Friday, 6 October 2017

The Conservatives’ conundrum

While Britain’s political commentators concern themselves with the Conservative leadership, Conservatives must pay attention to their real problems. The Conservative brand has suffered as a result of the 2017 General Election. However, if the party regains its credibility it has a chance to become a winning force once again.

It is no shock that the polls are not moving much

Given that most have voters are not professional politics watchers, we should not be surprised that the twists and turns occurring in SW1 do not affect their opinions.

Among Westminster watchers there was surprise that problems surrounding the Prime Minister’s 2017 Conference Speech were not reflected in YouGov’s post-conference season polling. ‘The latest YouGov/Times voting intention survey find the Conservatives on 40 per cent (from 39 per cent on 22-24 September, the date of our last poll) and Labour on 42 per cent (from 43 per cent). Both changes are well within the margin of error, so the story of the change between this poll and the previous one is very much “nothing to see here.”’[1]

This seemed to come as a surprise to the political class, which has been speculating feverishly that issues the Prime Minister’s premiership might end due to her conference speech. Yet, for a family on average incomes that has just received its quarterly bills and had to find the money to send the children back to school, why would any political speech be particularly relevant? More specifically ‘what does a cough mean to me and my family?’

In the absence of any compelling narrative voters have no reason to re-evaluate their views  

Politicians’ preoccupation with political stakeholders has blinded them to the fact they have been preaching to the choir. The media’s narrative that Labour is ascendant and the Conservatives are on the slide has skewed both parties’ perception. The press has built the idea that Labour is ‘connecting’ by pointing to the popularity of particular policies e.g. nationalising the railways. It has contrasted this with the Conservatives’ policies, which are supposedly not connecting. However, these are unsubstantiated assertions. As pointed out by respected polling analyst, Matt Singh, the last six polls before 2017 conference season showed two Conservative leads, two Labour leads and two ties.[2] Rather than the picture presented by the media, the facts illustrate that the positions of the two parties has not really changed since June’s General Election.

The media has made the classic poll reading error of thinking what’s popular in abstract will sway voters in practice. The fact neither Ed Miliband or Jeremy Corbyn won General Elections, despite how well their ideas poll, illustrates the pitfall of doing this. In truth since June both parties have hovered around their General Election 2017 vote shares, unable to attract enough votes from elsewhere to break clear of the other.

Since 8 June 2017 neither the Conservatives or Labour has been able to convince the British public to rethink the conclusions they came to that day. Hence, the current stasis.

There is an opportunity for Conservatives to move the dial if they can address their real issues

I believe the reason neither party can establish a decisive lead over the other is because both score poorly on credibility. I was a member of the Conservative Research Department (CDRD) when Lynton Crosby took control of our 2015 General Election campaign. One of the first things he taught us was that if voters do not believe in you, they will not believe in what you commit to doing. Research from Lord Ashcroft shows that, at present, the Conservatives are just three points ahead of Labour when it comes to being ‘competent and credible.’ Neither side is viewed as such by more than 30 per cent of the electorate either.[3]

Both sides can make whatever promises they want to and it won’t matter, as neither has been able to convince the British people they have the credibility to deliver. Until one side does this, short of some unaccounted for external event, I see little chance of the polls changing significantly. The British electorate has no impetus to relook at the parties and think one is more likely to do what it says.

The Conservatives major advantage is that you win by governing, to cite another Lynton Crosby maxim. As the Conservatives are presently in power, they are in a position to demonstrate that they can govern credibly. This is something that Labour cannot do from opposition. If the Conservatives can regain a firm footing, and demonstrate the ability to govern effectively with purpose and competence, they may be able to rebuild the competence and credibility lead they previously had. This in turn will mean when the Conservatives make commitments those will be believed not dismissed. The one potential thing undermining this is the perception that the party is disunited, something else reflected in Aschcroft’s research. However, provided the party can hold the line, and oversee a period of calm and stability, I would not be surprised to see its electoral outlook to improve markedly.

[1] YouGov Press Release, 6 October 2017, link
[2] Matt Singh, Twitter, 23 September 2017, link
[3] Lord Aschcroft Polls, The Conservative brand – and how voters compare the Labour and Tory agendas with their own, 30 September 2017, link

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Reflections of a tired campaign volunteer

The Conservatives lost our majority during the 2017 General Election and below I will outline why I think that was. I was not central to the 2017 General Election campaign. I do not market my views as those of an ‘insider.’ If someone more deeply involved in the decision making described me as a peripheral part-timer I would not disagree. However, having volunteered on both the 2015 and 2017 Conservative General Election campaigns, I believe that I have seen enough to make the observations I have.

The 2017 Conservative General Election campaign was not built on a well seeded narrative. The work for the 2015 General Election campaign began years before voting took place. I was an employee of the Conservative Research Department (CRD) in 2013, the point at which Lynton Crosby and Mark Textor assumed control of our 2015 campaign. On the first day Lynton and Tex sat down with CRD they explained precisely what we were trying to achieve and why: what strengths of ours we were trying to maximise and what weaknesses of Labour’s we were going to play on. From that point on our focus on those things was relentless. We spent two years hammering home the message of our long term economic plan to secure Britain’s future. The media hated it, the British people however understood it. When the 2015 General Election arrived there was a narrative we had developed, which meant the framing for it was the economy. Any other issues, regardless of how popular (and some of Miliband’s policies in isolation were very, very popular), took a back seat. Why? Because voters had been conditioned to think about the economy when they went to the ballot box. So the election came down to ‘who do you trust on the economy?’ That was where the negative work we had done on Ed Miliband’s credibility paid off. It did not matter what Labour were promising, they were not as trusted as we were to deliver. In the context of the narrative we had created, our strengths counted more than theirs. Their weaknesses were magnified and ours minimised. By contrast, the very nature of snap election makes it hard to seed a narrative. Rather than two years, the campaign had two weeks before Parliament was dissolved to try to get the British people to see the election through the prism we wanted: Brexit. That meant the campaign was vulnerable to being blown of course unless any noises off were minimised.

Questions about our 2017 General Election manifesto changed the battlefield for us, as a consequence of not having had the time to frame the contest. As a result of our narrative not being well-seeded our strengths on Brexit could not be maximised. Generally speaking, people vote based upon what they feel is most likely to guarantee a secure and more prosperous future for them and their families. Due to the lack of time we had, we struggled to make the emotional connection between Brexit and these issues. There was a desire to show how a good Brexit would support the good jobs, strong public services and other things of importance to the electorate. However, when the 2017 General Election manifesto was published it contained new policies that prompted questions. In strategic terms, to a large extent, the intellectual merits of these policies was irrelevant. Their import was that they diverted the conversation from where we wanted and needed it to be, given the little time we had to drive home our narrative. In 2015, even with two years of preparation, the General Election manifesto we produced was relatively light on any new policy. Anything new had to be immediately understandable to voters. Anything that might cause confusion and take the narrative away from where we wanted it was minimised. This time around that does not appear to have happened. All polls noted a drop off in our support at the time the manifesto was published (and the differences between the polls more or less just reflect their turnout assumptions). Confusion led to uncertainty, which opened up a new conversation where Brexit was simply less relevant. People began judging their economic security around social care and how they would fund their children’s lunches. Arguably, from that point, it was not possible to recover our position. My youth and inexperience may betray me but I have never seen a party lose a narrative during a campaign and subsequently regain it.

People may dispute this analysis and point to other things I have omitted to discuss. My sense is that everything else falls within the context of the items outlined above. Lack of time to develop a narrative, then failing to minimise the risk of being dragged away from our narrative, led to our disappointing result.