This is the second of my blogs about the omnishambles Conservative Election Campaign. The first here looked at the fall out and called for the party to get rid of May. This one is going to look at the campaign most of us experienced on the ground. It was just as big a shambles as the campaign led by May, but at least it was leavened by the party’s poor bloody infantry, without whom the result would have been much, much worse.
Things were bad from the start with disputes over candidate selection. I cannot emphasise enough how important a good candidate is for a campaign, get it right and it energises activists, in marginals, a good candidate makes people from surrounding constituencies want to get out and help them, and most important of all the right candidate in the right seat offers a wide appeal to non-committed voters and possible switchers. Now, local Conservative Associations have their faults, but let’s be clear they all want a Conservative MP elected in their constituency, the officers and members know their constituency and they are far more likely than some remote figure in Central Office to understand what is likely to tickle their electorate’s erogenous zones. Unless they want to appoint the love child of Nigel Farage and Nick Griffin their advice should be heeded and every effort made to accommodate them.
This did not happen, there seemed to two main bugbears. The first was some seats quite sensibly wanted to have local candidates. In seats where you are trying to unseat the opposition this is always a shrewd move. No one likes a carpet bagger imposed from outside but this happened far too often in marginals where the party, expecting a landslide, imposed trendy young hipsters instead of gnarled old councillors who had been around the block and knew the ropes. Where you have a good local candidate anything is possible. In Westmorland and Lonsdale the Conservatives came within 800 votes of defeating a national party leader for the first time since 1931, destroying an 8000 majority in the process. But you have to wonder, if the seat had been considered winnable whether Central Office would have allowed that candidate to be selected in the first place.
The second problem with candidate selection involved safe seats who wanted to select a well known party figure. The best example of this was the farrago over selecting a candidate for Aldershot. The MP for Aldershot, Sir Gerald Howarth was standing down leaving a very tasty 14000 majority. The local party wanted their shortlist to include the MEP for South East England Dan Hannan. Lo and behold when the three person shortlist was handed down from Central Office Hannan wasn’t on it. Now I’ve been told in the past by the powers that be that Hannan is ‘difficult’. My immediate response to that is ‘so bloody what.’ Churchill was difficult, so was Thatcher and even Macmillan resigned the Conservative Party whip for a while during the thirties. As our candidate told me whilst we were campaigning we need to make the case for small government, markets and low taxation again. We do and Hannan is matchless when it comes to making that case. We need someone with his talent and eloquence making that case from the House of Commons, not festering in the dog days of the UK presence in the EU parliament.
The next issue where the campaign went seriously awry was targeting winnable seats. In 2010 and 2015 careful thought was given to the seats into which we would pour most effort. There was no such thought given to targeting this time, just ministers, candidates and activists tearing round like headless chickens in the vain pursuit of a landslide. Early in the campaign I was asked to travel to three different seats, two of them more than fifty miles away. Needless to say I gave those two a miss, especially as I had local friends who were urging me to campaign in Westmorland and Lonsdale to help drown the ‘wet lettuce’ (the affectionate local nickname for Tim Farron). George and I managed to get up there a couple of times leafleting before the official request to help there came, after that, apart from Polling day when our branch was running a Polling Station just over the border in Lancaster and Fleetwood, it became the focal point for our efforts. We even managed to persuade one of the excellent Skipton and Ripon Vote Leave team to go up there to deliver leaflets, even though he wasn’t a Conservative Party member! We fell short of winning the seat by just under 800 votes. If it had been targeted from day one, or if we had had a half decent national campaign, the wet lettuce would have been well and truly drowned.
In future campaigns the party needs to take much more notice of local activists, it also needs to do far more to include them in the process of making party policies. I don’t know of a single party member who would have been stupid enough to come up with a policy like the ‘dementia’ tax. How we do that is a topic for a future blog in this series.