tories that many had failed to spot. Among the factors that worked against the Tories during their election campaign, he identified a failure to appeal to young voters with a clear offer. To address this, he suggested the Conservatives adopt policies in the future such as an affordable house-building programme targeted at under-30s, and advocated the formation of a Tory grassroots campaigning organisation to rival Labour’s Momentum. Andrew Gwynne, too, viewed the Labour Party’s achievements in “engaging young voters like never before” as crucial, with the polls failing to factor in the numbers of young people who would eventually turn out to vote. The declining power of a print media that had been almost universally opposed to Corbyn, and the rising value of social media as a means of targeting certain voter groups, was identified by Gwynne as a vital ingredient contributing to Labour’s election success.
Also noted by both Gwynne and Wilson was Jeremy Corbyn’s surprising effectiveness on the campaign trail. As Rob Wilson reflected, Corbyn is a seasoned campaigner who has spent his career travelling to rallies across the country. He thus ended up being far more effective in the public eye “than any Conservative campaign strategist predicted he would be.” For Andrew Gwynne, Corbyn’s rise represents a sign that “the way of doing politics has changed”, with the Prime Minister named ‘Maybot’ because she followed the rulebook instead of conveying authenticity.
The release of the election manifestos was also identified by both Andrew Gwynne and Rob Wilson as a turning point of the campaign. Gwynne argued that for the first time in a long time, Labour presented a transformational offer at the General Election that was not clustered with the Conservatives in the centre ground. It was this offer, Gwynne argued, that brought many voters back to Labour. For Rob Wilson, there was a failure from the Conservatives to dismantle Labour’s “moon on a stick” policies in detail, and an over-reliance on negative messaging during what had been a presidential-style campaign for the Tories. The Conservatives’ controversial social care policy served, in Rob Wilson’s eyes, to turn off vast swathes of the Party’s core older voters. Andrew Gwynne similarly sees the social care issue as being critical, with the question of how to solve the social care crisis as one that must be answered by Labour if it is to win the next election.
The Brexit fault line
Unsurprisingly, Brexit was highlighted by each of our guests as a major issue; one which is dominating the work of every department and threatening to overwhelm civil servants with its complexity. As a Cabinet Office Minister until the Election, Rob Wilson offered interesting insight into the “massive undertaking” that Brexit represents, predicting that it will continue to absorb every ounce of Government effort, potentially to the detriment of progress being made across other areas of public policy. Wilson questioned whether, with a stretched civil service bogged down in the details of Brexit, the Government has the bandwidth required to properly consult with business and other stakeholders in seeking satisfactory deals with Europe. The real and profound threats that Brexit poses to sectors such as healthcare and financial services, and the fact that Government seems woefully under-prepared for tackling these issues, was also emphasised by Lord Oates. As a member of the House of Lords’ EU Justice Sub-Committee, Lord Oates described a worrying lack of clarity around the implications of Brexit as being true of every policy area examined thus far by the Upper House.
Discussing the current debate taking place over the UK’s Brexit negotiating stance, each speaker warned that the issue threatens to drive significant divisions within the two main political parties. For the Conservatives, Rob Wilson described the EU referendum as a gamble that had been designed to put the Tory divisions over Europe to bed once and for all. However, as he put it, Cameron’s gamble backfired and instead served to “re-open the scab” within the Party. Now, Rob Wilson sees a future where both the Tories and Labour are at risk of splitting over Brexit, with the issue of Europe representing a dangerous “fault-line running through the Conservative Party”.
For his part, Labour’s Andrew Gwynne expressed his belief that the EU referendum played a significant role in ensuring that young people turned up to vote for Labour, with their support partly representing a rebellion against the Brexit vote. However, while Labour managed to tread a carefully balanced “fine line” on Brexit during the election campaign, Gwynne predicted that internal divisions over its position on the issue could become a political problem in the future.
Among the Liberal Democrats as well, the Brexit issue is proving a difficult one to navigate politically, with Lord Oates reflecting that the party’s pledge for another EU referendum may have alienated many voters. In the end, public anger over the result may have helped to win some seats but it was not enough to propel the party forward in terms of vote share.
What does the future hold?
For Labour to seize power at the next election, Andrew Gwynne emphasised the need for the Party to win back those seats that it lost in 2010, focusing on squeezing out the Tories in these constituencies, of which there are 75 in total.
However, a huge amount of flux clearly characterises the current political environment, with Rob Wilson predicting that Labour voters could easily turn elsewhere if the Conservatives manage to develop a successful youth movement. Asked how long he thinks might be left for Theresa May as Prime Minister, Wilson argued there is no appetite on the Tory backbenches for another Election in the near future, with the Conservatives likely to hold out until they have delivered Brexit.
Lord Oates, too, predicted that May will hang on as Prime Minister; as the leader of a fundamentally pragmatic party that will adjust its position to retain power. While Tory infighting over Brexit poses a threat, ironically he suggested that – with no parliamentary majority and no Tory MP likely to allow another General Election soon – the Fixed-term Parliaments Act may now end up saving the Conservatives.
Four Public Affairs continues to analyse and interpret political developments through regular updates and collateral. Please email John Lehal, Managing Director of Four Public Affairs at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in finding out more.