What can we expect from the 2024 general election?

Rishi Sunak’s decision to call a general election took many by surprise – sparking even more interest and debate than a typical national election.

We asked Professor Paul Baines, a world-renowned expert on political marketing at the University of Leicester, what we can expect to see in the run up to 4 July.

He argues that the Conservative Party made a huge mistake in picking this date, and that even the right marketing probably won’t be able save it…

What should the main parties be focusing on in the last few weeks?

In this period of deep economic uncertainty, the Conservative Party needs to reinforce a clear message of the prospect of economic recovery, particularly after the short-lived and disastrous Truss government. The Conservatives need to regain trust, which means putting forward plans that are linked to clear improvements in economic growth, but also in maintaining fiscal stability. This is a tall order and is unlikely to be achieved in the short period of the election.

As far as Labour is concerned, it needs to present itself as an alternative government to the one we’ve currently got. It’s been reasonably successful on this front in the last couple of weeks, but we would need to see more of that. Labour also needs a clear set of plans for different policies, such as on defence policy which is hugely important at the moment with the potential problems from Russia and China. A particular problem for Labour is its policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which is, of course, deeply felt by many of its supporters. If it isn’t handled well, that group of their voters may cast their votes elsewhere.

Elsewhere there are interesting dynamics that could affect the poll results. What happens in Scotland is very important for the national picture, as Labour need to win more seats there. How the Scottish National Party (SNP) shores up its votes is therefore critical. The party’s fortunes have been troubled recently and it seems to be losing its way. In order to get back on track, a clear roadmap for independence is needed – but Westminster is unlikely to grant that any time soon.

In terms of the Liberal Democrats, the party has not really managed to reposition itself since the end of the coalition government in 2015. It had its chance against Brexit by positioning itself as pro-European, but this isn’t a position it would benefit from now given the post-Brexit consensus to remain out of Europe. I think the Lib Dems need to focus on regional successes and gain as much strength as it can in areas where it has traditionally been strong, including the South West, Cornwall, parts of London and parts of Scotland. It’s important for it to strengthen its policies around the areas it’s most passionate about, such as drug policy, education, community and housing.

Then we have the wildcard, Reform, headed up again by Nigel Farage. The party’s strategy is to essentially out-Tory the Tories and it claims that it will hold Labour to account post-election, which is arguably a smart strategy. A recent YouGov poll put Reform and the Conservatives neck-and-neck, though support for Reform might not hold.

Can the right marketing win any of them the election?

When an election is tight, marketing becomes critical. 

In this case – if we believe the opinion polls – the upcoming election doesn’t look to be tight. As it stands, Labour is 20 points ahead and thus has a very strong chance of winning. It’s worth noting that polls do tend to narrow closer to the election, so it’s possible that this majority will fade over the coming weeks, but this is quite unlikely. Following Labour’s performance in the 2019 election, it does need a really significant swing to get a majority, but the polling indicates it will achieve this.

Marketing for the Labour Party should focus on positioning Keir Starmer as a trustworthy figure to ensure he has traction with the electorate – and in particular gaining the trust of wavering voters, which Jeremy Corbyn previously failed to do. Making him a bit more exciting and interesting wouldn’t hurt his chances as voters do find him a bit dull and overall they are dissatisfied with his performance.

With one of its most unpopular leaders in recent times, marketing for the Conservative Party is even more problematic. Rishi Sunak has a very long way to climb with a net popularity rating according to Ipsos of -53%. So far we’ve seen the Tories position him as a focus of the campaign, which is probably the wrong way to go. Instead, the marketing should focus on re-establishing Conservative economic credibility, as well as highlighting the danger of putting Labour into office with its track record on defence policy. Sunak’s recent comment on ensuring there isn’t a Labour ‘supermajority’ is tactically quite clever as he seeks to create apathy amongst floating voters who might otherwise switch to Labour.

What PR disaster from previous elections sticks in your mind?

There have been lots of election PR fails – some real, some more trivial.

The most obvious one that comes to mind is the Sheffield Rally in 1992, where Labour leader (now Lord) Neil Kinnock notoriously struck a triumphalist tone but went on to lose the election. The rally, which took place a week before polling day, likely cost him the election, as voters sought to punish his complacency. Sir John Major came back into power in a very unexpected and tight result.

A more trivial example is the media parade around Ed Miliband in 2015. A photograph of the then-Labour Party leader clumsily eating a bacon sandwich became an internet meme and was used in a mocking front page of The Sun on the day before the 2015 election. Labour ended up losing quite convincingly to Lord (David) Cameron, demonstrating how bad PR can illustrate the weaknesses of the parties and its leaders in a way that resonates with the electorate.

How can both leaders unite their parties, or should they just press on and ignore current issues?

