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Each week on Friday, ConservativeHome’s panel of James Frayne, Marcus Roberts, Trevor Phillips, and Salma Shah will be analysing and assessing what’s happening in the general election.

James Frayne

“The Conservatives need to drop the optimism narrative down a great big hole somewhere south of Northampton.”

If CCHQ accept their primary electoral targets are working class and lower-middle class voters in the Midlands and North, they’re already playing catch up. Labour’s “time for real change” is perfectly pitched to voters long exasperated with politics – where politicians tinker with irrelevance while the country rots.

“Get Brexit done” plays, but it’s not enough. The current second half of the Conservatives message – to “unleash Britain’s potential” – is way off beam. Change versus optimism isn’t even a contest amongst this group.

The provincial English working class and lower middle class are desperate for changeLabour came close in 2017 because they tapped into this – and, crucially, into desire for change from the path the country’s on. People didn’t want utopia, they wanted change to underfunded schools and hospitals, high social care costs, high university fees, cuts to the police, and so on. To an even greater degree than before, Labour are betting the farm on change. They’re right to.

The provincial working class and lower middle class don’t do optimism. They don’t believe politicians can create a wonderful new society. From their point of view, politicians just muck everything up. Just as they voted in large numbers for Labour’s vision of change from the path the country’s on, so they voted to leave the EU in 2016 for the same reason – change to current policies of open borders and high costs.

The Conservatives were perfectly positioned to own the change narrative, not Labour. Not only are these target voters keen to “get Brexit done”, they also increasingly associate Labour, their dominant local political force for decades, with failure, stasis and abandonment.

The Conservatives could have set out their stall to change traditionally pathetically weak approaches to crime and justice, to change unfair welfare policies that don’t reward hard work, to change unfair tax policies that punish ordinary people, to change pointlessly destructive policies that undermine town centres, to change decades of open borders, and so on. They could have framed Brexit – and an array of attractive retail policies – through the prism of change and Labour would have been left with nothing.

There’s still time, of course. And Labour’s record and outrageously out-of-touch leadership makes them vulnerable. But the Conservatives need to drop the optimism narrative down a great big hole somewhere south of Northampton and pivot fast towards change.

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

Marcus Roberts

“It’s worth being cautious about what voters will decide this election is truly about.”

The first ten days of this general election tell us three big things about CCHQ strategy.

1) They let Labour rise too easily

During President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign there was a clear understanding that Mitt Romney would eventually put the GOP coalition back together. But there was a strong desire and effort to make this as difficult and as long a process as possible.

In contrast, the Conservatives failed to contest the airwaves in the first week to anywhere near the extent needed to suppress Labour’s frenzy of activity. Simply put, the Tory’s fracking moratorium wasn’t going to cut it against Labour on the NHS.

The upshot of this was Labour’s rapid recapture of between 4-6 per cent of its waverers. Granted, that’s still double digits behind the Conservatives but smart Tories should remember another American political lesson, this time from ex-Republican Governor Hayley Barbour: “In politics, good tends to get better, and bad tends to get worse.”

2) Johnson vs Corbyn *or* Johnson vs Corbyn vs Swinson?

In agreeing to a two-man gladiatorial contest that excludes Jo Swinson in the ITV debate CCHQ is doubling down on their ‘presidential election’ hope. At first glance this makes a lot of sense given that Johnson leads Corbyn 43-20 for best PM and has a (un)favourability rating of -16 compared to the Labour Leader’s -50.

What’s more, Conservative campaign chief Isaac Levido has recently run just this campaign. In Australia he steered Prime Minister Scott Morrison to victory by stressing the Prime Ministerial choice and relying on ‘ScoMo’s’ consistent double-digit Best Prime Minister lead.

But a potential headache for the Tories with this approach is that by de-emphasising the Liberal Democrats, and shutting Swinson out of the debate, they may indeed aid Tory incumbents in Southern seats facing LibDem challengers but won’t be helping to split the Labour vote in the Northern marginals the Conservatives need for a majority. A lesser Lib Dem presence on the airwaves and lower poll numbers nationally also makes the ‘divided Remain vote’ hope of CCHQ strategists more difficult to achieve.

3) Is this the Brexit election anyway?

Finally, it’s worth being cautious about what voters will decide this election is truly about anyway. For while the Conservatives may want it to be about Brexit, that issue has fallen as the top concern of voters from 70 to 59 in just the last fortnight. Rising, although still far behind, is health, the economy, and the environment. CCHQ will be watching nervously to see if Brexit continues to decline in importance and other issues keep rising – as Labour will surely be both hoping for and pushing to achieve.

Marcus Roberts is Director of International Projects at YouGov. The data referenced can be found here.

Trevor Phillips

“I have a strong sense that what is true of most election campaigns holds good here: opinion, as the French say, is cooked.”

