The five things you need to know on Monday, May 22…
1) BARNACLE BILL
Tory campaigns guru Sir Lynton Crosby famously told David Cameron he wanted to scrape the ‘barnacles off the boat’ in 2015, dumping all the potentially risky and needless policies that hindered a smooth progress to victory. But thanks to her new manifesto policies on the elderly, Theresa May looks like she’s holing her own general election ship below the waterline.
The backlash against the social care plans, and the winter fuel allowance curbs, has been strong and swift, from within the Tory party and without it. Damian Green had a nightmare on Marr trying to explain, let alone defend, the proposals. Labour candidates (such as Clive Efford in London) already have leaflets attacking ‘the Dementia Tax’. On the BBC 10'clock News, there was footage of a voter telling May to her face on the doorstep: "Just a bit unnerved I have to say about the old people care policy".
The problems stem from a combination of poorly thought out policy (the plan read like a Green Paper not a manifesto pledge) and apparent complacency (‘our lead is so big that we can afford to have uncosted, far-from-oven-ready ideas’). Add too that May appears to have also caught herself, as well as the opposition, by surprise in calling the snap election: both parties’ leaderships have struggled with a curtailed policy making process. The FT reports a senior Tory saying the social care plan “wasn’t really run by anyone outside the inner circle”.
On winter fuel allowance, David Davis on Friday hinted at a serious rowback, talking about taking the cash from “those who can afford it”, rather than the manifesto’s line to focus the money on “the least well off”. In between is a whole swath of people who may be unhappy. On social care too, there may have to be some significant retreat to counter the ‘dementia tax’ charge.
But May will take heart from our latest focus group (see below) among working class traditionally Labour voters: they back the idea of stopping the rich from getting fuel help, free school meals and tuition fee abolition. They also liked the idea of keeping £100k of assets before paying for social care. Don’t forget the Sun, ever in tune with its readers has been pushing hard this idea of axeing rich pensioner perks. Means testing can be popular - it just depends where you set the cut-off point on who loses out.
I also still think the Tories have something up their sleeves on the NHS, as May has yet to detail how many billions will go on what she said last week would be “the most ambitious programme of investment in technology and buildings the NHS has ever seen” (a line almost buried in her manifesto launch). They may need to reveal that sooner rather than later.
Meanwhile, May today will try to wrest the narrative back on to Brexit by saying the UK has no time to ‘waste’ in its talks with Brussels. I suspect she’ll fail, as the social care story will run for a few more days until either the Daily Mail comes out against it or until May issues a categoric clarification - or both.
2) SHARP FOCUS
Our latest HuffPostUK-Edelman focus group was in Bury South, a key northern marginal where Labour’s Ivan Lewis is defending a 5,000 majority. And the findings make for difficult reading for Jeremy Corbyn, as we again found life-long Labour voters tempted by the Tories for the first time.
The most striking thing was the sense of shame at talking about voting Conservative, with fears family and friends would react badly. Michelle, a school teacher and single mother, explained how she struggled to even write down the word ‘Conservative’ when asked how she would vote. “The family, my mum, I feel like if I uttered those words in front of my mum, she’d disown me….for me to even think about a party that has gone against everything that I’ve ever believed in, it is massive, a heavy heart.”
Many didn’t believe Theresa May was on the side of the north, and were unconvinced about ‘the Northern Powerhouse’. But a combination of distrust of Corbyn’s personal leadership, uncertainty about Brexit and a lingering worry that Labour misspends their cash, was forcing them towards what one of them actually called ‘The Dark Side’.
Every single one of the eight women in our focus group would vote Conservative now, and many of the men. Elections analyst Ian Warren blogs for us about one incident when a Labour canvasser was berated on the doorstep thus: “You ought to be f***ing ashamed of yourself for forcing me to vote Tory!”
The polls have undoubtedly narrowed this weekend (and this morning ITV has a new Survation poll halving the Tory lead to nine points). Yet as Jess Phillips pointed out on Peston, piling up votes in some Labour areas is “as much use as a chocolate fireguard” if you end up haemorrhaging marginal seats like Bury South. And while the Labour poll bounce is real, some are pointing out Ed Miliband was also on 35% at this stage in the 2015 election.
Speaking of Labour leaders, we also asked our focus groups for reactions of the groups to the four current bookies’ favourites to succeed Corbyn: Yvette Cooper, Keir Starmer, Chuka Umunna and Lisa Nandy. Cooper underwhelmed them with her TV interviews, but got warmer reactions for her PMQs. Starmer was a write-off. But the women unanimously loved Chuka, while the men all put Nandy as their first choice. With June 9 the real date in many Labour minds still, that’s food for thought.
