On 1st May 2017 I wrote an article for the ConservativeHome web site warning the Conservative Party not to be complacent about the coming General Election. At the time the press were forecasting a 200 seat majority. Opinion polls were showing the Conservative Party on 50%. What I had not factored into my warning was incompetence. The result in the election was disastrous for the Party. So what went wrong?
I warned in my article that the Boundaries Commission proposals were not yet law, thus giving the Labour Party a twenty seat advantage. The Election result showed that the Conservatives lost thirteen seats. If they had waited they would have had a majority!
I warned that the Labour Party had a financial war chest so couldn’t be outspent by the Conservatives. It would appear that Labour spent their money more wisely. The Tories poured a million pounds into advertisements attacking Jeremy Corbyn on Facebook, whereas for a fraction of the money Labour persuaded their members to share positive messages about Labour. Negative campaigning harms not only the victims but also harms those perpetrating it.
I warned that the opinion polls would move in Labour’s favour and Labour would then claim momentum. Exactly that happened.
I warned that at some point there would be some bad news and the Conservatives would get terrible publicity. I didn’t expect the bad news would come as a result of the launch of the Conservative manifesto. It was an appalling document with hardly any positive points in it and the presentation was abysmal. Instead of saying Winter Fuel Allowance was to be mean tested why didn’t it just say that it would be taxed in the same way the Old Age Pension is taxed. The poor would get it in full and the rich would lose some of it. That is fair. The case on Social Care went by default because instead of saying how much we had increased the amount people would be able to keep we did not include a cap on how much people would have to pay. A Free Vote on fox hunting was promised which we know a large number of people oppose. Why antagonise them by putting it in our manifesto? These stupid errors would not have occurred if there had been a wide involvement in drawing up the manifesto. In the past, the Cabinet, Back Benchers and even some members of the voluntary party have been involved. It is the wisdom of the crowd.
The General Election was announced on the 18th April. Two days later the following announcements were made by Conservative Central Office to parliamentary candidates:
We will not be advertising seats, due to time constraints. Each Conservative-held seat and opposition-held Target seat that is selecting will be given a shortlist of three candidates to put to a General Meeting of the Association. There will be consultation between the Candidates team and the Officers of the Association in drawing up the list.
In the case of the remaining seats that are not targets, the Chairman of the Party and Chairman of the National Conservative Convention will be appointing candidates after consultation with local officers.
This was totally contrary to the rules for selecting candidates and was only pushed through using the clause in the Party’s Constitution which gives the Party Board the power to do anything in the interests of the Conservative Party. This is a clear abuse of power and it was totally unnecessary. With seven weeks to the General Election due process could and should have happened. There was much complaint as the candidates list had been culled after the 2015 General Election and new candidates were barred. Effectively only candidates chosen when David Cameron was Leader were allowed to take part. This caused great resentment in a number of constituencies, which wanted a local candidate or a member of the European Parliament on their short list. It is not a very good idea to upset your volunteers at the start of an election campaign.
The campaign started as a very personal campaign with the emphasis on “Theresa May – strong and stable” and vicious personal attacks on Jeremy Corbyn. The electorate does not like personal attacks. I had an official communication from my MP, Dominic Grieve, which did not mention the Conservative Party once. If you are going to make the campaign personal, it was a mistake for Theresa May to refuse to debate with Jeremy Corbyn on television. This gave the impression of being afraid. It highlighted the problem with a personal campaign. There was no hope in the Conservative manifesto - nothing for people to look forward to. No vision of the future. Yet Labour’s manifesto contained a lot of hope and promises which the Conservatives failed to counter attack. Our manifesto was the most miserable manifesto in my memory.
In the week before Election Day the Prime Minister visited Slough. I went to the meeting which was held in a large industrial unit which was “To Let”. Only Party members were invited and about 400 turned up. We had to wait in the rain for half an hour to get into the building. The Party’s coach turned up and drove into the building and became the back drop for the speeches. The Prime Minister walked in with Boris Johnson. Boris took the platform and gave a five minute introduction to Theresa May. All written down – no ad-lib. Then Theresa May gave a speech of about 10-15 minutes all about “strong and stable”. No questions. They both then departed leaving me thinking “What was that all about?” Any Leader knows that on an occasion like this you wander round the crowd shaking hands, motivating the troops and giving them hope for the battle to come.
