The Tories’ ‘40:40’ strategy indicates a Conservative majority in 2015 is difficult but possible, writes Hopi Sen
DURING Conservative party conference last year, the prime minister’s political secretary, Stephen Gilbert, took the unusual step of privately briefing delegates on the party’s ‘40:40’ strategy to win a majority in 2015. Gilbert’s message was that the Tories should be upbeat about the chances of protecting their 40 most marginal seats and then gaining another 40.
Look at the polls today and this target seems ambitious, even impractical. Tory strategists publicly and privately insist otherwise. They point to poll ratings on leadership, the economy and the perceived inevitability of cuts as reasons to believe that the Labour lead is soft. And they suggest the political map of Britain could change significantly by 2015. Dylan Sharpe, formerly of the No2AV campaign and the Countryside Alliance, argues: ‘In this parliament, possibly more than any other in recent memory, the fate of the government is indelibly tied to the state of the economy, and it could change dramatically in a short period.’
Yet Tory thinkers recognise that even the seats the Conservatives only need to hold demonstrate the challenge David Cameron faces getting a majority. There are 14 Tory seats with a majority of less than 1,000 over Labour, from Amber Valley to Weaver Vale. If not a single Tory voter defected, ultra-marginal seats like Stockton South and Sherwood would fall to Labour if just one in five 2010 Liberal Democrats switched to Labour.
But while that does not mean the Tories cannot win, it does suggest that the party’s route to victory requires a robust defence of its most marginal seats. And here the Conservatives have three weapons at their disposal. First, many of the Tory MPs defending their seats are active, campaigning, first-term incumbents. In 2010 Conservative incumbents had a significantly smaller ‘incumbency boost’ than either Labour or the Liberal Democrats, perhaps reflecting the impact of expenses or a historical scepticism towards ‘pavement politics’ in some branches of the Tory party. However, MPs in marginal seats, like Richard Fuller in Bedford or James Morris in Halesowen and Rowley Regis, know the value of incumbency and are using their status as MPs to build an individual and personal reputation that could be worth one or two per cent of the vote at the next election.
The next weapon is money. The Conservatives expect to be significantly better funded than Labour for the general election campaign. Conservative campaign headquarters is already recruiting its third wave of local campaign managers. While these are largely young graduates given a week of training and sent off to hold a marginal, these staff are a significant investment in campaign capability – and one Labour is unlikely to be able to match pound for pound.
The final weapon is focusing on seats where the national political trends can disguise the situation on the ground. Take Thurrock, where Jackie Doyle-Price won by 92 votes in 2010. On paper, it should be an easy pick-up at the next election for Labour’s Polly Billington. But this ignores Doyle-Price’s incumbency, a high combined vote for the United Kingdom Independence party and the British National party, and a demographic shift towards the Conservatives which means a seat Labour held comfortably in a 1976 by-election is now an ultra-marginal. In equally close Hendon, Boris Johnson trounced Ken Livingstone by over 3,000 votes, while, even though Andrew Dismore won an impressive victory in the London assembly constituency election last year, the Tories ran Labour very near in the list vote. So even with a favourable national picture Labour cannot take even the most marginal Tory seats for granted.
Nonetheless, to win a majority the Tories need to make gains, not simply hold on to their marginal seats. Of the 40 seats they are targeting to win we know the names of just over 30. One change that is already clear is a different strategy for candidate selection. Gone are the ‘A-listers’ like Joanne Cash, Mark Clarke and David Gold. In their place we find local candidates with a strong record of service to the local party and community, like Rowenna Holland in Nottingham South, Derek Thomas in St Ives and Mark Isherwood in Delyn. This is a trend which it seems the Conservatives want to encourage.
The Tories are also planning to take advantage of the Liberal Democrat collapse in the polls. Party chair Grant Shapps has said that half the seats the Conservatives are targeting are now in the hands of their coalition partners. However, these gains may not be as easy as they might appear. The Tories are, for instance, targeting Cheltenham, where they are nearly 5,000 votes behind their coalition partners, and North Devon, where they are nearly 6,000 behind. That is a lot of ground to make up and the Liberal Democrats are doing reasonably well in defending Tory-target seats. The Conservatives lost control of North Devon council in 2011 and made no progress in Cheltenham. In Torbay, the local Liberal Democrats achieved the same result in 2011 as they did in 2007, which presaged a comfortable general election majority, while in Brecon and Radnorshire the party had a strong lead in the 2011 Welsh assembly election. Even in very marginal Sutton and Cheam, the Tories were comfortably ahead in the London assembly election, but a local by-election in December showed a small swing towards the Liberal Democrats in a key ward.
The Tories can, of course, be confident of making some progress against the Liberal Democrats – seats like Mid-Dorset and North Poole and Wells should slip to them if just a few Labour voters refuse to lend their votes to Nick Clegg’s party. In St Ives, Derek Thomas achieved a strong swing against the sitting MP last time and the local stonemason has been given another shot at the seat. There will also be opportunities if well-known Liberal Democrat MPs retire. Alan Beith in Berwick-upon-Tweed, for example, has a large personal vote in a naturally Tory constituency. In short, if the Conservatives are to win a majority by turning yellow to blue they will have to remove some very entrenched Liberal Democrat MPs.
The seats the Tories need to gain from Labour present two rather different problems. First, the Liberal Democrat vote is often big enough for any Labour MP to feel hopeful of ‘squeezing’ their way to victory. The most marginal Labour seat, Hampstead and Kilburn, is really a three-way contest. In Derby North there are over 12,000 Liberal Democrats. In North-east Derbyshire there are 10,000.
Second, the local Tory party is often very weak. Four of the first seats to be selected have fewer than 100 Tory members. Most famously, in Ed Balls’ seat, Morley and Outwood, which has a majority smaller than the number of UKIP voters, the Tories did not receive a single application for the seat.
There does seem to be a strategy to the choice of target seats, though. With the exception of Harrow West, which has a big Hindu community, the Labour seats the Tories are aiming to pick up are overwhelmingly white and working class, with high numbers of residents in social housing and high numbers with low qualifications. Looking down a list of seats like Morley and Outwood, Telford, Walsall North, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Dudley North and Chorley, you can envisage a political approach that targets car-reliant, non-graduate, medium-income workers in private sector companies. To be crude about it, many of these seats hint at a ‘white van man’ political strategy.
Such an electoral landscape suggests the Tory ground and national strategies must work together. As David Skelton, deputy director of centre-right thinktank Policy Exchange, says: ‘To win over enough of these voters, the Conservatives have to show that they can understand the concerns of working-class people, and overcome their “party of the rich” image.’ To do this, he suggests that the Tories need to ‘show an understanding of cost-of-living issues and develop policies to address them. Policy Exchange research shows that [such] issues were the primary day-to-day concerns of most people.’
But do the Tories understand the importance of addressing such concerns? They have not shown much evidence of it recently. On the other hand, Skelton’s old boss, Neil O’Brien, has just been recruited to the Treasury, with precisely the job of formulating policies that appeal to the aspirational working class.
To get to No 10 on their own, the Tories have to do two things to win. First, they have to run strong campaigns in each marginal seat. Second, they need to shift the political allegiances of a major group of voters. Right now, the road to a Conservative majority looks long and hard.
Hopi Sen is a contributing editor to Progress
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