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We must be sceptical of claims that Eastleigh was fought and won solely on local issues. Of course the LibDems focused on the micro – their macro narrative leaves plenty to be desired at the moment and Rennard’s street-fighter playbook serves them well at by-elections. But that relentlessly local focus doesn’t adequately explain our loss to the LibDems and it gives us no insight whatsoever into our defeat at Diane James’ hands. No-one ever votes for UKIP on local issues.

Instead we have to remember that while folk care about what’s on their doorstep, they also decide who’s best placed to fix things on the basis of an impression of a party overall. So long as we had no Councillors in Eastleigh it was going to be difficult for us to convince voters of our effectiveness through direct experience – we needed a national story that spoke to them of our competence and our capability. Truth be told, we lack that. We are seen by many, including those who might be naturally sympathetic to our cause, as incompetent, aloof and naïve about the realities of people’s lives. It’s this impression that is steadily eroding our lead even on the economy.

Much as many a moderniser might approve of gay marriage we cannot pretend that, in an age of falling living standards, rising costs and hopeless economic news, it was good politics to prioritise it. Much as voters might not yet blame us completely for rising debt, falling incomes and the loss of our triple-A rating, it is clear that we are not winning their affection with an economic strategy that can come across shambolic and whose architects often appear unwilling to stand up for it in public. Distracting folk with a series of apparently unconnected gimmicks (aimed at ‘detoxifying’ our party in the eyes of people who may hate us a little less but will never like us enough to vote for us) probably doesn’t do us direct damage on a case-by-case basis, but it adds to an impression of that we lack seriousness.

And if we are not seen as serious then what are voters in places like Eastleigh left with? A choice between the party that may be unlovable but which has put in the work locally and a party that is able to promise patriotic renewal to voters tired of bad news and national uncertainty. The LibDems survived because we didn’t offer a convincing and capable alternative for the kind of local advocacy that, whilst unexciting, is at least useful. UKIP did well because they offered the tantalising prospect of real, energetic and purposeful change.  We did badly because we were unable to offer either – and we were weighed down by the baggage of a sneaking suspicion that politics is little more than a game to us.

The Conservative Party desperately needs to do two things. First, get a grip on the messages. We have serious successes to talk about – Theresa May is bringing down immigration, Michael Gove is giving people proper schools, IDS is getting a grip on welfare. Too often these achievements get lost in a blizzard of new initiatives that make it only so far as the next day’s chip paper. This has to stop. Second, we must work harder to shape what we have into a convincing and holistic national narrative – one of renewal and of a state that is more aligned to the moral intuitions of the public, not simply cut back to save us a couple of quid here and there.

Doing more with less was our promise on the public finances in 2010. Now it should be our mantra on messaging. Let’s hammer home the achievements we have to our name, give the gimmicks a rest and fashion our efforts into a more singular story – one that places competence and closeness to voters’ instincts above clever political tricks and second-rate triangulation. That way a chance of victory lies.

Max Wind-Cowie runs the Progressive Conservatism Project at Demos, which identifies conservative values and policies that have progressive ends.

Follow Max on Twitter: @MaxWindCowie


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