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Times Red Box: Tories’ Stumbling Start gives Labour Hope of Avoiding Humiliation

Sat, 29 Apr 2017  |   Insights

By Jimmy Leach:  Social media is showing a more complex picture than the polls. May and Corbyn should take note. 

It’s been a week in which electoral strategies have become a little clearer. Not much clearer, and not necessarily credible, but we take what we can in these bewildering times.

Yet based on research from the social media analysis company Impact Social, things aren’t (quite) so clear cut as we thought.

It’s been a tactical game so far. For the Tories, it’s based on inverse Just a Minute — let your opponent talk for as long as he can in the belief that the more he talks, the more damage he does.

Not a stance that has previously lacked evidence, it has to be said. It’s all a bit (deliberately) policy-lite, and accentuating their positives by using the words “strong and stable” on permanent loop.

Labour have taken the reverse approach and embarked on a frenzied rattling off of policies — more housing, more money for nurses, more bank holidays . . . with the return of free owls surely on the way.

They’ve even wheeled out other shadow ministers in the hope of deflecting attention away from Corbyn, and potentially awakening old tribal loyalties.

For the Liberal Democrats, we’ve had to watch Tim Farron wrestling with gay sex while making a determined bid for the space he says is vacated by Labour in the centre of politics. They can share the accusations of antisemitism between them.

As for Ukip, they have abandoned the dog-whistle approach to racial politics and adopted a klaxon in the hope of attracting attention, while also losing their foreign affairs spokesman on the way.

So how’s all that panning out? Impact Social have looked at conversations about the leaders on social media platforms and open news forums, taking out the media and the obvious party apparatchiks.

What emerges is a picture that is a little more complex than the media would have it. Not to say the election is on a knife edge — far from it — but just to note, in particular, the difference between the Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn and how that affects conversations and maybe, just maybe, voting intentions.

Corbyn’s numbers on social media as noted here in the past rarely rise above disastrous. But measuring Labour Party numbers portrays a much less dismal position for them.

It’s not all good — the attempt to dwell on specifics has not really cut through, for example. It has gained them 39 per cent of the “share of voice” — conversation on social media — which they might consider low, considering how much they’ve tried to get on the front foot.

But it’s significant that the last time Impact Social looked at sentiment around Corbyn himself, the negativity was pretty dire, with 44 per cent of posts against him.

This time round, measuring sentiment around the party rather than the man, the negativity is down to 26 per cent, with 19 per cent positive and the remainder neutral. While far from impressive, that’s something of a comeback, suggesting that things might be closer than the press are perceiving. If it holds.

What will disappoint Labour’s campaign team though is the fact that little of the conversation, positive or negative, centred around their policy announcements. The electorate remained fixated on the soap opera of the party, not on its vision of Britain.

Within that plotline, Corbyn attracted much of the negativity (a third of the negative posts), the party’s “shambles” at 29 per cent and the infighting “destroying Labour” adding up to a further 14 per cent. So that’s going well then.

The rather fewer positive conversations were overshadowed by the more than 60 per cent talking about the party, its supporters and the campaign trail rather than what any of them were actually saying. A mere 9 per cent talked about policy, with the same figure talking about the bank holiday proposal in particular. All that conversation about serious policy and all we noticed were the free holidays. That’s got to hurt.

But what’s intriguing is how similar Conservative figures are. Past measures on social media from Impact Social show Theresa May trouncing Corbyn. Comparing conversations around the parties, and doing so during an election, shows a very different picture, one where the two biggest parties are much closer together.

While the Tories gained a bigger share of the voice (43 per cent) by saying less, the pattern is not dissimilar to Labour’s — 17 per cent positive and 27 per cent negative. Which is not the picture you’d get from the front pages of the newspapers. It suggests that their campaign has got off to a limp start — the arrogance of giving their opponents a “head start” in attempting to lead conversations has not played especially well, and driving a campaign around the atmosphere of strength rather than the substance of policy has not gained the traction they would hope. The positive mentions have been dominated by campaign talk — their supporters (39 per cent), their apparent strength in Scotland and Wales (21 per cent) and their lead in the polls (18 per cent). Only 15 per cent of conversations turned their attentions to Labour and still less to policy (6 per cent, unsurprisingly).

Aside from the 40 per cent of negative posts generally attacking May and her party, the conversations picked on genuine Tory weaknesses — allegations of electoral fraud (16 per cent), the energy pledge they nicked off Ed Miliband (13 per cent) and the refusal to tackle a TV debate (13 per cent). Which goes to show that if you don’t highlight your strengths then someone else will choose your weaknesses. There’s plenty of time, clearly, for the campaign to hit its stride, but it’s a stumbling start.

For the Liberal Democrats, it’s been a mixed picture — demonstrating faith that the party is coming back, but with the very distinct feeling that discussions about gay sex have slowed that resurgence considerably. They’ve gained a 10 per cent share of the voice (which would suggest lower levels of cut-through than traditional polling indicates) and much of that is neutral — mere reporting. The remainder is fairly evenly split between positive (15 per cent of the relevant posts) and negative (8 per cent). The issue of Farron’s long-term reluctance to reveal his faith-based feelings on gay sex have dogged the party, with 37 per cent of the negative tweets centring on that and a further 20 per cent talking about what it revealed about Farron himself. The antisemitism of one of the candidates (and his sacking) garnered a relatively low 8 per cent.

The positivity around the Lib Dems was centred around politics and process rather than policy, with a combined 53 per cent talking about party membership and the recent growth in numbers, and a further 10 per cent talking of the party’s comeback. The closest they got to policy discussion was 12 per cent of posts venting anti-Tory sentiments.

The only party to get a strong reaction to a policy announcement was Ukip, in among their 8 per cent of the conversations. A third of those were negative (9 per cent positive) and those centred around both the party (“parody”, “pathetic”, “spent force”) and the policy on integration (“racist”, “bigots”). So, much to do there then . . .

In fact, they all have much to do and it may be that all that needs to happen is for the Conservatives to realise that fact and the social media data will begin to match the polling data. But if their sense of assumption and arrogance lingers, then Labour may make bigger inroads than they imagined, even if Corbyn remains a long, long way from Number 10.

Jimmy Leach is a former head of digital communications at 10 Downing Street