In theory, I like elections. I like the idea that we have a discussion about what type of country we want to be. In 2017 it is extremely unlikely that this discussion will get off the ground, and Why the Tories won explains why. Tim Ross’s book is a sobering account of the 2015 election and why much of what worked for the Conservatives will work again this time. (By sobering I don’t mean boring – it’s an incredibly readable account and it’s probably fantastic if you were happy with the election result!)
I read this book several months ago and don’t want to review it in my normal way, but will instead pick up a few salient points.
The first is the importance of leadership. I don’t mean that ‘strong and stable’ thing or perhaps I do, because that the ubiquity of that terrible phrase is down to Lynton Crosby. Crosby may well have coarsened our public discourse, but he is effective, in that he works his socks off (he might have used a different metaphor) and requires complete discipline and adherence to the plan, including from the prime minister. He told his candidates that they were not commentators, but participants. There might be a bit more detail behind ‘strong and stable’ once the Tory manifesto comes out, but don’t expect the overall message to change.
Second, hard work needs to be linked to your structure. Crosby’s first meeting of the day would be held at 5.45am and Labour’s at 7.45am. That meant that the Tories had an advantage going into the breakfast news cycle. (In contrast, Tim Shipman reports in All Out War that Jeremy Corbyn’s office regarded EU Referendum campaign meetings at 9.00am as too early and some kind of plot against the Labour leader.) In the 1997 campaign, the Labour rebuttal unit was legendary. But the 2015 Tories had different priorities, shifting as the campaign developed. At one point, says Ross, up to ten people in Conservative HQ were watching SNP videos on YouTube to find new material to feed the anti-nationalist beast.
For the cleverest development was not the personal attacks on Ed Miliband but the discovery of Alex Salmond as bogeyman to the English. We all know that the pictures of Miliband on Salmond’s pocket spoke to a picture of the Labour leader as a weak leader that, unfairly or not, was widely understood in the country. But what I hadn’t realised until reading Ross was the use of the proposed Labour/SNP coalition was far deadlier. What it enabled the Conservatives to do was present voting Tory as some kind of English national duty. You might not want to vote Tory. You might hate the Tories. But this time you would lend them your vote to keep the Scottish Nationalists from…what exactly? It was never that clear. Previous Liberal Democrat voters, particularly in the south west, ate it up and dumped the junior coalition member for the senior. It worked. Expect the idea of a national cause to manage Brexit to be equally successful, unless the opposition can counter it well.
The final passage I’d like to comment on tells of a visit by John Major to the Tory war room. Major argued that Labour’s claim to be the party of the many not the few didn’t stand up. Not just because (not that Major necessarily said this) the few had in 1992 (and again in 2010 and 2015) outnumbered the many, but because (Major didn’t quite say this either) the few seemed to be saying to those among the many, come and be with us too. Labour has won elections when it has said to those who aspire, we are on your side rather than you must vote for us to prove your virtue. If Labour are ashamed of the Blair/Brown governments (and they often give the impression that they are), aren’t they telling the public who voted Labour in 1997, 2001 and 2005 that they were idiots? The message to the left has to be to make people who are getting on kind of OK that Labour isn’t just ignoring them. And the left has to look for converts as readily as for traitors.
Winning elections is not easy. Why the Tories won shows how the governing party played to their strengths, had a fair bit of luck, and deployed cunning, strategy and discipline to win the day.
Whether the strategists of the opposition parties have learned from 2015 will be revealed over the coming weeks.