To some Welsh Conservatives, the Welsh electorate may seem a difficult animal. Since Nick Bourne took over the reigns of power, the party has undergone a remarkable transformation. Previously staunch opponents of devolution, Nick Bourne moved the Welsh Conservatives into more moderate terrain and, over the last two assembly elections, the party reaped the benefits. The Welsh Conservatives recovered from an almost wipe-out in Wales at the general elections in 1997 to being the strongest party after Labour at Cardiff Bay. This is no mean achievement!
Yet, large parts of the Welsh population have proved impervious to the moderating overtones of Nick Bourne and his colleagues. The Welsh Valleys in South Wales are a good example. Despite the fact that, arguably, Labour does not always send candidates of the highest calibre into battle, Welsh Conservatives struggle to gain sufficient votes there.
David Melding has argued recently (once again) that this may be a problem of branding (you can read his piece here http://waleshome.org/2011/09/whats-in-a-name/ ). He suggested to change the name of the Welsh Conservatives to boost their chances with some voters who hold generally conservative values, yet tend to vote nationalist. Changing the name to Ymlaen, so he argues, may allow these voters to identify themselves with a re-branded Welsh Conservative Party reconciling their conservativism (with as small ‘c’) with their nationalism.
I believe this is a dangerous path. And here is why. First, I think it hints at a lack of confidence in the message and policies that the Welsh Conservatives put forward in Wales. Second, it smacks of a PR stunt which may open them up to ridicule. The most important reason however has to do with the way the Welsh Conservatives may achieve power again in Wales.
Politics is as much a competition about good policies as it is about perception. At some times, perception is in fact more important than anything else. Think of Tony Blair’s catch phrase ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’. Labour before 1997 knew that they had a problem, they were seen as soft on crime. So they had to change the way they were perceived by the public on this issue. The slogan captured the imagination of those who liked to see a strong punishment for perpetrators of crime, yet it also appealed to those who had a more sophisticated understanding of the causes of criminal behaviour. In other words, Blair’s phrase appealed to two critical constituencies at the same time. It repaired the Labour Party’s image in the public on law and order.
Is there a lesson in this for the Welsh Conservatives? I believe there is. The key to successful campaigning is to shape public debate in a way that is advantageous to them. I strongly believe that guaranteeing health spending for Wales in the last manifesto was such a positive step. More of that is needed. If politics is about perception, then dominating and shaping the public debate is a critical mechanism to win over voters. Offering sensible policies that address those issues is the second step. Nick Bourne and his team have already developed some with great success, Andrew R T Davies will undoubtedly continue in this vein.
That, it seems to me, is the best way forward to rejuvenate the electoral fortunes of the Welsh Conservatives. While re-branding smacks of gimmickry, determining the key themes that Labour fail to address and bringing those into the public debate with patience and consistency is the best avenue to power.
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