The Tories have hit a crisis just as Labour support has started to pick up. Is this the beginning of a comeback, asks Conor Pope
‘The polls are certain to narrow’, I wrote, four weeks ago today. And they have, sort of.
It is not quite the precipice of power, but it is an improvement. The polls have narrowed, but only in the way the River Thames narrows when the tide is out. There is still a bit of a gap.
It is easy to get excited about any sort of shift a few weeks out, especially when it is replicated over a number of pollsters using a variety of methods. That certainly has happened here, as Labour has edged up into the low-to-mid 30s – in a few instances improving on our 30 per cent voteshare under Ed Miliband in 2015.
However, the yard mark for success is your opponents, not the past, and the Conservatives’ sit stubbornly on over 40 per cent across the board: more than enough to wash away a couple dozen Labour members of parliament even if their support largely stands up.
That creeping sense of momentum has been added to by the Tories’ self-inflicted ‘dementia tax’ debacle and reports from frontline defensive seats that they are running a suspiciously low-key campaign. In one Labour marginal I was in last week (majority: several thousand), nonplussed party activists pointed out that high-visibility billboards usually snapped up by the Tories had been left advertising a furniture sale, and that the Conservative candidate had barely featured in the local press. The feeling that things were moving forward was becoming something else: it was becoming optimism.
Are the Tories becoming complacent? Have they given up on some of these seats to target resources elsewhere?
Theresa May’s strategists will recognise that a snap election does not give enough time for newly-selected candidates to build up a name recognition to rival the incumbent. They cannot win a bigger majority by fighting a series of localised byelection campaigns in battleground seats; only by sweeping them aside on the national swing.
Here is the crux: Labour MPs will win on local campaigns and Tory candidates will beat them on national campaigns. If voters go to the polling stations thinking about who might stand up for their local school, they are likely to go for the sitting MP rather than the candidate they have barely heard of. If they are thinking about who might stand up for the country in Brexit negotiations when they are in the polling booth, they will come out having put an ‘X’ in the Tory box.
Local press, therefore, is of less importance. If May drops into town, they will get the only local headlines they need.
Similar stories of low-visibility Tory campaigns were shared with barely-hidden glee by Labour activists two years ago. Yet investment in ‘invisible’ campaigning techniques, such as smartly-targeted Facebook adverts and direct mails from the prime minister, saw the Tory vote build up under the radar.
So yes, the polls have narrowed, as expected. But it is not time to get excited yet.
Conor Pope is deputy editor of Progress. He tweets at @Conorpope
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