23 March 2011
I have never previously read anything by Lord Ashcroft. However I came across this book at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham last October and bought it. It gives a fascinating short (132 pages) summary of the last five years from a man at the heart of the Conservative Party.
The book can be downloaded free from Lord Ashcroft’s website. A hard copy can be bought from Amazon.co.uk using the link below. Where I give page numbers below, they are from the hard copy book; the pagination is different in the electronic version.
While I have never met Lord Ashcroft, from the book he comes over as someone who cares deeply about our country. He displays a deep insight into the political challenges that faced the Conservative Party which is consistent with what I have read from other sources and with my own thinking. He has been vilified in some quarters for giving his own money to the Conservative Party, whereas I regard giving money to political party as simply being patriotic. He has also been attacked for doing what he can within the law to minimise his tax liabilities; those who attack him forget that the our courts have ruled on many occasions that every taxpayer is entitled to arrange his affairs in a way that reduces his taxes.
Lord Ashcroft has a sense of humour about his image. On page 85 he writes:
Some journalists in Conservative-leaning publications seemed mesmerised by the concept of Ashcroft-as-Blofeld, and it is indeed true that a member of the Shadow Cabinet was kind enough to send me a toy white Persian cat.
The General Elections of 2005, 2001 and 1997 were the three worst results ever suffered by the Conservative Party, listed in order of awfulness. To get a majority in the House of Commons, the Conservatives would need to gain 117 seats, more than they had ever gained in a single election since 1931. That was a peculiar year with Labour splitting; the most the Conservatives had ever gained in a “normal” General Election was 87 in 1950.
The boundaries in our country were stacked against the Conservatives; not deliberately but simply due to slowness at redistricting and insufficient importance being given to having constituencies of the same size. For example, in 2005 Labour received fewer votes in England than the Conservatives but won 92 more English seats. That is the reason reform to equalise constituency sizes has since been legislated in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011.
In November 2005 David Cameron appointed him as Deputy Chairman with responsibility for opinion research and marginal seats. In his view on page 7:
The priorities were clear. Rebuilding the brand and running an effective targeting operation were not mutually exclusive. An improved brand was a prerequisite for winning a general election. We could not rely on a series of surgical strikes in marginal seats to deliver victory if the party’s wider reputation was no better than it was in May 2005. We needed a swing of historic proportions to win an overall Commons majority. At the same time, we needed a smart target seats plan to maximise the number of parliamentary seats that swing delivered. Both elements would be supported by comprehensive and objective opinion research.
The book gives quite a lot of detail about what the polls said. On page 11 while rebutting a pamphlet from the Cornerstone Group the book explains that the Conservatives had not lost in 2005 because they failed to set out good policies, but because the policies were not seen by voters as relevant to them.
The Patient’s Passport policy was not seen as an exciting way to give ordinary people faster access to top quality healthcare, but a signal that we were abandoning the NHS to its inadequacies and providing an escape route for the better off. ..... Independence from Europe was not a priority for most people – or many people at all – at the last election. Lower taxes were not a winning theme in 2005 because they were not believable without the threat of Tory cuts. The combination of Europe, tax and the Patient’s Passport would have reinforced even further the impression of a party that was out of touch with ordinary people’s concerns and which cared most about the privileged few (which is, incidentally, the real reason we lost).
On page 13 the book gives a list that Lord Ashcroft drew up from the polling setting out what voters needed to be saying by 2009:
What is striking about this list is that it is nothing to do with specific policies, apart from the importance of the National Health Service. Instead it is about personal qualities and organisational qualities. In other words, what kind of people are the Conservative Party?
David Cameron proceeded to focus relentlessly on the necessary rebranding of the party. While some of his efforts were derided as “Hug a hoodie” and “Hug a husky”, they succeeded in changing the way voters saw the party.
Pages 71 – 77 reproduce some the campaign literature used in the target seats.
The example reproduced here from Esther McVey’s successful campaign in Wirral West caught my eye as it looks nothing like a traditional Tory campaign leaflet. It shows how far the Party had come.
Lord Ashcroft summarises on page 122 the importance of the target seats campaign:
Across the country, the swing from Labour to the Conservatives was 4.9 per cent122, and the swing from the Liberal Democrats to the Conservatives was 1.4 per cent. But with a final total of 306 seats, we did better than the changes in vote share alone would suggest. Thirty-two of the Conservative gains would not have been won on the average national swing: 23 of the seats we won from Labour required a swing of more than 4.9 per cent, and nine of our gains from the Liberal Democrats needed a swing of more than 1.4 per cent.
