The Tory Masterplan: Labour’s Response

8th March, 2012 10:01 am

Tim Montgomerie had a fascinating post on ConservativeHome this week outlining the Tory plan to get themselves over the finish line next election. I strongly recommend that every Labour Party member – and especially every Labour Party organiser – reads it in full. Everyone at Victoria Street should have it bookmarked.

The piece is a 10 point briefing on what the Tory strategy will be for winning the next election. It outlines how hard that will be for them and their best planned attack given that uphill struggle. It’s an impressive and coherent plan and needs careful thought put into how Labour go about countering, frustrating and defeating it.

I’d like to add my voice to that process as I respond point-by-point to the issues raised.

1. The Tories face an uphill struggle.

This is true. The Tories, faced with a Labour Party and leader who were deeply unpopular, after 5 years of painstaking detoxification work, managed to poll just 3.7% more than they had in 2005. As such, it is not totally clear who the Tories have left to attract. This battle will be hard and bloody.

But, though it is an uphill struggle for the Tories, that is nothing compared to the struggle for Labour. We suffered an incredibly difficult defeat at the last election. Our Party was tired and divided. While a great deal of our energy has returned to us, we remain a Party with more than one voice, more than one hymn sheet and more than one notion of the direction the Party needs to take to return to power in 2015. We are all too used to the comfort of fighting each other, and our focus is not nearly firmly enough sighted on the Tories. While it may seem like the Tories are disunified, we can’t rely on them making the same mistake.

We remain untrusted on the economy, we have a massive financial difference with the Tories and we face a media as hostile as any we have ever known. We also faced the equal difficulty of facing two Parties acting in concert against us whilst also providing their own internal opposition, squeezing us out of the narrative from both sides.

2. The Tories are going to try and change the country’s perception of fairness to make it chime better with Conservative values.

Some in Labour will tell you this is a huge threat to us. Personally I see this as a huge opportunity. Think about what they are really saying here. They are conceding that on the public’s present terms they aren’t seen as on the side of fairness. That on these terms they will never be seen as on the side of fairness. That they have to change the public’s minds about what fairness means, in order to be even be able to compete to be seen as on the side of fairness.

This gives Labour two, three bites of the cherry. We can and must continue to beat them on the public’s current vision of fairness. We must show how we wouldn’t put the burden on those at the bottom; defeat the Tory vision of equality of sacrifice showing what this really means to the lives with those with the least leeway and therefore stop them changing the public’s mind on what fairness means.

3. Reassurance not radicalism

This would be a huge break in style and confirms the world view of those who believe that the loss of Steve Hilton from Number 10 will have a real impact. Others though might point out that implementation is what the second half of any Government is about, and this one has been extremely radical in its first half.

The problem they will have with trying not to appear radical, is that the implementation stage is actually when that radicalism will be felt. Politicians always forget this. For them, the fight starts and ends with getting legislation enacted. But the rest of the country don’t notice that things are going to change, they notice when they do change.

The Welfare reform changes will produce results that hurt real, live widows and disabled families all the way between now and the election. Every single hospital story from here to 2015 will be tied to the disastrous Health Bill.

So however reassuring the Government decides to be between now and the election, the reverberations of their current programme of legislation will continue having radical effects all the way through this term. Labour needs to be right there pointing out the damage done to people’s lives and livelihoods; to their health, well-being and treatment; and to their ability to find adequate and rewarding work.

4. One hundred seats

The Tory strategy centres on 100 seats. 50 of theirs, 14 Lib Dems seats and 36 of ours. This is reasonably sensible. Protecting their vulnerable flank while also encroaching enough into opposition territory to push them over the edge. It’s not too ambitious and gives them plenty of room to invest heavily in these seats. Labour need to think hard about playing both defence and offence in these seats too, and how to counter a well-funded Tory attack.

It is worth noting where these seats are too. The big target areas are in the Midlands and then the North West and Yorkshire. These will require a strong regional and local machine response from Labour as well as innovative ground campaigning from activists. We can’t and shouldn’t run campaigns tightly controlled by London. Empowering measures in Refounding Labour should help to spread the fighting funds and that may make a significant difference.

5. No targets in Scotland

This says two things: The Tories have all but given up on Scotland, but also that they expect the SNP to keep Labour down. This is important. I know little of Scottish politics, but despite the nickname “Tartan Tories” I know we can’t fight the SNP as if they were simply Tories in kilts.

The whole fight in Scotland has to be seen through the prism not of Labour vs Tory, but Labour vs SNP. Scottish Labour must be freed to fight their own fight, local to them. I don’t presume to know what that is, but it is essential that the messages from Labour North of the Border aren’t the same as those aimed at Surrey with an expectation that our Scottish voters will always be with us.

