An assumption of success lay at the heart of the Conservative failure to gain a majority in the General Election this June. The Tories can learn lessons from big business. In thoughtfully planning for an unexpected result, perhaps they can win again.
If there is anything we’ve learned about politics in the last couple of years, it’s that you can’t trust the predicted outcome. Scottish independence and Marine Le Pen came good, but three others did not. Brexit, Trump and GE2017.
We’ve learned that the electorate can surprise, that pollsters can’t forecast, that no outcome is guaranteed. Odds on a Tory majority at my local William Hill were 1/999 the night before GE2017. So wildly certain of the result, betting shops effectively closed the bet.
Come 10pm Thursday, the country had been flipped upside down. Hung parliament read the news screens. Jaws dropped and gasps let out.
But why was this such a surprise? We knew Corbyn was popular. And we knew (in recent memory) that politics cannot always be predicted.
It would seem that we are hardwired with an optimistic bias for the result we want. Of course Trump won’t get in! Of course we won’t vote to Leave! Of course the Tories will get a majority! And no one suffers from this strange confidence more than the ruling elite.
In 2016, Cameron and other elite forces were so convinced of a Remain win there was no hint of a contingency plan in place. Nothing. Into this void struck anger and worry. Fast forward one year and it has happened again, leaving us in hung-parliament Britain. There is little sense that the Tories had factored for a bad result. And so the people of Britain are yet again concerned. There is no coherent narrative of the Tory vision for Britain. Is it a hard or soft Brexit? The ‘end of austerity’ or more cuts? All these things should have been plotted out long before.
It is here politics should look to business. When big retailers upgrade their IT systems, banks merge, or insurers move to the cloud, the amount of effort and money spent preparing for an ‘unhappy path’ mirrors that of the opposite. These institutions know that if core systems crash or things go caput, the consequences to customers are such that damage to their reputation will be irreversible and extremely costly. Words like ‘back-out’, ‘failure scenarios’, ‘contingency’, ‘playbook’ are common place in the run up to major business and tech transformations, and are part of a wide range of measures which are implemented if things go wrong.
These companies list all possible scenarios of failure, and create in response a playbook of actions to take when things go off plan. Who to get back in the office ASAP, the lines to feed to the press, communications ready to send to customers. It seems foolish that Cameron had only one scenario (Remain) and one item in his playbook (continue as PM). If he was a programme director he’d have been sacked weeks before the event.
May and CCHQ were seemingly no better this time round, and we are worse off for it. Could an agreement in principle have been made with the DUP weeks ago? Or MPs equipped with positive messages about Britain’s future? Could a response to the apparent lurch to socialism been drawn up, ready to deploy? What about reminding voters of the reasons for austerity? Or championing the successes conservatism has brought to Britain?
The beauty of preparing to fail is that it focusses the mind on stopping exactly that from happening.
Perhaps, if the Tories thought for a second they might lose, they’d have won.