Saturday, 1 November 2014

COMRES POLLWATCH: The Tory campaign grid lights up

The Tory campaign grid lights up
This week the National Grid announced there would be no blackouts this winter, but election watchers may have noticed another grid lighting up over the last fortnight.
“Campaign grids” were introduced to the British political scene by Labour in the run-up to the 1987 election. Peter Mandelson and Philip Gould mapped out the policies that the party would discuss on particular days throughout the campaign period, perfecting the technique by the time of Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide.
Like any plan, half of the value of the grid is in the planning itself. It becomes a reference point for strategists, encouraging consistency and focus in a long campaign. But it is particularly effective when announcements are skilfully sequenced alongside external events to create “riffs” that catch the ear of the electorate and drown out your opponents’ attacks.
The triggers
Three events have caused the Conservative Party’s campaign grid to kick in: the end of the Scottish independence referendum, the end of the party conference season, and the forthcoming by-election in Rochester & Strood.
The Conservatives knew that a strong media presence during the Scotland campaign was likely to be counterproductive, mainly offering support behind the scenes or through the occasional set-piece announcement by George Osborne on the economic consequences of breakup.
Likewise, party conferences are a quiet period for campaign communications, a moment for navel-gazing or rousing the party faithful. Even the defection of Clacton MP Douglas Carswell to UKIP had relatively little effect on proceedings – once they had got over the shock, many Tories knew that he was well placed to win the seat, and on 9 October he did convincingly.
As Farage and Carswell basked in the glory of their victory, and Labour engaged in soul-searching of their own after nearly losing Heywood & Middleton, David Cameron (and Lynton Crosby) switched into daily campaign mode.
The campaign grid kicks in
Tue 14 Oct – David Cameron “sounds a call to arms in a meeting with the parliamentary party” ahead of the Rochester & Strood by-election; “every MP is under instruction to visit the constituency three times and each Cabinet minister five times” (source: Telegraph Morning Briefing).
Thu 16 Oct – David Cameron says immigration to be “red line issue in EU negotiations” and floats “emergency brake” policy.
Fri 17 Oct – Philip Hammond says Tory plans will “light a fire under the EU”.
Sun 19 Oct – Grant Shapps says “we cannot have an open-ended situation where people are always able to come to Britain in such a lop-sided arrangement”.
Mon 20 Oct – Jose Manuel Barroso visits UK and makes speech critical of Cameron at Chatham House; Cameron says “British voters, not Barroso” are his boss over EU immigration.
Tue 21 Oct – Jeremy Hunt says English hospitals “under intolerable pressure” from Welsh patients.
Wed 22 Oct – PMQs descends into argument about Labour-run NHS Wales.
Thu 23 Oct – As expected, NHS 5-year plan unveiled by health bosses – critical of government and argues that more spending needed; ComRes constituency poll in Rochester & Strood shows UKIP in the lead.
Fri 24 Oct – Cameron refuses to pay “surprise” EU bill of £1.7bn and says Britain being “punished” for economic success. (ComRes polling later that weekend shows Cameron is leader most trusted by voters to “stand up for Britain’s interests in the EU”.)
Sun 26 Oct – Michael Fallon says some towns being “swamped” by immigrants.
Mon 27 Oct – A story breaks about the UK refusing to support refugee rescue operations in the Mediterranean (based on a written statement given by Foreign Office Minister Baroness Anelay on Wed 15 Oct).
Tue 28 Oct – Nick Boles says “as long as Britain remains the most dynamic economy in the EU, we’re going to be the net recipient of a very large amount of immigration every year.”
Thu 30 Oct – David Cameron writes Times piece, “It’s our moral duty to bring down your taxes”.
Fri 31 Oct – Iain Duncan Smith says in the Daily Mail that every new policy will face a “family friendly” test to strengthen support for families.
Most of the key figures in this sequence are Cameron loyalists, and each has come out with a phrase calculated to generate headlines. From 19–28 October, a key theme emerged: that people (immigrants, Welsh hospital patients, the EU) were trying to exploit the “economic success” of Conservative-run England and Britain.
Sandwiching the release of a potentially destructive NHS England report (Thu 23 Oct) between attacks on Labour-run NHS Wales (Wed 22 Oct) and high-profile attacks on the EU’s £1.6bn bill (Fri 24 Oct) was exquisitely well played by Cameron’s strategists. ComRes research shows that the NHS is Labour’s most salient strength over the Conservatives, and the report release now looks like a missed opportunity for Labour.
This has all had two key effects on media coverage: first, while UKIP are doing brilliantly in the polls, they have had relatively little airtime; second, Labour have dropped off the face of the earth.
It may be that UKIP have no need for airtime, though. Despite a spin masterclass reminiscent of Shane Warne in his prime, the latest ComRes poll shows that is still all to play for in GE2015 (Con 30%, Lab 30%, LD 9%, UKIP 19%):
In spite of the difficult electoral maths, the Conservatives should be taken seriously as an electoral force. As the party of government, and marshalled by Lynton Crosby, they can set the agenda. The latest announcements on tax cuts and a “family friendly” test hint at the next barrage of headlines. The long campaign has started, and the onus is now on Labour to fight back.
Follow ComRes on Twitter for the latest polls and analysis:
Andy White

Political & Media Team
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