I’ve never thought the Tories bringing back Lynton Crosby to run their 2015 election campaign was a good idea. I said so two years ago on the New Statesman website, comparing Crosby to Monty Panesar (makes sense in context, trust me). I now feel vindicated given the Tories’ poor start to the campaign. But while the focus on both the negative and the personal have been poorly thought out aspects of the whole thing, I believe the key problem the Conservative campaign faces is that it’s targeting the wrong people if it wants to stay the largest party in the House of Commons.
For some time now, the Conservatives have been obsessed with UKIP: with Farage, with the EU referendum, with the idea that the Kippers are all natural Tory voters and if they could just get them back, a majority beckoned. I can see how looking at the polls, they thought this was the case. I can also understand how they made the calculation that ex-Tories voting UKIP would mean that Labour got a whole pile of seats off them – stop this trend and you hold the line.
The problem with this plan, however, is that in order to remain the largest party, never mind get a majority, the Tories need to win over two crucial groups of people: Lab-Tory swing voters and people who voted Lib Dem last time but are considering options. This is the real key to holding the seats they got off Labour in 2010; to trying to get a few more Lab-Tory marginals; to successfully gaining seats off the Lib Dems. In other words, everything they actually need to physically achieve for Cameron to remain prime minister, or at the very least whoever is leader of the Conservative Party to still be PM post-May 7th.
Building a campaign to woo UKIPers will by necessity involve alienating huge swathes of both the swing voters and the former/may stick with Lib Dems. Because what defines these people, generally, is that they are in general socially liberal and don’t share “Tory values”, but at the same time they are worried about high taxation and their house price. They might vote Tory if they feel that they are the only party that will deliver on the economy, plus if the Tories don’t seem “too nasty”. They find the Tory obsession with getting Britain out of the EU either weird and distracting, or actually objectionable.
In other words, what they want from the Tories is pretty much the exact opposite of what the UKIPers want from the party. Therefore, the Tories had a choice. And they made the wrong one. Trying to attract UKIPers is fraught with peril; for a start, a large part of the attraction of Nigel’s purple bunch is they are anti-establishment outsiders. You cannot get more establishment than the Conservative Party, so the Tories cannot possibly compete there. The Tories also have to take the interests of the business community very seriously; this isn’t a problem for UKIP, whose position on Europe is clear and burnt into their DNA.
Unless the Tories figure out some way to appeal to the voters they need to win over quickly, it’s going to get even worse for them. However, at present, they don’t even appear to be trying to do so – they are, in fact, doing the exact opposite.
Whilst long term thinking is pretty unlikely in politics, this might make sense in that context. One could argue that the worst place for the Tory party in the long term is to be stuck in the middle between people undecided between lab/lib and Tory and people undecided between UKIP-esque parties and Tory. It is in a sense impossible to appeal to both.
There will always be credible parties for swing voters to choose between. That UKIP is a credible option in the minds of many is pretty new – and not necessarily permanent.
By quashing the UKIP vote this election (assuming this happens) and effectively persuading that crowd that the Tory party is the best shot at what they want, perhaps they reckon that in future elections they can grab the swing voters. It’ll be easier as they’ll have the freedom to curb the ‘nastiness’ without losing voters on the right. The mantra ‘a vote for UKIP is a wasted vote’ will probably ring true regardless as they don’t look like they’ll win a lot of seats, but the less seats they win the more persuasive this will be.
That said, it’s probably far fetched to suppose this is driving Tory election strategy.