Calm heads, rather than heads rolling

Nicolas Webb assesses the Welsh Conservative election campaign.

The Welsh Conservative Assembly Group were right to support Andrew RT Davies when they met on Monday. It was telling that not only were Tory MPs rallying around the Assembly Group Leader but so too were the activists who had slogged up those long driveways enthused by Andrew only to be disappointed by the result. Davies is a non-stop campaigner who retains a sense of humour and finds time to talk to everyone. Had the Conservative response to last week’s disappointing election results been simply to change leader and plough on, they would have judged Andrew’s work unfairly and ignored the real difficulties which constrained Conservative progress.

Some of those difficulties were largely beyond the control of the party in Wales. The steel crisis saw a judgement on those in power. Carwyn Jones is at his best when he adopts the role of statesman rather than tribal politician and on this topic he got the tone spot on. While Sajid Javid worked hard for the British steel industry, the public image of UK Government’s response was firmly set when Javid was in Australia rather than India at the time the decision was made.

Much has been made of the impact of the EU referendum on the Conservative result. It is important to understand that the divisions within the Tory Party at present are less about who is on which side, but far more about the tone struck by the individuals within the campaign. Andrew would have been continually asked for his view on the EU Referendum had he not declared it early in the campaign. His decision to back Brexit helped cement his popularity with the Conservative activist base. However, with heightened awareness of matters European it did help UKIP at the cost of some Conservative votes and possibly seats when you consider the narrow margins in Vale of Clwyd, Wrexham and Vale of Glamorgan.

If steel and Brexit were beyond the control of the Welsh Conservative Party, there are lessons to be learned in Wales too. Of course, this is easier with the benefit of hindsight, but the targeting of four neighbouring seats in North East Wales always looked a risky approach. Two seats were within a thousand votes, while the other two remained comfortably in the possession of the Labour Party. At the General Election three Welsh gains were targeted across Wales. All were won. This time it appears nine constituencies were in the crosshairs, but all proved elusive.

Perhaps the momentum from 2015 left the party setting its sights a little too high. Although there was a rationale. With UKIP always likely to win former Labour votes and thus Tory list seats, the ambitious target was in large part a mitigation strategy. A thorough review of the data which led to the decision of where to target resources will need to take place.

The Conservatives produced a sound manifesto, but perhaps it was short of the 3 or 4 bullet point policies which can cut through the electoral noise and start to turn supporters into vocal advocates for policy. For example, the electorate would have approved of the pledge to protect NHS spending, but would it become the topic of conversation at water-coolers or in the coffee shop? Probably not. An announcement of a more tangible and less financial aspect would have had more traction.

There was a maturity about the 2016 Welsh General Election. Carwyn Jones and Andrew RT Davies both stepped out of the shadow of their respective UK party leaders. This is a good sign for the future of our still relatively young Welsh democracy. Perhaps some of the Conservative campaign arguments referencing “Corbyn’s Labour” needed to catch up. Although Labour too have a tendency to seek to evoque UK political arguments, they sensibly took the decision to firmly put Carwyn front and centre of all that they did. This nullified some of the literature from the Conservatives focusing on the negative perceptions of Jeremy Corbyn.

There are different standards of organisation and campaign techniques among constituency Conservative Associations. The never ending rush of the election cycle may have over-ridden some of the important but unglamorous long term matters of association sustainability which is vital in returning list votes. It is expected that an announcement will be made in September which will encourage moves to multi-constituency associations. The potential to share expertise and focus resources for future elections may now accelerate moves to bring forward new association federations and groupings.

The Party needs to address those issues over which it has influence, but calm heads are required. Devolution has seen the Welsh Conservative Party build from wipeout in the 1997 General Election, to being really frustrated that it just came up short in long-term Labour seats such as Gower and Wrexham. This election was an example of overreach before the groundwork was sufficient, but all existing constituencies were held, most with comfortable majorities. A new generation of talented candidates have gained in experience. The changes needed are not headline-grabbing, but they will be vital to build up an organisation that can rival Labour and Plaid Cymru.

Nicolas Webb is Director of Gorse Cover, a political consultancy

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