These European elections, the Conservatives are caught between a rock and a hard place. Many of their supporters are unhappy with the party’s stance on Europe, and a party has emerged which is ideally suited for those supporters to express that unhappiness.
Whilst the main parties and national media have set out dismantling UKIP over the last months, the insurgent party, for many voters, still represents the only chance to convey their strong feelings in Europe.
The messaging on local and European elections goes separate ways: on local issues, the message is “vote Tory for more of the same”, but on Europe, the rallying call is “vote Tory for real reform”.
Many Conservative voters are seeing the European elections as a ‘free swing’; the opportunity to punish the Conservatives for not hearing their concerns on Europe, whilst not directly affecting the party’s chances of winning in 2015.
This situation has only been made possible because UK politicians have failed to create a connection in people’s minds between the decisions made by the EU and the effects that those decisions have on people’s lives in the UK. In a recent Ipsos Mori poll, only 8% of people felt that Europe was one of the three most important issues facing them and their family, when around half of all regulation governing our lives emanates from Brussels.
This detachment has led to voters feeling unable to improve their lives through their European representatives. It is felt that only damaging policies come out of Europe, and so the solution is to send in individuals who can best do damage control, rather than who can best influence policy in their interest.
That is why the Conservative doorstep message is that Tory MEPs actually turn up and vote, whilst UKIP MEPs have turned up for barely 60% of votes since 2010. Tory campaigners are telling voters, “UKIP aren’t turning up to fight for the UK, we are the only party who can bring reform.”
Unfortunately for the party, many Conservative voters believe that a protest vote to UKIP will have a greater effect in galvanising a stronger Conservative position on Europe than a vote to support the current Conservative mandate.
It is also frustrating for Tory strategists that the Conservatives require two different messages for campaigning against UKIP in Europe (“Vote UKIP and you won’t be represented”) and against UKIP in the General Election (“Vote UKIP, get Labour”). When clarity is key, this is creating a headache for CCHQ.
The solution has been to use David Cameron’s positive leadership ratings and domestic successes to build credibility on issues outside of the UK. Lynton Crosby’s focus groups are showing that Cameron is seen as a man of standing who can deliver in difficult situations. However, polls are still showing the Tories stand to lose around a third of their MEPs on May 22nd.
In the local elections, UKIP will benefit less from protest votes, as the link still exists between how one votes and how regularly the bins are collected. Despite this, the Conservatives still have a fight on their hands.
As shown in the Guardian’s analysis, in 2010, “UKIP did not put forward more than 15 candidates in any Tory-held council area, but this year will stand at least this many in 20 Tory-held areas”. This renewed UKIP assault is going to be compounded by Labour’s strong national standing, the Liberal Democrats’ famously effective local campaigning machine, and apathy amongst Conservative voters.
On the doorstep, the Tory local election messaging is focusing on local achievements: cutting council tax, preserving service standards, and cutting crime. Foot soldiers are also being advised to highlight the work being done by Conservative councillors to improve the greenery and cleanliness of wards. By using highly-localised track records of performance, the Tories are trying to remove ideology from local politics, and use visible examples to garner votes.
The local and Europe campaigns focus on Conservative voters or those who have indicated positive sentiment towards the party. However, the messaging on local and European elections then goes separate ways: on local issues, the message is “vote Tory for more of the same”, but on Europe, the rallying call is “vote Tory for real reform”. Yet another CCHQ headache…
May 22nd is going to be a difficult day for the Conservatives. The real challenge for CCHQ and Downing Street is going to be maintaining calm in the ranks in the event of a serious UKIP surge. The party needs to have faith that Cameron, Lynton Crosby and the election campaign team have a plan which will deliver, without the need for knee-jerk reactions to counter-act the inevitable losses. This will be the first major test of the Conservatives’ long-term plan, and will show just how much belief there is in the current strategy within the party.