That was the general election that was. I worked on campaigns in 3 marginal seats mainly in Morecambe but with brief excursions to Pudsey and Lancaster. These are my impressions from the ground war of what went right and what went wrong. It’s my attempt to do for the 2015 election campaign what Rifleman Harris did for the Peninsula War. A lot of it is going to be about how we gradually came to believe the polls were rubbish as they simply did not reflect what we were finding on the doorstep and on the phones.
From the start we appeared to be doing well, but then we all believed the polls. My first day canvassing was with Stuart Andrew in Pudsey. We canvassed a Local Authority sheltered housing complex, as you would expect the response was mixed but predominantly Conservative. Elderly ladies, in particular, were loud in their praise of Stuart saying they saw him every Saturday on Pudsey market and how pleasant and helpful he was. I wasn’t surprised at this, in the days before Cameron’s A list, the ability to charm elderly ladies was a prerequisite for getting through the Conservative candidate selection process. However, I would still have expected Labour to be doing better than us in a council run old people’s housing, if we were indeed neck and neck in the polls. The next indication that we were actually doing rather well was when I cold called some farmers along the A65 and asked them to put up posters. The response was once again positive, despite one elderly gentleman saying regretfully that a “vote for Nigel is a vote for Labour.”
As the campaign progressed we continued to receive positive indications. By this time I was working just about every day in the Morecambe and Lunesdale Constituency. I’d helped there in 2010, I liked David Morris and his team, and because I knew the area and the people better than any other marginal, I felt that I was more effective there. The difficulty for any understanding of the wider picture from Morecambe, was that the Labour candidate was probably the worst candidate I’ve ever encountered standing for the Labour Party. Certainly the worst candidate I’ve ever encountered standing for any major political party in a winnable seat.
The key moment in the campaign for me, when I was absolutely certain we’d win Morecambe was on Thursday 23rd April, St George’s day, and two days before my Birthday so a very welcome early birthday present. I’d aggravated an old hip injury by then, so was confined to telephone canvassing, chauffeuring and on polling day, telling. I got to the phone bank at about 6 pm. The team had been canvassing in a solid Labour area and they were reporting a surge for UKIP. From then on whenever we were on the phones we were finding people listed as possible Conservative supporters in March, were almost invariably becoming firm Conservative supporters in late April. Also, my other contribution to the campaign was, I hope, a very active Twitter account. After that Thursday I began to receive increased numbers of ReTweets and a rapid increase in followers. My follower count rose by almost 500 in just over 2 weeks. Now, that could be my genius, but I doubt it very much. I think that people were looking to support the Conservatives, and found that following and Retweeting a viciously anti-Labour tweeter was a way to do it.
So after Thursday 23rd April I expected to polls to begin shifting, they didn’t. I was reluctant to believe my gut feeling that the polls were wrong, having told numerous Kippers on Twitter that the polls were right, that the best UKIP could hope for was one or two MPs, and that a vote for UKIP would see Ed Miliband in Downing St. I fell back on the idea that in Morecambe we were up against a totally lousy Labour candidate and what we were seeing was a reflection of that. Nonetheless, I was becoming increasingly suspicious of the polls. But I wasn’t totally convinced they were wrong until the Ed Stone debacle.
Ed’s stone was roundly mocked all over social and main stream media, yet according to the polls there was actually a swing to Labour after that abortion. It’s perfectly possible that such a debacle could have little or no effect on a party surging to victory, like Labour in 1997, or the Tories in 1983. In an election where the parties were supposedly neck and neck, and there were grave questions over Miliband’s leadership, it beggared belief that there would be a surge after that particular event, unless the opposition had pulled an even more inept stunt. We hadn’t, the Conservative campaign might have been stigmatised as dull, but it was ruthlessly disciplined and there had been no external events that could have instigated a swing to Labour. From then on I was confident that the polls were significantly underestimating Conservative support, and when an exhausted Conservative candidate rang me on Tuesday night, I had no hesitation in telling him not to worry and that the polls were as queer as a Toc H lamp. The following night, after a final, very successful telephone canvassing session in Morecambe, I gave one of the team a lift home and told him that the “polls were bollox” and that David Morris would increase his majority substantially. He did, from 866 to 4500.
Polling day was brilliant, David Morris’s campaign team started work at 4 am with a dawn leaflet drop. Our branch, from a small market town sent six people to Morecambe to help with telling. One of them was on a Polling Station for over seven hours. Two indomitable elderly ladies stuck at it for two. I had arrived at about 9 am and was sent to a Polling Station in one of our best wards where I stayed for most of the day, til about 5, when we hit the phones in an extremely effective get out the vote operation. By 8 pm we had no more calls to make. We were finding that we were calling people we’d already called. I was shattered so I went home, and arrived back just in time to get the results of the exit poll. I had no doubt whatsoever it was correct, and I knew for certain the only question was whether or not Paddy Ashdown would have his hat roasted, or sautéed with a nice Chianti.
The lessons to be learned from the ground war of the campaign are very straight forward. The targeting by Jim Messina from Obama’s campaign team was spectacularly successful. Whether I was calling from the Morecambe phone bank or from home via Connect Conservative we were always calling the right people who were either supporters or open to persuasion.
The direction of resources to marginal seats also worked well, we had Councillors and candidates from adjacent unwinnable seats out with, candidates from safe Conservative seats all over the country came up to help us. The candidate in our own safe constituency barely campaigned here, spending most of his time in adjoining marginals. He is a brilliant constituency MP and, despite his absence during the campaign, he was justly rewarded with the largest Conservative majority in Yorkshire, which as everyone knows, is by far the most important part of the country.
I was very sceptical about the idea of the battle bus, probably because my idea of hell is being stuck in a confined space with total strangers, but once again it worked. Having a bus load of experienced committed activists, who have paid for the privilege of working for the Conservatives, descend on a marginal seat gives the local activists a great boost, and covers an enormous amount of ground in a day. The group I chauffeured around were keen, committed, and although I’m sure they were as exhausted as the rest of us, their presence a couple of days before polling day, felt a bit like the timely arrival of the cavalry.
The key thing about the ground war, though, was how we totally out fought Labour. I watched Newsnight on Friday night and was shocked when their political editor Allegra Stratton said they had contacted Labour and asked to film campaigning in Warwickshire North, but had been told there was no campaigning for them to film. This was a seat with a Conservative majority of 54!!!
If they’d contacted the Conservatives there would have been campaigning to film, and if there hadn’t been some would have been conjured up for them.
What could we do better? The campaign manager system in the marginals was very good, and a great improvement on the old decentralised system, but there were one or two glitches. For instance, a young campaign manager doesn’t always have the authority an old time agent had. If, for example, a candidate had wanted to amend a leaflet the day before it was due to go to press, causing it to miss a weekend window for delivery, the response of the old fashioned agent would consist of seven letters and two syllables. The campaign managers I saw were all effective, and in one case, downright excellent, but on some issues they need a bit more support from both the centre and the candidates. The other thing we need to do is work on and improve our software and computer systems. Apparently there was a crash on Thursday night which stopped some constituencies inputting data, that needs to be sorted. The Connect Conservative website that allows you to phone canvass from could also do with some fine tuning. These are minor points though, overall the campaign run by Lynton Crosby and Jim Messina was pretty much as good as it gets.
I think that will probably do, I wanted to,write this as quickly as possible while everything was fresh in my mind. I hope it helps you understand what the campaign was like for those of us involved on the ground. I’d like to thank everyone I worked with during the campaign. They were a dedicated, hard working generous group of people that made me very proud to be a Tory.
*Poor bloody infantry