Why do our party leaders tour the country? And will it affect Thursday’s election result?By Alia Middleton on 4 June 2017
As soon as the snap general election was called in April, Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn and Tim Farron began touring the country, battlebuses in tow and awkward photo opportunities aplenty. There are 650 constituencies in the UK and only time to visit a small number of them. So why do they bother to make any at all?
Previous research has demonstrated that by visiting a constituency, a party leader can significantly impact the share of the vote their party receives there. In both 2010 and 2015 David Cameron’s appearances added between 3 and 4 percentage points to the local Conservative vote share. Nick Clegg’s visits in both 2010 and 2015 (the latter perhaps surprisingly) also significantly added to the Liberal Democrat vote. However, Labour’s leader visits at the same elections did not make an impact.
In the current campaign, Theresa May has used her visits as a retort to critics who wanted to see her participating in more national televised debates. In her words, these visits mean that she is ‘taking part in debates up and down the country…meeting people, getting out and about’. She has put herself at the forefront of ‘Theresa May’s Team’, making sure that her role in the campaign is a prominent one. Looking at the visits she has made, they echo those made in the past by David Cameron and Ed Miliband; heavily orchestrated, tight on the media and allowing only minimal interaction with the voting public.
In contrast, Jeremy Corbyn is breaking the mould of contemporary leader visits in Westminster election. His campaign trail has been characterised by an informality that many other politicians would shrink away from; the potential for embarrassing interactions with the public perhaps all too present in their minds. Yet he has been making open-air stump speeches with large crowds in attendance. Indeed, his campaigning strategy has been more akin to the informality seen in the visits of Scottish party leaders.
With one leader engaging most directly with their local activists and the other engaging with the local public we have an interesting contrast of strategy; it is of course too early to say which will have the greater impact. But it is worth looking back over the campaign so far to explore where the leaders have gone, how often they have gone there and to tart examining the motivations behind their visits.
Table 1. Number of constituencies and visits at 3rd June
With just a few days to go, Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn are on an almost identical number of visits, with Tim Farron lagging behind slightly. These figures do not count visits within their own constituencies. However, comparing these figures to 2015 gives rise to some interesting observations. Jeremy Corbyn has already made more visits than Ed Miliband did in the entire 2015 campaign. Theresa May will have to make three visits every day until Polling Day to be on a par with David Cameron in 2015. Of course it is difficult to accurately compare 2015 and 2017; in 2015 the election date was fixed and the campaign slowly in the months ahead of the short campaign. In 2017, by contrast, the nature of the snap election meant that the parties were relatively unprepared. The figures used for visits in 2017 therefore begin the day after the snap announcement. Despite the 2017 campaign being longer, the figures are comparable due to the stop-start nature of the past few weeks. The national campaign was suspended for three days after the tragic events in Manchester, as well as over the weekend following the London Bridge attack.
A few constituencies have been paid special attention, with a leader visiting more than once so far. Once you delve further the strategy becomes clear. So it comes as no surprise that Tim Farron has paid two visits to assist Simon Hughes in his campaign to reclaim Bermondsey and Old Southwark, the seat he lost in 2015. Indeed, all bar one of his repeat visits have been to seats lost by the Liberal Democrats in 2015 where the former MP is standing again. Theresa May has popped into Plymouth Sutton twice to help Oliver Colvile defend his wafer-thin 1.1 point majority. Corbyn’s repeat visits so far are harder to explain – he is repeatedly visiting seats Labour already holds, and holds securely, such as Liverpool Riverside (majority 24,463).
The previous research shows that where leaders make appearances in constituencies they hope their party to gain rather than ones they already hold, there is a positive impact on the vote for their party. Theresa May has spent only 32% of her visits in Conservative seats, spending most of her time haunting those held by Labour. Jeremy Corbyn has spent only 58% of his time outside of Labour seats, indicating that he is keen to consolidate Labour support. However, a note of caution here; Labour’s visits have historically been defensive and have yet to significantly impact Labour vote share. Strictly speaking, Tim Farron is running the smartest visit strategy, with only 6% of his visits to Liberal Democrat held seats. This is not as strategic as it first appears – there are after all, far fewer seats for him to visit.
A logical approach for a leader is to visit marginal constituencies, no matter whether the seat is held by their own party or not. Seats with small majorities are at the greatest likelihood of changing hands. Certainly in 2010 and 2015 the leaders concentrated on those seats at or around the marginal/safe cut-off of a 10 percentage point majority. This has been broadly replicated in 2017 with May and Farron visiting seats with average majorities of 11 and 13 point respectively. Corbyn is focusing on the second safest category of seats –those we would class as ‘very safe’.
No piece on British psephology at present would be complete without mentioning Brexit. It is difficult before the vote to estimate exactly how important Brexit will ultimately be next Thursday, but as a recent poll by YouGov has shown, around 63% of people identified it as one of their top three issues. Using Chris Hanretty’s constituency-level estimates of the leave vote in the Westminster constituency boundaries, it is worth exploring whether Brexit is informing leader visit strategies.
Table 2. Average “Leave” vote in constituencies visited by party leaders
Tim Farron has put Brexit at the heart of his campaign, likely hoping to garner votes from dissatisfied Remainers. Theresa May’s emphasis on the Brexit deal in calling the election has attempted to claim the pro-Brexit vote. Jeremy Corbyn has been less decisive in terms of position. Yet the similarity in the figures between May and Corbyn points to another political issue bubbling beneath the surface. UKIP’s support has dipped since the referendum results. In 2015 UKIP gathered votes from both hard-line Tories and dissatisfied Labour voters. It would appear that May and Corbyn are trying to bring their previous voters back into the fold.
In the time taken to write this piece, both Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May have already added visits to their total – there will be several more to come before Polling Day.
Alia Middleton is Lecturer in Politics at the University of Surrey. She tweets @MiddletonAlia.
Image: Jeremy Corbyn