Published:

Follow Stephan on Twitter.

The two biggest obstacles to winning elections are intellectual laziness and physical laziness. It's inherently very hard for the Conservatives to win an outright majority given the current state of the economy, the existing constituency boundaries, the poor condition of the campaigning machine, the trickiness of coalition, the absence of any real of pro-Conservative enthusiasm, and the historic trend against the two-party establishment. And yet pundits still try to offer strategic solutions in a few choice words.

Take this statement: "Tories can't outflank UKIP on the nutty right, they must fight for the centre". Nine out of ten wannabe gurus nod happily at that.  But how useful is it really? One classic test is to state the opposite and see if that has any meaning; so: "Tories can outflank UKIP on the nutty right, they must fight for the extremes". If this second statement is obviously daft, then the first statement is obviously pointless. It provides no useful clue on how to win a campaign, it's just about the posturing of the author.

This is where the guru is dangerous to campaigns: truisms are obstacles to genuine analysis and useful action. Right now, the battle of the pundits is focused, absurdly, on defining the exact singular location of the hidden hoard of votes needed for victory: to the left, or to the right? In the centre, or on the flank? Under that bush, or behind that tree? Armchair strategists are having fun.


But there is no 'centre' that combines the mid-points of all the big policy options, where the persuadables are helpfully masse . The votes you need are to be found in handfuls, along a big variety of bell-curves, and you don't have the luxury of ignoring the ones you don't like. In any case, where's the centre-point on tax, immigration, growth, Europe, crime? There is no single core message that brings the lost voters running back – they are not dogs waiting for the whistle nor even children demanding a story.

The reality is that the landscape is highly fractured. The Eastleigh by-election showed us that. There were no big winners nor big losers. The key reminders were that a) the LibDems won't simply collapse – even if their vote declines, they will hang on to most of their seats; and b) Ukip can keep gaining votes. That tells you the big trend of reducing vote-share for the top two parties is likely to continue, making majorities harder (especially for the Conservatives).

Under these conditions you must be smart to locate votes wherever you can, and work hard to make sure they are cast your way. These essential tasks cannot be achieved by people who can't be bothered to think in detail and won't organise energetically. This isn't a cross-word puzzle with an aha-moment containable in a tweet-length solution. I refer back to the data-crunching effort and immense physical mobilisation of the two highly successful Obama campaigns, which lazy commentators prefer to think of – wrongly – in terms of the candidate's brilliant qualities rather than the machine's hard-achieved effectiveness.

*****

Only when we have accepted the prospect of the hard work ahead can we sensibly start talking about those themes that of course do sit on top of a cutting-edged data-driven campaign. I wouldn't deny that modern political battles are still fronted by a totemic candidate and he or she must have something useful to broadcast on the airwaves.

My YouGov colleague Peter Kellner has come up with his (only slightly ironic) acronym for what should be the Cameron mood-music, RIP: Reassurance, Integrity, Prosperity. I agree these are the qualities he must transmit, and they are well-suited to his strengths. His biggest polling advantage over Miliband is that he appears more Prime Ministerial.

But there is a second strain to consider. The traditional view is that elections are either about continuity or change. The incumbent tries to make it about the former – the nation needs 'more of the same' – while the challenger says 'it's time for a change'. So what happens if you are in a compromising coalition and you now want an absolute majority – are you trumpeting continuity or change?

I propose a twist. I suspect you can and indeed should do both, and not allow them to be contradictions. You must be establishment and anti-establishment at the same time.

Humanity has two profound longings: that things should stay the same, and that they should change. We want order, and we want to upset the apple-cart; comfort, and challenge; conservatism, and radicalism. Both sides are good. The tension between them is the basic dynamic of society.

And I believe they can indeed be contained in one person, in one campaign, without confusion. To Kellner's sound advice to Cameron about reassurance, I would add: but don't just play to your easy strengths, also pick up a new challenge; you can still take on the establishment, as you did when you fought for leader. Modernisation isn't just about gender, sexuality and the environment, it's also about being on the side of the 'little guy', the 'battler' (a theme Lynton Crosby of course understands well). A Prime Minister today needs to appear 'on our side'.

That is harder for David Cameron, but he can surely do it, and if he wants to escape coalition, he must find a way to reach not only those who fear change but also those who are missing out in the current dispensation. The bigger reward of an absolute majority, if it is achievable at all, can only be won by taking some risks. To reassurance, he must therefore also add a tough determination to fight entrenched interests wherever they block progress; and there's still a long way to go on that front.

> Stephan will be a keynote speaker at ConservativeHome's Victory 2015 Conference, this Saturday.

Comments are closed.