Without these seats, there would have been 274 Conservative MPs in the 2010 parliament. Labour would have been the largest party with 281 seats. The Liberal Democrats would have won 66 seats. Labour and the Liberal Democrats would have had 347 seats between them – a parliamentary majority of 44. Instead, the Conservatives became the largest party with 48 more seats than Labour.
He proceeds to tabulate the 23 Conservative gains from Labour and 9 from the Liberal Democrats that were won with a swing above the national average swing. He compares that with the previous three General Elections:
In 2005, we beat the swing by just eight seats. In 2001 we underperformed by ten seats, and in 1997 we lost 24 more seats than would have been the case on a uniform swing.
That is what the target seats operation achieved.
This question has often come up in discussion since the election. When you look at the national list of constituencies ranked by the narrowness of the incumbent’s majority, the Conservatives overturned some challenging majorities, as mentioned above. Conversely however, the Party failed to win some of the seats where the Labour majority was smaller. What was the explanation?
Lord Ashcroft addresses this and on page 98 identifies that the Conservative Party had insufficient appeal for ethnic minorities:
Another factor, which also helps to explain some London results, is that, overall, we did less well in constituencies with a higher ethnic minority population. In the seats we won from Labour, the average non-white population is around 6 per cent – well below the national average. In the twenty of Labour’s 100 most marginal seats that we failed to win, the average non-white population is over 15 per cent – more than twice the national average. In the five of these seats that are in London, the average non-white population is 28 per cent.
His views are consistent with my own perceptions that Muslims often vote Labour when non-Muslims with the same background would be likely to vote Tory. See my piece is there a Muslim bloc vote and how do Muslims vote?
Lord Ashcroft also points out on page 99 the weakness of the Tory brand in Scotland:
On the UK national swing we should theoretically have taken Dumfries & Galloway, but in Scotland the swing was away from the Conservatives. While voting patterns north of the border are different, with the Scottish National Party the main rivals to Labour, this should not blind us to the fact that the Conservative brand in Scotland remains comprehensively broken and that there has been no Tory recovery to speak of there. Despite being staunchly unionist, as far as the Scots are concerned we remain a party for the English.
Since the election, many Conservatives have complained that David Cameron and the Conservative campaign should have attacked Labour more vigorously, and should have promoted harder certain Conservative policies such as further restricting immigration.
Lord Ashcroft demonstrates with polling and interview data that such a view is incorrect. On page 105:
The determination to press the case against Labour is one of the reasons, perhaps the main reason, why we had not reassured enough people by election day that the Conservative Party had changed and had their interests at heart. Greater “ferocity” in our attacks on the Prime Minister – if that were possible – would only have made this problem worse.
On page 106 he also dismisses the argument about giving immigration policy higher prominence in the campaign:
... people do not, generally, decide how to vote on the basis of issues, let alone one single issue. In our own research we regularly asked people what they felt were the most important issues “for the country as a whole”, and then “for me and my family”, asking for three issues in each case. Using this more balanced and realistic measure, we consistently found that immigration scored much higher as a “country” issue than as a “family” issue, though rarely more than upper mid-table on either.
So, accepting that immigration was important to a large number of voters and very important to a few, the question was whether the Conservative Party needed to raise its profile on the issue. Here the answer was an emphatic no. Alongside our questions on the most important issues to voters, we asked what issues voters thought the Conservative Party most cared about. Consistently, we found that voters were more likely to say that immigration was important to us than they were to say it was important to them.
If a high proportion of voters had said immigration was an important concern for them and their families, and thought the Conservative Party was less concerned about it than they were, and we were neck and neck with Labour as the best party to handle the issue, there would have been a strong case for a high-profile immigration campaign. But the reverse was true in every case. We were the most trusted party on immigration by a huge margin, and people were more likely to think it was a Conservative priority than they were to be concerned about it themselves.
In this short book, Lord Ashcroft demonstrates how successfully David Cameron worked to change and detoxify the Conservative brand. On page 123 he states that this was accomplished:
...in the teeth of furious opposition from supposedly Conservative-supporting bloggers, commentators, newspapers and even some Tory MPs. These people now like to say the modernisation agenda is the reason we did not win the election more decisively. If they had had their way we would be into our fourth term of opposition.
I recommend this book to everyone interested in our country’s governance, irrespective of political affiliation.