After the troubles of the 2017 General Election campaign there was, not unreasonably, a degree of trepidation about how the Conservative machine would function in last week’s local elections. After all, this was the first major electoral test for the Party since June, and the first for Brandon Lewis and James Cleverly as Chairman and Vice-Chairman.
No-one expected structural issues like the huge imbalance between Conservative and Labour membership figures to be solved in a few short months. While Lewis reports the Tory membership to be growing, it’s inevitable – for now, at least – that any national Conservative campaign will be outnumbered in terms of boots on the ground.
That meant the primary challenge was a familiar one, overcome in 2015 but badly misjudged in 2017: how to best use relatively scarce troops in such a way as to maximise their effectiveness, and so rebalance the playing field.
Compared to last year’s mismatched expectations, this time Party strategists seem to have had a pretty clear-eyed view of the realities of where there were opportunities and threats. There were certainly some disappointments, in terms of unsuccessful defences and areas where hoped-for gains were not forthcoming. But by and large the judgement of where to focus resources was fairly good – helping to blunt the scale of the expected Labour advance.
Once the battlefields were identified, what was the general experience of the troops on the ground?
For a start, the engagement rate of activists is reported to have been quite high. The threat of Corbynites gaining power – “Bolsheviks in charge of your bins”, as one Tory campaign email put it – certainly spurred many members into action. Labour’s well-publicised confidence in planning to unseat Conservative councillors and seize control of previously safe authorities, led by overconfident left-wing celebrities like Owen Jones, stirred many members to hit the doorsteps.
After some worrying difficulties in recruiting and nominating candidates in some areas – another consequence of a depleted membership – it’s fair to note that a Herculean effort did in the end deliver a very nearly full slate across the 4,413 wards. That doesn’t make the difficulties go away – a national party ought to be able to find council candidates across the country without having to take staff off campaigning duties to root them out – but it does offer a window of opportunity to try to ensure the issue isn’t repeated next time.
There are certainly surface signs that the Party’s new management has studied and learned from the failings that annoyed so many in 2017, too. The Party Chairman sent a thank you email to supporters shortly after midnight on the night of the election – a simple and well-received gesture, in stark contrast to the damaging delay in his predecessor’s communications last June. He followed it up with an article on ConservativeHome, as the Prime Minister does today. The internal communications coming from his office and CCHQ more generally have, I am told, improved, too.
As I wrote in September, however, a major impact of last year’s campaign failures was to undermine faith around the country in the judgement of the centre. As predicted, the damage done to trust in the chain of command had practical consequences this year.
One example is in the use of VoteSource. The Party’s canvassing and campaigning technology worked well; the spreading use of the mobile app brings obvious efficiency benefits in terms of automating canvass returns. However, many associations have not forgotten the experience of 2017 when CCHQ turned off access to the system in some areas in a clumsy attempt to force campaigners to switch to helping out in other, target, locations.
The failure and deep unpopularity of that approach means it is unlikely to be repeated – and senior officials have assured many volunteers that they have no intention of doing it again. However, some of those who endured the nasty experience of losing access to all their canvassing data in 2017, and others who had heard about the practice, were still worried by the possibility. Various local campaigns decided to commit time and effort to printing off full copies of their local voter contact data ahead of time, just in case.
That proved to be unnecessary, but it tells us two things about the current state of play in the campaign machine. First, that trust is a crucial asset which is very hard to restore once lost, and that process of restoring faith in the centre is far from complete. Second, that errors in handling the Party machine in one election can have ongoing knock-on costs in later elections. Last year’s mismanaged campaign was obviously damaging at the time, but even a year later it inflicted new costs in terms of time, effort and money on the 2018 local election campaign.
It’s hard to blame those local associations who decided to take extra precautions to protect against the possibility of a crucial service being withdrawn at the last moment by CCHQ – once bitten, twice shy, after all. Ultimately, the responsibility lies with those who failed to see the damage they were doing last year.
The issue is a reminder to the new management of CCHQ (should they need one) that their work really does matter; the benefits of success now, just like the consequences of failure, will be lasting. The membership is not something to be taken for granted or derided, it must be nurtured and respected.
Fortunately, there are at least early signs that this message has been received. “We wouldn’t be able to run campaigns without people like you”, the Party Chairman wrote in his election night thank you email to activists. He’s right – and these results offer him a new opportunity to raise their morale, and win back their trust in the Conservative Party’s campaign machine.