02

Here we go again

The placards have been dusted down, leaflets have started dropping through letter boxes, attack ads are appearing on social media, and politicians are having awkward encounters with voters – the 2017 General Election is well and truly underway.

At the end of the first full week of campaigning, both Labour and the Conservatives have reasons to feel satisfied.

Labour have surprised on the upside with some attractive retail policies. Sunday saw a pledge to create four new bank holidays. On Tuesday there was a commitment to guarantee EU citizens could stay in the UK and to protect rights derived from the EU. On Wednesday there were pledges to pay NHS staff more and scrap tuition fees for student nurses, and on Thursday there was a promise to build 100,000 affordable homes a year.

Of course, on their own a few policies do not add up to a coherent platform for government. Torn between their Remain and Leave supporters, Labour are still struggling to find definition on Brexit, while CCHQ no doubt appreciated the target practice provided by Jeremy Corbyn’s Marr interview on Sunday (in which he refused to say he would sanction air strikes against ISIS leaders). But the fact remains that over the last few days Labour have managed to make news and avoid catastrophe. That’s progress.

For their part, the Conservatives have been content to let Labour take the limelight. Barring a plan to cap energy bills briefed into the Sunday newspapers, policy announcements have been held back. This makes sense, given the strategy to frame the election not as a vote on Theresa May alone, but as a choice between “strong and stable” leadership under the Conservatives and a “coalition of chaos” under Jeremy Corbyn. Coverage of what Labour would do in government helps make the prospect of Prime Minister Corybn feel slightly more real – and therefore something to be worried about.

A week’s respite also allows the Conservatives time to prepare their manifesto and install candidates in key seats. More policy detail should begin to emerge as the manifesto launch gets closer but, as the Brexit process has shown, Theresa May likes to keep her options open and her cards close to her chest.

It has been a frustrating start for the Liberal Democrats. They go into this campaign with a simple and effective strategy – to be unashamedly anti-Brexit and scoop up Remain voters. But avoidable rows over anti-Semitism and the theology of homosexuality have clouded this message. They hope to get back on track next week, starting with Tim Farron’s turn on the Marr show.

In Scotland, the SNP are on the defensive for the first time since they took power at Holyrood 10 years ago. In large part they are victims of their own success – holding 56 of 59 Scottish seats, they can only go backwards. Faced with a resurgent Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, this election increasingly appears to be a damage limitation exercise for Nicola Sturgeon and Angus Robertson.

Looking ahead, we will see a slew of candidates selected by all parties between now and the nominations deadline on 11 May. Manifestos are expected to be published the week after next. TV debates seem to be dead in the water. Theresa May took a risk by rejecting debates from the outset but it has paid off. Jeremy Corbyn is now also refusing to appear without Theresa May, drawing the sting from ITV’s threat to host a debate anyway.

Without TV debates, without enough time to develop the sophisticated micro-targeting and digital techniques we have seen in recent campaigns, and with a female Conservative Prime Minister facing a left-wing Labour leader, this campaign could have a distinctively traditional feel, harking back to the 1980s. Labour will be hoping the story ends differently this time around.

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