Luke Springthorpe works in financial services
In many ways, 2017 is a year that will be remembered for the wrong reasons as far as Theresa May and the Conservatives are concerned. The inescapable reality is that an ill-judged gamble was taken and didn’t pay off when a snap general election was called.
The logic was understandable, and the temptation was perhaps irresistible, given the touted prize that seemed within reach was a three-figure majority. The complexities of steering Brexit through Parliament are making it clear to all why Theresa May wanted to go in to negotiations with a strong majority behind her. Alas, it was not to be.
But this disappointment aside, 2017 should be seen as a year when the ship was steadied against the odds. May has forged a relatively stable agreement with the DUP, passed a Budget without incident, progressed Brexit talks on to the vital matter of trade and stabilised the party’s poll ratings. Given the circumstances, none of this will have been straightforward.
In addition to this, the Conservative machinery has been sharpened on the digital front. Rebuttal is now much swifter and more robust than it was six months ago, with ‘fake news’ stories such as the animal sentience vote and, most recently, the cost of new passports, being closed down quickly by a good deal of online activity from MPs and supporters. The press rebuttal has also followed, often accompanied by a centralised digital operation enhanced with videos and graphics.
The volume of activity online has also increased dramatically since party conference. Views of tweets from the official @conservatives account are up by 4,200 per cent to 320 million, and the party is now generating more discussion on Facebook than Labour.
If 2017 was a year of stabilisation, however, then 2018 needs to be a year where the party pushes on and seizes the advantage in three key areas.
First and foremost, May and her government need to clearly articulate their vision loudly and repeatedly. Whilst we may have grown weary of slogans by the end of the 2015 election campaign, we all knew that voting Conservative meant voting for a long-term economic plan as we urged the country to stick with us “on the path to a stronger economy”. Now, everyone knows that Corbyn is (allegedly) “for the many, not the few”. It’s time for Theresa May to get her own slogan that will help to define every action of her government and then repeat it again and again.
In defining herself and her Government, it may be tempting at times to see Brexit as a distraction. Yet May, who was mistakenly introduced as Mrs Brexit at one stage during her recent visit to Poland, will eventually be judged by history in the context of the success or failure of Brexit.
Ultimately, this means the full force of policy and how it is communicated will need to be wrapped in an overarching theme of securing a bright future for the country after Brexit. Immigration policy will be an important strand to this and is one where the party has been strangely silent – most noticeably when net migration fell by a third. It is an inescapable reality that controlling immigration was often a catch-all for voters concerned about infrastructure, schools and health care during the referendum campaign. That said, it needs to be articulated in a manner that makes it clear that the UK is open to the brightest and the best: the public’s overwhelming support for an Australian-style points system suggests that this would not be inconsistent with their desire to bring about greater control.
It will also be essential to begin articulating a bold vision for the post-Brexit economy. Given that leaving the Single Market will require a recalibration of the economy away from financial services that have been passported across the EU from the City of London, investing in a revival of manufacturing is critical. Not only is it essential from an economic perspective, but it is also necessary politically. Voters beyond the traditional heartlands will not begin to believe we are on their side until they start to see the proof that we have brought prosperity to the areas where they live. Investment in skills training – both apprenticeships and adult learning for retraining – will be a key strand of any industrial policy. The revival of the cotton manufacturing supply chain in Manchester is a very recent, fascinating case study but it must be replicated across other industries that used to be the backbone of the UK’s industrialised economy.
Whatever policy mix, message and slogan is settled on, the party will need the means to broadcast it. Shifting from effective rebuttal to getting on the front foot and dominating the debate will require additional resources. Given that the Conservative Party currently employs a third of the people that Labour does in its digital team, it is apparent that CCHQ will need to bolster its capacity further if the party is going to be able to pump out the volume of quality content required to win the new air war.
But we cannot overlook the traditional ground operation. In terms of raw membership numbers, the Conservatives are outgunned by about five to one. More concerning than this, however, is that the trend suggests this will be even worse by the time of the next election (assuming that that takes place in 2022). Ultimately, boots on the ground are a vital component to our ability to bring target seats in to play and fight an effective campaign. It’s not just about delivering leaflets and getting voting intentions: it’s about being a human face on a campaign. It’s a chance for voters to ask meaningful questions about manifesto pledges. Ultimately, a well-run local machine should also be able to carefully adapt and communicate the national message in a way that resonates with their local community based on their knowledge of their community.
The membership offering remains weak, and the party conference too stage-managed to generate any kind of annual buzz capable of exciting activists. It’s also depriving members of any real opportunity to shape policy. This may well involve taking a few risks, but it is clear that the name of the game with modern politics is very much about engagement, and not simply preaching to the membership.
2018 will surely be another challenging year, but we must take every opportunity to repeatedly hammer home our message. We must promote the Conservative Party as the party of optimism; the party of hope for a brighter future for the country. If we succeed, 2018 could be the year we get back on the front foot.