The Tory masterplan to win 36 seats from Labour and 14 from the Liberal Democrats
By Tim Montgomerie
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Just over a week ago Tory MPs gathered in Westminster for a half-day of presentations and briefings. One of the briefings was given jointly by Andrew Cooper, Cameron's pollster and strategy adviser, and Stephen Gilbert, the PM's Political Secretary and mastermind of the party's campaign operations. Over the last week I've been speaking to MPs that were present and piecing together what they were told and also their reactions to it. In speaking to other members of the Tory inner circle I've also learnt about some of the party's other general election plans.
There are ten things you most need to know:
- Uphill struggle: The Tory leadership know that the next election is going to be a steep challenge. They insist they are working for victory but another hung parliament is "very likely" according to one senior Cabinet minister.
- Battle for values: The Conservative Party and David Cameron are seen as strong but not enough voters see the party as "fair". In the next three years - off the back of welfare reforms, in particular, the Conservative party must present itself, as the party of true fairness and therefore win the values battle. This began with Cameron's speech on Saturday.
- Reassurance not radicalism: The party will scare target voters with too much radical messaging. The emphasis must be on "grip and competence", not "frightening talk of transformation".
- 100 target seats: The party is targeting 100 seats in total - fifty it already holds and fifty it hopes to win. The aim is to win 36 from Labour and 14 from the Liberal Democrats.
- No expectation of Scottish recovery: Nearly all of the winnable seats are in England - mainly the South West, North West and Midlands. There is a possibility of one or two pickups in Wales but the party is not counting on any gains in Scotland. "Anything in Scotland will be a bonus," said one Conservative aide, "but we need to be able to build a UK majority without any Scottish MP."
- Urban focus: 34 of the 36 Labour-held seats are largely or entirely urban. They have large public sector and often ethnic minority populations.
- Neutralising negatives: Poor showings among women, ethnic minorities and NHS patients are biggest threats to a Tory majority and must be avoided by careful and strategic interventions.
- The 10% most reachable: It's very early but the new voters most open to voting Conservative in target seats are disproportionately under 35, unmarried, above-average-income and from a BME background.
- Major recruitment exercise: In April ConHQ will be looking to recruit eighty new graduates as campaign managers and, after intensive training, these will spearhead the Tory effort in a two-and-a-half year push from early next year.
- Beyond the presentation: In speaking to other senior Tory aides I've learnt about some of the other campaign ploys. They include fairer funding of the trade union movement; staggered timing of the election debates; and, most interestingly, the holding of a referendum on general election day to mobilise the maximum possible Tory vote.
Taking each of these ten points in turn...
(1) Uphill struggle: The Tory leadership know that the next election is going to be hard. They insist they are working for victory but another hung parliament is "very likely" according to one senior Cabinet minister.
The result of the last election is still the unmentionable topic in Number 10. Hushed tones descend whenever anyone dares to mention the topic in Cameron's presence. One source told me it's like mentioning Heather Mills to Paul McCartney. Certain issues are still tiptoed around, therefore, and there is a reluctance to conduct a root-and-branch reassessment of election strategy. The strategy that the Conservatives have, therefore, is one that is most noticeable for its continuity rather than its differences. Radicalism is eschewed. There is more emphasis on chasing the votes of the metropolitan rather than the striving class. Many 'Court of Dave' members still can't believe that Britain didn't vote for Mr Cameron last time and they don't know that much more can be done next time to persuade them that he's the ideal Prime Minister. There is a strong expectation amongst some courtiers that the party will therefore fall short again. A clear instruction has been issued to do nothing that would fatally jeopardise co-operation with the Lib Dems after another hung parliament. "If we don't quite win but the battlefield is covered in blood and gore the biggest casualty of an all-out election campaign might be us," said one aide.
David Cameron's great fear is that his Conservative-led government will do the heavy-lifting, repair the public finances and take the tough decisions on pensions, planning and public sector reform but become incredibly disliked in the process and lose the next election. In other words the Tories win the economic war but voters turn again to "nice Labour" to build the new Jerusalem once economic peace is secured. To break free of this cycle party strategists want Cameron and the Conservative Party to be seen as strong and fair. The tough/ strong brand is established but voters still see Labour as more decent. This can only be changed if the party focuses on championing an understanding of fairness that isn't owned already by the Left. Cameron had a go at defining a winning fairness in a speech on Saturday: "A society where fairness is real... not a free-for-all that lets people do as they wish… but an expectation that all will play their part… where what you get out depends on what you put in." Welfare reform is central to giving the Conservative Party the lead on fairness. Labour measure fairness by how many people they put on benefits and how much they pay them. We will define fairness by getting people off benefits and into work or workfare, said one source. The benefits cap is only the first device in this battle for fairness which will see Conservatives constantly champion the hardworking poor, rather than those on benefits.
