BLACKPOOL, England (Reuters) - When Britain’s election campaigning began, Peter Anthony, a candidate for the Conservatives, was hopeful that he could win in Blackpool, a working class town on England’s north-west coast. Though the seat he is standing for has been held by left-leaning Labour for 20 years, Anthony felt change was in the air.
“I‘m very optimistic,” he said last month, adding that the response he was getting from voters was “completely different” from the election in 2015.
Early polls suggested the centre-right Conservatives, led by Prime Minister Theresa May, could achieve an overall landslide, possibly even a majority as decisive as those held by Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first woman prime minister from 1979 to 1990.
But in the past few weeks the Conservatives’ lead – about 20 percentage points when the election was announced – has fallen. May’s campaign stumbled over a U-turn on social care policy, and she declined to take part in televised debates with her opponents. Meanwhile, the main opposition Labour party, led by Jeremy Corbyn, proposed increases in public spending that grabbed the attention of voters.
On Saturday a van and knife attack that killed seven people in the heart of London shifted the focus to security. Corbyn criticized May’s record as interior minister of cutting police numbers, and May said Corbyn was weak on terrorism.
Recent surveys have shown the Conservatives ahead of Labour by between 1 and 12 percentage points. Different poll models give a wide range of projected results. Some predict May will increase her majority, but one projection suggests she could lose parliamentary seats. Pollsters warn that much still depends on the level of voter turnout.
Anthony remains optimistic. A key reason: Last year, he, like the majority of Britons, backed the campaign to take Britain out of the European Union.
“It’s very, very difficult to find someone who didn’t support leaving the EU,” said Anthony as a train on the city’s landmark rollercoaster, the Big One, clattered around the tracks behind him.
His town is one of around 50 places where Labour’s majority is small enough for Conservatives to target voters who wanted out of Europe. The Conservatives, long more euroskeptic than Labour, have the largest chunk of pro-Brexit support, studies have shown. In particular, the Conservatives have picked up votes from the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which got nearly 13 percent of the vote in the 2015 election. UKIP now languishes at about 4 percent in the polls.
As the June 8 poll approaches, Brexit has partly receded as an important divider between the main parties. Last week Corbyn set out Labour’s approach to the issue, making plain that he, like May, sees no going back on Brexit. There was “no doubt,” he said, that Britain would leave the EU.
However, May has said she is willing for Britain to leave the EU without a deal if negotiations fail, while Corbyn has said he would not leave without an agreement.
It was in Blackpool in 1968 that a young Margaret Thatcher gave a speech to the Conservative Party conference on the theme “What’s wrong with politics?” Her answer - too much government – came to influence Britain for decades.
But May is no Thatcher. The launch of her party manifesto on May 18 was widely seen as nudging the Conservatives leftwards in a bid to seize the center ground. The manifesto adopted some of Labour’s previous policy proposals, including a promised cap on energy prices and new rights and protection for workers in the gig economy. While Labour’s campaign slogan is “For the many, not the few,” May has promised a country that works, “not for the privileged few, but for everyone.”
She has proposed new rules on business, including measures to restrict top-level executive pay, guarantee worker representation on boards, and new limits on “aggressive asset-stripping or tax avoidance” in takeovers. “We do not believe in untrammeled free markets,” the Conservative manifesto says. “We reject the cult of selfish individualism.”
But in a bid to balance the nation’s finances as well as be more inclusive, the Conservatives also floated one policy that caught voters’ attention. The party proposed that more of the costs of caring for the sick elderly should come from the sale of their homes. The new plan was quickly dubbed a “dementia tax” in the media.
There was a furor and May backtracked. While May had campaigned on a slogan of “strong and stable government,” the spotlight turned onto her willingness to make U-turns. The party’s “strong and stable” mantra was widely mocked on social media.
At a press conference, May said “nothing has changed.” A spokesman said: “Categorically, we haven’t done a U-turn.” But the Conservatives’ lead in the polls began to erode.
Under Corbyn, Labour has moved away from the center ground once occupied by Tony Blair, who won three elections for the party between 1997 to 2005. A veteran from the trade union movement, Corbyn has a track record of radical activism, often voting against the government when Labour was in power, and he still presents himself as an outsider.
His manifesto promises include nationalization of energy and water supplies, investing 250 billion pounds ($320 billion) over 10 years in infrastructure, more staff for the National Health Service, police and fire services, an end to tuition fees for students, more free childcare, extra holidays, and higher taxes on business and the top 5 percent of earners.
He has courted young people and won hundreds of thousands of followers on social media. Labour traditionally polls well among young people and about a million new voters aged 18 to 24 have registered to vote since the election was announced.
Turnout may prove crucial. Past experience indicates that the young are far less likely to vote than the elderly, who favor the Conservatives.
Corbyn, 68, began the campaign lowly rated as a leader and potential prime minister by many voters - and even by some of his own party candidates. On May 22 the Labour contender in Sedgefield, the constituency which sent Blair to parliament, wrote a note to his constituents, saying: “I am no supporter of Theresa May and I am no supporter of Jeremy Corbyn – the only people I support are you.”
But recently Corbyn’s ratings have improved. In a survey late last month by YouGov, a pollster, 35 percent of respondents rated Corbyn favorably, up from only 22 percent a month previously.
An adviser in Corbyn’s campaign said his improved ratings reflected how broadcasters must give balanced coverage of campaigning and that “many voters are seeing the real Jeremy and Labour’s policies unfiltered for the first time, and many are liking what they see.”
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Editing by Sara Ledwith and Richard Woods