Crikey was out in force last
night to hear Lynton Crosby, the “Australian Svengali” who directed
this year’s Conservative Party election campaign in Britain, speak at
an Institute of Public Affairs event. Crosby did not disappoint,
entertaining us with stories of the different political messages
conveyed by page three girls in The Sun, or of being ambushed in the early morning by a Daily Mirror reporter with a bunch of red roses.

Most of his message, however, was more serious. Although the IPA’s publicity
described the election as “a significant success,” Crosby admitted that
the result was disappointing. If voters constantly reject you, he said,
it means there’s something about you they don’t like, and you have to
change. Labour under Tony Blair in the 1990s changed, but the
Conservatives have not – nor, he implied, has Beazley’s ALP.

Crosby
gave very little away as to what direction of change is desirable. This
may have been due to sensitivity about commenting on the current Tory
leadership contest, but it was consistent with his general line of
disclaiming responsibility for policy decisions. He twice quoted a John
Howard line – “you can’t fatten the pig on market day” – meaning that a
campaign manager has to work with what’s already there, while the
policy direction of the party has to have been set over the preceding
years.

This modesty even extended to the disingenuous claim that
the Tory slogan “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?” was no more
than a communication tool, a way of saying “We’re listening to you,”
rather than a none-to-subtle appeal to attitudes (especially on race
issues) that could not be avowed openly.

Crosby confirmed,
however, the impression that his main contribution to the Conservative
campaign was organisational rather than strategic: that he brought to
it a professionalism that Australians take for granted, but that in
Britain was a novelty. A party that historically has prided itself on
its amateurism was made to change at the nuts and bolts level – things
like direct mail, regular staff meetings and turning up before 9.30am
in the morning. But much more deep-seated change is going to be needed
for it to start winning elections.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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