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Election Week 1: What were we talking about?

General Election 2024
Public Affairs
general election 2024

One week down. Five to go.

In that time we have had gaffes, memes, rows, speeches, photo ops, gimmicks and policy announcements.

Almost none of which will have cut through or – importantly – really stuck in the minds of voters.

In just one week we have had the Prime Minister’s rain-soaked election announcement to the backdrop of “Things can only get better”, asking the Welsh if they are looking forward to the Euros they won’t be playing in, being asked if he was captaining a sinking ship in the Titanic quarter of Belfast, and stripping the whip from a retiring Conservative MP for backing the Reform candidate to succeed her.

Farage announced he wouldn’t stand for election. Diane Abbott still doesn’t know if she’ll be allowed to.

Labour’s big letter from business leaders backing the party fizzled rather than banged. The party is now rowing publicly not just about Abbott but several left wingers having the rug pulled from under them and told they are no longer candidates, while allies of Starmer are parachuted into safe seats at the last minute.

The Conservatives have promised not to tax the state pension. Labour has promised to tackle NHS waiting lists. And been hastily forced to commit explicitly to not raising VAT. And Lib Dem leader Ed Davey has deliberately fallen off a paddle board on Lake Windermere just to try and get a bit of attention.

A lot of activity for one week.

And almost all of it will be a distant memory by polling day.

Probably the only part of the first week that has cut through was the Conservatives’ announcement to introduce national service over the bank holiday, which for better or worse dominated the news for days.

Campaigns are messy. Parties work round the clock to try and make them about what they want them to be about, but they never quite are. Things happen, someone says something stupid, something that seems trivial suddenly becomes existential.

In 2017, for instance an election that was supposed to be about delivering Brexit and killing off Corbyn’s Labour for good ended up being dominated by social care, something no-one was talking about one week into the campaign. After the first week, you couldn’t move without hearing the slogan “strong and stable”. By polling day it was “nothing has changed” that was remembered, mockingly, as the campaign crumbled, Brexit was thrown into doubt and Corbyn emerged strengthened.

Leaders who fight elections saying they are about one thing can quickly find they are about something completely different as far as the voters are concerned. 

Separating the signal from the noise in real time is incredibly difficult. The most important moment of this campaign probably hasn’t happened yet. Even it has we might only identify it in retrospect.

In a more fragmented media environment than ever, different things will also be cutting through to different segments of the electorate. TikTok – which barely any politicians were using a few years ago – has a bigger reach than Facebook and Instagram combined.

Next week’s first TV debate could shake things up – and will certainly give the parties’ social media teams plenty of new material – but how many can you really remember from the last few campaigns? And how many truly made a difference?

Fundamentally, the framing of this election is no different a week on from the day it was called. The Conservatives are 14 years deep into government and 20 points down, shaking up the board in the hope that something will turn up unexpectedly. Labour feel like they have one hand on the trophy but can’t say it, trying to keep the electorate’s minds focussed on the need for ‘change’ after 14 years without looking complacent.

Just as they have spent the first week of the campaign, then, both parties will spend the next five weeks desperately trying to steer the conversation back to what they want to talk about with an electorate that they know – for now at least – is still only half-listening.