Political strategist Lynton Cosby was brought back into No 10 in February to ‘reset’ its operation in the early stages of the ‘partygate’ crisis and is now helping the Conservative Party prepare for the next general election. Crosby has managed many successful campaigns for right-of-centre political parties or candidates, including Boris Johnson’s 2008 and 2012 mayoral contests, his 2019 leadership campaign and David Cameron’s win in 2015. According to the Guardian he has already started to attend the PM’s morning meetings.
The Crosby strategy
Crosby’s analysis and strategy, having built it on concepts such as ‘wedge’ issues and the importance of the ‘base’, will be familiar to many even if they have never heard of him. He has been around a long time and has had influence way beyond the right. His approach is sound and both politically and morally neutral, but more left-wing or liberally inclined parties may be a bit more fastidious about how some of his methods are implemented.
Crosby segments the electorate into three groups – the base who will always vote for their candidate, the wavering centre (swing voters), and those who will never vote for the party or candidate. He maintains that you must always keep the base on side, and that you only build support amongst the waverers, having first secured your base. You ignore the third group, although an effective and competent government may bring about a change in their views longer term.
According to his blueprint and under a first past the post electoral system, the main effort in an election campaign should be in marginal seats, focusing on local issues while also involving big national names in the campaign. Crosby argues for a positive campaign – setting out prior achievements, a future agenda and how voters will benefit from it. But he also directs attention to ‘wedge issues’ which have the capacity to divide the opposition and to differentiate the candidate from the opposition.
At the core of his strategy is the belief that the electorate vote with their emotions rather than their heads and policies are largely irrelevant other than to illustrate or emphasise the values and themes of the party. So, a policy of ‘cutting taxes’ will not win an election but it may generate a ‘feeling’ that the party is on ‘their side’ amongst an electorate facing cost-of-living pressures.
The base, dog whistles and wedges
According to Crosby, the base is the foundation for any political campaign and must be kept on side. Without a base, a party has nothing to build on. But a party’s base is insufficiently large to win an election on its own. Policies that appeal to potential new voters may not appeal to the base and vice versa and so parties ‘signal’ that they are covering the interests of the base but use language that is more neutral or will appeal to less committed voters. The covert ‘signal’ to the base is often called a dog whistle (only the dog can hear it).
Thus, ‘keeping black people out’ of the UK becomes ‘stopping immigration’, and ‘stopping immigration’ becomes ‘controlling our borders’. Potential new voters who would not vote for racist policies may think that controlling borders is a reasonable and legitimate aim of government while the base understand that the target for controls will be black people.
Wedge issues are topics which can divide the party/opposition, loosen the prior ties of those who might be persuaded to change their allegiance, and create clear policy space between the parties. Honesty and standards in public life is fast becoming the wedge issue amongst Conservative voters while Brexit remains a wedge for Labour voters but is being overtaken by trans rights. Opposition parties will hammer the wedge at every opportunity, hoping to increase the fracture while the vulnerable party will try and neuter attacks or distract attention from them.
Crosby notes, however, that in a democracy where voting is compulsory such as Australia, wedge issues have less impact. Those in the middle ground whose very indecision might lead them to stay at home if they could, are less attracted to extreme or polarised positions. In the UK (and US) where there are low voter turnouts and the base is very important, wedge issues work well, and parties may try and persuade the middle ground to stay at home rather than to vote for them.
Tiverton and Honiton: a foretaste of the Conservative Party campaign
Theoretically Tiverton and Honiton is a safe Conservative seat, and therefore not a priority. But the government’s general unpopularity has turned it into something more akin to a marginal. The Conservatives can win but will have to work hard to do so. In support of its campaign, the Conservative Party has published and distributed this leaflet.
So, what can the leaflet tell us about current party thinking and policies and the Crosby influence? The leaflet reassures its base that it is still the party of Brexit, is still anti refugee and immigration, pro harsher sentences and opposes environmental measures. The message is broadly the same as that put out by the Conservatives in 2019 but without any hope or aspiration. There is not a positive message such as “get Brexit done”.
From this we can see that the Conservatives are focusing on issues that can differentiate the Conservative Party from the Liberal Democrats, their closest challengers. However, these issues are already well established as political positions, with little capacity to create a wedge and voters will all be familiar with this from the Brexit campaign. The unpleasant and aggressive tone of the leaflet also risks alienating many traditional Conservative voters and may push those who are still undecided about which way to vote, to vote Liberal Democrat as the party most likely to reflect their more moderate views.
Conservatives hoping to capture the extreme right-wing vote
This leaflet does not appear to be targeting potential Liberal Democrat voters. It is trying to appeal to wavering voters who might otherwise vote for the UKIP, Reform, For Britain Movement, and Heritage parties that are also standing, and which have the potential to split the right-wing vote and reduce the Conservative vote further. These parties will take from the Conservative vote unless voters understand that the Conservatives will pursue their extreme right-wing and racists policies. This leaflet is for them.
Crosby maintains you “can’t fatten a pig on market day” and it is probably too early to see ‘anti-woke’ policies or statements featuring in Conservative literature. That wedge has been insufficiently hammered in to cause the necessary fracture from which votes can be harvested. The focus is on long-standing, already pig-fattened policies: Brexit, race, crime, and the environment. It’s the Conservative ‘brand’ but in a more extreme form.
Crosby also maintains that parties should undertake a positive campaign with a mix of noting achievements to date and aspirations for the future. There are no achievements noted in this leaflet and there is nothing that would appeal to traditional Conservative or Liberal Democrat ‘swing voters’ such as policies to improve health or education, solve the cost-of-living crisis, or even positive policies such as more police on the streets that might promote Conservative law and order credentials without being extreme. Its own policies are promoted not as achievements or aspirations but as battles still to be fought rather than already won.
There can be no stronger indication that the Conservative Party intends to move even more to the right after the election and has nothing left to offer the electorate other than a dog whistle to the most extreme right-wing voters.