Victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan. But while Michael Ashcroft is around, the Conservative Party can at least rely on him to point out, with tactless lucidity, the causal link between its defeats and the way the party is seen by the voters, which in turn has something to do with how the party actually is.
He did this first in Smell the Coffee: A wake-up call for the Conservative Party, his study of the 2005 general election defeat, which ended with the devastating words:
“The problem was not that millions of people in Britain thought the Conservative Party wasn’t like them and didn’t understand them; the problem was that they were right.”
Twelve years later, he reports, the “deeper misgivings that had held the party back for so long had not gone away”. Ashcroft has discussed his findings in The Daily Telegraph, and today on ConHome, but a reading of the whole hundred pages of his book should be undertaken by anyone who wants to think about what went wrong in the 2017 general election, and how to set about correcting it.
The paradox of 2017 is that by recent standards, the Conservatives did very well, with the party gaining 5.5 percentage points compared to 2015, and recording its highest share of the vote since 1983. The problem almost no one foresaw (I certainly didn’t) was that Labour would end up only two points, or under 800,000 votes, behind.
What went wrong? Why did Theresa May commit the “giant miscalculation”, as Ashcroft calls it, of trading in a working majority for a hung Parliament? How did the party manage to miss out on the greatly increased majority which had so confidently been expected?
One thought prompted by this book is that in politics, rigidity of mind can be fatal. It is tempting to reach an analysis which is correct at the time, and hold on to it long after various developments have rendered it wrong.
When she called the general election, May seemed to be heading for a great victory, with opinion polls showing a vast Conservative lead over Labour, and Jeremy Corbyn written off as hopeless.
But politics is a fluid business, and this huge lead, though confirmed by anecdotal evidence gathered by campaigners and journalists, also concealed, or distracted attention from, the opportunity which the election presented to Labour.
May told the country the election was about Brexit. But as Ashcroft remarks, for millions of people “this was not the Brexit election at all”. For Labour supporters who had voted Leave in the referendum, Brexit was less important than the NHS.
The voters did not want a single-issue campaign. They were looking for a party which “wants to help ordinary people get on in life” and “stands for fairness”, and on a list of 15 qualities of that kind, put to 20,000 people in Ashcroft’s post-election survey, the Conservatives were ahead on only two: “willing to take tough decisions for the long term” (by a 22-point margin) and “competent and capable” (by only three points).
The response was even worse when people were asked for the first word or phrase which came to mind when they thought of each of the two main parties. For the Conservatives, “rich”, “strong”, “liars” and “nasty” were the most commonly used words, all of them unprompted.
For Labour, the words “fair” and “fairness” appeared most often, and the idea “that the party was caring, was for the many not the few, and represented the working class also featured prominently”.
Ashcroft establishes that “more than half of those who voted Labour made their decision in the month before polling day, and more than a quarter in ‘the last few days’.” With the help of these late converts, Corbyn improved Labour’s performance by ten percentage points over the 2015 result.
In focus groups conducted by Ashcroft after the election, voters said the Tories had seemed “cold” and “distant”, and “were only interested in holding rallies for party members”, while Labour seemed “grounded in the community”. Corbyn “was going out meeting people, getting to the heart of what people really want”, while May sounded “quite naggy – she kept droning on the same message and it made me switch off”.
Labour had a far greater presence on social media, where a number of Tory policies were torn to shreds: “She’s on about bringing back fox hunting. I mean, what’s that? Tally-ho and running up and down and ripping foxes to pieces for the élite.”
Ashcroft suggests the Conservative victory under David Cameron in 2015 “came down to competence, leadership and the lack of a plausible alternative”. The party remains vulnerable when its competence and leadership are called into question, and when Labour starts, however unexpectedly and in Conservative eyes implausibly, to get its act together.
May’s observation in 2002 that some people see the Conservatives as “the nasty party” is still true, and her declaration on entering Downing Street that she wanted to help the people who are “just managing”, with the government “driven not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours”, was exactly right.
Her error was to run a general election campaign in which these aspirations were almost entirely obscured by Brexit, leaving Corbyn with the chance to portray himself as the true enemy of the privileged few, and the leader who understood ordinary people.
To analyse a problem is not to solve it. Ashcroft observes that for the Conservatives to stay in office after the next general election “means assembling a coalition of voters”, and observes how, despite gaining 2.3 million more votes in 2017 than 2015,
“Those leaving the Conservative voting coalition were younger, more highly educated, more ‘white collar’, more socially liberal and less enthusiastic about Brexit and continued austerity than those who stayed or joined.”
What a task! But as Ashcroft says, Corbyn’s task of continuing to enthuse young voters, while developing a credible manifesto, is by no means easy. In the search for the lost majority, there is still everything to play for.