It’s not relevant to 2015, but keep an eye on Conservative attitudes to Scotland, especially from the younger generation. As they give up on it electorally, and as further devolution becomes ever more likely, the Tories might become considerably less attached to the union.

6 & 7. There will be a focus on urban seats and a battle to neutralise negatives among women, ethnic minorities and NHS patients.

I can’t see how they’re going to manage the latter. As I said earlier, if the Bill becomes law, every missing paperclip, everything that goes wrong in the NHS will be down to this Government and to David Cameron for breaking his promise to the electorate.

Equally, they haven’t picked easy battlegrounds. Women are being disproportionately hit by the cuts as are ethnic minorities. Urban areas are starting to feel the pinch. Whatever happens in London, it’s a much closer election than it was predicted to be a year ago.

Labour needs to campaign vigorously to elect first Ken then the raft of other local directly elected Mayors in urban areas. If we can put in place enough spearheads to fight Westminster from and on behalf of their cities, this will go a long way to giving Labour an advantage in our cities. As will an increased focus on the importance of local Government. So either way, what happens in May will be a vital first step to countering this Tory focus.

8. The 10% most reachable for Tories are young, unmarried, above-average income and BME.

Tim is unconvinced about a strategy for the Conservative to focus on these voters, fearing a disproportionate amount of effort being spent on the hardest-to-convert. Tim doesn’t want his party to be seen as a Party for the rich, but a low-taxes Party for the poor as you can see from his recent appearance on Newsnight arguing with two Tories about the Mansion Tax.

I think Tim has little chance of winning this fight in his Party and far less chance of turning around the perception that the Tories are the Party of the rich. Here, he’s stymied by two factors, the traditional right of his Party (and David Cameron) who do believe that rewarding “success” is what being a Conservative is about and what the Conservatives are for. The other is the reality of coalition politics, where the Lib Dems will loudly and often rightly try to take credit for measures such as raising the income tax threshold.

So while I can see that attracting these urban, metropolitan voters will be difficult, I can also see why Tory strategists might think it is their easiest path.

To counter it, Labour need to continue to build their lead in “on the side of people like me” polling. Some may not like it, but a bit of banker-bashing helps with this enormously. Turnout will be key at the next election, so we need promises that help the squeezed middle. Childcare, consumer rights, Public transport, and education will be key policy areas here.

Equally we need to look at some of the places where the Tories tried and failed to run campaigns aimed at these voters in 2010. Hammersmith and Fulham springs to mind, but I’m sure local knowledge will provide plenty of others. Labour’s strategists need to speak to the local activists in these areas to find out what worked to fend the Tories off and why.

9. 80 new graduate campaign managers.

Again, this could be a glass that is half-empty or half-full.

On the empty side, it shows the effect a powerful war chest can have on a Party’s ability to campaign. The 80 graduates will be recruited in the first half of this year and trained intensively ready to be put in place two and a half years before the next election. This is a great deal of firepower and I can’t imagine that Labour will be able to match it in terms of professional staff.

On the full side, these will be 80 new people, largely parachuted into new areas and having to build up their local knowledge and connections. It’s the opposite to the Movement for Change strategy of getting the Party into local communities and training local people to be Party advocates.

You might even call them the Movement to Conserve the Status Quo. A top down centrally dictated power-grab from the Party will not be wholly welcomed by the grassroots, and there may be considerable teething troubles as they find their feet, wasting valuable time as Labour continues a volunteer led fight.

It is widely acknowledged that it was Labour’s volunteer army that stopped the worst of what could have happened in 2010. Innovations like Grace Fletcher-Hackwood’s Mob Mondays  – where groups of activists from around the country would volunteer to phone a single constituency (with a crib sheet circulated in advance to help understand local issues) need to be replicated immediately for the 100 target seats (and any others on a target list of our own that differs). Labour must be a permanent campaign, and I agree with Mark Ferguson that to do so effectively, we need better messages.

10. Miscellaneous

Tim’s last points were not in the official briefing, but were a result of his conversations with people in the know. Make no mistake, Tim is very well informed.

The Government are increasingly likely to go after the unions. This pleases both Lib Dems and Tories, neither of whom have any love for or understanding of the vital importance of organised labour. They also expect that such a fight will put Labour on the wrong side of the public, neutralising some of their own “on the side of people like me” negatives. The unions need to produce a canny business case (and all the evidence exists) as to why their funding is cost effective, and a PR campaign as to just why union members are ordinary folk like everyone else. This fight is winnable, but just because the motives are purely political, it does not mean that the most effective response will be a political one.

