Oli Waghorn is a director at Interel, and is a former Special Adviser to Dr Liam Fox.
Things are not going to plan for the Conservatives in the election. No doubt Lynton Crosby and his team have devised an engagement grid of key events and messages, hoping for a gradual increase in their polls, ready for a crescendo on General Election day.
Sadly, their central theme of “steady as she goes” on the economy seems to have fallen on deaf ears. Record low unemployment, economic growth amongst the strongest in the G20, reducing the deficit by half, disposable income up, inflation down, apprentices up, fuel costs down – and yet rather than a collective “thanks, and we’ll take another five years while you’re at it” the insatiable appetite of the electorate for the novel means that a vote for “change” (whatever that means) is the want of many.
The Conservative Party has not helped itself by starting its campaign by pressing for “austerity” when, as my former boss is fond of saying, they should be talking simply about “living within our means”. To many, austerity translates only as depression. If you are a saver it means low returns, if you are a public servant it means job insecurity, and if you are a family it means depressed incomes. Instead, the simple message of “live within your means” or “don’t spend what you don’t have” or even “we’re broke” is something we can all relate to, believe in, and perhaps support.
The Conservatives have also missed the quid pro quo of austerity – reward. In his last Budget before the election, the Chancellor outlined a mix of continued budgetary restraint, deficit reduction, and targeted generosity. What he failed to do was explain that with progress on austerity comes a dividend for the UK. Austerity is not a binary proposition “cut and nothing else.” It can be – and was in the case of his Budget – a way to manage debt, reduce cost and relieve tax. This is what progress on the deficit can deliver, but the Chancellor failed to make that final, and most important of points. Austerity comes with a reward.
The obsession with this failed message, and the associated polling stagnation, has forced a series of unplanned and ill-conceived message meanders. Over recent weeks, in a bid to break through, the Conservative Party has tried to play both negative and the positive campaigns. They have done so in a scatter-gun fashion, on a daily basis. It’s a bit like opening a political advent calendar to see what delight we have in store for the day.
When you are trying to represent a value proposition, be that in business or politics, clarity and consistency are essential. The Conservatives should have picked a course and stuck with it. Instead, they have simply confused the electorate who now have no clear idea about what they stand for, and therefore no particular reason to stand by them.
Perhaps the worst manifestation of this “bit of everything, get nothing” approach has been the much-hyped scaremongering over what role the SNP could play in a possible Labour-led Government, and the fear that the SNP may bring out the very worst in a Labour-led Government.
The issue for the Conservative Party is that most people don’t share their concern over an SNP-Labour coalition, don’t have a view, or simply don’t care. What they see is the Conservatives pushing yet another negative proposition, and trying to marginalise Nicola Sturgeon, who has consistently appealed the most in the leaders debates. It is ironic that this pitched battle should be over what role Scotland will play, and that the Conservative Party – the party of the Union – should be adopting a negative position. A position that nearly cost so dear in the independence referendum debate.
Their latest ploy sounds like a Monty Python sketch, or an amateur pantomime, with an Englishman manning the barricades shouting at the Scots as they advance: “Watch out! That man is wearing a skirt”. Meanwhile, back in the real world, Labour, SNP, the Liberal Democrats and even UKIP are talking about opportunity and change.