After the surprise result of the 2017 General Election, a lot of Conservative activists have speculated as to how we might emulate the success of Jeremy Corbyn’s election machine, in such a way that shows that there are still lessons to be learnt from 2017. Those who have formed movements like ‘Moggmentum’ to coalesce around the traditionalist Jacob Rees-Mogg as a Tory Corbyn, or any of the ill-fated ‘Tory Momentum’ groups, which attempt to replicate the success of Momentum…somehow, have correctly identified some of the factors behind Corbyn’s rise, but have missed the most important ones.
Moggmentum, or indeed, any of the personality-driven campaigns which assert that the way to beat Corbyn is to replace Theresa May with someone more personable have successfully identified that one of Corbyn’s advantages is that people like him as a person. However, to attribute his relative success in the election solely to his being personable is to construct an imperfect picture of why people like Corbyn. People like him because he is seen as likeable, normal, in touch with the population, but even in an alternative reality where the Tories conduct the same campaign with a more Corbyn-esque leader, the result doesn’t change.
Likewise, while the ‘Tory Momentum’ groups have correctly identified that the structure of the Party and the sheer volume of Labour activists relative to our own significantly hindered our abilities in the election, the solution is not to form some Momentum replica. The arguments for structural reform of the party have been made time and again, and do not need to be covered here, and proper structural reform to maximise the incentives for people to join the party (a youth wing, better democratic structures, better campaigning etc.) will go some way towards improving our electoral performance. We both don’t need a Momentum replica – powerful autonomous allied organisations have the power to undermine the Party, as Momentum have done with things like Labour candidate selections; whereas most of the structural advantages of a Momentum style group could be gained through internal Party reforms – and wouldn’t be able to get a Tory Momentum, even if we tried to activate one.
The reason that Jeremy Corbyn and Momentum have been successful is that they stand for something. Since becoming Labour leader, Corbyn has had a very clear positive message and, like him or loathe him, people know exactly what he intends to do. Theresa May was very popular until the General Election campaign because she too had a positive message. Mayism was about improving things for the Just-About-Managing, increasing opportunity and making capitalism fairer.
Unfortunately, the election campaign brought a different message. The Conservatives emphasised that May was strong and stable without providing any sort of positive narrative as to why a Conservative government would be good for the country. Our manifesto focussed on issues of intergenerational equality and social justice, and yet we didn’t talk about that. The 2015 campaign saw similar policies backed by a positive message of socially and economically liberal governance.
By focussing alternately on how bad Corbyn would be and how strong and stable Theresa May is, we lost control of the narrative in its entirety. What we need in future is a positive narrative, emphasising our core principles. In 2017, we became so obsessed with Corbyn not winning that we made fatal electoral mistakes. Once the social care policy was in the manifesto we were always going to lose those voters who disagreed with it unless we could explain why it was necessary – if we could have tied it into a positive narrative around intergenerational equality we might have kept some of those who disagreed with the policy, and would decidedly have kept those who we lost by U-turning on it.
Mayism is inherently about intergenerational fairness and equality, and about expanding opportunity, and that should have been what the campaign focussed on. Cameronism emphasised liberal social policy and elements of intergenerational equality, and that was a far more potent campaign message that enabled us to seize control of at least our portion of the narrative. If May leads us into the next election, she will need a positive campaign message to win it. If we have to choose another leader, we should be looking for one with a positive vision for Britain that voters can get behind, not simply one who has mannerisms that are meme-able.
Corbyn did well because he stood for something, if we don’t stand for anything then we will lose the next election. Often it seems that we have become so obsessed with governing that we have forgotten to explain why it is good that we are in government. If we are to stay in government then we need a positive Conservative narrative, whatever angle it takes. Elections are more than slogans and smiles, they are about a vision for the country that the country can get behind – that is why Corbyn did well, that is why the Scottish Conservatives have done so well in recent years, it is also why populism has grown so much in the 21st Century.
We don’t need a Momentum, because without a positive narrative we won’t inspire the activists and the messages that allow Momentum to thrive. We don’t need a more personable leader, because we won’t be able to beat Corbyn without the narrative to compete with Corbynism. These things are all secondary priorities for the party: ultimately if we don’t stand for anything, we might as well not bother to stand at all.