Another ploy being considered are staggering and delaying the debates. This again is fascinating when you look at what it is really saying. The Tories go on and on about what a poor communicator Ed is, but actually, they acknowledge that it was the debates that really harmed slick old Dave last time around. This time, he’ll be older and more tired, and if Ed’s on the kind of form he’s been on lately, the debates could give him a real boost. No wonder they’re trying to neutralise them. I can’t see Clegg complaining either. If he leads the Lib Dems into the next election (a big if) he knows it won’t be in an atmosphere of debate inspired Cleggmania.

Finally, there is the possibility that a referendum may be added to the ballot. This worked very well in increasing Tory turnout last year and the Tories seem to be the coalition Party who have really learned the lessons of the AV referendum (easier to do I suppose when the lessons are positive).

So there it is, an outline of Tory strategy for the next few years and my own beginnings of thoughts on how to counter it. It’s not all negative and it’s not all terrifying, but I’m going to finish where I began by saying that this will be an incredibly difficult fight. It’s going to take a Party operating at its best, empowering its members to action and taking the fight to the Tories time and again, through good times and bad. It’s going to need discipline, and an external focus which the Party loses at times. Most of all, it’s going to take a desire to win. A burning hunger for electoral victory, and an understanding that all the other things we want to do stem only from that goal. That it is only by achieving Government that we will have a chance not just to stem the damage being done by the Tories, but also to create and shape a Britain that is more just, more equitable and better equipped to care for all its people.

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  • AlanGiles

    I think how the Tories (and Labour) fare at the 2015 election will depend very much on how the LibDem vote gets divided up – I think it has to be taken for granted that they will lose quite a few of their seats, especially if Mr Clegg remains as leader.

    But – I think this is very important – Labour has to admit it’s mistakes. With all due respect you write: “The Welfare reform changes will produce results that hurt real, live widows and disabled families all the way between now and the election.”

    Please let us never forget that Purnell made Duncan-Smith & Graylings work easier for them by implementing Freud – now officially a Tory, and, indeed, already a Tory as Purnell forced those reforms through Parliament.

    If we don’t admit to things like this we look shallow and forgetful at best, hypocritical at worst.

    What concerns me is that we still have one of J Purnell’s cheerleaders -Liam Byrne in post as shadow welfare minister, on the one hand saying that he “agrees with three quarters” of the coalition bill, and then protesting outrage at the quarter he says he doesn’t like.

    Many members of the shadow cabinet appear to have taken a vow of silence: a decent period of silence from Mr Byrne would be very welcome. Say his name to Labour opponents and they will always remember the “there’s no money left” note, and to some Labour supporters he frankly appears two-faced (me included).  

    Yesterday there was understandable anger at the news of the closure of several Remploy factories to make disabled people redundant at a time of record unemployment is heartless – BUT again – don’t forget Labour started this process a few years ago and again they have made the coalitions work that much easier for them. It looks a bit like crocodile tears now (though I know Sue’s article will be real and genuine).

    It seems to me if Labour want to stand a chance in 2015 they must have a few, but very definite policies – I would suggest the areas of employment and social housing should be at the top of the list, and when Ed Miliband speaks about loyalty to British politics, he must sound as if he really believes it, and not talk about in an almost apologetic way.

    First things first, though and the Shadow Cabinet must (to use that horrible overworked phrase) be fit for purpose. Apart from Andy Burnham few seem to speak with any passion, and even Mr Burnham seems to forget he was’nt always quite so opposed to NHS reform.

    Let’s try being honest – not just with the general public but ourselves.

  • George Barratt

    Thank you, Emma, for a very constructive piece. You raise key points, on which I comment below. We need simple and repetitive messages to the voters.

    1. The economy. Blair, Mandelson and Brown had too much misplaced trust in the global financial economy, with all the baggage of tax havens, tax avoidance and tax evasion. We should campaign on blocking tax loopholes and point the finger at guilty corporations and their Tory owners. (Margaret Hodge MP has already done this on the Public Accounts Committee)

    2. Fairness. Is it fair for millionaire stores chain owners to keep shares in the name of their wives, and to then send the proceeds to  Monaco? We are NOT all in this together. 

    3. Welfare. Global warming, causing crop failures and additionally, high fuel prices will increase discontent among our natural voters and also floating voters. Once again, the Tories are now running the economy and must be accused.

