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David Herdson writes: Ed Miliband: my part in his downfall

October 31st, 2015

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Did I win the Conservatives the election?

A year ago today I received an unsolicited e-mail from an extremely senior Conservative election strategist, asking if I ever came to London as he’d be interested in picking my brains. Unsurprisingly, I said ‘Yes’.

The approach wasn’t completely out of the blue. A few months earlier, he was a speaker at the 2014 Yorkshire Regional conference and at the end of the session, I door-stepped him in order to hand him a short paper I’d put together on and idea I’d had for taking the fight to Labour, namely calculating the cost of all Labour’s additional spending commitments, dividing the result by the number of households in the country and labelling the result their Family Tax. Although the name wasn’t adopted (I still think it’s a good one), the idea did briefly see the light of day but a twenty-first century version of 1992’s tax bomb it wasn’t.

But that wasn’t why I’d been invited to London. Instead, we had a long, wide-ranging discussion that covered a lot of the political scene and ended with a plan for me to be more involved as the election approached. Unfortunately, I had to pull back on this when my wife was seriously injured in a car crash in December.

In the interim, however, he asked me about my thoughts on how I saw seat numbers going in Scotland. This was about two months after the referendum but only shortly after the SNP’s surge in the polls had become apparent (the SNP and Labour were still neck-and-neck in early October: only at the end of the month did they pull far clear). In retrospect it’s clear that what became the centrepiece of the 2015 Conservative strategic case was taking shape in the minds of those responsible for delivering it.

But polling is, as is frequently noted here, a snapshot not a projection. To get a projection you need to analysts which, I assume, is where I came in. I suggested that current polling figures suggested a seat split of SNP 43 MPs, Lab 11, Con 3 and LD 2, and while I (inaccurately) predicted a small swing back to Labour before the election, I reckoned on the SNP keeping a comfortable lead in both votes and seats. In the end, of course, it was much more than ‘comfortable’ but at the time, many commentators were still struggling with the idea that Labour could be shifted from their ‘natural fortress’ in any meaningful sense. After all, the SNP had been predicting Westminster breakthroughs for decades without making good.

What I believed – and said – was that this time was different. This time the SNP would not only break through but finish on top and consequently, Labour would be hit by big losses.

Probably Ed Miliband would still have finished up in the pockets of Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon in street-side posters up and down the country whatever I’d written; a campaign and a strategy that almost certainly made the difference between an outright majority and another hung parliament. But who knows? Certainly not me. It would of course absurd vanity to believe I won the Conservatives their majority but just to play a small part in an election where CCHQ pitched their message and strategy close to perfectly was a privilege.

David Herdson