The first headline on the 6pm Radio 4 news on Friday was “David Cameron has insisted his party will not move to the right” after the Eastleigh by-election. He said, ”I don’t think we should tack this way, tack that way; what we’ve got to do is deliver for people”. His article for the Telegraph on Sunday says much the same. And obviously I agree with it, mostly.
But the last leaflet that went out for Maria Hutchings in Eastleigh looked like this:
As far as I can tell, she ran on an anti-modernising platform, against equal marriage, against the EU, against immigration, and not for anything to do with standards in public services, the cost of living or fixing the economy. I am not quite sure how much further right that campaign could have gone, and I am very unclear how the party expected to win when it seems to have abandoned much effort in the seat for years.
Eastleigh is, I think, a useful reminder of a couple of things. Firstly that the Coalition will survive, and really that’s probably the most substantive thing for now. But secondly that the Tories have tried to out-ukip UKIP before (in various guises since about 1999) and it does not and cannot work. As I have said before, the reason people vote for UKIP is not primarily about the EU. It is a feeling of being abandoned by politics, that politicians are out of touch with the things that matter, and a general sense that nothing is getting better.
This weekend there is news of yet another technology based silver bullet for campaigning, Metis, which follows Mosaic and Merlin and all those other Ms that have never worked properly. I do think an effective database is important, but however much data you buy, it will only work if it is reinforced by boots on the ground – the Lib Dems win seats because they work them. They speak to people, they engage year-round, and they make people feel like they are listening and they are delivering (even if that isn’t actually true and even if they say one thing and do another). However many leaflets we shove through doors and phonecalls we make from London in a three week campaign, it does not make up for local presence and outreach.
The Conservatives’ most powerful message is one of change, because Conservatism IS about changing what does not work. It is making sure that we deliver on the things people care about. It is about making the changes we promised. It is about telling a believable story about why the pain of austerity is worth it – because we will get to something better. It is absolutely not about ranting into the wind inauthentically and trying to face eight ways at once. David Cameron knows this. He knows that what he rightly calls “lowest common-denominator politics” is demeaning and futile and not worthy of the promises he’s made since he was elected leader of the party, nor indeed the many good and valuable things his government has done since May 2010.
But therein lies the problem. Because for all the good, there have been a number of problems – and those are what we all notice because for some extraordinary reason, the party keeps very quiet about the good*. He and his government need to stick to their strategic plan to deliver change; and to tell us about those changes and why they are for the better. Every so often, that’s exactly what they do – last party conference was a good example of making a complicated argument, treating voters like adults, setting out the challenges and the ways we are rising to them. But too often, the message is garbled or incoherent, so more people stop listening because they see one thing and hear another.
The Eastleigh by-election doesn’t, really, matter in itself that much. But it matters for what it can teach the Conservatives: be authentic, to win you need Lib Dem and Labour votes, organise and tell us why we should vote for you.
* I am on one of CCHQ’s press release distribution lists and when I do get anything, it is ALWAYS about how bad Labour are – never about how good the Tories are.