For Labour, the disunity stems from its position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So far, the party has glossed over the issue, which is probably the right way to proceed as it would otherwise become too much of a distraction for them.

The disunity for the Conservatives is around immigration policy and the struggle to get the policy through the courts. Half of the party think they should double down on it, whereas the other half think they should scrap it and focus on other things. To maintain unity, Sunak is trying to put the policy into suspension for now and pick it back up if the Conservatives win. Given immigration is only the fourth most important policy according to a recent Ipsos poll, they would be better focusing on the NHS, inflation and the economy, the top three issues cited by the public as the most concerning.

Will the Greens and Lib Dems get a fair shot in this election - why does Reform, which has zero MPs, get so much attention in the press?

Smaller parties always tend to struggle as they get less of a say in debates. I think the Liberal Democrats would have a fairer shot if the party was more vocal. Interestingly enough, the Green Party is on the rise and could potentially split the Labour vote in some areas. With climate change being a top ten issue, the Party has increasing traction, especially among young people (who rate the issue as even more important), and this group is somewhat disenfranchised. Many issues, such as soaring house prices and the cost of education, are not being tackled by the two main parties, which may lead young people to place their vote elsewhere. I think the Greens will pick up a slightly higher share of the vote than they have previously, but it will not necessarily translate to seats.

Reform gets so much press attention because it is a disruptor party. Nigel Farage is a Marmite figure – as much as many people intensely dislike him, equally a lot of people really like him. He is a very Trumpian, popularist figure with a knack for campaigning and gaining media attention. In this sense he is a gifted politician – if the media don’t cover him, they feel as though they are missing a trick. It is looking likely that Reform will reduce the Conservative popular vote further, and therefore increase the size of the Labour majority by splitting the right-wing vote as a sizable tranche of 2019 Conservative ‘red wall’ voters consider defecting to Reform.

Do policies and manifestos actually mean anything, these days?

Policies will always mean something because they are the means by which voters differentiate one party from another. Key issues usually make up 30% of the vote, while 40% comes from party leaders and the other 30% is from party image typically. This is what Sir Robert Worcester of Ipsos referred to as the ‘political triangle’, but the balance changes in each election. So far during this election there seems to be more of a focus on the leaders, but that doesn’t mean voters will vote based on that. I would say, broadly speaking, that party policies do mean a lot to voters, especially policies that respond to some of society’s more pressing issues, like NHS wait times, rising inflation and expensive mortgages. This election is very much about the economy and household income, and issues linking to those, including inflation, tax, and cost of living,

What issues are both parties not tackling, which the public want them to tackle?

Housing is an increasingly important issue. Labour has made it a focus of their campaign. I can see this issue becoming more central to the concerns of particularly young people and impacting on how they vote. Young people 18-34 tend to get overlooked and hence a raw deal in politics: they graduate with lots of debt after university, have trouble getting their first house because house prices are high, and struggle to get into good paying jobs because there is so much competition for these. I also think the public would like to see a much prouder and more assertive Britain – one where British values are strongly upheld and with a much stronger certainty of the country’s role in the world. This is something that I haven’t seen the parties tackling at all really.

Should individual candidates concentrate on local issues, rather than national ones their party want them to concentrate on?

It depends. It’s a decision process: if a party is popular enough, candidates can leverage their party’s popularity in addition to their own. If a party’s image is seriously in the doldrums, candidates may be more inclined to push their personal agenda and highlight the positives they individually bring to their constituency.

I would argue that marketing can be significant for MPs as a way to increase their vote - although there are of course spending limits. Traditional methods such as canvassing and posters remain important, but social media has become an increasingly valuable tool and no self-respecting would-be MP should operate without it. It is absolutely fundamental that MPs utilise social media to show how active they are in their communities, and to appear on the news talking about important issues. Publicity can be crucial at a local level in supporting MPs to get themselves elected.

And finally, will this be a predictable election?

In some ways it looks to be a predictable election. Ladbrokes, the bookies, have the chance of Labour forming the next government with a majority at 93%. I think it was a huge mistake for the Conservatives to call a July election in the first place – it should have been held off until mid-November. It’s possible that the Tories decided to run the election now because it was felt that things couldn’t get any worse, but I think it should have been held off until mortgage interest rates had come down – which they are likely to do - and people’s mortgages would have reduced as a result. People would have also had a bit more time to feel the positive impact of tax reductions too that were said to be worth £340 per year for the average earner in the 2024/2025 tax year.

Some sort of political event could always change the odds, as events can have a big impact on outcomes. The Madrid terrorist attack in 2003, for example, brought about a change in the governing party in Spain. But this is highly unlikely with only two weeks or so left to go.  Will this be the most boring election ever? Probably not, but it won’t be the most interesting either since both main party leaders are unpopular! All this points to a lower turnout election, probably in the low 60s in percentage terms.