James Frayne: Lessons we are learning during this leadership contest
As voters beam in on parties and candidates to an unusual extent, and because media coverage and scrutiny is far more intense, every election campaign tells us a lot about the state of politics at a given time. Not only about the relative merits of different candidates, but about the issues and themes people care about and respond to. Despite the strange nature of the Conservative Party leadership election, with its restricted and hyper-engaged electorate, we have still learned a great deal over the last few weeks. Here are some highlights.
(a) Traditional themes like “fairness” have lost their traction.
Dominic Raab is a great candidate: he’s intellectually serious; he’s got decent judgement; and he’s excellent on broadcast. He’s also not an egomaniac. Raab would have made a good PM and his time will surely come again. His campaign misfired quickly though by his choice to define himself through “fairness”. Fairness can be a very potent phrase – and it can be used to great effect by those on the right – but it has lost its power in the climate we’re now in.
Look at any opinion poll; while the cross-tabs usually reveal big gaps between party affiliation and age (and sometimes gender), referendum vote is still usually the defining characteristic in how people answer questions and how they see the world. In this climate, words like “fairness” mean totally different things to different people. In the Leave-voting Midlands and North, “fairness” might mean fairer (tougher sentencing), or fairer (tougher) welfare payments, or respecting the referendum vote. In the Remain-voting big cities, “fairness” might mean fairer Government spending or fairness towards migrant communities or a fairer tax system. You get the point.
In this climate, once-powerful words like fairness sound weak and bland. Anyone trying to create broad coalition campaigns needs to bring far greater definition to their campaign themes. This means focusing harder on issues than before.
(b) The Conservatives’ provincial strategy looks precarious.
My favourite comment piece from any politician during this contest was Penny Mordaunt’s piece on this site at the end of May. In it, she lamented the Westminster focus of all the leadership campaigns:
“For while the main parties argue about Brexit, 25,000 desperately worried steelworkers across the country anxiously wait on news of their jobs… Set against this, the public now has to endure a parade of leadership candidates speaking to Westminster, from Westminster, about Westminster.”
She made a good point: none of the candidates tried to speak out for provincial Britain. Clearly, in the early stages, campaigns had to spend most of their time in Westminster, given this is where the early electorate was based. But, on substance, it was as if the Midlands and North didn’t exist for most candidates.
The Conservative Party stands on the verge of a massive breakthrough in the Midlands and North, but it’s been standing here for years now and has made little meaningful progress. Nick Timothy was on to the potential of major electoral gains early in Theresa May’s time in office and culturally he bought into this strategy. But he was in a tiny minority within the party. As this leadership election has shown, the party is culturally Southern and middle-middle class; it just doesn’t get working class and lower middle class voters in provincial England. The electoral ramifications of this are potentially huge.
(c) The media environment has deteriorated.
The media environment for Conservatives on the mainstream right – and particularly those campaigning for Leave – has deteriorated significantly. A decade ago, the mainstream right of the party could rely on positive coverage from the Mail titles, pretty much all of Murdoch’s titles, the Telegraph titles and the Express titles. Furthermore, the mainstream right could rely on basically straight (rather than friendly) reporting from the BBC and Sky News. This meant that the right could rely on getting its message out positively on Europe, the economy, crime, welfare, public service reform and other issues.
Now, only The Sun and Sun on Sunday and The Daily and Sunday Telegraph can be solidly relied upon to support mainstream right leaning candidates and causes. The Daily Mail website is now a net negative, the Daily Mail newspaper is only borderline positive and the Express titles are drifting leftwards. While the Times titles remain reasonably friendly, Sky News is moving ever more to the politically correct left. The BBC remains the same as ever (you can work with them). Meanwhile, Channel 4 News and the massively influential Guardian are now essentially self-declared enemies of the Conservative Party and the wider Conservative movement.
There are a number of reasons for this. For example changes in ownership (in the case of the Express); changes in owner attitudes (in the case of the Mail); and changes in owner engagement (in the case of Murdoch’s titles). There are other reasons: the increase in the number of graduates, who have more liberal (in the American sense of the term) world views; and the activism of left-leaning campaigns and voter clusters online who have convinced owners and journalists alike that they represent public opinion (made more powerful by the reality that most people in the media rarely meet people from provincial Britain).
The media climate in this election has been such that mainstream right candidates were given a regular kicking in the media, with only a relatively light defence given from sympathetic outlets. What we saw in this election is only going to get more problematic. This is going to make life much more difficult for the centre right in the coming years.
(d) Social media continues to change the game.
The deterioration of the media environment makes social media a much more important tool than before. At one level, the growth of social media marks a positive change: Conservatives can get their message out to the public unfiltered, and there is now the possibility to reach very particular sub-groups of voters. However, there are two problems. The first is that social media encourages campaigns to create and nurture hardcore activist support which can put off those that aren’t true believers. The second is that social media encourages particular types of candidate: namely, the egomaniacs and the loudmouths. This is also bad news for the future.
(e) Pro-Brexit politicians still struggle to sell a positive vision.
For some reason, Conservative candidates still struggle to sell a vision of a better Britain outside the EU. In this election, candidates either focused on the process required to get Britain out, or on patriotic rhetoric about how we will thrive outside (on this, candidates like Rory Stewart have a point). Nobody has really set out a clear vision for how politics, the economy and society will be better because of the new powers that we will have at our disposal. It wasn’t Vote Leave’s responsibility to do this, but they still had great success with their announcement of a handful of retail policies that might be on the table on our exit (not just higher spending on the NHS). No Conservative has yet tried to own this space, which reflects a missed opportunity but it’s also worrying given that they’ll be potentially designing party manifestos in a month or two.