James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.
The public is united in desire for change. There’s little agreement on what this means for policy, but total agreement that things can’t go on as they are. It’s not just about Brexit; the public are tired of endless talking from politicians but little action on things that matter to them (from housing to homelessness to crime). It’s reasonable to assume the next election will be won by the Party that most effectively harnesses this desire for change. While every incumbent Government fears the change narrative, and while there’s a limit to what any Government can do to appear fresh after a decade in power, this Conservative Government is in particular danger.
This is for two reasons. Firstly, because the belief in change is pervasive but entirely ill-defined – meaning it’s hard for the Party to address it through targeted policy development; it’s essentially cultural. This makes the chances of voters turning to radical alternatives (like Corbyn) much higher. Secondly, it’s dangerous because the Conservatives have failed to deliver Brexit cleanly and on time – in part because of high-profile Conservative Remain activists in Parliament – which is wiping out trust in their ability to bring about change.
For many, it won’t matter if the Conservatives deliver some form of Brexit later. Those former Labour loyalists in the Midlands and North that voted Conservative for the first time in 2017 – in places like Mansfield – have learned, as they suspected, all politicians want to ignore your vote and that all politicians are the same. They’re incandescent with rage. The “f you all” sentiment following Brexit’s delay is going to be disproportionately bad for the Conservatives. Labour’s “treachery” – as these voters see it – has been priced into their thinking; Conservative “treachery” and / or inertia is something new. And this explains why the Conservatives are dropping in the polls. Brexit voters are peeling off.
The result is every other party has a change narrative except the Conservatives. This is a terrible position to be in. So far, it doesn’t look like the Conservatives have even vaguely understood what is happening around them and the negative electoral impact the Brexit debacle will have. David Gauke’s extraordinarily breezy performance on Marr on Sunday reflects that. It was almost designed to wind people up and cost votes. As the Party’s main spokesperson after last week’s chaos, he should have been on his knees with contrition that the Conservatives have failed to deliver, talking directly to Midlands and Northern voters about what the hell the Party is going to do about it all. Instead, we got someone that looked like he couldn’t give a toss.
Change UK are not the problem for the Conservatives; their change narrative is ultimately weak. “Vote for change and Chuka Umunna” is laughable; their candidates come straight out of central casting for modern politicians. The Conservatives’ primary vulnerability on change comes from two sources. Most obviously, from UKIP (and sadly Tommy Robinson) and Farage’s Brexit Party, which only needs a higher profile to surge. The other source is from those that decide there’s no point in voting anymore. This group – effectively the “Non-voters for No Change” – will spread their aggressive apathy online and to their friends and work colleagues and they will depress Conservative turnout. Anecdotally, and it’ll need testing, I know of many people that say they won’t vote again – and certainly not for a mainstream party.
As it stands, it’s hard not to see that, were an election to be called soon, Labour would sweep into power on public disillusionment with the status quo – with every party tearing into the Conservatives’ record, and with the Conservatives meekly suggesting that things might be even worse under Corbyn. Unfortunately, many of their new supporters will be too irritated to care.