Theodora Dickinson worked for Vote Leave and has run local and general election campaigns for the Conservative Party. She now runs a social media and political communications consultancy, while campaigning for MPs to honour the referendum result.
The dire state of the Conservative Party’s campaign operation in London may cost us the Mayoral election. Something must be done quickly.
Across London – from Waterloo to Walthamstow – Labour MPs, councillors, and activists kicked off the new year by joining the Mayor of London and Jeremy Corbyn to campaign against the so-called ‘Tory Rail Mayhem’. Sadiq Khan claims that they were campaigning at over 200 stations across the city. That is certainly an impressive feat, and not something that we as Conservatives in the capital could come close to matching, given the Party’s current state. But we didn’t even try.
This piece is not the place to debate the merits of our rail and infrastructure policies. Though, I must admit I don’t quite understand why the government has decided to subsidise rail travel for 16- and 17-year-olds at the expense of working commuters who have seen rail fares rise by over a third since the start of the decade.
But it beggars belief that there has been zero effort to sell our policies to the public.
The campaign to take back control of City Hall should have started months ago. As it stands, it has barely got off the ground. Many, especially on this website, recommended that CCHQ should have organised an earlier selection of our Mayoral candidate. It is at least welcome that we haven’t made the same mistake as in the 2016 campaign when Zac Goldsmith was only selected seven months before election day.
Yet, inexplicably, this earlier selection has not been followed up with any real campaigning effort. There is no point in selecting someone 19 months in advance if we are not going to spend that 19 months shedding blood, sweat, and tears to actually win.
As Tony Devenish wrote on this website in December 2017, our London mayoral candidate must demonstrate “an outstanding work ethic”.
“That’s public service. Two years’ of breakfast with business leaders, lunches/dinners with community leaders (Monday-Thursday minimum). You can have Friday night off. A candidate has to be fully up to speed on a huge variety of issues (or expect to suffer accordingly). Minimum 12-14 hour day with half days each Saturday/Sunday (90 hour + weeks’ during the last six months). 7am ice cold tube drops and 10am/3pm door knocking in the rain.”
This is what candidates sign up for – whether you are campaigning in a marginal seat for a General Election or running for Mayor of London.
Any successful campaign – as was the case of Vote Leave’s surprise victory in the EU referendum – must be a combination of campaigning on the ground as well as online. At present neither of these bases are being covered.
There is really no excuse for such scant evidence of campaign activity, especially when Borough Campaign Managers have been appointed across London. All of London’s 32 boroughs are supposed to have their own campaign manager, with each being paid an annual salary of around £25,000. With national insurance contributions, pensions and training factored in, the total cost to the party must be above £1 million per year. I have yet to see any bang for this buck.
In boroughs which overlap with key marginal Parliamentary seats – such as Hammersmith & Fulham, Kingston, and Barnet – surprisingly little campaigning has taken place since last year’s local elections. Morale amongst activists is a rock bottom, however there is no excuse for local councillors, MPs, Assembly Members, and candidates not to be leading the charge and making sure they get themselves elected.
CCHQ is correct to have started appointing these campaign managers, especially as there might be another General Election within months or even weeks. We cannot afford to make the same needless mistakes as in 2017 and hand the keys to Number 10 to Jeremy Corbyn and his far-left comrades. As reported in the Sun yesterday, Central Office is “woefully unprepared” to fight a snap election. Leaked internal Conservative Party projections “put Jeremy Corbyn in No 10, at the helm of a rainbow coalition government including the SNP and the Lib Dems”. According to the leaked report, CCHQ’s data on our voters nationwide is “badly out of date” and our “grassroots membership is badly demoralised”.
However, there needs to be an overhaul of CCHQ’s approach to hiring, training, and retaining competent staff members. As Mark Wallace reported on this website, shortly before the 2017 election, “inexperienced” campaign managers were centrally appointed who didn’t understand “elections, activists or campaigning”. They unquestioningly followed central advice, such as “telling activists not to call on [Conservative] pledges”.
This followed on from CCHQ’s poor treatment of their campaign managers after the 2015 election. Of the 120 who were appointed, trained, and who gained experience of how a successful election campaign is run, 100 were let go. This was a catastrophe for our party. As our Party’s Deputy Chairman has been highlighting, we cannot afford to campaign only at election time. That means we cannot afford to lose people who have valuable campaign experience.
Aside from the issue of motivation, we also have an embarrassing lack of members and activists. When the Conservative Mayoral candidate was selected in October it was indicated that our total membership in London is just 15,000. By contrast, in the six months following Corbyn’s election as Labour leader in 2016, 81,000 Londoners joined the Labour Party, suggesting their total number of members is easily well above 100,000 – more than the total Conservative membership in the UK. A priority for Shaun Bailey and the London Conservative team must be to recruit more members.
Conservative Campaign Headquarters has also been gutted. The dribble of talent which has been noticeable since the 2015 election has become a flood, with stars such as Gareth Milner and Carrie Symonds taking up well-earned promotions elsewhere.
Our London Mayoral campaign is failing at an elementary level. If you search for ‘Shaun Bailey’ on Google, his website doesn’t show in the results until the middle of the second page. Once you find the website, things continue downhill. The news section of his website hasn’t been updated for over a month, and only FOUR news items have been added since Shaun was announced as our candidate at the Party Conference in September. There is an ‘events’ section, but no events actually listed.
Shaun is a good and regular user of Twitter, however on Facebook – which is much more important for political campaigning – the posts are irregular, and nothing was posted for nearly a month over Christmas. The party is also not paying for adverts, which are essential in order to reach voters and activists. Organic reach on social media platforms is declining. Only one in every 200 people who likes a Facebook page will see its content unless you pay to promote it.
According to a YouGov survey last month more than half of Londoners would vote for Sadiq Khan in the 2020 mayoral election. This led the New Statesman to say the London Mayoral race is “over before it starts”.
A total of 55 per cent of respondents to YouGov’s survey said they would vote for Khan despite concerns over soaring crime rates, chaos at TfL (thanks to the Labour mayor’s botched fares freeze), and inertia in the face of London’s housing crisis.
There is an opportunity for a Conservative London Mayoral candidate to outperform the party as a whole. Khan performs better than the Labour Party in London (YouGov’s poll has Labour on 49 per cent in the capital compared to the 44 per cent they polled at last year’s local elections). If these numbers are repeated on polling day Khan will become the first politician ever to win outright in the first round of a London mayoral contest.
The figures for Shaun Bailey, by contrast, are worrying. He polls a mere 28 per cent in London, whereas the Conservative Party as a whole are on 33 per cent.
There is no reason why London should be considered a Labour city. We had a Conservative Mayor of London for two terms from 2008 to 2016. We finished further ahead of Labour in London at the 1987 and 1992 general elections than we did nationwide. And we have not won a comfortable majority in Parliament for over four decades without finishing ahead of Labour in London.
London is an aspirational city to whom a message of opportunity from our party should cut through. We can win these voters back. We just need to try.