Analyse three key strengths and three key weaknesses of the Conservative general election campaign of 2010
The aim of this report shall be to analyse three key strengths and three key weaknesses of the Conservative general election campaign of 2010. Integrated into this analysis will be two suggested improvements that might be made in order to maximise the party’s chances of electoral success in the next general election.
In terms of strengths, this report highlights ‘the local campaign’, ‘obtaining the support of the print press’, and ‘the representation of David Cameron’ as the three areas of the party’s general election campaign that were particularly successful. The report also suggests key improvements which could be applied to ‘the local campaign’ in order to make it even more effective in the next general election.
In terms of weaknesses, this report highlights ‘misjudged policies’, ‘the failure to secure votes from both Scotland and ethnic minorities’ and ‘agreeing to televised debates’ as three areas of the party’s general election campaign that were particularly unsuccessful. The report also suggests key improvements which could be applied to ‘the failure to secure votes from both Scotland and ethnic minorities’ in order to minimalize this weakness in the next general election.
1. The local campaign
One of the areas of the 2010 general election campaign where the party did significantly better than in previous years was in the identifying and targeting of marginal seats for local campaigning.
The importance of the local campaign
Whilst some electoral theorists such as Holbrook (1996, p.613) argue that voters do not change their mind as a result of local campaigns, this is a point of view that should be disregarded by the party. As Fisher et al. (2011, p.816) argue, failure to campaign would more than likely lead to a substantial loss of votes. Moreover, with the decline of partisan alignment in modern politics, the local campaign has the potential to be pivotal in winning swing voters.
In terms of influencing swing voters, the local election campaign can have an important impact. As Pattie and Johnston’s (2010, p.502) regression analysis shows, ‘the more voters saw of a party’s local campaign, the more likely they were to change their vote in the course of the contest to vote for that party or against its rivals’.
In past elections the party has lagged behind Labour and the Liberal Democrats in successfully attaining support through the local campaign. Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have previously coordinated their local and national campaigns methodically whereas the Conservatives have wasted considerable campaign resources on safe seats where victory was inevitable (Pattie and Johnston, 2003). Even more importantly, while the local campaigns of Labour and the Liberal Democrats were able to gain votes, the same could not be said of previous Conservative local campaigns (Denver and Hands, 1996).
Strengths in 2010
In contrast to previous campaigns where the party wasted resources, this campaign was especially successful in using a divisional system to classify the marginality of seats. This system ranged from the ‘premier league’ made up of seats the party was anticipating to gain without substantial effort, to a third division which consisted of seats that the party could only gain if the election campaign as a whole was going extremely well.
However, it is one skill to just identify the varying marginality of seats and a completely different skill to successfully target the voters within them. This is where the party was particularly efficient in the 2010 election campaign. As Montgomerie (2010, p.8) shows, up to “2.5 million voters in swing seats were directly mailed on the issues that mattered most to them”.
The net effect of the identifying and targeting of swing voters within crucial marginal seats was to equalize the comfortable advantage that Labour had possessed over the party in the past 20 years. As highlighted by Pattie and Johnston (2010, p.501) “In 2010 not only did the party becoming much more effective at targeting resources to marginal seats, but the local campaign itself influenced voters’ final decisions and is winning over support the party might not otherwise enjoy”.
The local campaign - future improvements
In terms of future developments, the local campaign can be improved in two ways in order to increase the party’s chances of electoral success in the next general election campaign.
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Firstly, the party needs to be even more thorough in its local campaigning, specifically in terms of traditional labour intensive techniques. According to Fisher and Denver (2009) it is labour intensive techniques that voters appear to respond to more than modern technological campaigning. This is a point reinforced by the evidence that was referenced earlier that ‘the more voters saw of a party’s local campaign, the more likely they were to change their vote in the course of the contest to vote for that party or against its rivals’ (Pattie and Johnston, 2010, p.501).
Secondly, the party needs to take more risks in its divisional system of identifying the varying marginality of seats. As Fisher et al. (2011, p.819) argue, the party fell short of a majority because it had to target too many seats. The solution to this would be to focus even less resources on the safest of seats such as Chesham and Amersham, and Buckingham, in order to conduct more intense campaigns in constituencies where the party lost by small margins as Hampsted and Kilburn, and Solihull.
2. Obtaining the support of the print press
Another strength of the 2010 general election campaign was the fact party had many major national press organisations supporting it.
Importance of the press
The importance of the national press should not be underestimated in the modern ‘internet’ election. As Wring and Deacon (2010) argue, “despite declining sales and the rise of alternative platforms…the national press still enjoys the widest readership among the voting public”.
