Within the first few pages of Tim Ross’s Why the Tories won, the book‘s strengths are clear: lively writing based on senior sources and a constant reminder that the way to understand elections is not to focus in on the few weeks before polling day but instead on the years beforehand when the reputations of parties and leaders for competence, caring and ability are set.
The book gives the impression of having been written in several separate chunks at different times, with some duplication between sections, but there is nothing too much awry to disturb the reader for long.
Tim Ross’s sources are good enough to have unearthed stories such as the one about the Tory leak inquiry into how details of their target seat campaign ended up in the press. It found the culprit in the end: David Cameron himself – and it turns out he was a regular source of inadvertent leaks to the press.
He is also particularly good at weaving back and forth between those long-term national trends which explain why the Tories won the most votes of any party by a very clear margin, and the grassroots campaigning whose impact is often exaggerated but which did play a key role in giving the Tories their slim overall majority thanks to their ability to do (even) better than the national trend in a few dozen key marginal seats.
That point about the balance between the national and targeted explanations for the Conservative Party’s success is important because many of the figures for the Conservative campaign look impressive at first glance yet also rather small at second glance.
For example, Tim Ross talks about how the Tories had a database of 1.5 million email addresses. A large sounding number, yet one that comes in at under 2,500 per Parliamentary constituency. With candidates needing tens of thousands of votes to win a seat, that number starts to look rather smaller. Until in turn you put it in the context of a national campaign which due to other factors (hello Ed Miliband) resulted in the Tories being well ahead nationally and instead judge those email address figures by their ability to tip the odds in a limited number of marginal seats in an election which produced only a slim overall Conservative majority. Put the numbers in that context, and with those email addresses most likely disproportionately concentrated in such seats, and the digital campaign’s impact looks rather more important once again.
Indeed, the official write-up of the Conservative Party campaign for Facebook’s case-studies archive puts the emphasis on the digital campaign being targeted at only a few dozen constituencies. Once again, put in that context the 3.5 million video views the party secured again looks significant, even though for a national communication across the UK 3.5 million views would be less than is secured by an appearance just the once in a major evening TV news bulletin.
Although Why the Tories won concentrates heavily on the Conservative campaign, there are some great gems about the rest of the election, including the way in which Labour’s manifesto front page – containing its attempt to secure fiscal responsibility in the eyes of voters with a deficit promise – was only a last moment addition at the printers. That something so fundamental to Labour’s policy positioning was still being argued over until so late in the day says a lot about Labour’s overall failure to address its key weaknesses over the preceding five years, a point also well made in Tim Bale’s excellent Five Year Mission: The Labour Party under Ed Miliband.
Another Labour gem is the story of how the ill-fated Ed Stone photo stunt, with Ed Miliband appearing in front of tablets stone engraved with election premises, was nearly far worse: “To begin with, Labour strategists had proposed what would surely have been an even grander folly: to carve the party’s pledges – complete with Ed Miliband’s signature – into the side of a rock face. Various locations were considered, including Cheddar Gorge”.
Overall, Ross paints a picture of a smart Conservative election campaign in marginal seats, using different communications channels for different ends. Twitter for the media and political insiders, Facebook and posted direct mail for the swing voters – and both the latter targeted using mounds of data which meant opponents and the media often did not appreciate just how much of it was taking place.
Ross is good on many of the details – including the way the Conservatives managed to legally circumvent traditional limits on election expenditure – and overall clearly thinks the Tory grassroots campaign deserves its reputation for having been impressive.
Impressive, yet also in its own way rather brittle because as mentioned above what made it possible for the marginal seats campaign to be so effective was the wider political landscape which put the Tories well ahead of Labour in the national vote share. It was only that lead which set up the situation in which the marginal seats campaign’s ability to add a few percentage points in a few dozen seats mattered. A similarly smart and effective campaign but run for a Tory party at 1997 levels of popularity would still have crashed to a landslide defeat.
Just as the adulation of Karl Rove’s masterminding of Republican campaigning in US Presidential campaigns was swept away by George W. Bush’s plunge into unpopularity (and just as Rick Perry’s smart tactics didn’t make him US President), so too the Tory skill at winning on the margins in the marginals will also be swept away if they in future get the big questions of leadership, competence and the economy wrong.
If you like this, you might also be interested in The British General Election of 2015.
Note: a review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher.