Paul Abbott is Chief Executive of Conservative Way Forward and an Associate Director at Portland Communications.
With Lord Feldman’s much-needed Party Review on the horizon, ConservativeHome have kindly asked me to scribble down a few thoughts each week, in answer to the question: How can we build a campaigning machine fit for the 21st century?
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I first met Andrew Kennedy during the Rochester by-election. He is the Conservative Party’s “Super Agent” for the West Kent grouping; and very much our man in the Medway. A sort-of-Overlord of the M20.
Andrew is also blessed with a plethora of English eccentricities, which recommend him well. He lives on a Wind-In-The-Willows houseboat, writes a defiant blog called Voting-And-Boating, and has an indefatigable impatience with laziness.
Finally, he is a zealous campaigner. And therefore a hero of mine.
Consider his Twitter biography, which says simply:
“More leaflets = more votes.”
They do love leaflets in Kent! Or, consider these vintage remarks from his blog in February 2013, looking at our (broken) system of Party Membership:
“You pay an annual subscription of at least £25.00 for which you receive a plastic membership card and the opportunity to purchase summer and Christmas draw tickets, contribute to the election campaign appeal and give up your day off to walk the streets delivering leaflets and being abused by strangers. Then, of course, there is the branch social event where your wallet will be emptied of even more hard-earned money for which you will receive a plate full of food you wouldn’t feed to your dog and get cornered by the type of man who wears a suit on a Saturday…”
Crash! Bang! Wallop!
That initial meeting with Andrew took place on the gloriously-named Hoo peninsula. Deborah Feldman and I were running a series of buses down from London, mass-transiting in crowds to help with the by-election effort.
Andrew was one of our key organisers, getting us shipshape on the ground. Over a pint or three in the pub afterwards, we got into the sort of nerdy chitchat that by-elections are made for. And I remember him mentioning: tactics like this might work for a short-term sprint. But how, longer term, can we rebuild the local grassroots at scale? It is an important question.
He went on to sketch out the blueprints of something that he has been mulling over – and working to solve – for years and years. Namely, that our strength is worryingly asymmetric. We are strongest financially in our safest areas; and weakest in our most marginal. Our troops, talent and money seem to be located precisely where they are least useful. This skews our whole campaign, and limits our ability to win.
Yesterday on ConservativeHome, Andrew offered an important part of the answer to this. He argues that we should build up stronger City/County federations, run and owned locally, to boost campaigning where it is most needed.
This, he says, would help us to…
It would also mean, crucially, that…
As Conservatives, we are taught to be extremely cautious about welfare; because it entrenches the poverty trap, and locks people into a cycle of dependency. Bluntly, the same is true of campaign finance: we should look to ourselves first, and to our friends and neighbours – rather than always beating down CCHQ’s door to demand more cash.
One Association Chairman got in touch, to tell me:
“I would be happy to federate. But only if the new structure was democratic and there was help with the details. It would be complex: we have contracts for photocopiers and so on. We would need help squaring that.”
A Councillor in London told me:
“We have to sort our campaign structure in Cities. Labour are swamping London marginals, all the time, from their safer seats. Yes, we did this a bit for the General Election. But what about at local elections? We need a proper system to do this locally, long-term, that is accountable to all the elected officers in the Voluntary Party.”
One constituency office manager said:
“I think the Party needs to open its doors wider… it needs more proper grown-ups… and maybe they should ask those who do the day-to-day work to keep the ship running!”
Look: I am not naive. I have seen – first hand, for almost a decade – the reality of Association infighting, rivalries, and the general belly-aching about sharing resources. Such is life.
But I am also an optimist. Because I have also seen the immense cheerfulness and war spirit, the capacity for teamwork in the Conservative Party, when something really matters. That Rochester by-election was a good example.
Consider this. In just a few short weeks, the Leader of the Opposition may have a beard and look suspiciously like Lenin. The difficult reality is that we have not won a landslide. If Jeremy Corbyn becomes the Labour leader, wins just a handful of extra seats in 2020, and does a deal with the SNP, he could be our Prime Minister for five long miserable years – confiscating private property, praising terrorists, and crushing British workers with new taxes.
So, let us be bold, while time is on our side. The Kennedy plan could work. It would further professionalise our campaigning, while enhancing the local democracy that our Party depends on. It would build up our machinery, while making sure that local volunteers still call the shots. It is a blueprint for our future: and for keeping a Conservative Prime Minister in Downing Street. We should give it every possible help and support.
P.S. One final thought on candidates, from last week. Another experienced observer of these matters has emailed me, to say:
“Sometimes the seats with the biggest majorities that are the ones needing the most support, not having had to face a selection process for 20 or 30 years. [Whereas] some of the most active and dedicated are those where they are constantly facing an opposition MP, and are doing selections every four or five years.”
Fair point! To my mind, this is another reason for stronger and weaker Associations to federate and work together: there would be profit in both directions.