Lord Ashcroft’s Project Blueprint is pretty much required reading for political types trying to understand the electoral lie of the land at the next election. The latest edition is now available, and it looks at how the Tories can construct a majority at the next election.
Now, discussing how the Conservatives might get an overall majorty might seem a little previous, given that the Tories are currently becalmed somewhere between eight and ten degrees south of the Tropic of Popularity, and David Cameron couldn’t scrape an overall majority against those mighty electoral titans, Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg.
You can break Ashcroft’s hypothesis down to the following: Take current Conservative voters, add those who voted Conservative in 2010 but don’t now, plus those who have backed the Conservatives since the election, plus people willing to consider voting Conservative, and you have a majority, even if Labour swallow a good part of the LibDems whole.
But hold on, is such an alliance possible?
It’s pretty obvious that the group Ashcroft dubs “defectors” have some pretty radical differences of opinion with the more Lib-Dem friendly “considerers”.
The former are by and large disillusioned Tories, with many heading off to UKIP or to absention. They appear to have a pretty Big-C Conservative view of the world (For example, the only politicians they have a reasonably positive view of are William Hague and Boris Johnson).
The “considerers” by comparison are more positive about coalition, about the Lib Dems, and about the performance of the government compared to their expectations. They not only like Boris Johnson, but Vince Cable too.
So what might unite such disparate voters? The most obvious thing is a dislike of Labour. Both “Defectors” and “Considerers” rate Labour politicians significantly more negatively than they rate Conservative politicians.
Both groups also prefer the Conservatives on the economy to Labour by large margins. The difference is while there isn’t a single issue where “Defectors” prefer Labour to the Conservatives, ”Considerers” prefer Labour on the NHS, Schools, fairness, and, perhaps surprisingly, on cutting taxes.
Second, there’s the shared belief that the deficit reduction plan is important and necessary, even if being implemented unfairly, incorrectly, or over-quickly.
Third, there’s a common set of doubts about the coalition’s competence, ability to deliver growth, being on the side of regular people and “fairness”.
Finally, there’s a group of broad social issues, from crime, to welfare, to immigration, where the views of Tory defectors and Considerers seem to be in alignment.
So if I were a Tory strategist, what would I do about all this?
Most urgently, I’d do all I can to undo the damage of the March budget for my reputation for looking out for “people who work hard and play by the rules”. I’d do something dramatic in the Autumn, like introduce a one-off tax on the unpopular rich and use the money to help middle-income families.
That might improve my ratings for fairness and competence. On deficit reduction, I’d stick to my guns, because I gain little by changing course.
It would be very important to me that by 2014 growth had returned, so next, I’d stake out more action on growth – from infrastructure, to job creation, to private sector support. If I needed to fund this beyond the amount available within current projections, I’d consider taking even more from welfare upratings, setting up a fight on ground I’d expect to win easily.
If I was really manipulative, I’d relish a battle fought on the territory of business support and job creation vs welfare. I’d even consider holding off on the introduction of Universal Credit until after the next election, on the basis I can limit costs better within the current system, thus creating lower UC legacy costs in future. (I’d need to find some way of buying off IDS though. Perhaps I could persuade him privately that once the economy was performing a little better and the election was safely out of the way, I could afford to be more generous?)
On social issues, I’d try to strike a balance. On Welfare, immigration, and crime, I’d focus on “Conservative” messages, as these don’t cause a problem for my “considerers” and will please “defectors”. Would this “retoxify” my brand? Not among this group.
However, I’d also try to be ‘non-conservative’ in other areas, especially those of importance to “considerers”. I’d emphasise a more ‘coalition’ approach to public services, perhaps appointing a LibDem health secretary, and I’d take a noticeably greener line than the current government is taking.
I’d pick a few issues where I could surprise progressive minded ABC1s too. Maybe I’d try to make Britain the world’s first Organic farming nation, or something*. I’d jump on the small farms bandwagon hard.
I wouldn’t expect “defectors” to be happy about this, but I don’t think it would be a killer for them.
Finally, as we neared the election campaign, I’d really unload on the Labour party – trying to frighten “defectors” back into the fold, and make considerers understand how disastrous the consequences of a Labour government would be, in fairly apocalyptic terms (The Ashcroft data and focus groups suggests they’d be willing to believe things would have been worse under Labour. A jarring ”If Labour had won” PPB might give considerers a jolt and defectors pause).
Could all this work?
Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps… but the one thing it would need is a recovery.
(The title of this post isn’t a prediction, by the way - it’s a reference to “The next Labour majority”, a project being run by the Fabians.)
*I know, I know. But it’s Waitrose progressives I’m thinking of. People who think Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is a god. Make Tom Parker-Bowles a vegetables tsar, that sort of nonsense. The Mary Portas high street thing could be good here – or trying to make all our new housing look like Prince Charles’ dream lego-set. You see where I’m going – things that would make Giles Coren proud to be a Tory again. More seriously, I’d probably get very tough on consumer rights. It’s an area I could be “moral” without being anti-market.