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William Norton: The way forward (and why)

William Norton was the Referendum Agent for the No Campaign in the North East referendum of 2004 which delivered a 78% win in Labour’s strongest English region.  He was a member of the James Review of Taxpayer Value and was attached to the Policy Unit during the General Election.  William is Area Deputy Chairman for Political Campaigning in London North East, and was a member of David Davis’ leadership team.

It’s a good time to be a Conservative, just now.  We have a new leader and some momentum in the polls.  Labour have suffered humiliating defeats.  This is not enough, however, to guarantee a Conservative Government.  The 2005 General Election demonstrated that an unpopular Labour administration does not lead automatically to a Tory victory.  What do we do for our next trick?

The starting point is that wretched focus group where there was rapturous and unanimous enthusiasm for all of our policies, until the poor guinea pigs learned that they were Tory policies, at which point our ideas found no takers.  Or whatever.  The precise details do not actually matter; what counts in this debate is what everyone thinks the details were. 
Unfortunately, this evidence cannot be ignored.  It is so strong it must even be addressed. 

There are two basic alternative responses...

(1) Rebuilding The Brand: hearts not minds

It doesn’t matter what our policies are; we are so distrusted/disliked that the voters won’t be listening anyway.  The focus group proves that our first priority must be to rebuild our image – by, say, some dramatic sign that we have “changed” – and we can worry about policy later.

Clearly, a party cannot keep undertaking annual iconic “changes” of the Clause IV variety.  Rebuilding The Brand can be sustained only by a regular series of shock announcements from the leader, rewarded by corresponding shock endorsements from non-Conservatives, all saying nice things about David Cameron (more “creeping barrage” than “rolling thunder”).  A smattering of pop stars, Liberal Democrats, well-connected ecologists etc. would generate a high pay-off for minimal outlay.  The public mood – or at any rate, the media image of the Party – could be altered very favourably very quickly.

Do not disparage this.  Defectors will not endorse the new Conservative Party (if at all) without a genuine and positive reason, and signing up each of them will require real ability on the part of David Cameron.  Think of them as the outward visible sign of inward spiritual change.  When that perennial weather-vane, Sir Richard Branson, comes over with his hands up (and his wallet closed, I fear) we’ll know we’re getting somewhere. 

“Big Tent” strategies have their drawbacks, too.
Will our new best friends acquire a veto over future Party direction? Surely not – and yet, if their flouncing-in is to be hailed as a major breakthrough, it must mean that if any of them flounce out again it will be seen as a major setback.  So, not a veto over policy, of course, but perhaps we should not adopt policies these newcomers will dislike.  How will our old loyalists feel about that?

More seriously, signing up new recruits to enter a Big Tent can quickly become an addiction – just one more pop star, one last anti-poverty campaigner – divorced from building a winning majority at an election.  How many votes are really swayed and kept swayed by gestures alone?

It is both a strength and a weakness of this approach that it is Policy Light: nothing specific to frighten the horses; nothing concrete to excite the activists.  Unfortunately, for a serious political party, of which there are two in the UK, policies are something of an unavoidable necessity – you never know when you might end up running the country. Even the Major Administration had a few policies.

A party out of power for eight years – and that’s eight years when the party in power contained statesmen of the calibre of John Prescott, Geoff Hoon, Ruth Kelly etc. – has to change, and certainly has to reappraise itself.  But major symbolic, iconic, change for the sake of it, if it demotivates the existing activists, will be self-defeating.

So, what of our other possible response?

(2) Winning The Argument: minds, not hearts

People never loved Margaret Thatcher, but they still voted for her because they respected her.  The focus group proves that there is an untapped reservoir of right-wing support out there and our first priority is to improve our methods of persuasion and start earning respect now, not waiting until a few months before the next Election.

It’s never too early to win the argument, say the advocates of this response.  We need a sustained, wholesale assault on Labour and the Liberals to demonstrate why we are right and so assemble a new conservative consensus.  In effect, a recipe for a four-year General Election campaign.

This approach, too, has its flaws.  The usual charge is the Shouting Louder accusation: if voters didn’t support those policies before then why should they support “more extreme” versions now?  (Such critics believe policies are always “more extreme” than last time.)  It is debatable whether the Party’s previous manifestoes have been presented in the best possible way, but it’s a common criticism.

An alternative objection is Too Much Detail: if we tie ourselves down to explicit policies at this stage it will restrict our freedom of movement while making it easier for the enemy to pinch our good ideas and discredit the bad ones.  (Such critics believe it is always the wrong time for detail.)

These criticisms attack caricatures but contain kernels of truth. If the Party commits itself too early, too heavily, to the “wrong” policies then not only time and money will be wasted; we also risk damage to our overall position.

So: which way?

It is tempting, and easy, to identify each of these responses with one of the leadership candidates, and react according to preference. But the leadership election is over and has been settled.

An even greater mistake would be to assume that these two responses are mutually exclusive.  Conservative success requires victory over both hearts and minds.  We will have to both Rebuild The Brand and Win The Argument.

