In 2015, their digital operation seemed formidable. Now, it's anything but. What happened—and can they ever put it right?by / January 9, 2018 / Leave a comment
In a move that felt too on the nose not to be satire, transport secretary Chris Grayling was chairman of the Conservative party for around 27 seconds on Monday—promptly losing the job again when an apparently mis-posted announcement from Conservative Campaign Headquarters was deleted from Twitter.
“It’s like CCHQ is trying to signal the desperate need for its own reform,” joked Mark Wallace, the executive editor of Conservative Home.
It was later announced that policing minister Brandon Lewis would be the one heading to 4 Matthew Parker Street after all, but the damage was done: how, commentators asked, can the Conservatives hope to win an election again when their digital offering varies between chaotic or non-existent?
Labour’s remarkable social media operation is widely credited for the party’s unexpected success at last year’s election. Meanwhile, the Tories’ efforts were either (repeatedly) mocked by opponents or the cause of despair for right-of-centre activists.
First Tories announce Chris Grayling as chair of the party, now it appears to be Brandon Lewis? I wonder who next for party chair? I thought we were at the end of pantomime season? ?#cabinetreshuffle #ToryMess2018 pic.twitter.com/6eCTmfiDf5
— Angela Rayner (@AngelaRayner) January 8, 2018
This wasn’t always the case—in 2015, the Tories’ use of relentless targeted campaigning was widely seen as effective and Labour was merely playing catch up, eventually losing the election as a result.
“It’s really worth going back and looking at 2015,” said Philip Cowley, a professor of politics at Queen Mary’s university.
“It is only two years ago that after an election we decided that there was a real problem with being very popular among people on social media—which was that you just got yourself into a bubble of self-congratulation and mutual moral masturbation about how wonderful you were.”
This, he says, is what Labour did in 2015, “while the Conservatives were much more ruthless.”
“It’s really interesting that in two years we’ve gone from that perspective to now thinking, ‘the Tories are fucking hopeless, they’re like my granddad trying to work a video recorder’ and Labour are hip and trendy.”
Chris Grayling's 2 minute tenure as Party Chairman recognised on wikipedia pic.twitter.com/3lsci9svmY
— Alex Hacillo (@AlexHatsila) January 8, 2018
Though it’s undeniable that the Corbyn revolution was also a digital one, and that the party has learnt from its Miliband-era mistakes, it is also the case that the Conservatives took several steps back under the May premiership.
“There was that famous Cameron quote—‘too many tweets make a twat’—but by the time 2015 had come around we had got the value of digital campaigning therefore there was this huge relationship between Number 10 and CCHQ,” said a Tory source who did not want to be named.
“Then there was a new administration both at the top of CCHQ and in Number 10, and one of the first pronouncements from the comms director was that we were not going to do government by Twitter.”
Keen to separate themselves from the Cameron years, May’s Downing Street adopted a somewhat teenage approach to running the government, often making themselves less productive simply because they wanted to show just how independent-minded they were.
“It was back to square one. We had to repeat the points we’d been making in 2012”, the source added. “It set back the type of things that we could do because we were more limited and everything we wanted to do, we had to argue to about three or four people.”
The lack of preparedness for the election was also an issue, and CCHQ staffers still bitterly remember being told in early 2017 that it would be a “quiet” year, where they could catch their breath and start getting the machine ready for the long run.
They had also been focusing on the local and mayoral elections, which did go better than expected: “we spent a decent amount of time, money and effort targeting specific areas,” the Tory staffer said. “For example, the West Midlands—the mayor Andy Street, he wasn’t supposed to win, it’s not an area that’s supposed to have a Conservative mayor.”
Still, the general election proved to be a disaster, and Labour’s comms operation ran rings around the Tories’, with the latter failing to land any significant or memorable blows.
“There was a lot of attractive stuff in the Tory manifesto, if targeted properly, and there were loads in the Labour manifesto they could have gone after if they’d been more on the ball”, said Cowley.
Panic ensued, but not much happened: “post-general election, there was suddenly this feeling of ‘oh god, we need to do something,’ but there was no uplift in the number of staff. The digital team was five people”, explained a staffer. “You’re going to need more people if you want to fight these wars.”
One significant hire, however, was Carrie Symonds: a special adviser at DCMS until recently, Symonds was CCHQ’s head of broadcast from 2013 to 2015, so has an idea of how things used to run in smoother times.
Her influence on the digital operation has been felt since, with MPs noticeably tweeting out party lines and snazzy graphics more often, and the party’s social media accounts churning out attack ads against Labour.
She has also been spearheading a move towards a friendlier brand of conservatism; one that cares about animal rights and the environment above all.
It’s impossible to say whether this has had an influence on the polls, but with both main parties stubbornly remaining neck-and-neck, the new team at the top of CCHQ may want to have a think about what they want their digital campaigning to look like.
“It’s not about making them popular,” said Cowley, “it’s not about everyone loving the Tories. It’s about being good enough on social media to combat some of the stories as they circulate.”
The Tory manifesto provided a textbook example of a failure on that front—though the policy on having a free vote on bringing back fox hunting was virtually the same as the one offered by Cameron in 2015, the issue became campaign-defining this time round.
“They don’t have to be loved by 18 to 24-year-olds, they just have to not be loathed,” Cowley added. But the Tories will always have an issue: effective campaigning on social media relies on outriders amplifying the original message—as Momentum did for Labour in 2017. The Conservatives might never get that.
First, there is the uneasy ghost of their youth wing, which closed down after a scandal involving bullying, sexual harassment and a suicide; an internal report published late last year recommended its relaunch, but not much has happened since.
The very nature of right-of-centre people also plays against them: while left-wing voters are likely to organically post about their beliefs on social media, their Tory-friendly counterparts tend not to do so.
“They have a structural disadvantage which is that—and that remains true even when you control for age and Facebook use—Conservatives are just less likely to post stuff about politics on social media than people on the left,” Cowley explained.
“They’re on social media, and they might be posting pictures of their kids or parties they’re going to, but they’re less likely to post political stuff.”
Without a network of keen and savvy supporters, CCHQ only has itself to rely on, which will make the job harder. Simply choosing to ignore social media cannot be an option either, as the Conservatives found out the hard way.
While Symonds has managed to mostly stem the bleeding, she cannot be expected to become a one-woman army.
Once Brandon Lewis has settled in to his new role, he will have to drag the party into the 21st century once more, or face lasting only slightly longer than Grayling in the post.