This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
Clare Hilley James Knight
Foreword and introduction
Centralisation and imposition Central management Imposition on grassroots
Election campaign strategy TV debates One man band Coordination Failure to prepare
Communications and messaging Failure to create a single message Unclear and unpopular messages Failing to establish a Conservative narrative
Introduction Over the last four years the Conservative Party under David Cameron has been working towards securing a workable majority in Parliament. However, as the first few results from key marginal seats came in at 2am on Friday May 7th the people of Britain knew that their country was heading to its first hung parliament in 36 years. With swings between 0-1% needed to win the first key seats it was assumed by all that they would be gained by the Conservatives but almost half of this key number were retained by the Liberal Democrats including; Cheltenham, Somerton & Frome, Eastleigh and Westmorland & Lonsdale. In Cheltenham a 0.33% swing was required in order for the Conservatives to win but yet they only managed to increase the share of vote marginally above what it achieved in the 2005 general election under Michael Howard's leadership. This report analyses the reasons why the Conservatives failed to win an additional 20 seats which would have given them a clear majority over the other political parties.
Three major conclusions: 1. The centralisation of the selection and the imposition of candidates demoralised the grassroots and failed to convince voters. 2. The tightly controlled campaign failed to listen to those on the ground, focussed on advertising not canvassing and failed to utilise the depth of the team around David Cameron. 3. There was no clear, consistent Conservative message for campaigners to push on the doorstep.
Centralisation and imposition Cameron has always had one key aim: to re-brand the Conservative Party. His methods to do so all meant a tightening of control from the centre – in terms of policy decisions, running of the central office and candidate selections. The essential tenets of ‘Project Cameron’ have left office staff at the centre and local activists across the country isolated and cut off. For the most part, this is less to do with policy – only immigration remains the great elephant in the room – but the manner in which Cameron has run the party. Central management Team Cameron is an infamously tight and inaccessible clique. Guided by ex ad man Steve Hilton and tabloid editor Andy Coulson, Cameron has surrounded himself by the few and shut the door to the many. Such was the distortion of power towards individual members of Cameron’s inner circle, frustration of party staffers, even those relative senior, was apparent throughout. To manage the day-to-day running of the newly renamed Conservative Campaign Head Quarters (CCHQ), Team Cameron recruited external consultants from Deloitte. Other powerful figures were established too, Lord Ashcroft, the Deputy Chairman, took charge of the marginal seats campaign, personally funding candidates in around 100 key swing seats. By outsourcing expertise from the City, the Conservative Party managed to raise just over £18 million pounds for their general election campaign fund - significantly higher than both Labour and the Liberal Democrats. For many in the party centrally, these small pockets of power were hidden and totally inaccessible, leaving external management consultants trying to keep the office united and focused. Imposition on grassroots It was not just those at the centre that felt cut off by Cameron’s clique. Local associations up and down the country felt mistreated by CCHQ, with no issue more corrosive than the candidates ‘A-list’. Arguably the most important vehicle to bring the re-brand that Cameron sought was a more tactical – and central – involvement with the candidate selection process. Of course the new Cameroon lexicon was important, constant talk of change, a fresh, new start, provided the setting, but the primary reformation of the party was through more centrally controlled candidate selections. Absolving power from local constituencies, CCHQ began parachuting those on their regal ‘A-list’ into constituencies across the country. The A-list was created to help ensure a greater diversity, especially in terms of heightening levels of women, gay and ethnic minority in the Tory ranks. This soon
became a major bone of contention for many activists, rejecting the idea of central candidates being parachuted in to their area, with little or no relation to the constituency or idea of local environment. High-profile clashes in Norfolk and Westminster North, laid bare to all the resentment felt by local associations. Plenty more grumbled, but reassured by the scent of victory, kept quiet. Team Cameron has much to answer for. The method of management from centre left responsibility of all big decisions in the hands of the few. While insistence on central involvement in local candidate selections weakened traditional base, and bred a deep-rooted rooted frustration across much of party. the the the the
Election campaign strategy David Cameron started his election campaign with a speech on the bank of the River Thames where he cried to his supporters, "You don't have to put up with another five years of Gordon Brown." He then got into his ‘Change’ battle-bus and made his way to the key marginal seat of Birmingham Edgbaston where he visited patients at Queen Elizabeth Hospital. The Conservatives needed a 2% swing to win this key seat and yet they did not achieve this. One of the reasons why the Conservatives failed to win this key target seat as well as other key target seats needed for an overall majority is due to the missed opportunities and strategic problems throughout the election campaign. TV debates The first major error was when David Cameron gave his agreement to give Nick Clegg, the Leader of the Liberal Democrats, an equal platform in the televised debates. Nick Clegg excelled in the first – and therefore most important – debate, with 51% of the audience awarding him victory, leaving David Cameron at 20% and Gordon Brown 19%. Clegg’s ‘anti-politics’ rhetoric and ability to look distant from the other two ‘old parties’ engaged the audience and, crucially, negated much of the change message Cameron had sought to highlight. As the post-debate investigations began, it became clear Cameron and his team had completely underestimated Clegg’s chances, with Cameron barely briefed on the Liberal Democrat policies. Cameron, against pre-debate perception, also appeared nervous. For the last two debates, Cameron hired new aides to help him with his voice, speaking at a lower pitch and more clearly. A naturally able and confident speaker, yet Cameron failed at these debates. When the environment was sterile and more partisan, Cameron often looked detached and frustrated. Both the initial acceptance of the debate, and then the failure to prepare effectively, were blows to the campaign.
