MAY Theresa menacing

A Conservative MP took my breath away yesterday – something that I thought none were any longer capable of doing.  I rang him to ask what, in his view, the Party should do next.  His answer was, in effect: nothing.  Election campaigns, he said, don’t matter.  The outcome on May 7 will have been decided long before the “short campaign” started the week before last.

George Osborne’s tilt at Labour over tax, Tony Blair’s Europe speech, the tit-for-tat over non-doms, Michael Fallon’s hit at Ed Miliband, yesterday’s rail announcements and – presumably – today’s pledge of on-the-day GP appointments for older people from the Conservatives and a midwife for each new mother from Labour: none of this week’s events have made any difference, at least according to him.

His argument is all the more infuriating because it is impossible to disprove.  As Lewis Baston pointed out in a magisterial article on this site (“Do election campaigns help to decide the results?”), one cannot prove what would have happened if what actually happened hadn’t happened at all.  Nor does wrestling with differences between election polls and outcomes yield much joy.

This not simply because a poll, as Lord Ashcroft keeps reminding us, is a snapshot and not a forecast – and it follows that we should not be surprised when results differ from findings.  It is also because poring over old data tells us only so much: the pollsters have smartened up their act since the 1992 election, so it may not make a lot of sense to compare today’s with that of, say, 20 years ago.

Come to think of it, our proprietor came close to making my MP friend’s case on ConservativeHome yesterday, when he wrote that “parties cannot change in four weeks what they’ve failed to change in five years”.  This is not quite to claim that the short campaign changes nothing, but it is to point out that political parties can’t correct fundamental flaws in less than a month.

If you want to get a sense of the complexities involved in trawling old data, have a look at these exchanges between Rob Ford, Stephen Fisher and Jonathan Jones (academics all, with a sharp interest in elections), our former columnist Stephen Tall and Lewis himself yesterday on Twitter.  Which returns me to the latter’s original piece for this site.

“It seems unlikely that a period of intense political campaigning and coverage in the media, directed at a general public who have not been paying politics much interest and towards a quarter of whom say they make up their mind at the last minute, has no real effect,” Lewis wrote.  Hear, hear.  This is the voice of common sense – especially given that half of voters were still floating a month ago.

Furthermore, while trawling the past doesn’t tell us everything, it can tell us something.  Lewis quoted the British Election Study in writing that “it is conceivable that a better Conservative campaign in 2005 could have deprived Labour of a working, or even overall, majority”.  He also suggests that Labour’s “longest suicide note in history” campaign in 1983 made a difference.

And then, of course, there is 1992, as he points out – the example which some senior Tories return to again and again when asked how an overall majority is possible.  I believe that this is not comparing like with like, and that their predictions of a big swing to the Conservatives are acquiring a Harold Camping-type flavour. (He’s the American evangelist who kept setting back dates for The Rapture.)

Certainly, Downing Street and CCHQ believe that the short campaign period matters: if they didn’t, they would not have striven so hard to avoid a TV head-to-head between David Cameron and Ed Miliband taking place during it.  And my friend himself believes that local campaigning makes a difference, especially in the marginals: if he didn’t, he wouldn’t be doing it himself, after all.

One returns to the obvious.  This is not a campaign that can re-invent the Conservatives or will get them to 40 per cent or over.  But it is their best shot of achieving 35 per cent or so.  Its core issue is the economy – one that has worked recently for other right-of-centre Anglosphere leaders, such as John Key and Tony Abbott.  And anyway, it is too late to switch horses.  That would be – and look like – panic.

But while it can’t be torn up, it can be tweaked.

  • The moral argument.  Miliband’s attack on non-doms is a reminder that ideas and momentum matter in politics.  Downing Street and CCHQ clearly agree, since the point of Fallon’s personal attack on the Labour leader was to change the campaign subject.  Miliband will be back with assaults on other symbolic targets: the directors of energy and railway companies, top-rate taxpayers, Tory MPs with outside interests and (of course) bankers.  The Conservative response will need to be sharper and more coherent than it was last week, when it varied between arguing that squeezing non-doms would harm the economy and pointing out that the Government has squeezed them already.
  • Deploying third parties.  A core element of the Tory campaign is pointing out that Labour will send taxes soaring.  It learned last week that it will be hard to get this going.  In 1992, Neil Kinnock and John Smith presented a big target in the form of a shadow budget.  This time round, Ed Balls, a veteran of election campaigns, is presenting a smaller one.  A press conference that George Osborne called to raise questions about which taxes Labour would raise turned into one about which welfare savings he would find.  To hit home, CCHQ and Downing Street need more help from third parties – and not the usual suspects.  But they know this well already.
  • Women.  If part of your message is negative, it is best spoken softly rather than stridently.  CCHQ points out that Conservative women Ministers are out and about on the media all the time: Nicky Morgan did LBC last week; Theresa May did a media round.  But since part of the campaign’s aim is to persuade floating voters that the SNP is coming to wreck the economy, there is an even bigger role for these senior women and others – after all, Sam Cameron can’t win this election all on her own. The markets are not very steady at the moment. That ought to concentrate a few floating voters’ minds.  Labour’s poll uptick can perhaps be used to advantage.  It may even have come at more or less the right time.

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