Strategy and the UK General Election 2015

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Image: Poor taste or poor strategy? A mug bearing one of Labour’s 2015 election pledges.

I’m interested in the role strategy played a role in how the parties behaved in the General Election that has just concluded. Strategy – when it is done well – gives organisations a clear answer to the question: how can I use the limited resources I have to achieve the result I want.

Looking at strategy won’t give us all the answers to why the election result was a surprise – when 45 million people get to make a decision together we should be careful to remember what John Tooby calls “nexus causality” (in layman’s terms explanations for events are never as simple as we’d like to think).

Comparing two accounts of the strategy of the two main parties – Labour and the Conservatives (now the two main parties in England, at least) there are signs that one got its strategy very right and the other very wrong.

Discussing the Labour strategy, Martin Kettle in the Guardian says:

It has always been clear that Miliband has been following a targeted electoral strategy. The generous view is that he believes that, after the financial crisis, there is a winning coalition to be built from core Labour voters, disillusioned Liberal Democrats and middle-class sympathisers with the poor. But last night it became clear that this strategy has quite simply failed.

If this was the Labour strategy it was a wishful thinking at best, at worst it was a vague vision passed off as a strategy. People think that visions are a good thing in strategy, often mistake them for strategy, but in the merciless, street-fighting reality of an election, visions are messages, stories to inspire, they are not effective ways of focusing resources.

The analysis was vague, the resolution equally so. No matter how much energy and resources Labour activists could muster it was going to be squandered on a “strategy” that had a lack of focus and direction.

Labour should publish it’s failed strategy, if it really had one, so that Miliband’s successors can learn from their mistakes.

The failure of Labour’s approach is even strarker when you compare it with the actual focus and discipline of the Conservative strategy, planned and delivered by political consultant Lynton Crosby and Chancellor George Osborne.

Here’s Kiran Stacey in The Financial Times on how the Tory campaign began:

Despite polls showing the Tories in a dead heat with the opposition Labour party, Mr Crosby was in ebullient form. “He told us everything was in our favour,” says an MP who attended. “As long as we made the campaign about the economy and Labour leader Ed Miliband’s weakness.”

Mr Crosby, who cut his teeth in the world of macho Australian politics, had studied the data and knew victory was in the Conservatives’ grasp if they could just win over a few thousand voters in a few dozen marginal seats in England.

What the Conservatives did was deliver well on both halves of the strategy equation: the analysis and direction were right, but then they implemented their plan without losing their nerve even when almost everyone else was telling them they were wrong.

This election was a very close run thing – for all the rejoicing in the blue camp about a majority, it is still wafer thin. Nonetheless, it is far better a result than anyone, bar the leadership of the campaign expected.

Confidence in the strategy waxed and waned in the tense six weeks that ensued — and the strategy itself sometimes wavered. But yesterday morning his approach was vindicated as the Conservatives confounded expectations by sweeping not just to victory but to a majority in parliament.

“The campaign managers were always confident that we could get there, but that confidence was not always shared at the top,” says a Conservative strategist. “Lynton was right all along.”

The Tories learned from their mistakes in 2010 and ran a more focused, consistent campaign in 2015. Labour did not learn from 2010 – it just replaced its leader and substituted wishful thinking for strategy.

People who are disappointed with the General Election result would do well to push for more effective leadership and better strategy from the Labour party. As professor of strategy Richard Rumelt put it in a paper on bad strategy for McKinsey:

The only remedy is for us to demand more from those who lead. More than charisma and vision, we must demand good strategy.

A final point on leadership. There was a strange trope on Twitter along the lines of “if only people voted for policies and not personalities”, as if the ability to develop and then deliver policy would be completely separate from personality. We may not have presidential elections in the UK, but backing a party is rightly affected by voters’ views on the leadership and whether they would be an effective leader for the UK.

New leadership might be hard to come by without a lot of new recruits to Labour, if we’re to believe Paul Mason of Channel 4 News the party hasn’t got the right people to think this through:

Miliband’s inner team had almost no outriders in the press, no co-thinkers in academia; they had support among artists and film directors, but always half-hearted….

Labour […] is waking up to something much worse than failure to win. It has failed to account for its defeat in 2010, failed to recognise the deep sources of its failure in Scotland, and failed to produce any kind of intellectual diversity and resilience from which answers might arise.

Ironic to think that a party that values diversity suffers from a lack of diverse brain power. It certainly needs to promote political and intellectual immigration into its own ranks if it is to rebuild its ability to win elections.

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