The press are particularly powerful in times of high uncertainty, as was the case 2010 following the economic crashes of the previous years. This is a point raised by Mccombs (2000) who argues that in times of high uncertainty the electorate are particularly susceptible to be influenced by media bias.
What went well in 2010?
One strength of the party’s general election campaign of 2010 then was the ability to gain the the backing of a number of newspapers. This ranged from tabloids such as the Sun to financial papers such as the Financial Times. The importance for the party of having these papers onside stems from the ability of the media to influence the perception of voters. As Kull et al (2003) argue, the press influences voters by presenting politics to them through an ideological lens. In terms of the 2010 general election, the impact that having Tory supporting newspapers can be exemplified by the fact that amongst readers of the Sun there was a swing of 13.5% from Labour to Conservatives following the newspapers negative coverage of the Labour Party from the autumn of 2009 onwards.
Furthermore, by having a large majority of the press onside during the 2010 general election campaign, the party were able to ensure that the chances of potential negative coverage were minimized. As Stevens et al., (2011, p.141) argue, “the Tory press did not win it for Cameron but they seem to have helped ensure that he did not lose the election”. The same cannot be said for the party’s opposition, namely Labour, who were subject to a number of damaging stories focusing on the character of Gordon Brown.
3. The representation of David Cameron
One final strength of the party’s general election campaign of 2010 was in the representation and marketing of David Cameron as an effective leader.
Importance of leader
There are number of reasons why the representation and marketing of the party leader has become important in 21st century politics. Firstly, the increasing personalisation of British politics has led to a growing media focus on the leader. Secondly, whilst some theorists such as Butler and Stokes (in Stevens et al., 2011, p.125) have argued that social class and structure are more important than individual leaders in terms of influencing voters, in the world of valence politics it is much more likely that voters use leaders images as a shortcut for making electoral decisions (Clarke et al., 2004). This is particularly relevant in the modern British election where parties’ policies and ideologies are more similar than in previous decades.
What went well?
With the importance of the leader having been stressed, one of the strengths of the 2010 general election campaign was the party’s ability to run a successful campaign focusing on David Cameron. As Montgomerie shows, “This was most obvious in the last 48 hours… Cameron's through-the-night marathon conveyed energy and determination”. The importance of this can be linked to the increased partisan dealignment which was a key feature of the 2010 election. With almost 40% of voters in 2010 making their decision about which party to vote for during the campaign, communications about party leaders played a key role in the election (Denver, 2010, p.591).
The successes of the representation and marketing of Cameron by the party can be shown by the fact that Cameron and Osborne were able to eradicate the Labour government’s long-held lead in public opinion on who was best equipped to manage the economy (Stevens et al., 2011, p.127). One reason for this could be the party’s focus on Cameron as a decisive leader with a low tolerance for dissent as opposed to Brown who was seen as dithering. The end result of this was that David Cameron as a leader enjoyed an approval rating of 11% over the party as a whole, which increased by 4% during the election itself (Dorey, 2010, p.419). This suggests that the party would not have been so successful in the 2010 election had it not been for Cameron.
1. Misjudged policies
Whilst the representation and marketing of David Cameron was strength of the general election campaign of 2010, it also highlights one of the weaknesses of the campaign which was the failure of the party as a whole to obtain a similar level of support. This stems from the inability of the party to deliver clear tangible policies on the issues that mattered most to the electorate.
In terms of issues the election would be fought on, it is no surprise that following the global economic crisis 51% of the population cited the economy as the most important issue facing the country. The second most frequently suggested issue was that of immigration with 19% of the country finding this the most important issue facing the country (in Clarke et al., 2011, p.244)
Therefore, it was important in this election campaign that the party came up with tangible and realistic policies, firstly on the economy, but also immigration. The effect of this would be to convince the electorate that the party was fit for government. This however did not happen.
The main issue with the party’s approach on the economy was that a major element of it focused on negative features such as public expenditure cuts and attacking Labour’s economic record. This underlined the compromises that people were going to have to make under a Conservative government rather than focusing on a more positive and inspiring idea. As Dorey (2010, p.430) argues, a more optimistic focus would have encouraged voters to endorse the Conservatives in a positive manner. The party’s negative focus on the economy also gave credence to Labour’s scare campaigns revolving around the notion that the Conservatives did not care about those who were worst off in society.
