Tom Wadsworth is a political consultant and campaigns adviser at Fishburn Hedges. He writes in a personal capacity. He argues that Eastleigh shows that
the Conservative brand isn’t just broken, it’s non-existent. Hugging bunnies or UKIP won’t solve
this, he continues; only a root and branch look at what Conservatives want voters to think
and feel when they see a blue rosette will do. Follow Tom on Twitter.
David Cameron won’t be short of advice today. Calls to shift to the right, to the
centre, to be more broad and more focussed will flood in, but I have some bad
news: there’s no quick fix.
The scariest lesson from Eastleigh for Conservatives is that
voters have no idea what they stand for or why they should vote Conservative;
and neither by all appearances, do a lot of Conservatives.
Most of the 40,000 or so people in Eastleigh who voted
yesterday are like most of the people in the country – they don’t engage in
politics on a day to day basis. So
once every few years when they come to vote, they have to rely on their overall
impressions of the parties – basically the brand.
But branding is about more than colours, logos and PR
stunts. Labour didn’t win a
crushing majority in 1997 just on the back a few pithy phrases from Tony Blair,
some good election literature and catchy song by D:Ream. They won because voters instinctively
understood and liked what Labour was offering, and then on the back of this the
Party was very disciplined about reinforcing what voters were thinking.
The message from Eastleigh is that voters haven’t got a clue
what Conservatives stand for, and are happier to carry on with a brand they
know (in this case the Lib Dems) than risk changing. The periodic but inconsistent attempts to detoxify the
alleged ‘nasty party’ image have just confused voters rather than changed their
minds. This means that the chances
of the Conservative picking off enough marginals to win a majority in two
years’ time are slim to none.
Worse for Conservatives is that this lack of voter
understanding and empathy with the brand isn’t just a presentational
issue. Narrowly, George Osborne is
right that the Conservative leadership needed a more fleet-of-foot response to
move from “hug a bunny” to deficit cutters after 2008. But the point this misses is that being
able to adapt required a shared understanding of the direction and what the
party stood for.
Thatcher and her allies could fall back on the IEA, Alan
Walters and co; Blair had the work done by Giddens, Mandleson et al. Both were good at presenting their
brands, but these brands were underpinned by a philosophy and direction that
guided how they reacted as situations changed.
So Thatcher’s and Blair’s responses to changing situations
were broadly consistent, as was their messaging. Their ministers were expected to and usually did keep their
policy and presentation within that consistent brand. And that meant that voters knew what Thatcher’s and Blair’s
parties stood for and could make their choice accordingly.
On an constituency basis, Maria Hutchings exemplifies the
problem. You can run candidates
that don’t whole-heartedly agree with the positioning of the party, but they
can’t be in open opposition. What
were Eastleigh voters supposed to think when they had Cameron and Hutchings in
direct opposition on gay marriage?
When Nick Boles et al talk up the importance of housebuilding whilst
ex-housing minister Grant Shapps runs a campaign attacking those who’ve
supported development? When Conservatives
tell them UKIP aren’t serious, and then try and steal not just their messaging,
but their colour scheme and endorsements?
That’s not Maria Hutchings’ fault, it’s the fault of the
senior party leadership. In the
absence of a clear direction, what else can candidates do than just say what
Conservatives now need to work hard and quickly to come to a
shared understanding of what they stand for, and what that means for voters. The work ConHome
and others are doing in this area is very important and the leadership would do
well to engage properly with it. Only
once this shared understanding begins to emerge can Conservatives possibly sell
themselves to voters.
It’s not just about detoxifying, changing the logo and
getting on-message; it’s about presenting a clear vision to voters. If the Conservative Party can’t do this,
most voters will stick with what they know, even where they don’t like it. And that’ll mean another hung