The Tories Are Wobbling their Way to Victory

The Manchester bombing has disrupted the election campaign precisely at the point Labour was starting to gain momentum.

"LOW KEY" campaigning resumes today following the two-day pause observed by all parties in the wake of the Manchester bombing. The attack will affect the rhythm and tone of the campaign, but to what extent and in whose favor is difficult to gauge. The murder of Jo Cox in the final days of last year's Brexit campaign did not trigger a meaningful swing in momentum back to the Remain campaign; nor did the terrorist attack on the Champs Elysées in the home stretch of the French presidential campaign do much to shift votes in favor of Marine Le Pen, a candidate with an ostensibly tougher message on security than Emmanuel Macron. As Predata analyst Eric Falcon shows in this recent piece, popular feeling across Europe is gradually becoming desensitized to acts of mass violence such as Monday night's attack. It's possible, then, that the impact of the attack on the campaign will end up being relatively muted. But the dynamics are fluid and it's difficult to be certain on this point.

One thing is sure: Labour is the party with the most to lose from this week's campaign interruption. With two weeks to go until the election, the polls show the gap between the Conservatives and Labour narrowing, even as the Tories retain a handy lead. Predata's digital momentum signals present a broadly similar picture. The Tories' digital campaign experienced a dramatic loss in momentum over the past week, mostly in response to criticism of the party manifesto unveiled last Thursday. Labour and civil society groups went after the Tories for their proposed social care cuts, which led of course to May's U-turn on the so-called “dementia tax” this week, while business groups attacked the manifesto for leaving them out in the cold. 

Labour figures, such as leader Jeremy Corbyn and shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon, have regularly figured among the top drivers of overall discussion online about the election in the last week. Tory-bashing, amid May's worst week on the campaign trail, has not been their only contribution to the digital discussion; they also profited from their furious get-out-the-registration messaging ahead of the voter registration deadline on Monday. The problem for the opposition, however, is that this may all be too late — and Monday's attack gives the Conservatives space to shift the focus away from the social spending controversies generated by their botched manifesto roll-out and back to law and order issues, a traditional Tory strength. The Tories may be losing momentum online and in the polls, but their lead (in both domains; see the cumulative digital momentum chart below) is so large that it may not matter. Labour's campaign remains an exercise in damage limitation rather than a real quest for power. The week ahead will prove decisive in determining whether that can change.

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As the campaign has progressed, online voices advocating for a soft (or rather, less harsh) Brexit have come to assert themselves more forcefully. Predata's hard-soft Brexit spread, which captures the gap between engagement with hard and soft Brexit voices online, has narrowed as a result. In very general terms, this “digital spread” has tracked the trend in EUR/GBP over the last 12 months. Recent weeks, however, have seen a marked divergence, with the euro gaining as the Brexit spread takes a softer turn. [Link to signals] ⏪

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Aaron Timms is Predata's Director of Research. Contact: aaron@predata.com.