Who is targeting what voters in the upcoming general election (and does any of this really matter anymore?).

First published in November 2019.

Like most politically-inclined, glutton-for-punishment types, I watched ITV’s “Johnson v Corbyn” debate on Tuesday night. Safe to say that, all things considered, nobody really ‘won’ in that studio. The whole debate felt far too rushed, neither combatant really able to land the so-called ‘killer blow’. In terms of performance, Corbyn (probably) edged it, being much quicker on his feet than Johnson, the latter acting in a much more petulant and childish manner, regularly going over his time limit and appearing much more untrustworthy and unprepared than his opponent.

Such debates are pitched as the chance for the general public to decide ‘who is their man’. As an Irishman, I’d just like to say this: I feel so sorry for you all. I don’t envy the choice the UK electorate was offered the other night. Yes, there are of course more options. At this point, I may as well be a card-carrying LibDem after all the cheerleading I’ve done for them since 2010 (I even defend their coalition years, to the delight of absolutely nobody). But being realistic for a second, it’s either going to be Johnson or Corbyn (or whoever replaces the latter should Labour fail to gain ground) in Number 10 come 13 December.

What I find much more interesting than the debates over who ‘won or lost’ (because let’s face it, nobody really came out a winner last night) is who exactly the leaders are targeting when they appear on such debates. Aside from a chance to sure-up the support of the party faithful, such encounters are billed as a way for the party leaders to ‘set out their stall’ as it were, to entice non-affiliated voters to side with them. So, with that in mind, who are the three biggest UK-wide parties targeting in this election?

Boris Means Brexit  —  The Tories’ Target Voters

Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. / Flickr - The White House

Anyone who watched Boris Johnson that night knows what he wants to get done, and who’s votes, therefore, he is targeting. Every time he went over his time-limit, it was because he, like Theresa May before him, really wanted to ram home the fact that he was going to ‘get Brexit done’.

The targets of this pitch are therefore very clear. Firstly, existing Brexit Party voters in Tory-Labour marginals. Johnson’s offer to them is that, if they vote for the Brexit Party, they risk letting Labour in, and thus risk not only a confirmatory referendum but also the prospect of a Corbyn-led, ‘neo-Soviet’ premiership with all the trimmings. These voters will be hugely key if Johnson and the Tories want to secure a sizeable majority, particularly if they are a similar phenomenon to the UKIP voters of 2015 and 2017 where it was found that twice as many were ex-Tories rather than ex-Labour.

Another group worth bearing in mind are Labour Leavers and unaffiliated Leave-voters. These folks are, broadly speaking, of a working-class background, white, male, and concentrated in the north of England and the Midlands; in other words, they’re the ‘Labour heartland’ voters that make up the so-called ‘Red Wall’. For them, Johnson’s pitch is threefold: (a) I’ll get Brexit done, Labour won’t; (b) I’m not Jeremy “terrorist sympathiser” Corbyn, and (c) this time around, we promise that we’re actually going to spend money on things.

The challenge for Johnson here is that, whilst many of these voters like him and broadly see him as more prime ministerial than Corbyn, they also find him a far more untrustworthy and out-of-touch character. Many, especially ‘Labour Leavers’, will have grown up and lived in areas where the Tory brand has long been toxic, so whether they’ll break for him in large numbers will depend on how well he sells other parts of the upcoming Tory manifesto.

It’s Me or Blondie, Folks  —  Labour’s Target Voters

Jeremy Corbyn. / Pixabay

Corbyn’s performance the other night was better than expected, though when you’re up against a man who can’t string a sentence together half of the time, that’s not exactly hard. Corbyn mentioned Brexit far, far less than Johnson, partly because the public still isn’t fully sure of where Labour stands on the issue, but also because Corbyn sees his vision for the UK as transcending Brexit.

So, who was Corbyn targeting with his pitch? Firstly, wavering Labour voters. It’s not exactly a secret to either Corbyn or Labour that his approval ratings aren’t exactly that high — indeed, one poll puts them at the lowest rating for a Leader of the Opposition since such polling began. Hence why this debate was key for Corbyn.

