The right ingredients for a successful campaign

Nick Bourne assesses why the Welsh Conservatives outperformed expectations at last week’s General Election.

The Welsh Conservative  battle bus trundles on. It seems an age ago that the party had no seats at Westminster. In fact that was the case from 1997 until 2005 when we won three seats, after eight arid years. They were years of rethinking and rebuilding in Wales. The major breakthrough was in 2010 with eight seats. That has now gone up to 11. The organisation in Central Office, Cardiff improved during this period as did the funding. Welsh opinion polls were commissioned and the Welsh language was given its rightful prominence. Rethinking on devolution and a positive approach to devolution  and distinctive Welsh  policies occurred. All of these were necessary  ingredients for a march forward that continues.

What was happening in Wales in this campaign clearly cannot be divorced from what was happening in the rest of the U.K, although the ebb and flow in Wales bore little relation to the flood tide in Scotland . It more closely resembled patterns and election results in England. Northern Ireland politics are of course a case apart.

In relation to the wider vista it seemed to me that the Labour Party was not presenting a clear vision on that most central of issues – the economy.  It had many specific interventionist policies but was doing little or nothing to present itself as a business friendly social democratic party. What was Labour’s economic policy?  The inevitable conclusion was that it did not want  to be seen as supportive of business. I think that was a mistake. The electorate is well aware that only through an expanding economy  can we afford truly first class public services. I also thought that the failure of Ed Miliband on Question Time to fess up to overspending in the last Labour government cost Labour votes. This came across often when speaking to voters.

The central message of the Welsh Conservatives, as elsewhere was the vital nexus between a strong economy and first class public services. Further commitment to making devolution work  helped us, I am sure.

Another very clear feature of the election in Wales as elsewhere was that when voters, even Labour voters were asked who would make the better PM the overwhelming response  was in favour of David Cameron and the margin demonstrated that this was not just because he was the sitting PM. This remained true throughout the campaign even with the Labour leader personally performing better in that campaign than expected.

The successful new MPs in Wales, Craig Williams retaining Cardiff North with an increased majority and new MPs in Gower ( Byron Davies) , Brecon and Radnorshire ( Chris Davies ) and the Vale of Clwyd ( Dr. James Davies) all had impeccable local connections. City councillor, Assembly Member, part of a veterinary team , and doctor respectively. This represented a break with the past. I used to joke about the former practice of  parachutes made in England and sold in the King’s Road , Chelsea. Local credentials (and the name Davies!) are now clearly invaluable in digging in and  winning seats from other parties.

The interaction between the National Assembly for Wales and Westminster is an unique Welsh factor. Health and education were regularly raised by voters even though these are devolved matters and even where the questioner was well aware of this. Sometimes this was by way of comparing policies on either side of the border and sometimes to talk of cooperation across the border.

Voters liked the working together approach of Stephen Crabb. this as true whether the voter was party politically sympathetic or not.

I was surprised, to say the least that Carwyn Jones as Labour First Minister was not used  at all in the TV debates.

I had expected the presence of Leanne Wood on national (UK) media to give a bounce to Plaid Cymru, given her undoubted skills, but if it provided a bounce then the party was facing a poor result indeed without the coverage. It did not happen.

Of course, the expected and indeed massive sweep of seats north of the border had an impact. How could  this changing political landscape not affect voters? It was not in my opinion, for most voters, a decisive factor.

The truth was that this campaign in Wales  represented a further move forward for us in three seats that were very much on the radar. In truth, by polling day we had expected to win one or two additional seats and had believed that Cardiff North would be retained but the results exceeded  our expectations.

A strong consistent message, strong local connections and a well organised local campaign helped deliver these results. Fresh challenges lie ahead.

As a post script, on the results of the General Election, the Assembly elections will represent a major challenge to the parties of Wales to stop the advance of UKIP into the Assembly, and because of the  nature of the election system their advance is potentially more damaging to the Welsh Conservatives, Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Liberal Democrats, than to Labour.

An enduring constitutional settlement is  a central question of British Politics, even if a clear  answer is elusive. It is now pressing, indeed.

Lord Nick Bourne is a Conservative peer. He was formally the leader of the Conservatives in the National Assembly for Wales and Assembly Member for Mid and West Wales.

9 thoughts on “The right ingredients for a successful campaign

  1. The League of Gentlemen ‘are you local?’ approach to the election by the Conservatives was probably a good one. Fortunately for them, their candidates (especially in Cardiff Central) haven’t been as scary (or funny) as the cast of the above mentioned comedy although there still remains suspicion of some of their older denizens lurking in rural constituencies who will no doubt spring to life from dragon teeth like those soldiers in Jason and his search for the Golden fleece in the Assembly elections. Kippers anyone?

  2. The Conservatives did so well in Wales for precisely the same reason they did so well in England. People want a good economy to support good business to pay good taxes to provide for good health and education systems. It really is all so simple.

    What people in Wales do not want is to be told that they are different to English people with a different history, a different culture and different aims and aspirations. Patent nonsense no matter what gets taught in our schools these days.

