With the party conference season over and the final ‘zombie’ parliamentary session underway, attention is now well and truly focused on the general election. Aside from the widening policy gap between the two largest parties, the next six months of campaigning seem likely to be a contest between the strength of the Tory ‘air war’ operation and the strength of Labour’s ‘ground war’ operation, bolstered by the trade unions.
Since the arrival of Lynton Crosby to head up the Conservatives’ general election campaign in January 2013, there has been a keen focus on honing the Conservatives’ key talking points and a big improvement in the level of message discipline among the party’s key spokespeople. This is in contrast to the last Conservative effort in 2010, which was widely criticised for lacking a clear focus and for pushing vague themes – such as the ‘big society’– which it was claimed had little cut-through with swing voters.
Crosby has instead focused on streamlining the Conservative message to focus on what they believe are their strongest assets, centred on the Party’s oft-mentioned ‘long-term economic plan’. This is combined with a strong focus on headline Conservative pledges on tax, welfare reform and skills and frequent comparisons between the qualities of the Conservative and Labour leaderships. The Conservatives’ favourable financial position – they are now debt free for the first time since 1995 – also leaves them well placed to fund a costly, sustained air war in the run up to next May.
In contrast, Labour’s media effort has struggled to get off the ground. Whilst the party has been boosted by a series of populist policy announcements (e.g. introducing an energy price freeze), Labour’s top team has struggled to develop a coherent narrative around the need for the electorate to return Labour to government after just one term in opposition. Indeed, some of the party’s media efforts, such as the recent ‘Shrinking Clegg’ video, have been widely criticised by pundits.
But if the Conservatives are well-placed to turn the next general election’s air war blue, they risk being outmanned by Labour in key marginal seats; a potentially fatal development in what is likely to be a close election. Labour membership, currently standing at around 190,000, is approximately 40,000 larger than the Conservatives’ official membership figure. Whilst the Conservatives have tried to broaden their activist base through initiatives such as Grant Shapps’ ‘Team 2015’, such efforts may appear minor given the thousands of trade union activists which Labour can also call upon to get out their vote as polling day approaches. The role of activists in both boosting supporter turnout on the ground and energising campaigns as a whole was most recently seen during the Scottish independence referendum.
As well as a seepage of votes, the Conservatives have also lost a number of their most committed activists to UKIP over recent years, further denting their grassroots strength. This is reflected in the turnout at the recent Conservative and UKIP conferences. Whilst Conservative conference has in recent years been criticised as being affordable for only those with company expense accounts, activist attendance at UKIP conference has been steadily rising, with around 2,000 party members making the trip to Doncaster for this September’s event. This division in the centre-right’s activist base across two parties presents Labour with a vital edge in Conservative marginals where UKIP has a significant presence.
So the battle for office next year looks set to be one between Tory strength in the air and Labour strength on the ground – a split which I clearly saw as campaign director of the cross-party NOtoAV referendum campaign. The final result is likely to have a significant impact on how political parties engage with voters in the future and determine whether a sophisticated central campaign can make up for relative weakness in terms of voter contact on the ground. As such, whatever the result next year, watching the Conservative media operation pitched against the Labour grassroots will be an informative exercise for political campaigners in the UK and elsewhere.
Matthew Elliott (@matthew_elliott) founded the TaxPayers’ Alliance and led the successful NOtoAV referendum campaign