Tories can't master message discipline until Cameron has a clear message

Conservatives struggle to say things that sound like the sort of thing their leader would say.

One thing that has surprised pretty much everyone in Westminster over the past couple of years is the endurance of Labour message discipline. There are occasional bursts of sniping from the sidelines – usually in the form of anonymous briefings and half-reported mutterings by sullen MPs when Ed Miliband seems to be under-performing. Then he makes a clever speech, or the government does something idiotic, and everyone falls neatly back into line. It is really quite impressive for a party that was heavily defeated in 2010 and was supposed, according to the pre-ordained media script, to fall apart in civil strife.

The usual explanation for this unity is that Miliband hasn’t made enough tough policy choices that would open up the divisions that were, according to the now yellowing media script, supposed to yawn wide in 2010. That is partly true – and, in the spirit of full disclosure, I should point out that I make that very argument around half-way through this column in the Sunday Times today.

But it is also worth noting that discipline doesn’t come exclusively from policy vagueness. Plenty of Labour MPs are unhappy with the leader’s lack of clarity on a range of issues, but they don’t say so on the record. Indeed, one senior BBC journalist complained to me the other day about how hard it was getting Labour guests on a flagship Westminster programme who might say anything at all to deviate from the official Team Miliband script. That isn’t just vagueness. It is strength of will and determination to win.

By contrast, the Tories simply can’t stick to the lines David Cameron would have them parrot. David Jones, the Welsh Secretary, properly disgraced himself last week by suggesting that gay couples can’t bring up children in a nurturing environment. In theory, Tory divisions on gay marriage have been sanctioned by Downing Street – parliament had a free vote on the issue. But that doesn’t excuse cabinet ministers dribbling out tired and hateful homophobic clichés about the unsuitability of gay men or women for loving family relationships.

If Conservatives were at all loyal to Cameron and truly determined to win an election, they might at least pretend to believe some of the same things their leader does.

Then there is Maria Hutchings, the Tory candidate in the Eastleigh by-election, who was reported last week to have said her son’s ambitions to be a surgeon meant he couldn’t possibly attend a state school. That is surely not how Cameron would have phrased his views on comprehensive education. Hutchings also disagrees with Cameron on gay marriage and has said she would vote to leave the European Union. The Daily Mail recently ran a profile of her as the “off-message” candidate - as if fighting the by-election on a Ukip-lite platform were part of some cunning plan by Tory high command to close off the threat from Nigel Farage and thereby snatch the seat. I don’t buy it. Hutchings was the Tory candidate in 2010 – picked from an “A-list” – when the party was supposed to be modernised, socially liberal, Cameroon.

The fact that she is the candidate again (and it is always a hazard offering voters a meal they have sent back to the kitchen once before) proves only that the Cameron operation didn’t really vet it’s A-list very well and hasn’t been paying much attention to candidate selection since getting into government. But now they’re stuck with Hutchings and are doing their best to make a virtue of her. She might still win, of course, but I imagine Cameron would rather be bringing loyal MPs fashioned in his own image into parliament instead of more “off message” mavericks. I doubt Downing Street chose to withdraw the whip from Nadine Dorries only so they could import Eastleigh’s Dorries tribute act.

Then consider John O’Farrell, Labour’s minor celebrity candidate in Eastleigh. A comedian and writer – surely he would be a liability, firing off message all over the place. But no. Even on Twitter, his wit has been channelled carefully down the appropriate slogan-delivery tubes. On 14th February, he joked:

Fear I have already turned into political robot. Valentines card to wife just said 'Vote Labour in #Eastleigh for a One Nation alternative'.

I suspect that was closer to the truth than he or anyone else in the Labour machine would like to admit. The party is still pretty good at command and control on the ground, especially in a by-election. In one contest recently, I phoned the candidate directly on his mobile to ask what he was up to and was told, quite plainly, that he had no idea but would find out soon enough because his party minders would tell him and steer him in the right direction.

It’s worth noting also how astonishingly disciplined the Lib Dems have been in government, given how cruelly coalition has savaged their opinion poll rating and massacred their local government base. That can’t just be down to party organisation. For one thing, the Lib Dems don’t have enough money to run a ferociously organised party and for another thing, their democratic structures – where everything is supposed to be settled by committee – are positively designed to amplify dissent. As with Labour, the Lib Dem discipline flows from many individual efforts of sheer will. Even if MPs are uncertain about the leader’s line, they stick with it in public.

But for that to work, there has to be a line to take. Whether they agree with Miliband or not, Labour MPs have a pretty clear sense of where he is coming from and what he is trying to do. They understand the “too far, too fast” message on the economy and they broadly understand how “One Nation Labour” is a soft social-democrat fudge to make everyone feel good about the future without making specific commitments to reduce public services in austere times. They may not think that is the best strategy, but they can do it if a microphone is put in front of them.

Likewise, the Lib Dems know the plan is to present themselves as more economically responsible than Labour and more compassionate than the Tories. They know what it is they are supposed to have achieved in government and how it is meant to have tamed the wilder excesses of fanatical Conservative back benchers. They may not think it is enough, but they know the script.

That doesn’t seem to be the case for the Tories. Naturally they can defend government policy when asked to do so but that isn’t the same as defending David Cameron’s policy. He supports gay marriage and very much wants Britain to stay in the European Union, for example. It is hardly news that many Conservatives don’t agree with their leader on certain totemic cultural matters. What I find remarkable is how unwilling they are to keep quiet about it and how rubbish the Number 10 machine is at keeping a lid on unhelpful noise.

The root of the problem – and one explanation for different patterns of behaviour in different parties – is that there are two elements to message discipline. Yes, MPs need to be disciplined, but leaders also need to know what their message actually is to begin with.

Conservative candidate in Eastleigh, Maria Hutchings. Source: Getty

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.