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.

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