CAMPAIGN ROUND-UP: CONSERVATIVE
This is slightly less articulate than it was originally, owing to a computer crash, but I've done my best to resurrect the gist of it...
The message pushed in the last few days by the Conservative Party is a message which they should have been pushing earlier. Unfortunately, now it is lost in the morass having been overshadowed by a guerilla war waged with the intention of attracting specific voters in specific seats. The problem the "forgotten majority" strategy ran into is that people would opt for an optimistic alternative, but they don't so hate and feel personally aggrieved by the Blair Government that they think "things can only get better". They feel let down after their great expectations.
Nevertheless, it has been relentlessly professional and largely very slick. There has been a clearly honed message and very detailed economic plans. Michael Howard has turned around the hopes and spirits of a party which, when he came in a mere 18 months ago, was at the bottom of a period of deep self-loathing and depression. He has begun a recovery towards an effective campaigning unit and the self-belief necessary to stand up and defend your world view.
The Conservatives have tackled a number of undesirable issues that need debate and change. On pensions, on transport, on the borrowing deficit gap they have campaigned productively and positively. In other areas they could have more imaginative thinking, which links to the vision comments I make below, but compared to the pure spin of Labour there have been plans on the table.
The election has seemed to be a genuine fight, and, at the start, was a very long way from anything approaching a foregone conclusion. It's important for politics that there's at least and assertive and confident alternative.
There have been a number of failings though.
The detailed economic plan was sound. It was IFS approved. They said the Party probably wouldn't have to make the tax hikes Labour and the Liberals would have to. It only took Labour to reel off some false statistics about the health of the economy and the issue was never mentioned. The Party plans £4 billion of tax cuts yet we heard no discussion of the benefits that could have for the country. We heard no real loud discussion of the future problems Brown is storing up, although they were obliquely referred to in passing. It almost makes you wonder whether the James Report was worth the effort.
Immigration, whether intentionally or unintentionally, took over the heart of the campaign. It got bogged down in tangential arguments around the policy, rather than the policy itself, and ultimately stalled the campaign. Howard and Crosby hoped it would show a clear difference between Labour and Tory views of the world, allowing Howard to seem principled and prepared to take a stand against the leftist inspired forces of political correctness. Instead dubious campaigning tactics by a handful of activists gave an opening to allow Howard to be painted in a dubious way and made the policies themselves much more difficult to defend. This, and the sometimes irrational response to them, meant the whole question became not one of policy, but one of how close to racist it was fair to brand Michael Howard. In the words of one coloured lady interviewed by the BBC, he raised legitimate issues and, in one respect, sensible policies, but they needed tackling with care. The desire to use it to represent issues of principle between the parties lead to the slurs of opponents being much less obviously incorrect.
Likewise, I would have preferred a more spirited defence of the education and health policies, in terms which show how they would benefit all. They were policies inherited, but they are fairly sound in their detail, if not the most superficially easy to sell. This is how they could have been blended in to satisfy the lack of the "vision thing".
The Conservatives were higher on slickness and professionality, making a fist of a competition, but really lacked a binding and convincing vision of what a Tory Britain would be like. The great challenge is to develop this, and ensure they can put forward a consistent critique of Blair/Brown's direction in the terms of this vision. There was not enough hatred of the way we're going for people to say "things can only get better". There had to be convincing arguments as to why the "change of direction" proposed was the right direction.
In short, if the focus on key voters in marginals through the "plan for action" and its content picked the right issues then I tip my hat to Howard and Crosby. If not, then the party needs to put itself in a position to make the next election a serious possibility, because the strategy will have set back progress towards being a party which can appeal to the majority through a convincing vision. The challenge for them is to fashion that vision of a Britain with a smaller Government, where people keep more of their own money, and where people take more personal responsibility in a way such that the whole country can be seen to benefit. This can only be helped though by what will be Howard's greatest success: being strong enough and professional enough to make the Tories contenders and usher in a new generation of MPs who will be vital to any renaissance.