The great secret of British politics: the British aren’t interested in politics

By and large, voters simply want to feel that they are governed by decent people, with a plausible idea of what they are doing, and the clear ability to deal with the problems of the day.  The famous focus group is telling us that, in 2005, the Tory Party had probably got its finger on at least part of the pulse, but it didn’t matter because we did not satisfy the other criteria.

Even within parties, there is often only a passing interest in political detail.  During the leadership campaign Team Davis floated, oh, about 101 policies with which most party members agreed – but they still went and voted for Cameron because they thought he looked more like a winner.  This quality, the so-called Star Dust factor, is an undoubted electoral asset, and the only one the Tories have at the moment, and it would be barking mad to plan a campaign without Cameron’s personality at its heart.

A party can rule itself out of office by “extreme” policies which are out of touch: Labour in the 1980s.  It can also rule itself out of office by being seen as being a bunch of pillocks: Tories in 1964 and since 1992; Labour in 1970.  Usually, to get voters to take an interest in politics it requires a Massive Cock-up: Hitler trying to take over the world (without the Foreign Office realising it); Eden trying to conquer Egypt (and bungling it); the Three Day Week; the Winter of Discontent; the Poll Tax; Black Wednesday; that sort of thing.

An opposition party cannot rely on an incumbent government creating a Massive Cock-up, because even when one happens it may not reap the benefit: the Conservatives survived Suez and the Poll Tax (just); and Labour survived Foot & Mouth and (according to taste) the Iraq War.  What an opposition can – and must – do is to set itself two objectives: to satisfy the decency and competence criteria; and to change the political weather by enough to make the incumbents look out of touch.

Which way when?

The first of these objectives goes to image.  So, get used to chocolate oranges, the Heir To Blair and that picture of the wind-farm propeller, and learn to like them, because we need to see and hear a lot more of that stuff over the next four years.  What these changes are is rather less important than the fact that they happen.  It is an added bonus that under Cameron the rebranding will be thorough – and sincere.

Some stalwart Tories may object to the company we will be keeping – but asylum-seekers always create resentment among their hosts.  When Liberals start flooding our constituency associations like latter-day Vietnamese boat people, we will just have to establish “reception centres” for them where they can adjust to life in a civilised party. Perhaps distinguished North Devon accountants would volunteer to give them re-education lectures?

The second objective goes to policy.  Don’t expect to get away with a policy-free vacuum and a promise to run Blairism better than the Blairsheviks.  Nobody is going to drop New Labour without being given a convincing reason – or, at least, a plausible excuse.  No voter really cared about monetarism in 1979, but it will have sounded suitably intelligent and scientific as a motive to vote for lower income tax and giving the trade unions a bloody good kicking. 

The Conservative Party will have to produce a critique of the Blairite state, and pick ground on which to fight and defeat Labour. This does not mean adopting soggy social democracy.  If the correct ground is chosen, on the Nixon In China theory it will be easier to sell certain (but not all) sound right-wing policies with a plausible, human-looking moderate leader.  Any one for tuition fees?

We should do this as early as possible for two reasons: not just the need for time to overcome voter resistance to the Tory Party; but also because we need to start early to frame the debate ahead of the next Election.  Blair has succeeded in framing the debate in ways favourable to himself for the elections in 1997 (Tory incompetence); 2001 (Tory irrelevance); and 2005 (Tory “plans” to undo the modern social settlement).
Playing to win

The 2010 Election will almost certainly turn on the question: why should the voters sack Gordon Brown and replace him with David Cameron?  We need to start providing those answers now.  Brown has started his leadership bid, and he is doing it in ways which will define his premiership – and hence, frame the next Election.

The debate could be about which party is best placed to reform the British state – or it could be about “Britishness” in the modern world – or the extent to which the needs of Security trump civil liberties – or the price of eggs - but if we are to frame that debate, whatever it is, in terms favourable to us, then we need to start making the argument (and winning it) now.  The argument must be conducted as an extended conversation, not a shouting match.  And it should be with the voters, and not each other.

At the moment it would be enough to throw out ideas to see how they proceed – perhaps by way of an open-source approach to policy-making as discussed here by James Morris. Think of this as seeding the field to see which crops grow.  Use should also be made of out-rider organisations such as the Tax Payers Alliance – see the excellent article posted here by Dr Lee Rotherham – as pathfinders to test the water and prepare the public.

The relative balance between Rebranding and Argument, and the timing at which emphasis is shifted from one to the other, should be mapped out in a coherent four-year strategy for gaining a majority in 2010. Everyone knows that.  It is a truism.  The Conservative Party is so successful at formulating four-year strategies that recently it has been adopting a new one every six months.  It is important to distinguish between day-to-day tactical moves to win a headline or an adjournment debate and a genuine strategy to achieve long-term objectives.

The prospects for a rebirth of the Conservative family are good, on the basis of no other evidence than our leadership election.  The candidates deliberately opted to fight in a constructive manner which aired disagreements without inflaming differences.  If we can manage that, perhaps we are re-learning how to talk to voters. 

A sharp acidic Granny Smith, an easily-bruised Cox Orange Pippin, and even, dare I say it, a watery pulpy Golden Delicious, are all apples.  The object of the exercise is to collect as many apples as possible.  There is no need to be too picky about the brand.


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