Coordination Throughout the election campaign the election team strategists that consisted of Andy Coulson, Steve Hilton and George Osborne. George Osborne was appointed elections co-ordinator, but only on a part-time basis as he shared this with the role of Shadow Chancellor. As a result, Osborne became a figure only sporadically seen, drifting in and out of the campaign. With such a crucial position enforced on Osborne as a job share, he was unable to do either effectively. He did not attack Gordon Brown’s record on the economic over the last term of the Labour government and failed to outline the cuts that would occur under a Conservative led government – leaving a key member of the team a point of attack for the other parties. One man band As Cameron’s team blundered on, touring the country on the battle-bus, they took all the media attention with them. The key advisors only briefed the media about where David Cameron’s was going, failed to alert them that William Hague, Eric Pickles, Baroness Warsi and others were busy campaigning across the UK. It was a risk to run a campaign around David Cameron alone, making it look that his front bench team who sit behind him are not fit for purpose. A more visible team looks more like a government in waiting. Failing to prepare The Conservatives also faced a number of negative headlines during the campaign, as they failed to prepare for criticisms that came their way. Unlike the Labour campaign in 1997, who rigorously scrutinised and fireproofed each policy proposal or potential difficult story. This occurred with one of David Cameron’s flagship policies at the beginning of the campaign. Tax breaks for married couples was one of the first policies mooted by David Cameron and, yet during the campaign under questioning he gave out mixed messages about the extent and scope of the policy. This was followed by a hasty clarification of what was meant, the end result being that any positive feelings towards the policy were diminished by the uncertainty. In addition to this, they also seemed to be caught on the back foot when the issue of Lord Ashcroft’s tax status came under increase scrutiny. Given that they had known that this had been an issue in the past and was likely to emerge again, they failed to create a consistent line on the issue. Again, by being unprepared and giving off unconvincing responses meant that the damage the issue did to the campaign was greater than it would have been if they had spent more time preparing their arguments.
Even when questioned on absolutely key policies and those within the inner circle, a lack of consistency led to perceptions of a confused, muddled leadership, saying different things to different audiences. Communications and messaging The key to any successful campaign is the messaging that you use. No amount of money or foot soldiers can deliver success without a theme that runs through the campaign delivered using messages that are succinct, consistent and clear. Bill Clinton’s successful campaign of 1992 was summed up by his campaign manager in 4 words “it’s the economy, stupid”. While it said very little of what was planned it showed that the campaigns major focus was on the state of the economy in the US at that time. Failing to establish a single key message The Conservative’s main failure was establishing a single campaign theme. While “change” was a major theme of the campaign so too during the election was the “big society”, and fixing our “broken society” for the years prior to this. They made a further mistake by altering their messaging from the “broken society”, which they had used for the 4 years previously, to the vague “big society” theme. They were in opposition for so long that the “broken society” message that dominated the agenda up until the campaign was seen to be old and too negative. So they adopted the more positive “big society” message for the actual campaign. This was a crucial mistake as a key theme that had been delivered over 4 years, which was beginning to have some resonance, changed at the last minute, greatly limiting its overall impact. Unclear and unpopular messages The Conservatives attempted to follow Kennedy’s trumpeting call to arms of “ask not what your Government can do for you, but what you can do for the Government” with their manifesto entitled, ‘An invitation to join the government of Britain’. This included policies for; electing police commanders and mayors by local residents; establishing state funded ‘free schools’ that are run by parents, teachers’ charities and voluntary groups; 5000 community organisers appointed to rebuild their neighbourhoods through social action projects and lastly annual caps on non-EU migration would be imposed, favouring those who ‘bring most value’ to the economy. When voters were questioned and polled after this manifesto launch the majority of them were confused at how they would fit running a school, painting their local council estate and running their local library in their lives. In a ComRes poll for ITV News and the Independent on April 13th it put the Conservatives at 36%, Labour at
