Campaign in prose
Research on how the Conservatives can win a majority is as revealing about Labour as it is the Tories, writes Tim Bale
MOST of us believe – not unreasonably – that effective financing and extensive opinion polling are crucial in helping parties win elections. It is hardly surprising, then, that a combination of Michael Ashcroft’s costly research and the recent news that the Tories have already begun concentrating resources on the 40 seats that they need to gain at the next election risks spooking some on the centre-left – especially now that David Cameron has secured the services of Lynton Crosby, the so-called Wizard of Oz and the brains behind Boris Johnson’s successful campaign to retain the London mayoralty in 2012.
There is a lot of talk these days about targeting. But much of it is overblown. Although the target seats campaign that Ashcroft helped run in 2010 may have seen a few Labour marginals fall to the Tories, its impact was blunted by the presence of an incumbent Labour MP and by trade union efforts on the grounds. It also produced next to nothing in terms of Liberal Democrat scalps. This should come as no surprise. After all, the two main parties have been doing it since the 1960s, normally achieving little more than affording the authors of election studies yet another chance to scoff at how neither of them did any better in their ‘key seats’ than in those that were largely ignored. Even in the 21st century, most elections, like most wars, are won by artillery and air campaigns, not by snipers.
The research side of things, however, is more interesting. Ashcroft specialises in large (and therefore expensive) samples aimed at providing analysis of subsections of the electorate, be they ethnic minorities, socio-occupational classes, those living in marginal seats, or those who have shifted or might shift their party preferences. These are then summarised in engagingly presented reports packed with killer quotes from focus groups and published, along with the raw data, on the noble lord’s eponymous website. In them, voters are often carved up – more or less persuasively – into catchily named clusters to which parties apparently need to be paying particular attention. For instance, the Conservatives can count on the ‘optimistic individualists’ and Labour can rely on the ‘downbeat dependents’ and, to a lesser extent, the ‘liberal idealists’. But they need to do much more to show the ‘suspicious strivers’ and ‘entitlement anxiety’ voters that they share their values and concerns: principally, that low-to-middle income groups who ‘work hard and play by the rules’ are being simultaneously shafted by the fat cats and toffs above them and the immigrants and ‘scroungers’ below.
Most of the reports are ostensibly aimed at the Tories themselves, convincingly reinforcing Ashcroft’s belief that the party, if it is to pull off the difficult trick of getting itself elected with an overall majority, has to do four things: understand that it will not be enough simply to focus its fire on Ed Miliband and Ed Balls; realise that it has to continue to reach out to a range of floating voters rather than desperately trying to cater to the ‘grudging grumblers’ who are threatening to vote for the United Kingdom Independence party, many of whom will probably end up voting Tory anyway lest, by jumping into bed with Nigel Farage, they let Labour into Downing Street; cut the continual carping about Cameron, since he is one of the few leaders who voters see as an asset rather than a liability; and concentrate, as the prime minister tried to do in his 2012 party conference speech, on convincing the country that deficit reduction is on track, not harming vital public services, and part of a bigger plan to revive the economy and to improve the living standards and life chances of ordinary people.
But Ashcroft’s research also contains plenty of messages for Labour – some of them encouraging, some of them mixed, and some of them downright worrying. On the positive side, it is doubtful that the Tories are going to be able, at least in the short term, to shake Labour’s hold on ethnic minority voters, although whether this will matter as much in 2015 as it will in 2050 is surely a moot point. It is also clear that Labour seems to have pulled clear of its rival on the NHS and, even if it is not regarded as particularly credible on deficit and debt reduction, is seen to be the party most likely to deliver jobs and economic growth.
It looks, too, as if many of those who defected to Labour from the Liberal Democrats in disgust at their decision to join the Tories in coalition will not be going back. Because of this, and because very few of its 2010 voters have changed their minds, it is difficult to imagine Labour winning anything less than around a third of the vote next time round. It will certainly continue to benefit from an electoral system which, even in the worst-case scenario, requires the Conservatives to be ahead by four percentage points (as well as picking up lots of Liberal Democrat seats) to win an overall majority of just one.
Some of the good news, however, comes with caveats. Labour may well be running ahead of the Tories in the marginals that it is defending but, even there, it is running well behind them on some of the crucial issues like welfare reform, controlling immigration, and being seen to be able to take tough decisions for the long term. Moreover, the same polling that predicted the impressive swing to Labour in Corby also showed that many of those who deserted the Tories would at least consider returning home at a general election if the economy were to show signs of life. Even worse, Ashcroft’s polls suggest the Tories are pretty well placed to make gains in Liberal Democrat marginals – a scenario supposedly made all the more likely by hints that up to half of their 40 targets are, indeed, seats currently held by their coalition partners.
Then there is the bad news. Cameron continues to win hands down when it comes to being the ‘best prime minister’, on being able to take tough decisions, and being capable and competent. Labour’s leader may do better than Cameron on being in touch with ordinary people, but he is widely regarded as not up to the job and out of his depth, particularly by those who are merely ‘considering’ rather than currently intending to vote Labour. And the chances of overturning those early impressions, and indeed of anything he or his colleagues say cutting through to voters – ‘One Nation’ included – seem vanishingly small given how little attention Ashcroft’s polling suggests they pay to politics. Worse still, those least likely to switch to Labour and most likely to return to the Conservatives are older and better-off voters who, unlike their younger, less well-heeled counterparts, can be relied on to actually make it to the polling station.
That said, tucked away are some pointers for progressives. First, many floating voters are genuinely worried that cuts are being made in the wrong place and hitting the wrong people. Second, although they remain convinced that tackling the deficit has to be done, the continued lack of growth and jobs is a big concern, and there will be little sympathy if the Tories seem to be more concerned with issues like gay marriage and Europe than doing something to improve the situation. Third, and finally, Labour needs to capitalise on the widespread belief that it cares more about working people who, incidentally, constitute the bulk of the electorate which, according to Ashcroft, is still up for grabs. Trying to play catch-up by talking tough on welfare and immigration is tempting but it may be a fool’s errand. Better perhaps to focus on what really counts for many floating voters – not the narrative but the glaring gap between stagnant salaries and relentlessly rising household bills. Sometimes parties need to campaign, as well as to govern, not in poetry but in prose.
Tim Bale is professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London. His latest book is The Conservatives since 1945: the Drivers of Party Change
Boris Johnson, Conservatives, Corby, Ed Miliband, election 2015, Labour, Lord Ashcroft, Lynton Crosby, Nigel Farage, polling, UKIP