(3) Reassurance not radicalism: The party will scare target voters with too much radical messaging. The emphasis must be on "grip and competence", not "frightening talk of transformation".
Tory research and focus groups find deep pessimism among voters but voters are as likely to shun ostriches as rhinos. What am I talking about...?
- Labour is the ostrich with its head in the sand about Britain's difficulties.
- The Tory Right, it is said, equals the rhinoceros - ready to charge through the landscape busting open old ways and practices.
- The electorate wants reform but step-by-step reform. More ox-and-plough than ostrich or rhino.
(4) 100 target seats: The party is targeting 100 seats in total - fifty it already holds and fifty it hopes to win. The aim is to win 36 from Labour and 14 from the Liberal Democrats.
A few facts about this targeting:
- The party was targeting 180 seats at the last election. This time the battleground will be much narrower.
- The party is aiming to win 50 marginals while defending another 50 potentially vulnerable seats. Nice round numbers (for whatever reason).
- Of the target seats it is aiming to win most are located in the East and West Midlands. The other three big target regions are the South West, North West and Yorkshire.
- The aim is to win 36 seats from Labour and 14 from the LDs. There will be no Lib Dem-style talk of "decapitation" and Tory Associations will be encouraged to stealthily "lovebomb" rather than loudly attack Liberal Democrats. One Tory MP said ConHome's image of a Tory lion slaying the Lib Dem chameleon was "unhelpful"!
- 34 of the seats needed from Labour are largely or entirely urban.
- The Tory view follows the campaign adage that early spending is money spent twice. By defending Tory councils now ConHQ believes that it is defending vital general election capacity. One of the reasons why the 1997 defeat was so severe was the decimation of Tory councillors in the previous years. This May resources are being targeted on London, obviously, and councils which overlap with key general election battlegrounds - especially in Midlands, North West and South West.
(5) No expectation of Scottish recovery: Nearly all of the winnable seats are in England - mainly the South West, North West and Midlands. There is a possibility of one or two pickups in Wales but the party is not counting on any gains in Scotland. "Anything in Scotland will be a bonus," said one Conservative aide, "but we need to be able to build a UK majority without any Scottish MP."
A few Tory MPs noted that the Cooper/Gilbert presentation was heavily focused on English seats but Conservatives are hopeful that a new seat in Swansea and Gower plus two seats in Mid Wales will ensure recent Tory progress in the principality is maintained. Scotland is a whole different world. Some in ConHQ fear that the party could lose its only seat in Scotland - currently held by David Mundell - because of difficult boundary changes. "Ruth Davidson has made a good start," said one Downing Street insider, "but to rely on the Scottish Conservatives contributing anything substantial to the Westminster party after the next election would be a triumph of hope over experience". Any kind of Tory majority across the whole UK depends upon a landslide majority of one hundred in England.
(6) Urban focus: 34 of the 36 Labour-held seats are largely or entirely urban. They have large public sector and often ethnic minority populations.
(7) Neutralising negatives: Poor showings among women, ethnic minorities and NHS patients are biggest threats to a Tory majority and must be avoided by careful and strategic interventions.
The party has identified six barriers to be overcome:
- The idea that the Tories don’t have strong values (see point 2 above).
- Closing the gender gap. ConHQ believes that the 'gender challenge' is exaggerated but that women are more worried about "deficit fundamentalism" and NHS failure than men. Women voters do not respond as well as men to the argument that we have to cut the deficit in order to satisfy ratings agencies and global investors. They aren't necessarily less worried about excessive borrowing but are more amenable to the more ethical argument about avoiding debt falling on future generations and the very simple one that the country shouldn't spend money that we don't have. The values message (again point 2 above) is also crucial to winning over women.
- Neutralising NHS issue – again. At the moment Tory strategists take cold comfort from the fact that the NHS is less of a hot topic than it was in 2011, before the big listening "pause". The same strategists rightly fear, however, that this could be the calm before the storm. As the tight spending settlement bites problems in the NHS may mount and voters will blame the Health and Social Care Bill for those problems. Focus groups have nonetheless identified the blood-curdling warnings of Andy Burnham as a source of weakness for Labour. The more measured language of Andrew Lansley may, they hope, win through in the end. It's not currently helping in London, however, and Labour is expecting to focus on the NHS in the closing stages of the Boris v Ken campaign.
