Those less familiar with the voting game may be scratching their heads about Conservative tactics so far in this election campaign. I say Conservative, but as the ‘Blue bus’ roaming across Labour strongholds in the North East last Friday spelt out, the Conservatives have seemingly been consumed by the ‘Theresa May party’. But aren’t elections meant to be about issues? Don’t you vote for the party or candidate standing in your seat who you feel will best represent you? Both are true but increasingly leaders are pivotal to the election outcome in British politics. The importance of leaders though is not new. Even when class and partisan alignment were at its height, the popularity of the party leader often proved a decisive factor. Harold Wilson was a past master at winning over undecided voters, although it didn’t work for James Callaghan who was the last Prime Minister to be more popular than his opponent and lose the general election.
But it was during the Thatcher and Blair eras that personalisation of politics in Britain took hold. The increasing power of the executive or presidentialization of politics under both leaders at the expense of parliament accentuated this focus. Rolling 24 hour news, media demands for leaders’ debates and the rise in social media means that the attention is on leaders more than ever before. For the voter, leaders’ images matter because they can be conceptualised easier than abstractions such as parties and issues. They also act as a heuristic short-cut with voters resorting to leader images when party policies become too complicated to fathom. Leaders often compress information providing helpful cues to voters therefore reducing the cost of acquiring information. While, the conduct of British election campaigns has also become more about the leader with a tendency for parties to fight leader-centred national campaigns.
In many ways 2017 is no different. May enjoys positive leader ratings and crucially scores heavily on trust and competence with voters particularly when compared against her main rival Jeremy Corbyn. Therefore the ‘strong and stable’ message whilst ridiculed for its repetitive use serves an important purpose. Firstly, it fits the heuristic short-cut narrative. As Jim Messina - one of the key figures behind the Conservatives 2015 success and their current 2017 campaign - states, the average voter only thinks about politics for about 4 minutes a week and in that time it is vital that you get the message right. Secondly, polling evidence suggests that many Labour’s policies enjoy widespread support but on valence issues there are cracks in the armour. Voters simply don’t trust a divided Labour party led by Jeremy Corbyn to keep the nation secure, enhance economic prosperity and get the best deal on Brexit. On getting the job done, competence and credibility May is not only preferred but enjoys an unassailable lead.
Given this, further visits to traditional Labour strongholds should be expected. May’s plans to secure a personal mandate is tied up in appealing to the working classes in these seats, as seen by today’s policies on workers’ rights. And it is clear that not only is May cutting through but Conservative strategists will play the leader card relentlessly from now until June 8th. However, there are some crumbs of comfort for Labour. While May scores well on trust and competence she is not liked in the same way Blair was in 1997. Faced with difficult Brexit negotiations and the possible economic and political consequences of leaving the European Union, the Conservatives are cashing in now. But whether they will be able to place May at the centre of the campaign next time round and reap the same rewards is open to question. Moreover, while respect for May’s leadership qualities seems to be a vote-winner, it is not matched by trust and likeability in the Conservative party. If May succeeds in winning vast numbers of working class voters over it will be because of her and her alone not because of a wholehearted conversion towards the ‘Conservative’ brand. As such, if the worst case election scenario for Labour occurs, any talk of their long term future must bear in mind that their popularity could turn around pretty quickly if trust, credibility and competence are restored.