Windrush? Brexit? Theresa May and Amber Rudd? No, no, no, you’ve got it all wrong, these elections are local elections about local issues. Actually, I think you’ll find that these elections are the perfect opportunity to give the government a kicking over their fumbling of recent immigration scandals and for dragging the UK towards a hard Brexit.
This sort of fight over the election narrative will be being played out on doorsteps and in election leaflets across the country right up until close of polls on Thursday. This is because the party who successfully defines the terms of the election is normally the one who prevails.
Elections can be defined in a number of ways. There are national elections spun as being more akin to local elections: ‘May/Corbyn are not on the ballot here so vote for your trusted local MP who will stand up for our town’. Then there are local elections presented as being more like national elections, as Labour are no doubt trying to do in a number of closely contested council seats this Thursday.
There are change elections; where the narrative follows that it’s time to ditch the incumbent and take a punt on the new person offering the hopeful vision of a better ward/city/country. Then there are stay the course elections; where the narrative goes that success is already being delivered by the incumbents as opposed to the threat of regression that voting for someone else will pose. Then there are elections which appear almost entirely focused on a single local issue which overrides anything else going on locally or nationally. Deciding which type of election provides the right context to ensure electoral success for your candidate and party, and then convincing the voters accordingly, is central to a good election strategy. However, this is easier said than done.
Theresa May’s ‘Strong and Stable’ election, despite seeming like a masterstroke at that start of the campaign, came crumbling down due to events (such as the terrorist attacks) and poor political strategy (the dreadful manifesto being one example). By the time people went to the polls in last year’s General Election, the PM seemed a long way from the popular and steadfast custodian of Brexit from just a few weeks before.
Conversely, this strategy worked perfectly for David Cameron. He shaped the narrative of the final few weeks of the 2015 campaign to great effect as a choice between economic recovery and stability with the Tories versus Ed Miliband and his ‘coalition of chaos’ propped up by the SNP. This election framing worked as it tapped into a fear that a lot of swing voters had that Ed just wasn’t up for the job and that there was (because of the national polling picture) a good chance that this sort of coalition could come to fruition. He wasn’t worth the risk and we heard this over and over again from swing voters in Labour’s top target seats.
In this set of local elections though, Tory HQ have been tactically quiet. There was no national launch of the local election campaign and I haven’t seen the PM stumping in marginal councils, drumming up support for her councillors and articulating a central narrative framing what these elections are about. Their hope is that if the national Conservative party stay quiet enough then that will allow local Conservative Associations enough space to put out locally focused messaging and frame the election around the local issues they’re strongest on: rubbish bins not Rudd, if you like. Will it work? We’ll have to wait and see.