Friday, 6 October 2017

The Conservatives’ conundrum

While Britain’s political commentators concern themselves with the Conservative leadership, Conservatives must pay attention to their real problems. The Conservative brand has suffered as a result of the 2017 General Election. However, if the party regains its credibility it has a chance to become a winning force once again.

It is no shock that the polls are not moving much

Given that most have voters are not professional politics watchers, we should not be surprised that the twists and turns occurring in SW1 do not affect their opinions.

Among Westminster watchers there was surprise that problems surrounding the Prime Minister’s 2017 Conference Speech were not reflected in YouGov’s post-conference season polling. ‘The latest YouGov/Times voting intention survey find the Conservatives on 40 per cent (from 39 per cent on 22-24 September, the date of our last poll) and Labour on 42 per cent (from 43 per cent). Both changes are well within the margin of error, so the story of the change between this poll and the previous one is very much “nothing to see here.”’[1]

This seemed to come as a surprise to the political class, which has been speculating feverishly that issues the Prime Minister’s premiership might end due to her conference speech. Yet, for a family on average incomes that has just received its quarterly bills and had to find the money to send the children back to school, why would any political speech be particularly relevant? More specifically ‘what does a cough mean to me and my family?’

In the absence of any compelling narrative voters have no reason to re-evaluate their views  

Politicians’ preoccupation with political stakeholders has blinded them to the fact they have been preaching to the choir. The media’s narrative that Labour is ascendant and the Conservatives are on the slide has skewed both parties’ perception. The press has built the idea that Labour is ‘connecting’ by pointing to the popularity of particular policies e.g. nationalising the railways. It has contrasted this with the Conservatives’ policies, which are supposedly not connecting. However, these are unsubstantiated assertions. As pointed out by respected polling analyst, Matt Singh, the last six polls before 2017 conference season showed two Conservative leads, two Labour leads and two ties.[2] Rather than the picture presented by the media, the facts illustrate that the positions of the two parties has not really changed since June’s General Election.

The media has made the classic poll reading error of thinking what’s popular in abstract will sway voters in practice. The fact neither Ed Miliband or Jeremy Corbyn won General Elections, despite how well their ideas poll, illustrates the pitfall of doing this. In truth since June both parties have hovered around their General Election 2017 vote shares, unable to attract enough votes from elsewhere to break clear of the other.

Since 8 June 2017 neither the Conservatives or Labour has been able to convince the British public to rethink the conclusions they came to that day. Hence, the current stasis.

There is an opportunity for Conservatives to move the dial if they can address their real issues

I believe the reason neither party can establish a decisive lead over the other is because both score poorly on credibility. I was a member of the Conservative Research Department (CDRD) when Lynton Crosby took control of our 2015 General Election campaign. One of the first things he taught us was that if voters do not believe in you, they will not believe in what you commit to doing. Research from Lord Ashcroft shows that, at present, the Conservatives are just three points ahead of Labour when it comes to being ‘competent and credible.’ Neither side is viewed as such by more than 30 per cent of the electorate either.[3]

Both sides can make whatever promises they want to and it won’t matter, as neither has been able to convince the British people they have the credibility to deliver. Until one side does this, short of some unaccounted for external event, I see little chance of the polls changing significantly. The British electorate has no impetus to relook at the parties and think one is more likely to do what it says.

The Conservatives major advantage is that you win by governing, to cite another Lynton Crosby maxim. As the Conservatives are presently in power, they are in a position to demonstrate that they can govern credibly. This is something that Labour cannot do from opposition. If the Conservatives can regain a firm footing, and demonstrate the ability to govern effectively with purpose and competence, they may be able to rebuild the competence and credibility lead they previously had. This in turn will mean when the Conservatives make commitments those will be believed not dismissed. The one potential thing undermining this is the perception that the party is disunited, something else reflected in Aschcroft’s research. However, provided the party can hold the line, and oversee a period of calm and stability, I would not be surprised to see its electoral outlook to improve markedly.

[1] YouGov Press Release, 6 October 2017, link
[2] Matt Singh, Twitter, 23 September 2017, link
[3] Lord Aschcroft Polls, The Conservative brand – and how voters compare the Labour and Tory agendas with their own, 30 September 2017, link

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Reflections of a tired campaign volunteer

The Conservatives lost our majority during the 2017 General Election and below I will outline why I think that was. I was not central to the 2017 General Election campaign. I do not market my views as those of an ‘insider.’ If someone more deeply involved in the decision making described me as a peripheral part-timer I would not disagree. However, having volunteered on both the 2015 and 2017 Conservative General Election campaigns, I believe that I have seen enough to make the observations I have.

