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Is the wizardry of Conservative strategist Lynton Crosby a myth?

Lady Warsi reminds the Tories of their problem with demographics. It is unclear whether the Conservatives have a long-term plan to adjust to the changing face of the British electorate.

Lady Warsi resigned last week. Photo: Getty
Lady Warsi resigned last week. Photo: Getty

Conservatives looking for reassurance about the next election often find it in the party's election director Lynton Crosby. The “Wizard of Oz” is praised with sorting out the Conservative machine, cutting out distractions and focusing relentlessly on honing an election-winning message.

Lady Warsi evidently is not so sure. “The electoral reality is that we will not win outright Conservative majorities until we start attracting more of the ethnic vote,” she said after her resignation last week. “We brought the BME groups into the mainstream campaign. Some of that has been lost, which is a shame.” She once thought of David Cameron as “a guy who gets today's Britain” but now believes that “the party leadership has shifted since then. I think over time it will be a regressive move because we have to appeal to all of Britain.”

Mark the date: 18 November 2012 was the day that the Cameron modernisation project, already floundering, was killed off for good. As the recruitment of Crosby was confirmed, so the tone of the Tory election campaign in 2015 was set. It would have little time for sunny conservatism.

Crosby clearly has a formidable record: steering John Howard’s Liberal Party to four election wins in Australia and running Boris Johnson's two successful campaigns for Mayor of London. But his wizardry can be overstated: he oversaw the shambolic Libertas campaign in the 2009 European elections (they won one seat in Europe). And then there was the 2005 Conservative general election campaign. It increased the Tory vote share by a miserly 0.7 per cent of the vote. The cost of the “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?” campaign can still be felt in the state of the Tory brand: 40 per cent of voters say they would never ever vote blue.

The 2005 election showed the limits of importing successful electioneering from Australian to Britain. Australia’s use of the Alternative Vote forces every voter into a straight choice, between the (conservative) Liberal Party and the Australian Labour party. Crucially, voting is also compulsory in Australia, which lends itself to negative campaigning: offering a compelling reason why the electorate should not plump for the alternative is enough.

Britain’s electoral dynamics are very different. We live in a multi-party world; even if the Tories are successful in attacking Labour’s electoral weaknesses on welfare and immigration, voters may plump for Ukip or the Lib Dems instead. 35 per cent of the electorate did not vote for anyone in 2010: they need a positive reason to bother. Relentless negativity is less effective as a campaigning technique when voters can choose whether or not to vote.

While Lady Warsi’s analysis is noteworthy as it comes from a former Cabinet member, it should contain nothing new to the Conservative Party. They only recorded 16 per cent of the ethnic minority vote in 2010, and it has become more significant since: in 2015, there will be 50 Conservative seats where Labour is second and the BME vote is larger than the Conservative majority.

Fifty years after Peter Griffiths was elected as MP for Smethwick with the help of the “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote for Labour” slogan, being an ethnic minority remains the single biggest determinant of not voting Conservative. John Major would not have won a majority in 1992 if the election was fought with British demographics as they are today. Had ethnic minorities been as likely to vote blue as the public at large in 2010, the Conservatives would have gained 500,000 extra votes - and a majority.

Yet there is little evidence of Crosby paying attention to such trends as the Conservatives continue to ratchet up their anti-immigration rhetoric. Changing tack would be contrary to the methods of his success in Australia. John Howard was triumphant in 2001 after launching his election campaign with a speech that declared: “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.”

Warsi is not the only one to recognise the central problem with the Conservative strategy for 2015. It rests on gaining a significantly increased share of the vote among a shrinking share of the electorate: a big reason why Labour retain a stubborn poll lead. And even if the Tories can become the largest party in 2015, the Crosby approach pays too little attention to what happens next. The Conservatives like to trumpet their long-term plan for the economy. It is unclear whether they have a long-term plan to adjust to the changing face of the British electorate.