The Tories won the ground war
There was a persistent refrain from Tories as they looked at polls pointing to David Cameron being ejected from No 10 â€“ â€œRememeber 1992â€.
It was tempting to reply â€“ â€œBeware of what you wish forâ€
The Tory annus mirabilis saw John Major confounding the pollsters and trouncing Neil Kinnock with a record 14 million votes. But it swiftly turned into annus horribilis when four months later Black Wednesday saw the pound crash out of the European Exchange rate mechanism in a welter of interest rate hikes.
The Tories plunged to 32% in the polls where they flatlined, making Major easy meat for Tony Blair in 1997,
On May 7th David Cameron delivered the first Tory majority for 23 years. The comparison with 1992 tells us something interesting about GE 2015.
Cameronâ€™s tally of 11.5 million votes and 37 % share look miserable alongside John Majorâ€™s 14m votes and 42% share.
Cameron got his overall Commons majority despite increasing his vote tally by fewer than 100,000 â€“ an increased vote share of 0.8%. Labourâ€™s vote was up 1.5% — an extra 150,000 despite dropping 125,000 in Scotland.
But if the Cameron comes out badly â€“ the comparison is grim for Labour. What made the results so bad for Labour was they lost where they thought they were strong â€“ in the ground war.
That is the big contrast with 1992. Then John Majorâ€™s record record vote was rewarded with a Commonâ€™s majority of 20 a handful more than Cameronâ€™s. Labour had mastered the art of key seat campaigning and denied Major around 20 seats that he would have expected to win.
Two landslide defeats later the Tories set about catching up. In 2010 with the then deputy chairman Lord Ashcroft was in charge. He has described how â€œtarget seats received nearly 74 million centrally produced fliers, leaflets, postcards, surveys, newspapers and magazines.â€ The keys seats showed bigger swings to the Tories than the national average and that, he claims produced an extra 23 gains from Labour and another 9 from the Lib Dems.
This time round the Tories employed micro-targeting techniques from the US, which were â€œso sophisticated that in the final week the party was having multiple contacts via Facebook, phone and on the doorstep with individual voters who had been identified as likely to switch from the Liberal Democrats or choose the Tories over Labour,â€ according to Jim Messina, recruited by the Tories from among top Obama campaigners.
â€œFacebook was the crucial weapon; using data which the social media site sells to advertisers, he was able to target key constituencies and get to niche groups of voters,â€ he told the Times.
â€œWe went in and took very deep dives in the seats and to see what was do-able, what was winnable . . . who were the voters, who were potential waverers, thinking about leaving the Lib Dems; who were the voters trying to decide between us and Labour; and who were the voters considering leaving us for Ukip â€” and we were able to have very focused messages to all of those people.â€
Labour had their own hired gunes from the US but it looks as though the Toriesâ€™ was the best buy. But that may have had something to do with the fact he had more money to spend. Messina said of his operation â€œItâ€™s expensive, itâ€™s difficult, but youâ€™re gonna miss a bunch of close races if you donâ€™t.â€
It enabled the Tories to match Labour in the key marginals where Labourâ€™s meagre haul of Tory seats was matched by Tory by gains from Labour.
But it was the Lib Dems â€“ traditionally very good at fighting local ground wars — who felt the full force of this Tory onslaught. As campaign chief Paddy Ashdown told the New Statesmanâ€™s Tim Wigmore â€œ they had Â£50 million to throw at their election campaign, I had less than Â£3 million.â€
â€œThose organising the Lib Dem campaign on the ground report being outspent by the Conservatives like never before,â€ says Wigmore. And it was the slaughter of his erstwhile partners that was the key to the David Cameronâ€™s outright victory. His 25 gains from the Lib Dem was about twice what most pollsters and pundits expected.
Labour have been developing techniques similar to Messinaâ€™s with the help of â€œdata guruâ€ Ian Warren. Ahead of the election a party source was describing it as the â€œThis is the most sophisticated election tool weâ€™ve developed.â€ The â€œRibena testâ€ (coloured Ukip purple) uses demographic information to carry out risk assessments for the 50 MPs deemed most at risk from Ukip A party source told the paper.
The big challenge facing the new Labour leader and his or her deputy is to work out how they can can scale up this initiative and to match Tory operation â€“ and even more important how they can raise the cash to do it.