Prime Ministers don’t visit constituencies they expect to lose. Indeed, if more people had paid attention to David Cameron’s visit to Twickenham a few days before the 2015 General Election, there might have been less surprise at the return to majority Government.
So Theresa May’s visit to Copeland yesterday suggests confidence in Downing Street and CCHQ about the outcome of the Cumbrian by-election next week. Nothing is certain in politics, of course, but the seat is certainly within the Tory grasp for the first time since 1931.
If Copeland is won, it would be famous victory – a vindication of May’s message and another nail in the coffin of Corbyn’s undead Labour Party. It would no doubt be hailed, too, as a triumph for the Conservative by-election machine.
What is the exact state of that by-election operation, though?
Speaking to a variety of activists and MPs who have taken part in the ground campaign, there are plenty of reports of voters switching from Labour to Conservative, and a degree of guarded optimism about the result. But those sources also report a range of concerns about the way the campaign is being run – suggesting the Conservative ground operation is not running as smoothly as it should.
CCHQ certainly got off the blocks quickly, organising campaign days between Christmas and New Year. But then things slowed down – understandably, questions are asked about why the Conservative candidate wasn’t selected until 25th January, later than Labour, UKIP and the Liberal Democrats. Even once Trudy Harrison was chosen, activists turned up to help only to find that basic materials such as leaflets featuring her name weren’t available, further shortening the window of opportunity to build up recognition.
That problem was later overcome, but other problems have persisted. Tory troops, often travelling long distances to help out, express frustration that they weren’t able to do as much as they could have due to an apparently stuttering logistical operation – such as leafleting teams learning half way through the day that there are no more bundles or delivery runs prepared for them at campaign headquarters. Some have been sent out canvassing without basic information about the candidate or local issues. Such errors are an obvious waste of resources, as well as annoying for volunteers who are giving up their time.
Activists who have visited in the last few days tell me that the seat still has “no buzz” about the forthcoming by-election, and several were surprised to see almost no visible signs of a campaign underway at all – such as a lack of the visible posters one might expect with polling day only a week away. While a campaign isn’t won through posters, it isn’t unusual to see them as a by-product of a ground war that is successfully firing up its target vote.
Then there’s the question of how the Party is supplying the troops for this effort. In the years since the victory in Crewe and Nantwich, the Conservative Party has at times struggled to put a full campaigning force in the field. The nadir of Eastleigh in 2013 exposed a serious problem with capacity in areas where declining grassroots numbers had hollowed out the Party. Under Cameron – or, more precisely, under the co-chairmanship of Shapps – various solutions were sought.
One involved the mass deployment of Conservative MPs and candidates. At worst, as in Eastleigh, they were used to replace a local base that no longer existed. At best, they were focal points to bring other activists into the fight. Either way, in the Cameron years the Parliamentary Conservative Party was under strict orders to turn up to by-elections a certain number of times. It was, one MP says, a “very prescriptive” regime, and while it certainly turned out the numbers, it had the twin downsides of encouraging tick-box attendance and reducing morale – he tells of a tendency to “campaign for 40 minutes and a photo” then go home.
Parliamentarians are pleased that the new leadership takes a “less hectoring” approach, and has attempted to appeal to their desire to win rather than implying that personal advancement depends on attendance. That has certainly raised morale, and produced visiting MPs who are there because they want to be rather than under orders that “you’ve got to do this, because you’ve got to”. However, that brings downsides for Copeland. Most recent, viable Tory by-election efforts have been in the South and Midlands, within easy striking distance of most Conservative MPs’ constituencies. Cumbria is rather further away – and, as one MP puts it, some have been surprised to learn that “the North is massive” – which has deterred some from attending.
Candidates, by contrast, report being under broadly the same pressures to attend by-elections as they were in previous years; doing so is expected as part of their membership of the candidates list. However, there have been some concessions to human considerations – their attendance is expected, but they are more free to choose their own dates, a welcome shift for those in full-time work, with children or of limited means, who found themselves ordered to travel across the country for campaign days at short notice under the previous regime.
The second major push under Shapps was to develop a “shock troops” system, which could bring relatively large numbers of activists in from across the country. Team2015 grew to tens of thousands of people by the time of the General Election, supplemented by the now-infamous RoadTrip2015, which was struck by tragedy and then scandal after the death of Elliott Johnson. We warned at the time that these tactics might work as stopgaps, but were not permanent solutions to the Conservative Party’s grassroots issues – and urged that the time they bought should be used to rebuild the Party nationally. While some progress has been made in recent years in terms of overall numbers, that eventual goal of a sizeably increased, activist membership still looks a long way off.
In the meantime, Team2015 has not been replaced. The CCHQ organogram we published in June 2015 showed a “Team 2020”, which to my knowledge organised one action day in September of that year then disappeared. Intermittent CCHQ emails still go out inviting Tory members to make campaign phone calls, but there has been no continuation of the intensive effort of identifying, training and then focusing activists that helped to win the General Election.
Perhaps the horrific aftermath of Johnson’s death has made the Party allergic to the concept, though Team2015 and RoadTrip2015 were distinct ideas and operations and Mark Clarke’s actions discredited himself rather than the whole principle of targeted campaigning. Or perhaps the new leadership just doesn’t share their predecessors’ analysis. Either way, most of the groups travelling to Copeland have done so on their own initiative and under their own steam, without the mass events seen previously.
Copeland could still be a Conservative Gain next week – there are certainly plenty of reasons why it should, not least the parlous state of the Opposition. If it does, the Prime Minister would be justified in enjoying a celebratory glass of wine. But perhaps not a second glass; our Party still has problems in its ground campaign.