My constituency of Beaconsfield – one of the strongest constituencies in the country was asked to help in Slough (a Labour held seat with a 7,000 majority) and Harrow West (a Labour held seat with a 2,000 majority). In 1979 I took 110 members from one branch of Beaconsfield to help in Watford. This election the whole constituency struggled to get 25 members to help in Harrow West
After leafleting in my own constituency I decided to go to Slough to help there. When I was Constituency Chairman of Beaconsfield we paid for a full time Agent in Slough, gave other financial support, manned several committee rooms and polling stations on Election Day after carrying out a full canvas of the constituency. We won the seat in 1987 and in 1992. Unfortunately in 1997 Central Office wrote off Slough and we were sent elsewhere - big mistake! It has deteriorated ever since and now has less than 100 members.
I looked for the address of their committee room on their web site. It was not there. Eventually I got the address which was on a rundown industrial estate with hardly any parking. I arrived at approx. 6.30 pm and when I said I would bring the canvassing returns back to the office the two volunteers told me that the office was about to close and that the industrial estate locked its gates at 7pm. I arranged to return the canvass sheets the next day. The canvass sheets were provided by Central Office and included questions where you marked the answers out of ten. Each elector had a sheet. They would take at least ten minutes on each doorstep. Great if you have 500 helpers in a by-election but totally impractical if you can number your helpers on one or at best two hands. I asked how much of the constituency had been canvassed and was told 20%. There was no way that canvassing would be completed by Election Day. Feeling concerned at this I asked where the committee room would be on Election Day. They did not know. I then asked if the polling stations were being manned on Election Day. They didn’t know. Next I asked if they had a list of helpers. No they hadn't. Tearing my hair out I then asked who was in charge – I was told it was a woman from Central Office based in Southampton. We did our canvassing and returned the sheets the next day at 3.30pm. The office was locked so we pushed them through the letter box. The result in Slough was an increased Labour majority of 17,000. I gave up.
The day before the General Election I went to Harrow West arriving at 7pm. Once again the address was not on its web site. On arrival I was told that the Harrow West committee room was closed but they were sharing a building with Harrow East which was open so I delivered leaflets for the Conservative MP Bob Blackman who got in with a majority of 2,000.
On Election Day I returned to Harrow West to help in knocking up. The knocking up sheet was excellent with lots of useful information, except it did not show the address of the polling station. To my surprise I came across several strong Labour supporters, and then I noticed that in some cases the last contact with them was in 2012! We not only were knocking up Conservatives but also Undecideds. The Labour majority went up from 2,000 to 13,000.
It seems all these constituencies were following Central Office instructions. I am afraid to say that the clever clots in CCO have never fought a General Election on the ground. The result was a disaster. On Election Day party members were being directed to constituencies like Slough where there was no chance of us winning whereas constituencies which we lost were starved of people. It is quite clear that Central Office did not have a clue as to what was happening. At the same time Labour were pouring supporters into constituencies boosted by their membership of 550,000, (it has now increased to 700,000 since the election.) Approximately one third of Labour canvassers had never canvassed before so were part of the huge increase in new members.
In my ConservativeHome article I warned about the dangers of only being capable of fighting marginal seats. I said “So what and where are the marginal seats? Some “guess work” will be required to decide where to put our resources but it is “guess work” and it could go horribly wrong.” It did go horribly wrong.
Party organisation should be the responsibility of the Party Chairman. He or she should control the campaign. All consultants, special advisers etc. should report to the Chairman and he or she should be answerable to Party members at an Annual General Meeting. The Leader determines policy and priorities. He or she must take responsibility for the political aspects of the campaign.
Without radical change the Conservative Party will cease to exist as a membership organisation and if that happens, oblivion awaits the Party. The Leader of the Party has to take radical action to change the structures of the Party to ensure this debacle does not happen again and if she doesn’t then we will have to get a Leader who will!