He will be remembered as the man who published a book accusing David Cameron of doing something unspeakable. But it is Lord Ashcroft’s post 2005 election report Smell The Coffee: A wake-up call for the Conservative Party which is worth revisiting now as we see the Labour Party battling over what it should be doing to shape its future over the coming years.
Much has been written about why elections are won and lost, but the central recommendations from “Smell the Coffee” stand up well for any party looking to win a general election. Most importantly, these conclusions were formed on the basis of making the party electable again, not pushing a right or left agenda
I have reframed each of them here for a more general audience:
- A party must target their scarce resources at people who are more likely to vote in places which are more likely to decide elections.
- A party must campaign hardest on the things that matter most to people, rather than things they hope can be made to matter.
- There are number of parties competing for voters. It should never be assumed that one party’s unpopularity directly translates into support one other single party.
- A party must not simply indulge the instincts of its core voters. The core is, by definition, not big enough to win an election on its own. By endorsing their views and tactics (e.g. classist, inverse-snobbery) too strongly a party risks alienating wider sections of the public that are needed for electoral success.
- There are a number of different types of voters that must be brought together under the umbrella one party’s support. They are likely to have some diverging interests but it is the managing of your loyalists with the persuadables that is key to avoiding become an unelectable rump.
While these are general points for any party, they can easily be applied to the Labour Party today.
On the first point it seems Jeremy Corbyn has not learnt from the mistake of his predecessor. His announcement at conference that Labour will be focussing on getting people on the electoral register will do little to increase the number of people voting Labour. It is a tactic that failed for Ed Miliband, despite a major drive to sign people up to the electoral roll. There is a strong pattern in history that those people who have not voted before are far less likely to vote in future. Not being on the electoral register is not the main barrier for them, a lack of political engagement and motivation are a bigger problem. Winning their vote requires significant more effort: getting them registered in the first place, then getting to the polling station and finally getting them to put their “X” beside your party.
Point five is as relevant to Labour as it ever was to the Conservatives. Labour must regain the election-winning coalition of traditional Labour voters, cosmopolitan urbanites, and aspirational commuters. The definitions of these groups can be debated, (both Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham can attest that the word “aspirational” has not aged well), but you cannot win elections with just one section of the electorate.
Leadership spanning the divide
In the febrile debate about the future of the Labour Party, it is easy to get caught up in tags of Blairism, Red Toryism or centrism. But the truth is that these rules have been followed by successful politicians of left, right, and centre. Most successful leaders of big parties must be centrists in the sense that they have to be adept at weighing up competing sets of ideas. Not every situation will call for a left- or a right-wing solution.
The problem with this pragmatic, big-tent centrism is that it is very hard indeed to keep all the people in the tent happy and productive. This is where leadership comes in.
A strong, successful leader will allow their party to hold onto their base but either personally come from the centre or have the air of competence that appeals to centrist voters, almost masking some of the less palatable wings of their party.
Tony Blair and David Cameron are recent examples of this strategy working. Both leaders – and Prime Ministers – are often described as not being natural members of their party. This is exactly the point. They could personally appeal to a new or different set of voters than the traditional wing of their party. The skill comes in successfully managing the party and not losing the appeal with a broader group of voters. Of course, winning always helps to keep otherwise disgruntled MPs happy.
Labour did not lose the 2015 election because it was too left-wing. Ed Miliband simply didn’t pass the credibility test.
It is interesting therefore to note Jeremy Corbyn’s own credibility ratings. While twice as many people think David Cameron would make a better Prime Minister than the Labour leader, this is almost exactly where Ed Miliband stood the day before the general election.
Jeremy Corbyn’s first conference speech as Labour Leader seemed to be one very much aimed at those in the hall, those who voted for him in the leadership contest, those already onside.
The opportunity for Corbyn is to change the perception of Labour being a party of politicians grown in petri dishes in hermetically sealed laboratories.
However, if we return to the five principles of an electorally successful party, Corbyn’s Labour must override the temptation to build a popular movement of the young and disenfranchised. Rather he should focus on those people who will actually turnout on election day and those in key marginal seats. They must resist the urge to talk about toffs and bankers and fat cats so as not to frighten off those they need to bring into the tent.
While his own personal politics may appeal to the left of British politics, that is not enough on its own to ultimately deliver success. As a leader he will need to ensure he and his party can straddle the divide between the left-wing base and a wider coalition of voters. Labour under Ed Miliband was already seen as the party that stands up to big business and fights for the little guy. That was not enough in 2015 and it is difficult to see how it will be enough in 2020.