What’s Hugh Grant up to – and will the country join him?

We may mock the centrist daddishness, but there are a lot of undecided voters and opportunities to vote tactically.

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Do you feel like you’re living in a dystopian imagining of Love Actually? Wondering why Hugh Grant is standing awkwardly with mildly star-struck/inconvenienced candidates in various parts of the country? Hoping the presence of an erstwhile heartthrob-turned-free-press-sceptic on the campaign trail could swing the election?

In the build-up to polling day, Hugh Grant has so far been out canvassing in seven constituencies for various parties. From Liberal Democrat Labour defectors Chuka Umunna and Luciana Berger to Faiza Shaheen, Labour’s hopeful in Iain Duncan Smith’s seat of Chingford and Woodford Green, to the independent candidate Claire Wright in East Devon, Grant has been aligning himself with campaigns that could deprive the Conservatives of a majority.

Although there was brief excitement online when people began championing (and deriding) him for being a Lib Dem, the actor isn’t backing one party. He is supporting one thing: tactical voting against a Tory Brexit.

“What we’re after here is a hung parliament and the 2nd Ref that will follow from that,” he tweeted. “THAT gets Brexit done.”

It’s easy to laugh at the centrist-daddish earnestness of an actor whose main political involvement has been playing a prime minister in a film where the punchline is falling for his secretary (bonking the help lol!), and campaigning with Hacked Off for the Leveson press reforms. And there is a certain pomposity about his descent upon a local area to grace it with the hand of Grant (he is “happy to talk (exclusively) to local and regional media”, according to the press release for his East Devon visit).

But his perspective on this election is widespread. It is reflected both in the media (both this magazine and the Observer have advised voters to opt for whichever local candidate reduces the chances of a Boris Johnson-led government), and the public.

There is concern within the Tory party about individuals voting tactically – known as the “Hugh Grant voters”, according to this article by BuzzFeed. Indeed, as my colleague Ailbhe reported today, the campaign group Best for Britain claims that if just 41,000 people voted tactically in 36 seats, that could swing the election at Johnson’s expense. The UK election guru Professor John Curtice has also said the impact of tactical voting is “one of the uncertainties” as the election draws closer, as it can “have a big impact” and “is very difficult to see in the polls”.

Specific opportunities for anti-Brexit tactical voting are exacerbated by the fracturing of political party attachment in the UK. The number of people who very strongly identify with a political party has declined from nearly half the electorate in the 1960s to just nine per cent in 2018, according to a paper by the King’s College London Policy Institute.

This means there is a rising number of non-tribal, undecided voters – something that’s clear anecdotally, when out on the campaign trail. Those less likely to vote in the past are also more likely now to turn out, such as young people and people on low incomes. Low-income voters in particular are unpredictable – 2.7 million are thought to be swing voters, and they are twice as likely to make up their mind in the polling booth than the average voter, according to recent research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) with Hanbury Strategy.

Hugh Grant’s visitations may not swing the election result, but his outlook and the campaigns he’s joined reflect more than just the concerns of a riled-up luvvie.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

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