This year, I had the professional pleasure of visiting Tory conference for the first time. The annual gathering is famed for its diversity – some middle-aged white men were from south-east England and some were from south-west England. There were stands selling tweed and handbags, and speaker after speaker denounced the coming European super-state. But it is a mistake for the stereotypes and the troglodytes to blind us as to just what a disciplined political party the Tories can be.
That might sound odd in a period when Tory members of parliament are defecting to the United Kingdom Independence party, and different fringes aggressively disagreed on the need for a Tory-Ukip pact. But it was abundantly clear from Lynton Crosby’s briefing for Tory candidates and delegates. Their focus is on the two ‘Es’ – Ed and the economy. Welfare, immigration, the European Union referendum and English Votes for English Laws do matter, but they are secondary issues. Anything else is a barnacle on the hull.
They have their policies and they have their simple narrative: Labour left the economy in a mess; we have turned it around; you cannot trust Labour. This was flashed to delegates on a conference hall screen, just so they fully internalised their ‘conference message’. Added to their policies and their narrative are their people: ‘On the side of hardworking taxpayers’ – again, spewed all over the screen for delegates to read, learn and inwardly digest. ‘Just remind me again, Marjorie, who are we on the side of?’ ‘Hardworking taxpayers, Gerald, do keep up.’ ‘Oh yes, sorry Marjorie’.
More slides took delegates through four key messages:
- Persuade voters that we can see the plan through
- Put the economy front and center (proving that Crosby wrote the slides himself?)
- Reinforce the risk of Labour (although maybe not, as ‘Labour’ had a ‘u’?!)
- Focus on the choice for prime minister
Ed and the economy, Ed and the economy. We were told that Ed would not stand up for the national interest, that he would give in to special interests and would not take tough decisions. Ed would speak to Putin for an hour without notes, but would forget to mention Ukraine. Ed could not do what the Tories have had to do – Ed could not fix the economy. Various ministers of state then explained what they were doing, not to fix roads at transport or drive up school standards at education, but to deliver the Tories’ economic plan through their departments. It is the economy, stupid.
They rebranded employers’ national insurance contributions as a ‘jobs tax’, which the Tories will reduce and Labour will increase because Labour does not care about the economy and because Ed is a leftie/stupid/wrong (delete as applicable). They told us that between 2003 and 2008, 90 per cent of new jobs went to foreigners and that Labour always delivers high unemployment. The ‘2Es Show’ was only marred when Nick Gibb announced with incredulity that in 2010, only 22 per cent of 16-year-olds could calculate 5/6 of 300, followed by a bold announcement: ‘Our aim is to reduce that to zero’.
The focus was relentless and the message discipline was total, in the conference hall at least. We need the same, and we can have the same, as we have had it in the past. We do not necessarily need a 1997-style pledge card, but we do need to narrow our message in a way that makes sense. We might want May 2015 to be a referendum on the NHS but that is not going to happen. We need an answer on the economy and one on why Ed should be prime minister. We cannot duck these issues, as they are the ones that will decide the election.
Lynton Crosby’s political tone might be one we do not like to hear, but his methods work. He spoke convincingly of the importance of locally grounded candidates, working in their communities and telling a catchy story about who they are and what they will do if elected. Our best candidates do this already, not because they were told to do so by a political strategist, but because that is why they got involved in politics in the first place. That point seemed to be lost at the Tories’ candidates’ briefing.
However, honest, hard-working local candidates can only go so far if they do not have convincing answers to the two Es. We might try and duck the EU referendum or English Votes for English Laws questions but we cannot duck the prime minister or the economy questions. The Tories and Lynton Crosby have staked out their ground and we are going to have to engage them on it. How we rise to this challenge will determine the result next May and, ultimately, the future of this country.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.