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14 June 2017

The £350m bus voters: did the Tories fail to win because they assumed austerity was the new normal?

Theresa May's team did not tell voters why continued austerity was necessary. At a time when the NHS and schools were overstretched, that was a crucial mistake. 

By Helen Lewis

At this point, it feels slightly unkind to write about mistakes in the Tory campaign. But here’s another one.

The Conservatives ran a campaign against the backdrop of squeezed public services and the prospect of cuts to schools, thanks to the new funding formula. But they never bothered to do what David Cameron and George Osborne did – tell voters why they couldn’t have any more money for services they valued. The former prime minister and former Chancellor successfully laid the groundwork for cutting back the state by telling Britain that it was the only way out of the financial crisis, that Labour’s “over spending” had left us dangerously exposed, and that if we didn’t cut the deficit, we would end up a basketcase economy like Greece. The standout slogan from the 2015 election was the Conservatives’ “long term economic plan”.

However, that narrative was missing this time round. Amber Rudd talked at the second-tier leaders’ debate about the “magic money tree” (or rather, its non-existence). But there was little mention of the deficit, or about any explanation of why our belts needed to remain tightened, or even any bad metaphors about credit cards. The financial crash is now a full decade ago, and voters – not unreasonably – feel that era of uncertainty and financial panic is over. So why, if everything is supposedly rosy, are schools sending home letters begging for donations from parents? Why are teachers facing the sack? (George Osborne must have seen this danger: his newspaper, the Evening Standard, ran a campaign against the new school funding formula.)

Part of this complacency springs from a misreading of last year’s vote to leave the European Union. Although many voters were undoubtedly enthused about casting off the hated yokeTM of Brussels, a far greater number wanted to cut immigration, but only if it wouldn’t cost too much money. (For Remain voters, the economy was the biggest issue, according to post-referendum polling. For Leavers, it was immigration.) The genius – or great lie – of Vote Leave was not just to neutralise those fears, but to go beyond them – to create the impression that less money sent to Brussels meant more money to be spent in Britain. That famous £350m a week, written on the side of a bus.

After 24 June, British voters found out that the extra £350m was in fact, more of an aspiration, and one which would not be available for years to come, if ever. At the same time, a narrative emerged in which Ukip and Conservative voters were primarily driven by immigration per se, when in fact immigration has always been interwoven with anxiety over jobs and the wider economy. (“Immigrants are driving down wages”. “There’s no jobs round here because they all go to Eastern Europeans”.) 

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And so the Conservatives went into the election promising to end freedom of movement, a promise which was matched by Labour, giving them little advantage on the issue of immigration with the voters for whom for that is a key issue. They tried to paint Labour as tax-hikers, but ostentatiously promised a tax hike of their own. And they forgot to make the case for austerity to everyone who worried about their local A&E closing or their local school losing teachers.

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They assumed that austerity was the New Normal, and we had accepted it so thoroughly that the case for cutting back the state no longer needed to be made.

In short, they forget about the £350m Bus Voters.