Tory high command has appointed Lynton Crosby to head up their 2015 general election campaign. With two and a half years to go, the man who masterminded Boris’ two Mayoral election victories will want to hit the ground running when he steps in to Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ).
There is a huge amount of work to do if the Conservatives are to stand a chance of gaining a majority next time around. No sitting Prime Minister has increased his or her share of the vote since 1974. So where should Crosby start? I believe there are three main priorities that will need to be addressed straight away. There are, of course, many other issues that he’ll have to address but everyone has to start somewhere.
Election campaign co-ordinator Stephen Gilbert, has briefed Conservative MPs (and the media) that the next election will be fought in 80 key seats. 40 which must be retained from the 2010 election and 40 new seats, predominantly located in Northern and Midland urban areas. This presents the Conservatives with a huge challenge. According to research that Policy Exchange conducted earlier this year, they have a +15% lead in the countryside and +17% in the suburbs of towns. Yet in city suburbs (-4%) and among people living within towns their lead is -8%. Their lead is -19% for those who live inside a city. And, this is exacerbated by second order issues.
Urban areas are more likely to contain higher numbers of ethnic minority voters. All other things being equal, the less urban the area, the more white the population tends to be. Faced with the twin urban/ethnicity challenge Crosby will want to know everything about those seats. How have the local population voted in previous general elections? What is the gender and age breakdown? Is housing a bigger local concern than knife crime? What is the Party’s reputation with the local media? Who are the key voices in the community? Campaigns cost money and Crosby will want to know every little detail so that he can target his limited financial and personnel resources to achieve maximum impact.
Is CCHQ on an election footing? The appointments of Grant Shapps as Chairman and Giles Kenningham as the new head of press are a sign that CCHQ is gearing up for 2015. For the past two and a bit years CCHQ has predominately focused on pumping out reactive statements, pointing out flaws or contradictions in Labour’s policy proposals. This part of the operation needs to be retained and beefed up, especially as we head closer to the election. The public will want to know how Labour plans to fix the public finances. That said, there needs to be much more of a focus on the Tories’ own offering.
Going "negative" on Labour and attacking Miliband may sow the seeds of doubt in the minds of some swing voters but the Conservatives need to convince sceptical voters that they are the ones who will eventually get the economy back on track. The "Big Society" was an interesting, albeit abstract idea, that candidates in 2010 found hard to deliver on the doorstep. CCHQ must work closely with the likes of Oliver Dowden and Andrew Cooper in Downing Street to come up with a clear national message that can easily be broken down and linked to local issues by candidates across the country. I’m not a fan of decisions by committee but the Tory leadership must consult with their MPs and candidates and get their feedback on what will work out on the campaign trail.
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to predict Labour’s focus at the next election. They will come at the Tories on three fronts: the lack of growth in the economy, the "privatisation" of the NHS and the fact that the Tories are still the "party of the rich". Crosby knows this. The problem for him is that he’s tasked with running an election campaign, not the Government’s policy unit. From a communications perspective, the Conservatives are going to need to finesse their arguments on why they reduced the top rate of income tax and what a restructured NHS will deliver for patients. They shouldn’t worry too much about being seen as the "party of the rich". Instead the real focus should be on being seen as the "party of competence" which is willing to take tough decisions on public spending, not for ideological reasons but because they are entirely focused on getting the economy back on track.
Most people aren’t particularly wedded to one party or another, as Policy Exchange’s recent report, Northern Lights, showed. People vote for a variety of reasons, but competence and authenticity are two of the most important factors. Crosby ran a very effective campaign for Boris which allowed the Mayor’s personality to shine through. The public aren’t stupid. They instinctively know if a politician isn’t being genuine. Cameron is likeable. He’s a huge asset for the Conservatives but only if he’s allowed to be who he is.