The Tories, sunk by the politics of fear, must lose the Lynton Crosby playbook
Published by The Guardian (9th June, 2017)
There is one clear lesson from the strangest election campaign of my lifetime: the Tories need to chuck away the dismal Lynton Crosby playbook that treats voters like fools and relies solely on fear.
Forget all that talk about strength and stability. This election was called for a simple reason: to ensure the Tories dominated politics for the next five years. Strategists saw a window of opportunity to crush Labour, a divided party led by a supposedly unelectable leader; and to wipe out Ukip before Brexit talks began, since the blazer brigade will soon be screaming betrayal. At the start of the campaign one party source even mused to me about the possibility of a 200-seat majority.
How laughable that sounds now. Labour entered the campaign with many people, myself included, believing it was on the brink of break-up. Those divisions still swirl beneath the surface. But now Theresa May clings to power after a risible campaign that leaves her reputation in ruins and Britain desperately weakened on the brink of Brexit negotiations. And it is the Tory party that looks devastated, presiding over a pointless referendum followed by a needless election for narrow political purposes. The legacy is a weakened nation, a wounded economy and a more divided population.
The scale of such folly will keep historians busy for decades. It is too easy to simply blame the social care fiasco, let alone the lack of a positive offer to voters against a rival promising to spend billions on public services, or the undoubted campaigning skills of Jeremy Corbyn. There are far more profound reasons underlying this debacle: the desire to end austerity, the justified anger of young voters, the way technology is reshaping politics.
The Crosby approach lost the London mayoral election by seeking to stir up an anti-Muslim mood against Sadiq Khan, which was deservedly defeated. Then it lost the Brexit ballot. These tactics worked well in 2015, but times have changed. It is no good robotically chanting mantras on television if they are mocked ruthlessly on social media – and if your opponent, for all his flaws, offers some authenticity. Politicians need to talk like human beings. And the fear factor flopped against an opponent who largely refused to engage in such a fight.
This strategy was especially disrespectful to the electorate on the eve of negotiations with Europe that will shape our country for decades. Yes, Labour was little better – which makes it all the sadder they ousted former Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, our strongest voice opposing Brexit. Never forget that if Corbyn had shown a fraction of the passion in the referendum battle that he has done in recent weeks, Britain would be in a far better position today.
Yet as Tories reflect on throwing away their majority, they must remember Corbyn is an opponent who could, and should, have been trounced. Instead, he has proved that modern politics is less about leadership – May was well ahead on the traditional gauge of victory over who would make best prime minister – and more about the ability to express shared values. This was understood by winners such as Tony Blair and David Cameron, for all their love of spin.
It is ironic to recall that it was May who, 15 years ago, courageously told Conservative members they were seen as the nasty party: her botched campaign has inflamed this corrosive image. She shifted the party to the right to soak up Ukip votes, for all the vague talk of state intervention, and ignored concerns of younger people rattled by Brexit. Now the party needs to stop looking longingly at the past and start facing the future. Forget fox-hunting and grammar schools; drop the demonisation of foreigners; focus on protecting public services (and not just pensioners); fight poverty rather than globalisation.
Alarmingly, the Tories are now climbing into coalition with a party fiercely opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage. And on the doorstep of 10 Downing Street, May merely replaced ‘stability’ with ‘certainty’ while seeming in denial of recent events and diminished status. Yet almost the only winner of an election stuffed with losers is Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson, who shows how her party needs to rediscover a spirit of optimism. Voters could endorse her rightful opposition to nationalism because she offered a Tory face that was liberal, moderate, modern and warm.
If the Tory party is to survive – and in the current political climate absolutely nothing is certain, even for such a ruthless political force – it must learn the lessons of this shocking setback. Ditch politics of division and fear, the parroting of empty soundbites, the rejection of young citizens. Start speaking like your electorate, return to the centre and, above all, show faith in fellow humanity.