    4. Urban seats. The availability and high price of housing in urban areas around London and the South East is an important issue for first-time buyers. The issue of council housing and housing generally needs to be a campaigning issue. What about compulsory purchase of empty properties and licensed short term squatting of these empty properties?.

    5. Tory focus on young, rich, unmarried, BME voters. These adjectives may be quite contradictory when BME cultures are considered. We must continually emphasise that the Tory party consists of rich old white men, with chauvinist and racist views.

    6. 80 New Tory graduate campaign managers. Maybe the Tories can finance this. 
    BUT on the other hand, why is there no political education in the Labour Party? Why are we so lacking in motivation? Why is the membership so old and tired? Why must party members be nagged into activity? Why are we not campaigning, except when it is election time? The Labour party does not need to recruit graduate campaign managers, it needs to politically motivate its members to go out and CAMPAIGN.

    7. The unions. New Labour distanced itself from its natural supporters, while still wanting to be financed by them. We must support unions when they have a valid case. Private sector pension funds were looted by corporations because of lack of opposition and little or no private sector union organisation.

    George Barratt
    Barking and Dagenham

  • Very very good analysis.

    To me the twin weak points of current PLP strategy are:
    1. the perception of the link with unions (cf point 10) as “paymasters”: this is as damaging, if not more so, for Labour as the perception that Tory policy is run by Lord Ashcroft et al.
    2. the current “rabbit in headlights” approach to policy – two very good articles recently perhaps begin to address this (“naked on the doorstep” for the problems and Paul Richard’s latest column for a suggested approach which chimes with my own, pragmatism-based, views), but there are deep divisions to overcome on the left/right strategic positioning which need to have real leadership: “back me or sack me”-style, to overcome.

  • Patricia Shepherd

    Labour should make much of the fact that the banks and the finance companies are the paymasters of the tories.

  • EmmaBurnell

    Alan, I have publicly disavowed the path taken by James Purnell and others on Welfare reform several times. I can’t do it every time I write an essay – especially one of this length.

    However, disavowing is one thing and it’s far less than half the story. The real duty is to come up with better alternatives and to implement them.

    • Quite right Emma. IMHO It is more a question of drawing up a plan of what we will do in the future as opposed to retreading old and well-worn paths. This would be a kind of sado-masochistic political onanism that has its place, but would bear a meagre political harvest.
       Unfortunately, Alan is not especially keen for us to win next time and has stated that he may well formally defect to the Greens shortly. Furthermore, he is not a Labour party member and routinely delivers tirades of abuse at social democrats here (See Rob Marchant’s blog last week). In these respects his opinion does not command much value in the forthcoming debate that we must have within the party.
      ‘Onwards and upwards’ should be our pre-occupation in that debate

      • AlanGiles

        You presume to speak for me, William. I want to see a Labour government, but I don’t mean by that a Tory-Lite Labour government, which will see more nonsense about “Blue Labour” which is a contradiction in terms.

        My problem with the right-wing of the Labour party (apart from the tacit support of coalition policy) is the arrogance they show towards the left – as if they had the sole right to speak, and have some sort of intellectual superiority.

        I think the work “defect” is somewhat high-flown, but I would certainly turn my back on a Labour party led by David Miliband.

    • AlanGiles

      Sorry, Emma when I said “you” I wasn’t referring to yourself, I meant the party at large – I know you and many others took a principled stand against Purnell’s reforms, and I am sorry if the way I worded it implied otherwise. It just seems to me there are far too many Mr Byrnes in the PLP who want to try to point in both directions at once.

    • Winston_from_the_Ministry


      Now can you spread that attitude to the rest of Labour?

  • Rowley Holbrook

    The proposed boundary changes will almost ensure a continuing Tory majority – which is their intention – have you factored that into your extremely impressive analysis?

  • Patrick

    An excellent analysis and very good suggestions.  However a successful Labour must tap on religious leaders and schools to instill discipline in our young. Labour needs a plan which will include parental responsibilty for their children, religous leaders’ role in imparting morales in society and schools’ contribution in moulding our young for responsible adulthood.
    The electorate are all not only aware, but affected by what is happening in our communities today. We witness vandalism, hooliganism and many crimes pervading our streets. The electorates are looking for a Labour Party with sound ideas on how to make our streets safe and keep our children sound education, skills and knowledge that will keep them out of the streets and into higher institutions and jobs.
    It is not enough to counter Tory and LibDem plans but to come up with ideal and achieveable programmes that will the very numerous questions ask about Labour’s ability to deal with these pressing needs. 

  • Winston_from_the_Ministry

    Some assumptions in there but overall I think this is one of your best (and definitely most interesting) articles Emma, good work.


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