Over the last few days Conservatives have had much to be proud of. Our commanding win in Hartlepool continues our rout of the red wall. From Northumbria to Cornwall, councils have turned blue across the country. Yet for those of us in Cambridge those successes are bitter-sweet. High hopes in the city in light of well publicised, disastrous decisions made by the Labour council have been dashed. James Palmer, the incumber metro mayor, was eked out in the second round by a Lib-Lab coalition. Too many conservatives will tonight pat themselves on the back and delight in the nation-wide blue swing. Not enough will look at the seats lost as well as won, the concerning inroads against the national trend which should sound alarm bells through our party.
The mark of a successful party is not the impressive gains made on the back of a rising tide. It is the ability to hold firm in the face of adversity and to cling to seats in the face of considerable opposition. The results in Cambridgeshire reflect a serious step back for our party at a time when our national lead has scarcely been more impressive. They reflect a great and growing weakness in the Conservative Party; a ground game wholly inadequate relative to our opponents. Our triumph over the last few days exposes a foreboding truth: if we now rise solely on the winds of national politics, what will happen when they inevitably turn against us?
Far too many Conservative associations the length and breadth of Britain are in depressing shape. That is not a reflection on the many brilliant members we have. Yet the visible effects are alarming. In deep blue areas we have whole wards, sometimes whole constituencies, with only one or two activists, even with the councillor or MP thrown in. Many associations, even those with stonking majorities, do not have the first clue about who their voters actually are. Many are filled with older activists, veterans of Thatcher’s and Major’s campaigns, who lack the digital expertise or sometimes the basic mobility to fight an effective ground campaign. Too often peacetime campaigning, even in wards with remarkable, diligent local councillors, is non-existent. Our blue wall is really a paper-thin house of cards.
My own constituency is a case in point. Once of the safest Conservative seats in the country, two decades ago an independent persuaded enough locals to back him over the local Conservative for the town council. He did a good job and got on to the district council. His popularity ensured his hand-picked successor received a coronation. Four years later, half a dozen more independents joined her. In 2019, an anti-tory wave swept a district council once entirely Conservative into no overall control. That same district councillor stood for Parliament and over the course of three elections turned a thunderous majority into a nail-biting Conservative marginal, the only constituency in the country with an independent in second place.
Now undoubtedly this is an extreme example. Yet it shows what can happen when complacency and a lack of campaigning expertise combine to make a savvy, energised opposition campaign a potent threat. The purpose of a well-orchestrated technical campaign is simple; to build resilience capable of holding or taking seats against a national swing. Even as we cruise to victory in one sense, our ground game is leaving us further and further behind our opposition. The only solution is a bold, comprehensive strategy to reenergise campaigning:
Councillors as Campaigners
The Conservative Party has always benefited from the kind of councillors we attract and elect. Unlike our opponents, who seem to opt for career activists, we routinely elect doctors, lawyers and local businessmen who bring a wealth of experience to their roles. The downside is that far too many of these councillors know how to govern but not how to run. As a party we need to make clear that ongoing campaigning and communication with constituents, all year round, is a basic requirement for selection. Conservative groups on councils need to create clear incentive programmes for councillors to work together across the constituency to get fellow Conservatives elected and end an alarming pattern of self-interest in local party politics.
Re-Energise Young Conservatives
Whatever we may think of Labour and the Lib Dems, Corbyn and Brexit respectively have given them a horde of sprightly, enthusiastic young activists clued-up on modern campaigning and capable of sustaining their local parties across the generations. Contrary to what many believe, the Conservative Party has an impressive contingent of young members of its own. Yet far too often, Young Conservatives turn up their noses at campaigning, preferring to pontificate over a pint glass as opposed to pounding doors in the pissing rain. The national party, afraid of its young members for far too long, must finally realise that the rewards outweigh the risks. Only by cultivating Young Conservative networks, making campaigning and training accessible, and, crucially, respecting the talents and energy of young members can we arrest the alarming decline of local associations.
A Proactive National Party
The Conservative Party has a proud tradition of independent local associations. Yet in recent times this has increasingly become a liability. Problem areas fall onto the national radar too late. Stubbornly autonomous local officials refuse to move with the times. The national party needs to develop much stronger feedback mechanisms to catch problems almost before they manifest. Training needs to improve and in some cases be made mandatory. Competent local members need to be nurtured for leadership positions. Crucially, the party needs to develop far more agile, mobile personnel that can be parachuted in to turn things around.
Far too many local Conservative campaigns have become a tokenistic turn of going through the motions; election address, postal vote letter, visiting polling stations on election day. If a candidate is knocking doors for the first time in the election period, it is already too late. Conservative activists finally need to get their heads around the value of targeted data and spend time year-round getting it in the bank. That data not only needs to be used to turn out our vote but to grow our networks and recruit more great local activists. More targeted, effective literature and messaging needs to be produced, particularly to promote the success stories our councillors routinely rack up under the radar.
This is not to say all is doom and gloom. Our party has more members than it has done for decades. We are reaching more diverse communities than ever before (who, incidentally, are often leading the way on effective twenty-first century Conservative campaigning). Yet we must make hay while the sun shines. Now is the time to go out and get ready for darker times to come. If politics teaches us anything it is that what goes around comes around. When it does, Conservatives must have the resillience to stand tall in the storm of national backlash. If not, our house of cards will come tumbling down.