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7 August 2017

It will take more than a Tory Glastonbury to save the Conservatives

The party needs a refit, not just a rebrand. 

By Stephen Bush

During the Second World War, Melanesian Islanders were blessed: by the aircraft of first the Japanese, and then the Americans. These planes brought with them cargo and resources that they shared with the locals – modern clothing that protected the Pacific-dwelling people better than their own, modern medicine, chocolate and other commodities. After the war ended, the flights stopped, and with them, the bounty of Japanese and American soldiers.

The Islanders responded by making their own landing strips on the islands, believing that this would summon back their foreign benefactors.

Following the loss of their parliamentary majority, some Conservative MPs are beginning to resemble those unhappy Melanesians. Senior politicians talk about the need to develop “a social media strategy” for the party, or a “Conservative Momentum”. The MP George Freeman is hosting an Ideas Festival the weekend before Conservative Party Conference: billed in the FT as a “Tory Glastonbury”, but, in Freeman’s vision, is a “cross between Hay-on-Wye and Latitude”.

The difficulty with these plans is they are all some planes, cargo and a couple of pilots short of an airfield. As far as “a social media strategy” goes, the Conservatives are widely held to have a top-class team in place – many of their Labour and Liberal Democrat opposite numbers have a great deal of respect for Tom Edmonds and Craig Elder, the duo at the top of the Conservatives’ digital campaign. Their difficulty at the election was that in 2015, they had a series of messages – distrust of Ed Miliband and fear of a Labour-SNP deal – that people actually wanted to share, and in 2017 they did not.

Ditto, there is not a shortage of one-day talking shops about policy and ideas on the right of politics. There is a shortage of end-product as far as those talking-shops go. Say what you like about Britannia Unchained, the 2012 series of essays by some of the leading lights on the Conservative right, but it did, at least, attempt to offer a series of policies.

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Corbyn didn’t succeed because he held a bunch of rallies – but because people wanted to go to a bunch of rallies. Nor did success flow from the existence of Momentum – success flowed to Labour because Labour’s leader appealed to a large group of people, some of whom were excited enough to join Momentum and share its videos.

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Until the Conservatives change their product, rather than fiddling with the presentation, their hopes of a majority at the next election will be as empty as a Melanesian airfield.