In the data analytics business, we spend a lot of time trying to distinguish the signal from the noise. This week’s barrage of noise has, as usual, been amplified by a raucously partisan media (including the supposedly impartial broadcasters; more on this later).

But the electorate isn’t yet paying much attention to the background wash of showy spending promises – some mildly bonkers, some extra-planetary – and voters are only dimly aware of the things that excite political obsessives: the fading light of former political stars; or the staccato blips that mark the revelation of unsuitable candidates from all parties (anti-semites, racists, and misogynists, mostly).

Of course, we haven’t heard much from the home of political thrash metal – the Brexit Party – yet. But so far it all seems like the spillover from someone else’s headphones on the bus – incomprehensible, irrelevant, and a little annoying.

However, I have a strong sense that what is true of most election campaigns holds good here: opinion, as the French say, is cooked. The hundreds of millions of pounds that will be spent in the next five weeks will do little to change a soundscape in which by far the strongest component is the Boris Johnson’s rumbling basso: ‘Get Brexit Done’. It’s resonating with the electorate, even amongst Remainers, many of whom are privately admitting that it really won’t be the end of the world if we leave with his deal.

There have been a couple of minor opposition spikes, which have tended to reinforce the sense that the Tories remain the only show in town. The Liberal Democrats and the SNP have a Brexit policy that they must know is unrealisable. They have evidently concluded that their best path to influence is to cannibalise the Labour vote by painting Corbyn as a closet Brexiteer.

Labour, in turn, has had its message stifled by the resignation of Tom Watson and attacks on the leadership’s anti-semitism from former party stalwarts – confirmation that the “soft Left” has surrendered to the Stalinists. Corbyn continues to promote his ludicrous, Janus-faced Brexit non-policy like one of the comedians on Radio Four’s  “I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue”, singing one song (“We’re Leaving On a Jet Plane”) to the tune of another (“Let’s Stay Together”).

So far, nothing much to see on the media. Curiously, Johnson’s dominance has accentuated the BBC’s native anti-Tory bias. The Corporation’s interviewers pride themselves on being tough on all sides. But they daily give themselves away, particularly on the Today programme. The tone of their interviews with Labour and SNP spokespeople is gentle, teasing, even mocking; their interrogation of Tories fills the airwaves with the screech of moral outrage.

They should heed the lessons of the American media in 2016; when broadcasters so clearly telegraph which party matters and which they regard as a joke, many voters hold their noses and choose the serious option.

Trevor Phillips is Chairman of Green Park Executive Search and a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange.

Salma Shah

“How can the Tories define themselves against an opposition they cannot and will not outspend?”

The general election is in full swing as the big hitters come out in force, with Sajid Javid, the Chancellor, and his opposite number John McDonnell making economic speeches this week.

The two are diametrically opposed, one an unapologetic Marxist, the other an avowed Thatcherite. Yet both headed North, McDonnell to Liverpool and Javid to Manchester, home of the Northern Powerhouse, where the similarities continued…

Javid surprised many by advocating a significant departure from the tight fiscal rules of the last nine years, and the initial reception was mixed.

After he announced an increase in public sector net investment to three per cent of GDP, he faced accusations of fiscal incontinence and economic recklessness. It served to underline an increasingly open tension in the Conservative party, much like Brexit, setting out an economic vision is a delicate balancing act for the Prime Minister and Chancellor.

How can the Tories define themselves against an opposition they cannot and will not outspend? Fiscal discipline was necessary and has been core to the political strategy, appealing not just to the small-state libertarian but to prudent middle Britain too.

Of late, this argument has lost ground. The 2017 election exposed the political limits of austerity and highlighted the desire to see leadership that addresses issues beyond Brexit. Conservatives saw the risks of continued national belt tightening. But the policy challenges remain – an ageing population is adding pressures on state expenditure that need to be addressed.

The Party has learnt the lesson of the last election: this time there is an emphasis on the economy, a realisation that our strength as Conservatives lies with fiscal credibility. But while we need to show we’re sensible, we cannot be deaf to real concerns on the doorstep about the need for improvements to core public services and the role that investment in things like new transport infrastructure and housing can play in supporting left behind areas.

Javid has consistently talked about taking advantage of low borrowing rates to invest in capital. He acknowledges the need for the state to stimulate parts of the economy to incentivise the market to follow, particularly outside of the South East.

The challenge for a Conservative Chancellor will be how to pay for it. Can we retain the mantle as the party for lower taxes and fiscal discipline if we pledge to spend more?

This is still a Conservative spending plan though, albeit one that acknowledges the leftward shift of the centre ground. There is a commitment to balance the books on current spending and a cap of three per cent on investment spending. Ultimately, the electorate will decide which party it trusts to borrow and spend wisely. History shows us, it’s not Labour.

Salma Shah was a special adviser to Sajid Javid from 2014 to 2019.

51 comments for: ConHome’s election panel. “The Tories need to drop the optimism narrative down a great big hole somewhere south of Northampton.”

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