Every so often, I get a press release from CCHQ. You might think that, knowing our approach, they would want to tell us about the great things they’re doing – but no. They are all about why Labour is wrong.
Last week I had a rather unexpected argument with someone who said, ‘We’re still living off the Winter of Discontent!’ and in essence that, on the economy, it largely didn’t matter what our message was because voters blame Labour for the financial crisis and the cuts. He did, in fairness, mean in terms of communicating rather than actually what the government is doing. But even so. I think he’s wrong.
Voters do indeed blame Labour, but the proportion who don’t is already at 65 per cent and is increasing, slowly but surely. Just after the election, nearly 50 per cent blamed Labour. Last autumn, it was about 41 per cent. And now, it’s about 36 per cent. Of course these figures bump around – but the trend is downwards (extrapolating wildly and in a very un-approved way, by May 2015, we could see only perhaps 15 per cent or so blaming Labour). We need to couple this with the fact that 42 per cent of people say they will never vote Conservative; we should therefore conclude that we have two options – either only talk about why Labour are wrong and hope that no-one looks too closely at what we’re doing, or to really start telling the story of the progress we’re making.
So what’s wrong with the first option? Well, voters have ever-shorter memories. They are getting more and more used – rightly and welcomely, if that’s a word – to ever-improving service and faster reactions from companies. It is simply untenable to think that, in today’s world where I can order virtually anything I want online and have it delivered the next day, governments can continue to heap the blame on something that happened five or ten years ago and expect people to believe that it’s impossible to change things. Surely, if nothing else, the point of voting for a different government IS to change things?
I suggest that voters are significantly less short-sighted than politicians often give them credit for. Take, for example, welfare reform. It’s been properly explained, backed up with examples, and changed significantly. Not much will take effect properly till after 2015 – yet voters really do think that this government is doing good things in making sure that those who the taxpayer helps are properly entitled to it, and that it’s very much a two-way partnership with rights and responsibilities on both sides (often, in fact, they think the government should go further than it has).
So what does this mean for the Conservatives? It means of course that, as usual, they have to do the unpleasant and unwelcome work to clean up the mess Labour left. Of course that’s part of it. But beyond that, they also have to show that they are doing so. And a big part of that is that they need to stop only blaming Labour, prove that they understand the problems, and explain what they’re doing and how that will make things better.
I know I say that a lot. But it remains true.