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  1. Election 2024
3 June 2024

Why this election has become a meme

The Tories cannot win on the subject of their poor record.

By Freddie Hayward

The campaign so far has been dominated by two stories: Keir Starmer’s chaotic attempt to expel left-wing MPs such as Diane Abbott to make space for those more aligned with his project (Abbott is now expected to run as a Labour candidate in her Hackney North and Stoke Newington constituency), and Rishi Sunak’s gaffe-strewn interactions with normal people. Neither reflects well on the prime ministerial candidates, nor do the stories suggest the campaign will be packed with debate about where the country should be in five years’ time.

Why are internal feuds, factional warfare and embarrassing memes taking centre stage? The Tories’ imminent defeat, mostly. Their scattered approach to policy does not cut through because voters stopped listening to what they have to say a long time ago. When they do listen – such as with the compulsory national service for young people policy – it’s often in the form of relentless derision or camera-wielding youngsters asking Sunak, “Why do you hate young people so much?”

The problem is that the Tories’ dire polling position makes their promises sound unrealistic. This is made worse by the profligate nature of the policies themselves – not raising VAT or income tax, a tax break for pensioners, extra money for the NHS. It’s a vicious circle: few believe they’ll win so they make quixotic policy pledges that, in turn, make them look even less likely to win.

More importantly, whether on immigration or the NHS, people trust Labour more than they do the government. Starmer said over the weekend that he wants to reduce immigration. This is not a new policy; nor is it specific. Immigration will naturally fall over the next two years as a result of Tory policies and decreased numbers of people coming from Ukraine and Hong Kong. Yet Labour’s lead allows it to be unspecific because the Tories have, for voters, lost the right to be listened to on immigration. They spent 14 years promising to cut migration, only for it to reach record highs. The bar for Labour, therefore, is low.

Since the election was called, Labour’s lead has only grown. There is still a little under five weeks to go until polling day. The tide may turn. The Conservatives will be hoping that tomorrow’s head-to-head debate between the leaders will play to Sunak’s strengths. (Though he should try to avoid the aggressive, fast-talking style that defined his performance against Liz Truss in the 2022 Tory leadership contest.) The manifesto launches will be another potential turning point.

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But the fundamentals will not change: people will remain angry about poor public-service delivery, rising immigration, collapsing standards in public life, the housing crisis, etc. This is an election about the Conservative Party’s record, whatever the noise.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; receive it every morning by subscribing on Substack here.

[See also: The unbearable predictability of the Tories’ war on young people]

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