The 2017 Conservative General Election campaign was not built on a well seeded narrative. The work for the 2015 General Election campaign began years before voting took place. I was an employee of the Conservative Research Department (CRD) in 2013, the point at which Lynton Crosby and Mark Textor assumed control of our 2015 campaign. On the first day Lynton and Tex sat down with CRD they explained precisely what we were trying to achieve and why: what strengths of ours we were trying to maximise and what weaknesses of Labour’s we were going to play on. From that point on our focus on those things was relentless. We spent two years hammering home the message of our long term economic plan to secure Britain’s future. The media hated it, the British people however understood it. When the 2015 General Election arrived there was a narrative we had developed, which meant the framing for it was the economy. Any other issues, regardless of how popular (and some of Miliband’s policies in isolation were very, very popular), took a back seat. Why? Because voters had been conditioned to think about the economy when they went to the ballot box. So the election came down to ‘who do you trust on the economy?’ That was where the negative work we had done on Ed Miliband’s credibility paid off. It did not matter what Labour were promising, they were not as trusted as we were to deliver. In the context of the narrative we had created, our strengths counted more than theirs. Their weaknesses were magnified and ours minimised. By contrast, the very nature of snap election makes it hard to seed a narrative. Rather than two years, the campaign had two weeks before Parliament was dissolved to try to get the British people to see the election through the prism we wanted: Brexit. That meant the campaign was vulnerable to being blown of course unless any noises off were minimised.

Questions about our 2017 General Election manifesto changed the battlefield for us, as a consequence of not having had the time to frame the contest. As a result of our narrative not being well-seeded our strengths on Brexit could not be maximised. Generally speaking, people vote based upon what they feel is most likely to guarantee a secure and more prosperous future for them and their families. Due to the lack of time we had, we struggled to make the emotional connection between Brexit and these issues. There was a desire to show how a good Brexit would support the good jobs, strong public services and other things of importance to the electorate. However, when the 2017 General Election manifesto was published it contained new policies that prompted questions. In strategic terms, to a large extent, the intellectual merits of these policies was irrelevant. Their import was that they diverted the conversation from where we wanted and needed it to be, given the little time we had to drive home our narrative. In 2015, even with two years of preparation, the General Election manifesto we produced was relatively light on any new policy. Anything new had to be immediately understandable to voters. Anything that might cause confusion and take the narrative away from where we wanted it was minimised. This time around that does not appear to have happened. All polls noted a drop off in our support at the time the manifesto was published (and the differences between the polls more or less just reflect their turnout assumptions). Confusion led to uncertainty, which opened up a new conversation where Brexit was simply less relevant. People began judging their economic security around social care and how they would fund their children’s lunches. Arguably, from that point, it was not possible to recover our position. My youth and inexperience may betray me but I have never seen a party lose a narrative during a campaign and subsequently regain it.

People may dispute this analysis and point to other things I have omitted to discuss. My sense is that everything else falls within the context of the items outlined above. Lack of time to develop a narrative, then failing to minimise the risk of being dragged away from our narrative, led to our disappointing result.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

The end of the world

Many commentators have greeted the election of Donald Trump as US President as the end of the world. To some extent they are correct, although not in the way they think. I believe Trump’s election is evidence that the post Cold War world order is collapsing. Western political parties must accept and respond to this. Failure to do so could result in them being confined to the past, rather than having a hand in shaping the future.

Politicians in the West must acknowledge the factors that led to Trump’s rise. Donald Trump characterised his campaign as ‘Brexit plus, plus, plus’[1] and he was right to do so. I appreciate why some commentators deny common factors. Without dispassionate analysis the wrong conclusions will be reached though.

Since the end of the Cold War, the West has tried to integrate Russia, China and others into the international order. It was assumed that through commerce a new world order could be created: economic interconnectivity would show the wisdom of the Western way, and opening up in the former Communist world would happen over time. Trade became freer, the world became more connected. There is little sign of property owning democracy developing in Moscow and Beijing however. Rather than creating Western democracies, capitalism has given authoritarian regimes the tools required to sustain themselves post-Cold War. That has also had an impact on the West, which provided those tools.

It is undeniable that many Westerners, not only in Britain and America, feel the globalised system no longer works for them. As our barriers came down, lower labour costs in other places saw the off shoring of jobs. As our barriers came down, mass migration led to rapid cultural change. I am a free marketer by instinct, yet to argue for abstract principles in the face of what’s happening is impractical. A shift has happened in Western society. People have decided that cheap goods from elsewhere are not worth the non-monetary cost here. Pretending otherwise would be burying our heads in the sand.

