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Tom Wadsworth: Selling the Conservatives to voters requires a clear, well-understood vision – that doesn’t exist at the moment

Screen Shot 2013-03-02 at 10.36.43Tom Wadsworth is a political consultant and campaigns adviser at Fishburn Hedges. He writes in a personal capacity. He argues that Eastleigh shows that the Conservative brand isn’t just broken, it’s non-existent. Hugging bunnies or UKIP won’t solve this, he continues; only a root and branch look at what Conservatives want voters to think and feel when they see a blue rosette will do. Follow Tom on Twitter.

David Cameron won’t be short of advice today.  Calls to shift to the right, to the centre, to be more broad and more focussed will flood in, but I have some bad news: there’s no quick fix.

The scariest lesson from Eastleigh for Conservatives is that voters have no idea what they stand for or why they should vote Conservative; and neither by all appearances, do a lot of Conservatives.

Most of the 40,000 or so people in Eastleigh who voted yesterday are like most of the people in the country – they don’t engage in politics on a day to day basis.  So once every few years when they come to vote, they have to rely on their overall impressions of the parties – basically the brand.

But branding is about more than colours, logos and PR stunts.  Labour didn’t win a crushing majority in 1997 just on the back a few pithy phrases from Tony Blair, some good election literature and catchy song by D:Ream.  They won because voters instinctively understood and liked what Labour was offering, and then on the back of this the Party was very disciplined about reinforcing what voters were thinking.

The message from Eastleigh is that voters haven’t got a clue what Conservatives stand for, and are happier to carry on with a brand they know (in this case the Lib Dems) than risk changing.  The periodic but inconsistent attempts to detoxify the alleged ‘nasty party’ image have just confused voters rather than changed their minds.  This means that the chances of the Conservative picking off enough marginals to win a majority in two years’ time are slim to none.

Worse for Conservatives is that this lack of voter understanding and empathy with the brand isn’t just a presentational issue.  Narrowly, George Osborne is right that the Conservative leadership needed a more fleet-of-foot response to move from “hug a bunny” to deficit cutters after 2008.  But the point this misses is that being able to adapt required a shared understanding of the direction and what the party stood for.

Thatcher and her allies could fall back on the IEA, Alan Walters and co; Blair had the work done by Giddens, Mandleson et al.  Both were good at presenting their brands, but these brands were underpinned by a philosophy and direction that guided how they reacted as situations changed.

So Thatcher’s and Blair’s responses to changing situations were broadly consistent, as was their messaging.  Their ministers were expected to and usually did keep their policy and presentation within that consistent brand.  And that meant that voters knew what Thatcher’s and Blair’s parties stood for and could make their choice accordingly.

On an constituency basis, Maria Hutchings exemplifies the problem.  You can run candidates that don’t whole-heartedly agree with the positioning of the party, but they can’t be in open opposition.  What were Eastleigh voters supposed to think when they had Cameron and Hutchings in direct opposition on gay marriage?  When Nick Boles et al talk up the importance of housebuilding whilst ex-housing minister Grant Shapps runs a campaign attacking those who’ve supported development?  When Conservatives tell them UKIP aren’t serious, and then try and steal not just their messaging, but their colour scheme and endorsements?

That’s not Maria Hutchings’ fault, it’s the fault of the senior party leadership.  In the absence of a clear direction, what else can candidates do than just say what they think?

Conservatives now need to work hard and quickly to come to a shared understanding of what they stand for, and what that means for voters.  The work ConHome and others are doing in this area is very important and the leadership would do well to engage properly with it.  Only once this shared understanding begins to emerge can Conservatives possibly sell themselves to voters.

It’s not just about detoxifying, changing the logo and getting on-message; it’s about presenting a clear vision to voters.  If the Conservative Party can’t do this, most voters will stick with what they know, even where they don’t like it.  And that’ll mean another hung Parliament.


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