3) FEES HIGH, HO-HUM?
While trying to target the grey vote, Labour is also strenuously pushing for the youth vote with the midnight deadline for registration for the general election looming tonight. And the party is certainly going for it on the issue of tuition fees, with a new pledge today to extend their promise to abolish them.
Students starting university this September will have their first year fees written off if Labour wins the election, ahead of full abolition in 2018. The move, to discourage students deferring until after tuition fees are abolished, is part of a £38 billion promise on fees. And it’s that huge price tag that shows just how much Corbyn is determined to define himself on the university issue - it’s bigger than any single item on Labour’s entire manifesto costings.
Polls show that the tuition fee policy is popular among many of the public. However, our focus groups among both students and parents found real opposition to Labour’s plans. As one working class Labour voter put it: “there’s a lot out there who will see it as another easy meal ticket for three years of doing nothing. It’s a massive strain on the budget”.
The gamble is that enough young people will be motivated to actually get out and vote - defying years of previously poor turnout among the under-24s. Some analysts think part of the reason for the increased Labour vote in the national polls could well be some young people are telling pollsters they really, really will do it this time and bother to turn up to the voting booth. Let’s see.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR…
Watch this mum’s reaction as her son fires a Nerf gun bullet at her.
Jeremy Corbyn was grilled by Sophy Ridge on SkyNews yesterday over his links to SinnFein and the IRA. His supporters thought he handled it well, getting across his long-held claim that he only wanted to promote peace in Northern Ireland - and saying that “all bombing is wrong”. But his critics have seized on his reluctance to condemn the IRA in particular (he also frequently talked about ‘Ireland’ not ‘northern Ireland’), having been asked five times to do so.
The Telegraph also reminds everyone there were some very provocative pro-provo sentiments among some in the London Labour party in the early 1980s. One editorial of the London Labour Briefing magazine declared after the Brighton bombing ‘Try riding your bike now Norman’. Corbyn told Sky: “I wasn’t even a member of the editorial board”. He may not have been in December 1984, but local and national paper cuttings claim he was indeed on the board in 1982 and 1983.
Corbyn made clear he has long represented the Irish community in his Islington constituency (I know he often reads Irish local and national papers on a Saturday morning). But being seen to be one ‘one side’ in the Ulster conflict is something the Tories have long stored up as a weapon in this election, targeting many Labour voters already worried about his ‘patriotism problem’.
John McDonnell has been even more outspoken than Corbyn in the past and has been forced to apologise for talking about ‘honouring’ the IRA. On Friday, he repeatedly told PoliticsHome's Kevin Schofield: “No cause is worth the loss of an innocent life.” But even that use of “innocent” - was the loss of “non-innocent” life worth it? - risked fresh controversy. Colin Parry, whose 12-year-old son Tim died in the Warrington bomb blast in 1993, tells HuffPost UK: “The things that people remember are him eulogising over people who did what they did. The rest is just background noise.”
5) FACEBOOK FIENDS
Given the dominance that Facebook now has over much publishing online, the Guardian’s new ‘Facebook Files’ have given a timely and fascinating glimpse into how it tries to police content. Thanks to 100 leaked internal training manuals and blueprints we learn that Zuckerberg’s internet behemoth uses some automated systems to eliminate some content such as child sexual abuse or terrorism.
But what’s left over is left to teams of moderators not algorithms and the human element shows how difficult the balance is between free speech and abuse. The ‘Credible Violence’ manual notes that “people commonly express distain or disagreement by threatening or calling for violence in generally facetious and unserious ways.”
It also provides examples of where some statements are acceptable to keep on the site (“I’m going to kill you John!”) and what should be removed (“I’m going to kill you John, I have the perfect knife to do it!”). What will worry many is the complexity - and the fact that moderators sometimes have “just ten seconds” to decide whether content should be deleted.
Political parties are spending lots on targeted Facebook ads in this election (not always with great success - one candidate’s ads pop up in my feed even though I’m not in his seat), we reported last week. It’s not just Facebook, Google search is another prime target - Google ‘Brexit’ today and the top item is a Tory ad stating: ‘Corbyn negotiating Brexit? It’s a risk not worth taking’.
It didn’t get enough play but last week’s Tory manifesto talked about creating new global rules for the internet. Today, Tom Watson appears alongside Jeremy Corbyn in Hull to unveil plans for a £1 billion Cultural Capital Fund to upgrade the UK’s “cultural and creative infrastructure for the digital age”.
Listen to our CommonsPeople podcast special on the main party manifestos. Including an ace quiz on the titles of previous manifestos since the 1950s. Click HERE.
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