Relationship Management: Can we learn from Tory Defections?

Posted on September 29th, 2014 by

Photograph of a worried David Cameron

Relationship management is a tricky business at the best of times. As Mark Reckless follows Douglas Carswell in defecting to UKIP, we take a look at the challenges facing the Conservative Party, and how they’ve handled them to date, to see if there are any lessons we can learn in relationship management.

‘Defections, defections, defections’. We could get sick of hearing that word over the coming months. The defection of Tory MP Douglas Carswell to UKIP sent shockwaves through Westminster and with a second, Mark Reckless, joining him on the eve of the Tory Party Conference, this could very well open the floodgates.

The long term mistakes that led to this situation will not doubt be dissected by the media with an aim of creating a paper-selling spectacle. But you can bet the Conservative Party are searching for their own answers, trying to learn lessons from their past mistakes. Lessons that are as important in business as they are in politics.

For some of us, these defections aren’t a big surprise. UKIP now claim to have had talks with 7 other MPs and found that 16 Conservative MPs are sympathetic to UKIP, which again doesn’t seem to be big news. Rumours of these talks have been flying around for months, mainly regarding MPs who’ve ‘blown it’ with the Conservatives already (through gaffes, hard line attitudes, or through steadily becoming unelectable).

However, that doesn’t make it any less significant. This may well be the tip of the iceberg, as these defections only illustrate the serious problems the Conservative Party has been facing for some time. However, it may set the wheels in motion for a Eurosceptic exodus from the Conservative party to UKIP, or a Conservative backbench revolt – especially if either Carswell or Reckless win their by-election and return the first UKIP MP to Parliament.

Challenging Personalities

Of course, it would be foolish to ignore the individuals concerned. Carswell has never been a big fan of politics. Winning his seat in 2005, he immediately turned on his fellow MP’s, speaking openly about his ‘revulsion’ at the culture of ‘cosy cliques’ in Westminster. He heavily backed David Cameron in the run up to both the 2005 Tory leadership election and the 2010 general election, claiming that he would be the man to fix the fundamental problems with our democracy. Since the coalition government scrapped proposals to introduce recall powers in February this year, he has become an outspoken critic of the Conservatives in government.

Mark Reckless is a close friend of Carswell’s and since his election as a Conservative MP in 2010, he’s gained a reputation as one of the party’s most rebellious members. A die-hard Eurosceptic, he was at the fore of a group of 53 Tory rebels who joined with Labour to vote against the government in demanding a real terms cut in the EU budget – giving the Coalition their first Commons defeat. Just last week, he voted against the Government over air strikes on Islamic State. After Carswell’s defection, he was quickly identified by the Tory leadership as the most likely to follow him to UKIP.

However, these personal histories only explain why they are the first to have defected. There are serious issues the Conservative Party must address, and these events have simply highlighted them.

In-party Manoeuvring

The Conservatives face a deep rift in the party – an ideological battle between the modern and the traditional. Or, if you’re feeling a little cynical, a battle over what is more electable. Whichever is true, this rift has led to issues with relationships within the party that haven’t been addressed.

At the same time the ‘grass roots’ of the wider conservative movement are UKIP aligned. The push to modernise and the quest for the middle ground have left traditional ‘hard’ Tory voters disillusioned (and the same can be said for Labour voters). Under its first mainstream guise, this was ‘third way politics’ as per Clinton’s ‘New Democrats’ and Blair’s ‘New Labour’.

Where the wider ideology has faded, the race for the middle continues- theoretically ‘hard’ Tory or Labour voters will always vote for the same party, so the big electoral gains come from those occupying the middle ground as they’re the ones most willing to switch allegiances. UKIP are making this way of thinking almost obsolete through their current success-‘hard’ voters are willing to switch to UKIP because UKIP have camped firmly within the old-fashioned territory of the now disillusioned Tory (and Labour) traditional voters and movements.

MPs, MEPs, Councillors and many more noticed this on the run up to the local and European elections on 22nd of May this year.

