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Conservative HQ briefs Tory members on its battleground strategy

By Tim Montgomerie
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The Birmingham Post's Jonathan Walker posted a report yesterday on the Conservative Party's 40/40 strategy to win the next election. Jonathan's report stems from a members-only briefing that was given at Party Conference by Stephen Gilbert, the PM's Political Secretary. Here's what I know about that briefing:

  • At the heart of the 40/40 campaign is an ambition to hold forty seats and win another forty. This will be enough to win a majority but not a large one. Conservative sources are keen to point out, however, that winning forty seats is not necessarily the limit of their ambition. Resources will be devoted to these target seats and the effects will be monitored. If Con HQ feels that these seats are safely heading into the blue column extra target seats will be added. My source told me that the number of target seats should increase to about seventy before the general election. The original plan had more ambitiously been to immediately target fifty seats (36 from Labour and 14 from the LibDems and when there was only due to be 600 seats in total) and hold another fifty.
  • The Conservative Party now feels it has a better ground operation than Labour. It points to the fact that it won 23 more seats at the last election than it should have done if the national swing towards the Tories had been evenly spread across the whole country. The net 23 figure includes 32 seats that we won because of effective targeting but also nine that we failed to win and should have done (a good number of these being in London). Tory strategists say one of the reasons for this success has been its approach to clustering - its targeting of messages on special types of seats, eg new towns/ seaside towns.
  • The Tories are determined to take advantage of their double incumbency advantage. Double incumbency benefit involves a first-term Tory MP for a former Labour seat, for example, developing his or her own personal following because of constituency profile and facing an opponent who has yet to build up a personal vote of their own.
  • Eighty new campaign managers are being recruited to ensure that efforts in the 40/40 seats are perfectly executed and to Con HQ rather than local instructions. The party will be building additional infrastructure for leaflet delivery. Most Tory MPs who won their seats at the last election found that they could not rely upon local Associations and had to build alternative networks through friends, churches, country sports groups and so on.
  • Mr Gilbert presented polling evidence which suggests that the party still has an underlying strength in five fundamental areas -
    • Cameron as preferred PM;
    • Overall economic trustworthiness;
    • People still thinking cuts are unavoidable;
    • Public supporting the Tory rather than Labour definition of fairness, especially in terms of ending the something-for-nothing culture;
    • Sense that Labour hadn't really changed or learnt its lessons from failures in office. This explains the "Labour isn't learning" attack.
  • Activists were promised that the Liberal Democrats would be heavily targeted but the targeting would continue to be via "lovebombing" rather than the heavily negative campaigning of old. I was told during the week that the ground operation in Eastleigh was already "at top speed".
  • The NHYes campaign is being relaunched to restore public trust among what Con HQ calls the "in-play centre". The NHS, green credentials at a local level* and, above all else, action on the cost of living are seen to be central to winning over this group. Last week's announcement on freezing council tax and capping rail fares were the latest acknowledgments of this.

* People want local conservation - there is little faith or hunger for bold action on the international stage re climate change.


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