Sunak targets the grey vote; Labour falters

Sunak goes early

It has been 10 days since Rishi Sunak stood outside 10 Downing Street to announce a general election on 4 July. Sunak told us that he was a man with a plan – a message which fell rather flat as he stood in the pouring rain without an umbrella getting increasingly soaked.

If he had a plan, it quickly became clear that it was not one he had shared with colleagues. It soon emerged that the Conservative leader had told the King that he wished to call an election before he told the Cabinet. Conventionally the Prime Minister consults the Cabinet before seeking the formal permission of the monarch to dissolve Parliament.

There has been huge speculation as to why he decided to go now. News of a small decrease in inflation could certainly have spurred him on, an inkling that there would be no more good economic news for a while would have encouraged him, but it is equally likely he just didn’t want to carry on.

Going for the over-70s

While critics have characterised Sunak’s campaign strategy as being inspired by The Producers (the film in which two Hollywood producers deliberately try to produce a flop), it is probably more the case that his approach is informed by a very narrow reading of the Conservative Party’s private polls. These indicate that the over-70s are more likely to vote for him and, given that there are more older people in the population and they are more likely to vote than other age groups, it is not entirely foolish to find policies which appeal to them.

As a result, his two big announcements in the first week of the campaign are very much geared towards this group: national service for all 18-year-olds and commitments about protecting state pensions. And unsurprisingly the Conservatives have started the second full week of the campaigning talking about gender, or, more precisely, the definition of a woman. They know that this is a question to which none of the other parties have a coherent answer and that theirs is more aligned to the views of older voters, and indeed to many beyond.

Labour’s mixed start

Labour will be hoping that Sunak’s calculations are wrong and that older people do care about education, health, the economy, crime – all areas where it is polling better than the Conservatives.

Keir Starmer had a pretty good start to the campaign, with the party coming over as sensible, stable and trust-worthy, particularly when it comes to the economy. He is growing in confidence and understands that one of his main challenges is that the electorate don’t know him and that he needs to tell us a bit more about himself and his values.

However, the Labour campaign stalled badly after a row about whether veteran leftist Diane Abbott was or was not allowed to stand as a Labour candidate. The fact the row took attention away from policy announcements for several days is bad news for Labour and speaks to poor communications management. Instead of communicating the results of its lengthy inquiry into her behaviour clearly and quickly, the story leaked, Abbott was given the upper hand, and hapless members of the Labour team were giving interviews without knowing the actual position. More importantly, it allowed the Conservatives and media to ask whether Starmer really has control of his party.

While the Abbott row will blow over, Starmer will be all too well aware that the spectre of Jeremy Corbyn will continue to haunt him. A key element of its election strategy is to reassure voters that it can be trusted to protect the country and grow the economy – both areas on which it was perceived as weak during the Corbyn era – hence today’s focus on the UK’s nuclear deterrent and defence spending. Expect more, much more on the economy.

It has been a roller coaster so far and we are just at the beginning. Strap in, folks, it’s going to be a long campaign.


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