31% and the Liberal Democrats on 19%. This disappointed the Conservatives immensely and a lot of Conservative MPs who were defending small majorities wondered why they couldn’t launch four clear pledges such as; lower taxes; cutting waste within the public sector; improving the NHS and sorting out the current budget deficit. Failing to establish a Conservative narrative One striking feature about the nature of the Conservative campaign was the degree in which they ceded ground to the opposition in key policy areas and failed to create a Conservative narrative which could resonate with the electorate. The clearest example was on health policy. The main Conservative messages that the party were looking to push was that they would protect funding to the NHS as it was such a vital service. This meant that, despite some smaller policies, on an independent board for example, they had failed to create a “Conservative narrative” on the NHS. By conceding to the Labour Party argument, the message that the campaign put out was that the Labour Party had it right on the NHS. What’s more, a key issue for many in the country – immigration – was left relatively quiet. Cameron’s team were hesitant to run with it as extensively as they had done in the 2001 and 2005 general elections, fearing the possible results. This was a huge strategic error. Polling clearly shows that immigration rates highly on the list of voters concerns. Moreover, not much covered in the days since, but both the BNP and UKIP advanced in this election, increasing their votes by around 1% of the national vote. In particular, although support for individual candidates may have looked derisory in some constituencies, put together UKIP overall polled some 900,000 votes, making it easily the fourth largest party. In more than 20 seats which the Tories failed to win or hold, UKIP’s vote more than cancelled out the extent by which the Tories lost. While second guessing voters retrospectively is admittedly dangerous, it is fair to propose a decent amount of these UKIP voters might just have been won over with a stronger Conservative narrative.
Conclusions The effect of the issues outlined above was to: 1. 2. 3. 4. Demoralise the party faithful Confuse the electorate looking for a simple narrative Turn off traditional Tory supporters Fell behind Labour on the number of people that had been talked too during the campaign
The ramifications of these issues are fairly clear. Firstly, high profile candidates lost local party support and failed to convince new voters. Despite column inches and often national media focus, criticisms of arrogant and assumptive campaigns are now rife. Swing voters that had switched allegiance in 1997 simply did not buy it. These shiny new Cameroons felt too imposed, too fake and turned off the traditional voters. As the counts were finalised early last Friday morning, it became clear many of the A-listers had been rejected by the electorate. High profile candidates, all previously tipped not just for electoral victory, but a quick rise to ministerial rank, failed to get the swing needed. Philipa Stroud, the co-founder of influential Centre for Social Justice; Wilfred Emanuel-Jones, the entrepreneur who began the Black Farmer organic food range and was a pin-up for the new diverse Tory brand; and Shaun Bailey, the young black charity worker in Hammersmith, all fell foul of the unsuccessful campaign. The failure to win over the electorate was not helped by an over reliance on leafleting and advertising. Voters on doorstep complained of being talked at not talked too. In the end, these seats epitomised much of the Cameron campaign: unable to effectively resonate and connect with voters. Local associations cried out for clearer simpler messaging and more control. Conservative canvassers frequently reported the difficulty of pushing the confusing messages on the doorstep. Yet, CCHQ remained committed to their way of doing things, behind closed doors and unable to hear grassroots concerns. While the hard work of local party activists was never in doubt, they were too often left demoralised and frustrated by CCHQ. If Project Cameron had focused on simple, clear, Conservative messages, making direct contact with the electorate and ensuring that all in the party felt part of the team, they may well have managed to govern the country without the reliance on their new Lib Dem partners.
Clare Hilley Clare is currently a Councillor in the London Borough of Croydon and Chairman of London Conservative Future. As a Conservative Party member for over 12 years she has helped out at ground level during the last three elections. During the election Clare helped to campaign in key marginal seats across the UK.
James Knight James a member of the Conservative Party and Founder of political campaigning firm Get Elected. James spent time on a number of campaigns with Conservative Party candidates in the run up to the 2010 election.
Shaping reputations, influencing opinions Apex is a strategic communications agency with expertise in developing stakeholder and media relations, and delivering integrated public affairs campaigns. To find out more please visit www.apexcommunications.com or contact the Apex team on firstname.lastname@example.org or 020 7467 9280.
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue reading from where you left off, or restart the preview.