Photograph of UKIP badges

Conservatives across the country have been aligning themselves with UKIP by campaigning on their policies and saying positive things about Farage – at the same time, also highlighting that “UKIP can’t win here, it’s either us or the Lib Dems”. After the election, an awful lot of Conservatives talked to the media about UKIP, saying that they were part of the same ‘Conservative family’.

In allowing this, the Conservative leadership truly dropped the ball: permitting their rank and file to either be pushed by electoral fear or by populism to appease the most radically UKIP aligned of their grass roots movement (thus encouraging further UKIP influence).

A relationship breakdown would always follow, highlighted immediately by the rank and file push for a UKIP-Tory general election pact in the weeks following the local and European elections.

Right now, many local party associations are demonstrating the affinity felt at the ‘grass roots’ level with the UKIP message. Where Farage is almost definitely running for the South Thanet seat in next year’s general election, the local Conservative Party have selected a former UKIP leader to run against him and are dragging out all their ‘old school’ relics.

Disconnected Leadership

While all of this is happening, the ‘high ups’ are seemingly in a tough position. There have been a few UKIP-esque policies during this government (for example, Theresa May’s Home Office ‘go home’ vans), yet immigration has actually risen since 2010. They are committed to a referendum on Europe, but are also committed on staying in the EU with minimal renegotiation. In essence, the ‘high ups’ are no longer connected to the ‘grass roots’ or their rank and file representatives. Failing to reconnect may mean many more defections and serious crisis.

This rift becomes more prominent by the day. According to the Independent Newspaper, a group of 100 Conservative MPs have agreed to include a pledge in their personal manifestos to vote for the UK to leave the EU no matter what concessions David Cameron wins in negotiations. There are currently 303 Conservative MPs (after Carswell and Reckless’ defections), so roughly a third of Conservative MPs are agreeing to vote against their own party’s wishes. This shows an effective vote of no confidence in the current regime. It is certainly a damning statistic, illuminating the failures of Conservative leadership and the total breakdown of the relationship between the cabinet and the backbenchers.

Lessons we can all learn

Handling complex relationships is always difficult, and few relationships are more complex those at play in the Conservative Party. The relationship between the Conservative Party and the general public is reliant upon the relationship between the cabinet and the backbenchers. However this relationship is further dependent on the relationships between the Conservative ‘high ups’ and the grass roots; the backbenchers and the ‘grass roots’; the backbenchers and their specific electorates; and the ‘grass roots’ and UKIP! With so many parties in the picture, you can understand why the Conservatives have failed to manage these relationships properly. It takes a real long term organisational strategy to keep all stakeholders happy in situations like this. With the speed of UKIP’s rise, it is a strategy the Conservative Party may not have realised they needed until it was too late.

If the Conservative Party was a company, this issue would be just as serious. Sharing the same vision is just as important in business as it is in politics – if people aren’t singing from the same hymn sheet they aren’t driving towards the same ultimate goals. Sharing the same vision is imperative within any organisation, and without this widespread unity, revolt can cause catastrophic consequences. Lack of unity can result in it being just as easy to lose a supplier in business as it is to lose an MP in politics, and this is often caused by inadequate leadership.

Looking at the reasons Carswell and Reckless gave for their defections, there is another lesson to learn. Citing a lack of trust in the leadership, they’ve both stated that they no longer believe that the Conservatives are serious about any of the promises they have made.

Trust is important, in politics as much as business.

When you lose the good faith of your backbenchers, you have a revolt. When you lose the good faith of the voters, you have an electoral catastrophe. When a business loses the good faith of its suppliers, a relationship is almost certainly over and there will be negative consequences.

Will the Conservative Party win the next general election? Who knows, but the political composition of the House of Commons after the 7th of May 2015 and any long term Conservative success is dependent on how the party address these issues and manages the relationships at play.

Do you think the defections to UKIP were inevitable or have the Tory Central Office played their hands badly? We’d love to know what you think.