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Elections aren't always as predictable as they look

As Jeremy Corbyn seems to be having a moment, Theresa May faces criticism over her latest U-turn. But it's all about how you react to the twists and turns of an election, says Gaby Hinsliff

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By Gaby Hinsliff on

There were girls swaying on their boyfriends’ shoulders, a forest of phones in the air, a stadium screaming for more. Jeremy Corbyn is an unlikely rock star, but when he joined the Libertines on stage at the Wirral Live music festival, for a minute he almost looked like one. Could the Labour leader be having a moment?

If the polls are to be believed – which admittedly is some 'if' –something's clearly going on. The Tory lead has halved, and Theresa May is clearly rattled enough that on Monday she U-turned hurriedly on a controversial key plank of the manifesto only hours after sending ministers out to insist there would be no backing down. (There will now be a "consultation" on softening the edges of her proposal to make older people fund all but £100,000 of the costs of their own social care using the equity in their own homes.)

But what's happening now is at least a reminder that elections aren't as predictable as they look and that when the wheels do come off, as they do occasionally for everyone, it’s how you react that counts


Traditionally, of course, there’s always one ‘wobble’ in an election campaign and it often turns out not to mean very much. Even in 1983, when Margaret Thatcher basically ate the Labour party for breakfast, there was a week when her lead over Michael Foot plummeted before recovering. And May was so far ahead to start with that even if she never makes up the ground she seems to have lost, she’d still be on course for a comfortable victory.

But what's happening now is at least a reminder that elections aren't as predictable as they look and that when the wheels do come off, as they do occasionally for everyone, it’s how you react that counts. Suddenly, Theresa May doesn’t sound nearly so strong and stable, and that creates the chink of an opening for the opposition. 

Labour has been quietly scooping up the votes of Libertines gig-going demographic for a while, wooing them with millennial-friendly policies like free tuition fees and talk of a radical reshaping of the economy; Corbyn even now boasts an endorsement from Stormzy. 

But that won’t be what’s worrying Tory high command, if only because most of them are old enough to remember Red Wedge, the collective of bands and comedians formed to whip up support for Neil Kinnock.Practically anyone who was anyone in the Eighties did a Red Wedge gig, from Bananarama to the Smiths, and they too were all over the music press before the 1987 election – right up until the Tories won their third consecutive victory despite being supported by virtually zero cool celebrities and Labour began to think harder about why it continually got trounced.

The trouble with chasing 20-something votes is they're reliably keener than any other age group on the idea of voting Labour, but there aren’t enough of them to win elections and they can be flaky about actually turning up to vote. It’s the parents and grandparents of the ‘woke’ generation who turn out in greater numbers, which is why Tory campaigns tend to be tailored to middle-aged people and pensioners. 

And what’s changed is that the latest crop of polls are showing a shift to Labour in the 35 to 54-year-old age group. Not just festivalgoers but their parents, worried about having to pay off their kids’ tuition fee debts or getting them on the housing ladder all while trying to put more money aside for what may be a more expensive retirement than they thought, are showing an interest. Could it be that Team May, over-confident about their whopping poll lead over Corbyn, pushed their luck with this group of voters just a little too far? 

If so, the prime minister has now lunged for the reset button. But if nothing else, we've learnt this week is that she isn't quite as iron-clad or as impregnable as she looks, and that memory will take some time to fade. If she still wants her landslide, Theresa May is going to have to work an awful lot harder for it now.



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Picture: Getty Images
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Gaby Hinsliff
General election 2017

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