'You can only beat what's in front of you' - Conservatives win with panache but it wasn't much of a contest

From a campaigning point of view did Labour lose it? Or did the Conservatives win it?

'You can only beat what's in front of you' - Conservatives win with panache but it wasn't much of a contest

Two-and-a-half years ago, the day after the last general election, I wrote a piece slamming Theresa May’s complacent, unfocused and cowardly campaign, which had come close to snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

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May only just won the 2017 election – in spite of a massive poll lead when she called it - but she was forced to rely on the DUP to drive legislation through from that point onwards. And we all know about her and Boris Johnson’s ensuing battles against Parliament over Brexit.

That year I also paid tribute to Jeremy Corbyn and his campaign team for pulling off something of a miracle.

In June 2017 Labour won just over 40 per cent of the popular vote, which matched the achievement of Tony Blair and his team in 2005, when he won a (reasonably comfortable) third consecutive parliamentary majority.

How times change, eh? Yesterday’s election saw Labour lose nearly 60 seats and its share of the vote slumped to 32 per cent.

So, from a campaigning point of view, did Labour lose it? Or did the Conservatives win it?

Well, of course, both are true. I always liken a campaign to a high-level sports match, for example a football cup final. There is a winner and a loser. The only aim at the beginning of that match is to win, preferably comprehensively, but it’s impossible to work out if the winner over-performed, or the loser under-performed. It’s a sporting cliché but ‘you can only beat what’s in front of you’.

When it comes to Boris Johnson and the Conservatives, what faced them at kick off on 12 December 2019 really wasn’t very impressive.

Yes, Jeremy Corbyn was perceived as quite authentic and the messaging from spokespeople was reasonably disciplined – not least because Momentum had purged dissenting Labour voices – but where was the vision, the strategy, the credibility?

‘For the many not the few’ and ‘Save the NHS’ were used heavily by Labour but they did not unify a mish-mash of policies, some of which appeared to be made up on the hoof.

For example, one hears Labour’s manifesto decision to nationalise BT’s broadband services was a policy the party had promised the telecoms giant, only months earlier, would not be in the manifesto.

And then, of course, there was Labour’s policy on Brexit, which managed to alienate both Leavers (who believed Corbyn was deliberately obfuscating) and Remainers, who suspected Corbyn was a Leaver at heart; which is why he never enthused about a second EU referendum.

So, yes, Labour was a lacklustre loser. But was Boris Johnson a worthy winner? Can we draw parallels with the landslides achieved by the Barack Obama effort in 2008, or Tony Blair in 1997? 

I’d argue that the Johnson victory was actually more akin to Donald Trump’s election victory in 2017.

Yes, he has won the Conservatives their biggest majority in seats since 1987. And yet the party only bagged about 250,000 more votes than in 2017 and only a percentage point or so more support from the electorate.

Unlike those other premiers at their peak, it didn’t feel like a personal movement of popular support behind Johnson, who – like Trump – tends to polarise opinion and levels of trust.

Where Johnson was very successful however, was in focusing on Brexit as the absolute central issue. ‘Get Brexit done’ was hammered home with ruthless focus and efficiency in the way that Trump used ‘Make America great again’ in 2017.

And, having, against all odds, got a deal agreed with the EU only weeks before, he had some credibility in that claim. I say ‘some’ because few of us believe ‘getting Brexit done’ will be quick, easy or less than disastrous for the economy.

Other significant Conservative policies were thin on the ground. And the party was very efficient at keeping even more divisive (but nevertheless high influential) party characters such as Jacob Rees-Mogg out of the election spotlight.

Populist brexiter Nigel Farage was also successfully neutralised.

The influence of Dominic Cummings, and the various Australian and New Zealander digital strategists working with Conservative HQ, was apparent in the much superior digital and social campaign this time around.

In June 2017 Labour succeeded in creating something of a grassroots and youth movement behind him. We all remember the refrain of 'Oh Je-remy Cor-byn' at Glastonbury and other festivals that summer.

Back then, just before the election, it could boast over 50 per cent more followers on Facebook (almost 900k) and Twitter (430k) than could the Tories (610k and 260k respectively at the time), with substantially superior shareability and engagement metrics for its social content. Crucially, Corbyn was more involved in such social conversations than his opponent Theresa May, allowing his 'authenticity' to shine through.

But this time the Conservatives seriously upped their game in the area of digital and social-media marketing, produced greater volumes of social-media noise and cleverer content than Labour did. Even the Conservatives' dodgy-looking content was designed to create buzz and talkability around their brand and Brexit.

There is much to criticise in the Conservatives’ campaign, too. There is still a big ethical question mark over the vast sums that the political right is able to raise and spend (without transparency or accountability) on digital marketing.

Facebook’s AdLibrary helped a little but it really revealed only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the targeted, often anonymous and manipulative messaging tactics used across digital and social channels.

CCHQ’s decision after one election debate to masquerade as a ‘fact-checking service’ on Labour’s claims was pretty despicable.

Finally, while Boris was suitably bombastic on the election trail, his shirking of confrontation with parents of sick children, his decision to hide in a fridge and dodge the Andrew Neil BBC interview, won’t help him go down as the bravest party figurehead in history.

All that said, Boris won. The Conservatives won. And even if what was in front of them was rather akin to Watford FC in the FA Cup Final this year, they beat them with panache. They are Manchester City as they were back in May when they had won all the domestic titles.

Boris has, for now, justified his reputation as an electoral ‘winner’, the Heineken politician who refreshes parts of the country that others simply cannot reach. And so credit where credit is due.

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