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.
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.