Hamish McFall is a public relations and marketing consultant, and is a former Parliamentary candidate.
The Conservative Party will never be able to command an overall majority again if it doesn’t stop treating its grassroots like dirt. Our grassroots are what Labour call their activists: the people who work for a party for free, and spread the word amongst their local communities. The Labour activists were what swung the pendulum towards the party in last week’s general election. Our volunteers were ignored, and their hard work and support was taken for granted by a Party run by a computer. I had my boots on the ground throughout the election, as an unpaid grassroots volunteer from a ‘safe’ Tory seat giving help to a candidate in a neighbouring marginal seat that we needed to win to secure a solid majority in Parliament.
CCHQ may not like what I have to say but I speak from experience. I have worked in the Conservative Research Department, stood as a parliamentary candidate, have been a London borough councillor and worked alongside David Cameron in Conservative Central Office, as it when was, for John Major during the 1992 General Election. I understand how the Tory Party currently works, and can see why its inability to consider the needs and contribution of the voluntary side of the Party has cost it dear.
There is a general misconception about canvassing, telling and knocking-up, both amongst Party members, and particularly amongst the wider voting public, who in a Labour-held seat may never have been canvassed before.
Canvassing is not about trying to change people’s voting intentions: it is all about identifying your supporters. It was traditionally based only on the electoral roll. Telling (noting down the polling number of each elector who has voted) the takes place at polling stations on election day. Finally, there is checking which of your supporters (pledges) have voted already, and knocking-up those that haven’t. The electoral roll is a public document. There is no invasion of privacy, and electors are never asked to say how only whether they have voted.
Fast forward to the twenty-first century. Political parties, desperate for votes, seem to have decided that algorithms are more important than people. This applies as much to Labour as to the Conservatives, but the latter, who rely on voluntary rather than on trade union donations, have had more money to throw into the cyber campaign.
As Tory grassroots volunteers on the doorstep, our first task, dictated from on high, was to visit pre-selected households and ask them to complete a questionnaire. There was no briefing because the person giving us the forms hadn’t been properly briefed. The name and address of the potential respondent was printed at the top of the page. Our instructions were to say: “Hi [name of person]”. I have never said “Hi” to anyone, and preferred the more traditional “hello”.
It then instructed us to say: “I am here on behalf of Theresa May’s candidate”. As Margaret Thatcher said: “No, No, No”: I’m not saying that. So I said instead: “Sorry to bother you, but I’m calling on behalf of your Conservative Candidate”.
The form then instructed us to ask how the voter rated each party on a scale of one to ten. When I started completing these forms, I would mark down a reasonably keen Conservative as a seven. I learnt later that the computer would only accept a total of ten, so a seven became ten unless you put a three against another Party.
That wasn’t the end of it. There were more questions (which I never asked), including: “Is your intention to vote influenced by your support for Theresa May?” There was a difference between Angus Robertson’s countenance at the declaration of his election defeat and a ray of sunshine. Equally, there is a difference between being on a doorstep in a wet and windy Wigan on a Wednesday evening, and sitting in sunny nerdsville dreaming up complex questionnaires. Will Tory high command ever get real?
These questionnaires were headed “D2D”. For a couple of days I couldn’t work out what this meant. I then met the man who had devised this crazy form, the Prime Minister’s PPS, and he said it meant “Door to Door”. It wasn’t door to door, because it was only to selective households which had been pre-selected by the computer. I have always told my corporate clients not to use TLA’s (and it always takes them a few moments to realise that I am ironically referring to Three Letter Acronyms).
It got worse. I have a feeling that the D2D information that we had so painstakingly gleaned was not actually imputed into our next adventure: “Tear and Share”. These were full-colour postcards with an additional tear-off which was half-postcard size. Each were personalised with a name and address and a name within the text: i.e “Sid and Doris”. The constituency was named, but no candidate name was mentioned. Each was personally “signed” by Theresa May. Our instructions were to call on each address, ask how they intended to vote and then take their phone number and their e-mail address: a preposterous invasion of privacy which nobody who has ever been on the doorstep would countenance.
I picked up three significant messages whilst I was telling on the early shift (7am -11am) on election day. More than one voter complained about the bombardment of letters they had received from the party leaders, particularly Theresa May. It was their belief that all these, personalised by the computer, letters had been sent at taxpayers’ expense. Another voter had been bombarded by telephone calls from a third-party organisation, paid for by a political party, urging him to go out and vote. After the fourteenth call, he wanted to rip out his phone line. A sensible man in his forties asked the officials running the polling station whether the election was to choose a Prime Minister. Correct in one sense – but he didn’t realise that his vote would decide who was going to be his local MP.
As a wet election morning turned into a windy election afternoon, we knew that the time for knocking-up was upon us. How would this marvellous computer-generated system work, and how would it make things easier and better for the volunteers?
It produced a whole new set of names and addresses, typically 61 double-sided pages per council ward. These should have shown only those pledges who hadn’t yet voted, so that they could be “knocked-up” and encouraged to vote. Not a bit of it.
These lists, perhaps compiled from a separate database which hadn’t taken account of our initial canvass, also had names and addresses of known socialists. Nobody told us – and we had to work it out for ourselves. The system was hopelessly slow, the central computers were overloaded, and they couldn’t produce any timely or useful information. The information so tirelessly gleaned by the tellers had been inputted by other volunteers at our campaign HQ ,but was not reflected on the lists generated by the computer. Nine times out of ten we were being asked to knock-up electors who had already voted.
May visited the marginal constituency in which I and many others were campaigning. Nobody much was told about her visit, and only the candidate and two others were allowed to meet her. Contrast that with the – however false and deluded – throngs of supporters at Corbyn’s rallies.
The election which we have just had to endure has been a disaster for grassroots Tories in so many parts of the United Kingdom. The only good words in that close-kept and ill-thought through manifesto were “Conservative and Unionist Party”. It’s fortunate that someone remembered to include the word Unionist.
There are positive actions that can be taken at grassroots level. We can implement these, but CCHQ needs to support them fully. Retailers and fast food outlets don’t ask their staff to wear name badges just for fun. It helps the customers making staff more approachable. It also helps newcomers get to know colleagues quickly. When lots of people from different constituencies get together to canvass, it can be difficult to get to know others, and to feel part of a cohesive group. All volunteers should be given a rosette designed with a space for their Christian name.
CCHQ – or Big Brother as it could be renamed, although it seems to have been run more along the lines of The Big Brother House – should adopt a policy of Explain and Listen. We need clear briefings about why something needs to be done. not just what needs to be done and a formal system for feedback, for example in the form of a Suggestions Book. Thirdly, rally the troops! The Party needs to show the strength and depth of its support by holding rallies, and show its local support by doing mass canvassing – not sending out solitary canvassers to trudge the wet streets alone. So: Name, Explain & Listen, and Rally – NELR.