Is Theresa May's focus on workers her first big mistake?

The Prime Minister is moving the campaign away from areas of Conservative strength and towards points of weakness. 

NS

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Has Theresa May lost the plot? By all accounts she is winning this election at a canter and yet, with a little over three weeks to go, she appears to have taken a risk in turning the focus of her campaign towards the issues of workers and workers’ rights. After weeks of “strong and stable” soundbites, the last few days have seen a flurry of Conservative promises on this issue, ranging from protecting workers in the gig economy to putting employee representation on company boards.

At BritainThinks, all of our research from the last few weeks has indicated that May’s strategy of framing this election in terms of Brexit and standing up for the UK plays into her hands. This approach fits perfectly with the familiar Lynton Crosby tactic of keeping the debate on his candidate’s turf and away from areas where the opponents are strong.

Yet our new Employment Election 2017 research conducted for Indeed - the world’s largest job site - indicates that supporting working people in the UK is a rare territory where May and Jeremy Corbyn are level pegging – 52 per cent of likely voters say that they trust May to support working people in the UK, compared to 49 per cent for Corbyn. Similarly, 34 per cent say they trust May most of all the party leaders to increase wages and improve the standard of living, against 36 per cent for Corbyn.

Why then, after three days of focus on Labour’s leaked manifesto policies – many of which focus on work and workers’ rights – did Theresa May decide to start talking about the same topics herself, in an apparent attempt to compete directly on an area of (comparative) weakness?

There are a few potential reasons, some more likely than others:

  1. Maybe Theresa May genuinely cares about this issue – reflecting her strong emphasis on “JAMs” (people who are “just about managing”) when she took office, Perhaps May genuinely wants an economy that works for working people.
  2. Is the Prime Minister less ruthlessly strategic than she has seemed up to now? Maybe she is more prone to having her head turned by the ins and outs of the campaign. Could May, too, be susceptible to the politician’s tendency to abandon a winning message out of boredom, just as the voters are cottoning on? Where is Lynton Crosby’s “barnacles off the boat” message discipline?
  3. Has the MP for Maidenhead has opted for a scorched earth policy? Buoyed by her almost unprecedented support in the polls, perhaps she’s decided that she is not just satisfied with winning, she wants to leave Labour as little fertile territory as possible from which to rebuild its appeal to voters.
  4. Are Tory strategists feeling less certain that their lead will translate into the thumping majority that all the pundits (and most voters) are expecting? The strategic pivot may reflect a view that the Tories need to do more to secure some of those more working class votes in key constituencies.

At the moment there seems little to suggest that May’s move will have major negative consequences for her, but this looks like a rare gamble in an otherwise highly risk-averse campaign.

Ben Shimshon is co-founder of BritainThinks and tweets as @benshimshon. Tom Clarkson is associate director at BritainThinks, and tweets as @tomclarkson15

Research Methodology

BritainThinks conducted a nationally representative survey of 1,677 GB adults who say that they are likely to vote at the 2017 General Election (at least 8/10 on a 0-10 scale, where 0 = not at all likely and 10 = absolutely certain to vote). The survey data was weighted to be nationally representative by factors including age, gender, region and socio-economic grade. The survey was conducted online using the panel of Populus Data Solutions and fieldwork was conducted between 12 and 14 May 2017.