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CONSERVATIVE PARTY The Strange Death of Theresa May’s Election Campaign

The ‘pathologists’ investigating why the Tory campaign went so disastrously wrong have uncovered a key weakness at the party’s grassroots, writes SOLOMON HUGHES

There are as many autopsies into Theresa May’s disastrous election campaign as there are autopsy-based crime shows available to a determined TV channel-hopper. 

There is an official review by Eric Pickles. Tory chief executive Mick Davis is doing his own review. Lord Ashcroft’s “grassroots” Tory website, ConservativeHome, did a huge three-part “audit” of the vote-losing campaign. Tim Ross and Tom McTague’s why-it-went-wrong book Betting the House is being excerpted and reviewed in the papers. 

It’s like we have a CSI Westminster, a Tory Waking the Dead and, given the age profile of the Tory membership, a double episode by 1970s autopsy show Quincy all prodding the corpse of May’s campaign, trying to understand who killed it. 

The pathologists investigating the Strange Death of Theresa May’s Election Campaign agree that some of the common wisdom of politicians and pundits during the election was wrong.

During the election commentators almost uniformly said Jeremy Corbyn rallies were “preaching to the converted” — feel-good for supporters. No good for reaching broader voters. It didn’t matter if Corbyn’s rallies were huge, or in areas where there hadn’t been a big political meeting for decades. The political class agreed they didn’t build the vote.

It turns out they made May jealous. From Betting the House we learn that as the election went on TV pictures of Corbyn addressing big crowds “rattled” Team May so much they wanted the party to organise a rally for the PM but “the idea was dropped after it was realised she would be unlikely to draw the same crowds and would look pathetic by comparison.”

The forensic examiners peering into the entrails of May’s campaign also found grassroots groups like Momentum, far from being the poison denounced by Tory MPs, are a good thing. 

Tory MPs said Momentum was “just hateful,” wielding “heavy weapons” of abuse in its “class war” madness. But during the election, according to the ConservativeHome investigation, “a senior parliamentarian” made “an unflattering comparison with the enthusiasm of the Corbynite grassroots,” saying: “It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that creating an actual mass movement in which people have some control has a potential benefit.”  

By contrast the Conservative Party is “almost a structure set up to discourage participation. It’s not something you can love anymore — it’s something you fear because it’s a totalitarian state.”

Tory pathologists have one possible answer to the near-lethal lack of a grassroots base. According to the Sunday Times, they intend to buy one. 

It reported that, following his review into the campaign, Davis is trying to raise an extra £6 million from Conservative donors so the party can employ “scores” of new campaign managers in marginals to “target young voters.” 

However, trying to use cash to substitute for people has failed the Tories before. The various autopsy reports all point to Tory lack of ground troops.

Pre-2017 schemes to cover up this gap by bussing younger members around constituencies hit against a bullying scandal and an expenses scandal.

In 2017 the party also tried using money from high-value donors to substitute for people. But this didn’t always work, either online or on the ground.  

ConservativeHome’s audit shows that because it lacked members, the party also lacked up-to-date doorstep canvas returns. 

The Tories tried filling this gap by buying expensive polling and consumer data and “mapping” this onto predicted voting behaviour. But this costly process didn’t work in the volatile election.

They also used big money to buy lots of advertisements on Facebook. But Labour had actual supporters who shared home-made political comment. And the latter was more effective. 

As ConservativeHome put it: “While advertising can do a lot, Labour benefited from a ‘red tide’ of support from third-party groups who provided massive extra organic and paid-for reach for Corbyn’s messages online.”

The “organic” home-grown comment by real people online beat the paid-for, mass-produced version.

The fringe timetable for the upcoming Tory conference shows this issue deeply worries the party, with meetings on “Conservative campaigning: what’s gone wrong and how to put it right,” “Can the Conservatives inspire the young?” and “The millennial manifesto: policies to win over young voters.”

But the party is wrestling with a contradiction, shown by recent attempts to launch Conservative “Momentum” copies: young Tories who could who could form a grassroots movement to put feet on the street — or memes on social media — are likely to be from the right of the party. 

Policies that appeal to younger voters are likely to be from the liberal wing. The party is in danger of having too much money, not enough friends.

In analysing the Tories’ disastrous campaign, I think it is worth starting with the Tories’ grassroots weakness, but there was also an ideological split at the top: was it “reform Theresa” who stands up for the just-about-managing? 

This was associated with Nick Timothy. According to the Spectator, it meant May would “confront vested interests in the credit industry, banks and big business to the role government should play in directing businesses.” 

The press always took May’s lukewarm imitation of Ed Miliband’s policies too seriously. 

And unsurprisingly, since the election, May — whose campaign is funded by zero-hours employers and financiers — has abandoned any real reform of big business or the labour market. 

On the other side was the “strong and stable” non-reform campaign associated with Lynton Crosby. Which also didn’t work.

Labour benefited from a very bad Tory campaign in the 2017 election. And obviously we absolutely can’t count on that for the next one. But that bad campaign didn’t happen by accident. It reflected structural and ideological problems within the Conservatives. The problem of membership. The ideological split between a pale “reform capitalism” and a fuller “free marketeer” approach. 

The Tories are still wrestling with these problems as much as with Brexit. These are weaknesses we can aim at in the next election.


Follow Solomon Hughes on Twitter @SolHughesWriter.


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