The Tories are working to make sure their next general election campaign is not as bad as the last, writes Andrew Gimson
The 2017 general election campaign proved a terrible shock for the Conservatives. For although Theresa May had called the election, her party turned out to be totally unprepared to fight it. The Tory machine, which had surprised pundits and pollsters by winning a narrow majority in 2015, no longer existed. Of the 120 campaign managers who had been hired and trained during the two-year run-up to that campaign, 100 had been let go. Their knowledge and experience had been thrown away.
My ConservativeHome colleague Mark Wallace has described in his three-part CCHQ Election Audit the many things which went wrong with the Conservative machine, which had to be rebuilt at the same time as it fought an election – an absurd task. There was a severe shortage of data on the disgruntled Labour and United Kingdom Independence party voters who, it was expected, would enable the Conservatives to pick up scores of seats in the Midlands and the north. The Conservative party organisation had stood aside from the referendum campaign on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union, so had very little idea of who these people were or what to say to them. The election was framed as being about Brexit, but voters might quite reasonably think they had already decided that question.
May promised to provide the ‘strong and stable’ leadership needed to implement Brexit, but on the campaign trail was unable to personify those qualities, or only in the unfortunate sense of being unable to think on her feet. While conducting a U-turn on her manifesto commitment to introduce what the press dubbed a ‘dementia tax’, she was reduced to insisting ‘nothing has changed’. Yet her face dominated the leaflets produced by the party. By the time those leaflets were printed – a process delayed by a shortage of paper – it was questionable whether distributing them would help or hinder the party’s chances. I heard of one member of parliament who believes he held his seat because the van carrying his leaflets featuring the prime minister overturned on the motorway.
Not that in party headquarters many people questioned whether these were the right leaflets with the right message. The Conservative approach was grotesquely over-centralised. Parliamentary candidates were selected in a rushed, opaque and almost totalitarian process, which was certainly not seen to be fair, and which left many would-be candidates feeling sick and betrayed. The poor bloody infantry were misdirected into seats which headquarters expected to win, and away from seats which were believed to be safe. When the results of the election were known, these assumptions often turned out to be mistaken.
And of course the poor bloody infantry are fading away. In large swathes of the country, they no longer exist at all. As one shire Tory put it to me the other day, ‘The party has declined in a frightening manner’. She went on to explain this as a direct consequence of the attitude of the people running things from the centre: ‘For years they’ve been too taken up with their own importance. They haven’t bothered with us. And they’ve put the fees up. The local party has not got the mix of people it used to have.’ She could remember, a generation ago, collecting subscriptions of only £2 from members who could not afford more, and laying on social events such as coffee mornings which cost very little to attend, drew a wide range of people and gave a lot of pleasure. Now the main fundraising is done by means of a lunch which by its cost and pretentiousness excludes the overwhelming majority of local Conservatives, or of people who would once have joined the party as a matter of course.
Can Brandon Lewis, the new party chair, and his collection of a dozen or so vice-chairs, turn things round, or have they just been appointed in order to keep them quiet and increase the size of the payroll vote? Many of them are estimable people, and I am sure there will be many things they do more efficiently. All Conservatives can see the party needs to be in a better condition to fight the next general election.
But will there be the decisive moves needed to recreate the party as a mass movement, one which within living memory had three million members? That would entail cutting the cost of membership from its present £25 to something just about anyone could afford – for some reason, the figure of £3 comes to mind. And members will have to be allowed to make the final choice of leader (as they did in 2005, when they opted for David Cameron rather than David Davis), to select parliamentary candidates, and to propose motions for debate at the annual conference. The exact detail of this needs careful working out, but the overall effect must be to say ‘we trust and value our members’.
Does May have the stomach for such sweeping reforms? I do not know, but without her backing, Lewis will be unable to make them.
The Conservatives thought Labour was destroying itself by allowing anyone to join for £3 and to help choose the leader. The assumption was that a mass membership was a liability, for it was bound to be composed almost entirely of ‘lunatics’. That is one reason why the Tories were so sure of victory in 2017. They assumed Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters were quite incapable of framing any wider appeal, and would just drive voters into May’s arms.
That judgment had to be revised when Corbyn turned out to be a formidable campaigner who, as Tim Shipman observes in his latest book, Fall Out, ‘had spent decades learning which lines worked with his target audience’. Corbyn had something big to say: essentially that ever since 1983, Labour has strayed from the true path of socialism. This message may or may not be correct, but to young voters in particular, struggling to find an affordable place to live, it did not sound so ridiculous it could be dismissed out of hand. Labour trounced the Conservatives among the young, and also among the still fairly young, and also on social media.
Do the Conservatives have anything half so attractive to say? Some of their best people – Oliver Letwin, Nick Boles, Robert Halfon and George Freeman among others – are addressing that question. But whether May is in the market for renewal, or just for keeping the show on the road for as long as possible by tolerating the bare minimum of new thinking, is an open question.
Andrew Gimson is contributing editor to ConservativeHome, and his book Gimson’s Prime Ministers: Brief Lives from Walpole to May will be published on 15 March. He tweets @AndrewGimson
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