- Building support among BME communities. Andrew Cooper told MPs that membership of an ethnic minority was the single best predictor that someone would not vote Conservative. ConHQ think that a weakness that has grown up over decades won’t be solved quickly but at the next election a sustained focus on BME communities will help in an estimated 15 to 20 battleground seats. Academics and various researchers are helping ConHQ profile Britain's ethnic minority groups with a view to then educating Tory MPs and candidates on best outreach strategies. Using the Merlin voter targeting software 25 to 35 streets in key constituencies with large minority populations will then be wooed. I understand the focus will be on Hindu and Sikh voters. Black Majority Churches are also seen as naturally Conservative but they tend to be located away from key battlegrounds. The gay marriage issue may also hurt Tory prospects with this demographic.
- Outreach to urban Britain. Given that 34 of the 36 seats that Conservatives aspire to win from Labour are urban this theme is very important. It overlaps with the need for reassurance of public sector workers given the large public sector populations in urban Britain - especially in the North.
- Overcome sense that Conservatives lack empathy. Voters don’t want radicalism from government but grip and competence. See point 3 above.
(8) The 10% most reachable: It's very early but the new voters most open to voting Conservative in target seats are disproportionately under 35, unmarried, above-average-income and from a BME background.
Very early Tory research suggests that the target 10% of the voters the party needs to win is disproportionately under 35, unmarried, non-white and above average income. I'm not convinced by this as I briefly explain in today's Times (£): “While ethnic minority, public sector and Scottish voters must feel at home in the Conservative Party, it is important we don’t devote disproportionate resources to the hardest-to-convert voters. Our focus must be on making bigger inroads among the English, stressed-out taxpayers and those on modest incomes who agree with Tories on welfare reform.” When I raised this concern with the Conservative insiders they didn't push back particularly hard and defend the metropolitan outreach. They readily agreed that (i) representing English identity, (ii) cutting taxes for the low-paid, (iii) easing fuel bills (petrol and electricity), (iv) addressing inequality, (v) reforming welfare and (vi) promoting local, working class candidates were all important ingredients of building a new Tory majority. This suggests that there is plenty to play for in reshaping battleground themes.
(9) Major recruitment exercise: In April ConHQ will be looking to recruit eighty new graduates as campaign managers and, after intensive training, these will spearhead the Tory effort in a two-and-a-half year push from early next year.
Eighty graduate campaign managers will be recruited from April to spearhead the Tories’ re-election campaign in the battleground seats. Once recruited they will attend residential summer schools to train them in understanding and applying the battle plan. They will all be in place by the start of 2013, ensuring they have more than two years to promote their candidates, defend councillors, hold cross-constituency surveys, build leaflet distribution networks and run three or four online campaigns.
A new head of internet campaigning has also been headhunted by the party and will, among other things, aim to build coalitions with single issue groups.
This substantial expansion of the party's 'campaigner force' suggests ConHQ finances are reasonably healthy.
(10) Beyond the presentation: In speaking to other senior Tory aides I've learnt about some of the other campaign ploys. They include fairer funding of the trade union movement; staggered timing of the election debates; and, most interestingly, the holding of a referendum on general election day to mobilise the maximum possible Tory vote.
On Thursday I argued that we needed to cut the unions' warchest. This cause has been long popular with Tory MPs but there is concern that Francis Maude soft-pedalled on the issue for fear of jeopardising talks on public sector pensions. Some even fear that Mr Maude has given undertakings to the unions that the Coalition will do nothing to reduce the more-than-£100million that unions receive from the taxpayer every year. I have been reassured, however, that no such undertakings have been given and that Nick Clegg shares the Tory determination to curtail the unions' ability to finance campaigns against Conservative and Liberal Democrat candidates.
Over the next two days on these pages I'll be looking at two other ideas being floated by some Tory strategists:
- The most likely of the two is an effort by the Conservative Party to reschedule the election debates. Tory insiders acknowledge that the 2010 debates were very disruptive and rather than hold them during the heat of the four week campaign the Conservatives will propose that they are scheduled for January, February and March, before the campaign properly kicks off.
- The second idea is that the Tories might propose holding a referendum on polling day at the next General Election to guarantee maximum turnout of Tory-inclined voters and maximum loyalty of centre right press. The idea stems from the experience of last year's AV referendum which boosted Tory energy levels - among the press and voters - and produced such good local election results in the process. Republican strategists say that 2004's gay marriage referenda in swing states ensured George W Bush retained the presidency because of a surge of social conservatives going to the polls. Such a referendum would have to be approved by Liberal Democrats and my source says it might become attached to the passage of Lords reform. One theory is that a vote on Europe would boost Tory turnout and kill leakage to UKIP.