Worst net satisfaction ratings achieved by each leader in opposition. / Ipsos MORI

He doesn’t necessarily need to win a majority, he just needs to ensure that Johnson doesn’t get a majority. To do that, all he had to do was turn up and not be as bumbling as Johnson which was largely the case. Labour voters who had maybe considered voting LibDem or SNP will watch that debate back and think, ‘look, Corbyn isn’t the best, but at least he isn’t Johnson’.

That same sentiment goes for LibDem and moderate remain voters in key Tory-Labour marginals like Canterbury or Barnet. Labour know if they’re to hold these seats, they need the LibDem vote to fall, and for Remain-backing voters to sigh, hold their nose, and vote for their local Labour candidate in the hope that Corbyn does follow through on his promise for a confirmatory referendum.

A final and important group to consider are the 30–49 year old demographic, otherwise known as the ‘It Can Only Get Better’ generation that grew up under Tony Blair and ‘New Labour’. Whilst it’s commonly thought that a so-called ‘youth-quake’ helped Corbyn prevent Theresa May from getting a majority, it was in fact due to these voters swinging hardest against the Tories in 2017. Corbyn’s attacks on Tory failings in education, their supposed plan to sell-off the NHS, and the crises in housing, income and social care, will all play a big part in energising this group and getting them out to vote Labour (or, at the very least, not Tory) once again.

Im Also Here, By The Way  —  The LibDems Target Voters

Jo Swinson. / Flickr - LibDems

Whilst Jo Swinson and the LibDems weren’t included in the ITV debate, it’s still important to see who they’re targeting, especially given Swinson took part in a Buzzfeed UK ‘WhatsApp’ interview as the debate was happening before then being interviewed one-on-one by ITV afterwards. Many predict that the LibDems could be the real winners of this election given how dissatisfied the public is with both main parties, though given that first-past-the-post is still a thing, those hypothetical gains could turn out like those bar-chart predictions (to be a myth).

The LibDems are targeting two types of disaffected voter; the disaffected, ‘liberal Tory’, and the disaffected, moderate Blairite Labour voter. The promise of “an exit from Brexit”, combined with the recent announcement from Ed Davey about the need for fiscal responsibility, is a clear signal that the party is going after the same moderate, centre-to-centre-right voters both Nick Clegg and David Cameron went for during the 2010 election. On the other hand, the announcement of an ambitious childcare spending policy, coupled with a concrete position on Brexit, is a clear pitch to centre-left, ex-Labourites.

One point to note however is which group the LibDems are targeting more. Stephen Bush of the New Statesman rightly notes that the party seems to be aiming to grab much more Remain-voting ex-Tories than ex-Labourites, largely because it is these voters — concentrated in places like Guildford, St. Albans and elsewhere across both the Home Counties and the south-west — whom the party need to win over if they’re to regain seats lost in 2015.

“F*** Knows, It’s Like The Living Dead In Here” — Does This Even Matter Any More?

Flickr - Secret London

Whilst looking at such targets and battlegrounds and marginal seats and all the rest of the standard paraphernalia that goes with having a general election is helpful, whether they even matter any more is hard to know.

This electorate is, by far, the most volatile the UK has ever seen. Voting is more fluid, less tribal. As both main parties have pushed to the extremes, voters are also more apathetic and despairing over the choice presented in Jeremy Corbyn or Boris Johnson. One could remark that there is a certain irony in voters wanting the political system to be totally disrupted by new forces and faces, but also not be dominated by the extreme politics that tend to benefit most from that disruption.

Trying to predict this election is, to put it mildly, hugely foolish. Yes, who is targeting what voters does matter, it always will. But, can we be as certain as we were in the past? Not a chance.🔷

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[This is an original piece, first published by the author in PoliticsMeansPolitics.com on 21 November 2019. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

(Cover: Pixabay.)