Resignations, a sense of drift, fights of Europe, the charge of incompetence, double-dip recession, bad polls… it is no wonder why so many Conservative MPs believe that the next election is lost and are doing their utmost to keep their own seats at the expense of Party unity. I look back to my nativeAustraliaand the 1998 Federal Election to give me some comfort that we can win the 2015 General Election.
It will surprise many Conservatives to learn that long-term Prime Minister John Howard was very nearly a one-term Prime Minister. Elected in 1996 with a stunningly majority, his first administration was marred by a sense of drift, Ministerial and staff resignations, and the rise of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party. To bring a sense of purpose back to his party, John Howard announced that his Government would implement a Goods and Services Tax (the equivalent to the VAT), after the next election despite promising that he will “never, ever” bring in such a tax system as Prime Minister.
The GST became the narrative for the forthcoming election which the polls suggested the Liberal/National Coalition would lose. John Howard highlighted in his autobiography Lazarus Rising how badly his Government was trailing in the polls: “Yet the final Newspoll, released the day before the election, showed a two-party-preferred vote for the ALP of 53 per cent against 47 per cent for the Coalition”. The actual result was not as catastrophic but the Labor Party achieved a plurality of voters – 50.98% vs. 49.02%, a swing of 4.61% against the Coalition Government. However, the Coalition still won 80 seats while Labor only achieved 67 seats in the 150 seat House of Representatives.
The Coalition realised something that too many political aficionados forget: identifying the key seats and the swing votes that achieves a majority in Parliament is what wins a campaign, not just getting more votes than the other party. This is the type of rigorous and focused campaign that the Conservative Party needs to adopt.
This does not mean that national leadership provided by Cameron is not important. John Howard made the 1998 election about the GST (not about competence, resignations or One Nation, although the latter was an important element in the election) and gave his party a rallying point. Determining the political narrative is the first step to a political victory. Understanding the various groups you need to win over to achieve a House of Commons is the next step to turn that vision into a victory. A political campaign is wasted when the message is divorced from empirical polling and the capacity to promote that message. Combining a clear political narrative with a focused campaign is the surest way of winning a majority of seats in the lower House and becoming the next Government.