Thursday 19 December 2019 5:14 am

How the Tories pulled off the best campaign of a generation

One week on, post-election commentary continues to be dominated by analysis of Labour’s woes.

In plummeting to its worst defeat since the Second World War, the party now faces an identity crisis, and the fear is that things can only get worse. 

This focus on Labour’s existential spiral, however, ignores one side of how the election was won: the brilliance of the Conservative campaign. 

Whether a supporter or an opponent, one must admit that the Tories waged the most successful General Election campaign of a generation. They managed to control the narrative campaign, sidestepped the blunders of 2017, and outside of London rode a wave of enthusiasm into historic Labour heartlands. 

If any party wants to challenge them next time around, they would do well to emulate the elements of their victory. 

The Conservatives had a clear strategy that was to be pursued to a ruthless degree. They sought to build a Brexit consensus, punishing Labour in pro-Leave areas where Tories once feared to tread. 

If this meant ceding ground elsewhere, so be it. Even allies of the Prime Minster, such as Zac Goldsmith, were sacrificed for this purity of purpose (a blow softened somewhat in Goldsmith’s case by the reward of a seat in Lords). 

The Tory messaging coalesced around this goal. If you remember anything from the 2019 election, it will surely be “Get Brexit Done”. No Tory ad was complete without this message — and for good reason. It spoke both to those who believed in Brexit and those who begrudgingly accepted it. Three words which dominated the airspace — seldom has an election message been so simple. It also dragged the debate onto ground where the Conservatives felt strongest. 

Beyond this, the Conservatives built a message which resonated with those they sought to win over. They largely ignored think tank wonkery, instead relying on delivering what their target voters wanted. More police, tougher sentences, more hospitals — it was a common sense message designed to hit what ordinary people felt strongest about. 

In delivering this message, the Conservatives excelled. They understood that TV debates and 

interviews were sideshows for obsessives, offering far more chance of a pitfall than a boost — so they ignored them in favour of internet videos where the party could control the narrative. 

They combined this with concentrated use of paid online content and a concerted attempt to go viral. While much of the Tories’ online offering was cringeworthy, that encouraged the sharing of the party’s message. In the new world of political advertising, “sh*tposting” gets you further than subtlety. 

The Prime Minister himself formed a key part of the narrative. To win areas where “Thatcher” is usually combined with an unprintable epithet, voters needed to be shown that it was okay to vote Tory. 

Boris Johnson took on this role with relish. He barely appeared in public this election without a high-viz jacket or a helmet. From pulling pints to selling donuts, his joyful class cosplay might have looked corny, but it showed an enthusiasm and empathy for the working class experience that few on the left could ever muster. 

Perhaps more genuine but equally effective were the Tories’ choice of candidates for these target seats. Labour strongholds were once used by Conservatives as a training ground for PPE graduates eyeing up safe seats later in their careers. 

The Conservative campaign ditched this, instead finding local candidates with convincing and unconventional stories — a good swathe of whom were women, LGBTQ, or from ethnic minority backgrounds. This was another key step in breaking down the aversion that some would have to stereotypical Tories.  

This success in the air war also fed an improved performance on the ground. Tory activists were enthused by the same things as Tory voters. Mostly, they believed in Boris, believed in Brexit, and had constituency candidates they could get excited about. Despite the wind and rain of a winter election, Conservative campaign sessions had an upbeat feel that they have lacked in many recent elections. 

Overall, the Conservative machine moved with an effectiveness that delivered an unprecedented majority. The party identified where it needed to win seats, and which voters it needed to get there. Then it crafted a message designed for them, and delivered it. 

The party may have taken flack for dodging Andrew Neil, or for the veracity of some of its claims about spending. But it showed that none of that mattered. It created a clear signal that cut through the noise, bypassed the Twitterati, and hit the people whose votes it needed. 

The Conservatives managed to present themselves as a new entity, freed from the legacy of both Thatcher and more recent austerity. They connected with voters’ concerns, carefully calibrating both their message and its media. They burst out of the bubble, talking and listening to the voters who mattered most. 

While it is right for the unsuccessful parties to ask why they lost, they would be wise to also study why the Tories won.

Main image credit: Getty

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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