A second issue with the party’s policies in the 2010 general election campaign was its failure to comprehensively address the issue of immigration. Importantly, immigration was a problem that 19% of the electorate saw as the biggest issue facing the country. Whilst the party did suggest that they would cap the number of non-EU workers allowed to live in Britain, it failed to follow the demands of the electorate in tackling the flow of East European workers to Britain. The party falsely assumed that people would automatically link Conservatism with a tough stance on immigration. However, as Montgomerie (2010, p.15) highlights, “an opinion poll…found that voters were giving up on all politicians when it came to controlling Britain's borders”. Therefore, by not focusing on immigration, the party failed to gain many potential voters. The alarming lack of attention to this issue is shown by the fact that “immigration was never given a day in the party's election grid. A day was found, however, for a schools music competition”(Montgomerie, 2010, p.7)
2. The failure to secure votes from both Scotland and ethnic minorities
Another key weakness of the 2010 general election campaign was the failure of the party to make inroads in terms of gaining votes in Scotland, and gaining votes from ethnic minorities.
Failures in 2010
In the 2010 General Election, the party failed to gain any seats in Scotland. Whilst the party held its seat in the constituency of Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale, the vote share for Conservatives in 11 of its key target seats declined despite spending £400,000 on the campaign (Montgomerie, 2010, p.34). The party then failed in the 2010 general election campaign in convincing Scottish voters that the Conservatives could represent their interests in Westminster. As Ashcroft (2010, p.99) argues “as far as the Scots are concerned we remain a party for the English”.
With reference to ethnic minorities the picture is not much better. In the 2010 election the party achieved 16% of ethnic minority vote in comparison to 68% achieved by Labour. There is no doubt that failing to convince ethnic minorities to vote for the Conservatives in the 2010 general election cost the party in terms of achieving a majority in parliament. As Ashcroft (2010, p.98) highlights, "In the 20 of Labour's 100 most vulnerable marginals that the Tories failed to win, the average non-white population was 15%. In the five of those that were in London, it was 28%”.
Improvements to be made
As a consequence of the weaknesses highlighted above, appealing to Scottish and to ethnic minority voters is an area in which change is needed in order to improve the party’s chances in the next general election campaign. With reference to Scotland, one possible idea that could prove to be beneficial is to make changes to the Scottish Conservative Party in order to make it more autonomous from the England branch. This would allow it to develop separate policies for Scotland, consequently showing the electorate in Scotland that the party does care about its specific needs.
With reference to ethnic minorities, the party needs to put more ethnic minority individuals forward for election. This would have the effect of distancing the party from the traditional notions of Conservatism as an ideology for the rich, white, upper class. Moreover, in order to prove that MPs from ethnic minorities are not just puppets, the party should campaign for further equal opportunities and anti racial discrimination quotas. This would also help prove to the electorate that it is not only Labour Party that champions the needs of ethnic minorities but the Conservatives also.
3. Agreeing to televised debates
One final weakness of the party’s 2010 general election campaign was the agreement to take part in televised debates.
Importance of debates
Whilst some theorists such as Miller and Mackuen (in Pattie & Johnston, 2011, p.148) have argued that televised debates only act to reinforce existing attitudes of leaders, in an age of partisan dealignment such a view is outdated. More relevant to the 2010 general election is the theory that debate performances have an important role to play for the increasing amount of voters who are less partisan. Debates lead to dealigned voters seeking more information about candidates which can consequently lead to individuals changing their minds on who to support. In terms of the 2010 general election campaign, whilst the party did not fare too badly in the debates, the agreement to enter such debates was a bad policy.
What went wrong?
The main reason why entering the debates was a weakness of the general election campaign of 2010 was that it gave equal status to the Liberal Democrats, a previously marginalised party. The debates allowed the Liberal Democrats to gain much more media attention than they would have otherwise received. This in turn undermined the Conservative Party. The subsequent ‘Liberal Democrat Bounce’ that arose from Nick Clegg’s successful performance in the first debate meant that the Liberal Democrats were able to rival the party in many of the most important target seats. This is a point raised by Montgomerie (2010, p.11) who went as far as to say that “The decision to agree to equal status for the Liberal Democrats was the number one explanation for David Cameron's failure to win a majority”.
Furthermore, not only was the equal status given to the Liberal Democrats bad for the 2010 General Election campaign, now the debate format has been institutionalized, it will continue to hamper the party’s chances of gaining an outright majority in parliament in future elections.
As this report has shown, the Conservative party’s general election campaign of 2010 was one that contained a variety of different strengths and weaknesses. In terms of key strengths, ‘the local campaign’, ‘obtaining the support of the print press’, and ‘the representation of David Cameron’ were all prominent. This was in distinct contrast to key weaknesses linked to ‘misjudged policies’, ‘the failure to secure votes from both Scotland and ethnic minorities’ and ‘agreeing to televised debates’. In terms of future improvements, this report highlights areas of both ‘the local campaign’ and ‘the failure to secure votes from both Scotland and ethnic minoritires’ where a number of realistic improvements would significantly aid the party’s chances of electoral gains in the next general election.
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