PR Guru Andy Maciver looks at his old party’s manifesto and reckons it’s built for the job.
You don’t have to go beyond the front cover to get the essence of this Conservative campaign – the large photo of Ruth Davidson and the phrase “stronger opposition” sums it up. It is basically the right message. Davidson remains far more popular than her party, as was graphically exposed in a YouGov poll earlier in the week, and the strategy of promoting her name above her party’s may be blatant, but it is smart. Moreover, there is nothing defeatist (in the current climate) about recognising that opposition and not government is the goal, and with Labour imploding the Tories have never had such a credible chance of achieving it.
Inside the cover, as was articulated by Davidson at the manifesto launch, the key message is that the Tories are the last true defenders of the Union. This strategy upsets some people who say that the Tories talk about independence more than the SNP does, and they’re probably right about that. But what I suspect they don’t realise is that it’s the most targeted and clever strategy the party has had for some time.
The party’s target audience can basically be boiled down to the cohort of voters who are pro-UK and not left wing. It makes up about 30% of the population and at the moment only half of them vote for the Tory party (with the other half likely to be either ‘New Labour’ voters or unionist voting SNP because they run Scotland competently and have thus far kept taxes down).
Almost all of the manifesto’s key messages play to that audience; no second referendum; Labour have accelerated to the left; taxes no higher than in the rest of the UK; no to the Named Persons legislation; more power for heads and parents in schools; as well as softer social justice issues such as energy efficiency in homes and the usual pledge to throw more money at the NHS. It also helps that group, if not her current voters, that Davidson has committed to voting yes in the EU referendum. And, it must be said, Labour and the Lib Dems’ decision to campaign for higher taxes have played directly into the Tories’ hands.
However there are risks. I make no judgement about whether the decisions to commit to ending state-funded prescriptions and university tuition for all is right, but what is true is that the middle-classes the Tories are trying to attract love their taxpayer giveaways, especially the one which allows their kids to go to University for free.
The biggest risk of all, though, is the one that never goes away. There’s a reason why the Tories call their party ‘Ruth Davidson’s party’ and avoid at all costs putting the word ‘Conservative’ on their election material. It’s simply that the party’s toxicity is barely reducing, if indeed it is reducing at all. Everyone agrees that Ruth Davidson is smart and popular, but will this 30% of the population bring themselves to cross a box beside the word ‘Conservative’?
Electoral mathematics for the Tories (particularly the narrowness by which they lost a few seats last time) are such that reaching up to 20 seats should be fairly straight-forward, helped enormously by Labour’s implosion. But getting to 30, then 40, then 50 over the next few elections will only happen if both leader and party are popular. That remains the great unknown.