The system has got to change or it will be torn down. Increasingly Western societies are demanding the governments they fund put them first, and forget about the global system. When Donald Trump talked about bringing back jobs it spoke to peoples’ concerns.[2] When the Brexit campaigners talked about how they could save steel plants, but for EU market rules, it spoke to peoples’ concerns.[3] People appear tired of hearing that obligations to people elsewhere mean things have to change at home. Nowhere is this starker than in the debate about migration. It is no surprise that the chant ‘build the wall’ became a slogan of Trump supporters. [4] It has also been long established that a majority of the British public think migration is too high, and that they want no additional refugees to be admitted to Britain.[5] Western citizens don’t care why people are coming, they don’t want them to.

The emerging picture is of publics that think charity begins at home, and that governments need to look after the interests of the taxpayers that fund them before looking abroad. It seems inevitable that this pressure will roll back the tide of globalisation. Should today’s politicians prove unwilling to be proactive about doing so, Western electorates will find outsiders, like Trump, who will. The French establishment may discover that in 2017.

[1] Donald Trump, Birmingham Mail, 7 November 2016, link
[2] Donald Trump, Politico, 28 June 2016, link
[3] Breitbart, 31 March 2016, link
[4] Daily Mail, 6 September 2016, link
[5] YouGov, 18 November 2015, link

Monday, 26 October 2015

We need to talk about tax credits

Today the House of Lords’ will debate the Government’s reforms to tax credits, and there is a chance the Lords’ will try to block these. Not only would that be wrong constitutionally, it would also be wrong in principle. Tax credits need reforming. Changes need to be made so that hardworking people can have confidence that every penny of their pay cheque is theirs.

The tax credit system is broken. I first became aware of tax credits as a child watching my Mum, a single parent, fret over an overpayment letter from the tax man. A lot has been written about how government’s changes to tax credits could affect people. Very little has been written about how doing nothing could affect them though. Anyone who has had the experience of being told they got too much tax credits last year, and so they need to pay money back, knows tax credits are not perfect. Nobody on tax credits can ever be completely confident that their pay cheque is accurate. There is always the chance that money you have been given, money you might already have spent, will be demanded back from you.

My experiences have made me believe that instead of taxing people, and giving them a little of their money back as tax credits, the best thing to do would be to tax less in the first place. This would free the British people of a system so open to the possibility of error. Your pay would be your pay, and there would be no more letters through the door saying your tax credits were miscalculated. People could feel secure about what they actually had to spend, and budget secure that no money would be later clawed back from them.

This forms part of the Government’s long-term economic plan. We are moving from high taxes and high welfare, to low taxes and low welfare. The Government is not only making changes to tax credits. It has also cut income tax every year for the past five years. 27 million people have already had their income taxes come down, and even better the income tax reductions will continue. In a few years time none of us will be paying any tax on the first £12,500 we earn.[1] Under the Government’s new system, not only we will have greater security about our pay, the tax man will be taking less of it in the first place.

The fear people feel about the changes we are making is understandable. Some elements or right wing twitter reacted unfortunately after it emerged that Michelle Dorrell, who raised the issue of tax credits on Question Time recently, may not actually be affected by the changes[2]. However, I think people need to understand the fear of those who base their family budgets on tax credits: The change represents a new situation that you have not experienced, so you do not know if you can manage. You are too busy trying to put food on the table, get the kids to school and get to work on time, to grapple with numbers being thrown by so-and-so think tank against such and such analyst. Until the new situation is in place the prospect of change will be unnerving, because you know more or less how the current system works but not how the new one will. As centre-right people active on social media our job is to explain not to attack.

The British people are exchanging a lifetime of uncertainty for one spring’s. Having lived in a single parent family that used tax credits to get by, I recognise how the prospect of changes to them will feel. The whole thing is not made any easier by negative claims about how the changes might affect people, which ignore how Conservatives’ reducing income tax, creating a National Living Wage and offering 30 hours free child will all help. Still, what you need to keep in mind is that once this is done it is done. You won’t have some good years in which the tax man doesn’t try to claw back money from you, and some bad years in which unexpectedly he does. You won’t need to worry about the ‘what if’ of it happening. That will all be gone. Instead, you will know from your pay slip exactly how much money you have to plan for the future. Plus, you will be able to make those plans knowing that under the Conservatives’ income tax will continue to come down every year.

[1] David Cameron, Speech to Conservative Party Conference, 1 October 2014, link
[2] Telegraph, 16 October 2015, link