    Much time for Lord Bourne but he too was seduced by the notion that Wales and ‘Welsh people’ are different. We aren’t. And we never have been.

  3. With the very greatest personal respect to Lord Bourne, one is already sensing the return of the Conservatives’ usual hubris.

    Understand this: they did not win because of their campaign or their strategy or their policies. In fact, most Conservatives were as surprised as anyone by the result.

    They owe their triumph to, in descending order of priority, (1) Ed Miliband, (2) the SNP, (3) Labour’s mismanagement of the Assembly, (4) a Neanderthal Labour campaign, (5) good selection of local candidates, and (6) much better organisation. Lord Bourne is right about those last two points, but they are the least important of the six factors.

    If there was a decisive moment in the campaign, it was when English and Welsh voters were angered by the suggestion that the SNP would write Labour’s budget. So, far from the Conservatives owing their victory to compromising on devolution, it was their old image as Unionists that saved them. There are far more Unionists than Conservatives in Wales.

    The Conservatives now have a great opportunity if they wish to exploit it. The combined Conservative-UKIP vote has been larger than the Labour vote in the last two all-Wales elections. If the Conservatives can reunite their base, we might actually bring two-party politics to Wales and end Labour’s monopoly of power – but only if the Conservative Party is honest with itself and learns the right lessons.

  4. Nick Bourne sounds like the voice of reason. If only the UK Conservatives were like the Welsh ones, one could look to the future with less dread. He is right that Milliband lost credibility by prevaricating about Labour’s “overspending”. He should have said roundly that it was a load of baloney. Government debt to GDP ratio was 4 or 5 percentage points lower in 2008 than it was in 1997. Labour did not overspend. Whether the spending was always well directed is another matter.

  5. Welsh Conservatives could yet be undermined by the antics of the London set – they need to be very careful to bring the rest of the country along with them.

    Our global recession was primarily brought about by the greed and recklessness of the international financial sector. Here Gordon Brown has received widespread criticism across the political spectrum for his ‘light touch’ on financial regulation through the boom years.

    Yet yesterday we see in Sajid Javid, a former senior investment banker (cashed his chips just before the music stopped) taking over as Business Secretary with initial calls for ‘lighter regulation’. Capable man I am sure he is, but I do hope he doesn’t revert to type and fire up the City again to the detriment of the rest of the country.

  6. The idea that people voted for Conservative candidates in Wales because of reduced opposition to a)Welsh Language issues,b)acceptance,nay embracement of devolution is surely wishful thinking.There is great concern as to the ability of the WG to actually run services,such as NHS/Education/Infrastructure,and that had great benefit to Conservatives in the polling booths.We await new proposals on further ‘devolution’,and in particular in relation to tax raising powers and there is more chance of me winning Wimbledon in 2015 as a 70 year old with gammy knee,than WAG being granted such powers in a welsh referendum. if they lose that vote the mess could collapse,but would BBC wales allow it??

  7. Nick:-

    ” Welsh opinion polls were commissioned and the Welsh language was given its rightful prominence.”

    That’s DOMINANCE Nick, RIGHTFUL DOMINANCE, as established by the 2011 Welsh language act and left unquestioned by cowardly politicians of all persuasions.

  8. Shrewd analysis by Nick, though I would also add another point which is becoming increasingly clear the more I look at the statistics – Wales voting patterns resembled England’s way more closely than Scotland. For example, UKIP didn’t hold a single deposit in Scotland, but in Wales they out polled Plaid and came third.

    The comment observation above that “The combined Conservative-UKIP vote has been larger than the Labour vote in the last two all-Wales elections” is fact, not wishful thinking on his part.

  9. I don’t know anybody who votes for the Welsh Conservatives. I don’t even know many people who still vote for the Conservatives except as the least bad option on the day. I dare say the prospect of the SNP tail wagging the Labour dog was enough to make a few people hold their noses and vote Tory this time but I wouldn’t bank on them doing it again when Cameron fails to renegotiate the EU treaties and most people who think they know how the EU works think he hasn’t got a hope in hell.

    Having scraped in against terminally weak Labour and Lib-Dem opposition Cameron now faces about as much fun as John Major – sandwiched between the Unions promising strike action, the EU acquis which is pretty much sacred with no history of competences ever being handed back to member states, and his own back benchers many of whom seem to want more than Cameron looks to be willing or able to deliver. And there’s that 3.8 million block of votes with 120+ second places for UKIP to build on when Cameron fails.

    The sad thing is this Tory government will now do even more damage to the unity of the UK but it won’t be led by divisive Welsh Conservatives it has already come from the top as a panic measure to try and buy-off the SNP. A fat lot of good that did but that’s something Tory appeasers have never understood. First they appeased the Welsh nationalists, and failed, and now they are trying to appease the Scottish nationalists who are much stronger. They will fail again only this time it may be terminal for the integrity of the UK. Appeasement is a sign of weakness – they always come back for more!

    Another general election anybody?

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