Over the last two days, I’ve presented the stark findings of ConservativeHome’s in-depth investigation into the performance of the Conservative campaign machine in the recent General Election – first at the national level, and then in the ground war.
The very fact that so many Conservatives – from the grassroots up to senior figures in Parliament, CCHQ and Government – have been willing to contribute their thoughts, experiences and concerns to these reports is itself an indication of how deeply many of them were troubled by what they saw. Many of them have spoken out in the hope that doing so will make clear the degree to which reform is required. Understandably, none of them want to go through a similar campaigning experience ever again. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank them all for their contributions, made in the hope of improving the future prospects of a Party that they serve through a great deal of hard work, mostly unheralded and unthanked.
Some readers justifiably point to issues with policy and the manifesto, or personality and messaging, when examining the reasons for the election campaign’s failure. ConservativeHome shares that view – but the purpose of this series is neither to repeat such arguments, which have been widely explored already, nor to distract from them. Rather, we believe that the functioning – or otherwise – of the campaign machine must be scrutinised and improved in addition to addressing those other issues.
The Conservative Party can develop better policies, or choose more popular personalities, for a future election, but it will still find itself reliant on its headquarters and its grassroots to be the bridge between that offer and the electorate. The 2017 election result produced an extremely close margin between retaining or losing a Parliamentary majority, even after the manifesto and other problems had taken their toll. It is an uncomfortable truth that a better functioning machine could have made all the difference. As a senior MP put it to me during the research for this series: “There are at least ten or 12 things, that if any one of them had not been messed up, we would probably have had a majority.” The malfunctioning campaign machine was one of those things.
In broad terms, this investigation has revealed that the Conservative campaign machine suffered from a series of serious problems:
- A hollowed-out CCHQ, reliant on hiring in outside leadership as well as expertise, simply wasn’t prepared for the snap General Election that the Prime Minister chose to call.
- Once it was hastily restaffed, it was still forced to rely on insufficient data and was controlled by an unclear chain of command.
- Under the pressure of a troubled campaign and outside events beyond its control, it was slow to adapt and had few if any external allies lined up to fight its corner.
- The start of the campaign, in which members were effectively stripped of much of their remaining democratic right to select their candidates, was both inauspicious and damaging to the relationship between the Party and its grassroots.
- Already heavily outnumbered by the Labour ground operation, the Conservative Party had cancelled and closed down the operations which previously enabled it to focus its troops onto the seats where they could have the greatest effect.
- Activists were asked to trust in a targeting analysis that proved to be based on flawed data and assumptions that were overturned by the manifesto, and thereby too often found themselves on the wrong doorsteps or even in the wrong constituencies.
- The messages and literature they were asked to deliver proved in many cases to be ineffective or even counter-productive.
- Concerns and criticisms of these issues were communicated to the centre by members, candidates and MPs during the campaign itself. But the machine insisted on sticking to its plan, and insisted that the ground operation followed suit right to the last moment.
The first two articles in this series have already sparked a great deal of debate within Conservative circles about how to fix this broken machine. That was our initial objective, and we hope that debate will continue and spread within all levels of the Party – a debate which should then result in meaningful and effective action to reform the operation well before it has to fight another election.
To conclude the series, ConservativeHome therefore puts forward the following proposals for reform. Some of them may be hard to accept, and others will no doubt be hard to implement, but the evidence presented so far demonstrates, we hope, that they are necessary.
A new Party Chairman is needed
Sir Patrick McLoughlin is a good man, an experienced MP, and a loyal servant of the Conservative Party. However, numerous readers have asked why he has barely featured in our reporting of what went on inside the Conservative campaign. The fact is that he was “sidelined”, in the words of a well-connected adviser, dispatched to tour target seats. Despite being in charge of the CCHQ and wider Conservative Party operation since July 2016, his role in implementing reforms proved very limited. “He probably feels slight wronged being blamed for the consultants,” one of his colleagues noted after the result, before answering my question as to whether he should stay with the frank reply: “Is he really there now?” His approval rating in our ConservativeHome members’ survey crashed into negative double figures immediately following the election and has not recovered. The Conservative Party needs drastic reform, and to identify and implement those reforms it needs a new chairman.
The feast and famine approach to staffing CCHQ must end
The fact that the Conservative Party found itself struggling to fight a snap election called by its own leader had severe consequences. It meant they suffered from a lack of advance research and groundwork; it meant crucial decisions were made based on poor data; it meant selecting candidates without the benefit of prior name-recognition, and a rush to do so that harmed morale; it meant the hastily developed campaign plan suffered from repeated setbacks; and it meant systems were put in place to meet the requirements of week one that failed to detect and address the later problems with the manifesto. Much of this stemmed from the long-standing feast and famine policy of expanding CCHQ to a functional level in the run-up to elections, then drastically downsizing again as soon as the voting has finished, losing people, knowledge and functionality every time it did so.
The financial reasons for such a policy are obvious, but the electoral consequences are now obvious, too. It will be expensive to do, but CCHQ must become a permanent, not cyclical, campaigning headquarters. This means proper, permanent staffing, the opportunity to test messages and tactics over the long-term, and the chance to gather useful and accurate data on a large scale on a continuous basis. Parliamentary elections are not the only campaigns our Party is required to fight – and the advent of Metro Mayors means the elections in mid-term periods are now bigger than ever. While it is unlikely any Conservative leader will call another snap election any time soon, the lack of a majority in the Commons means that we must prepare nonetheless in case one becomes necessary, or is forced upon us.
CCHQ should have permanent in-house leadership, advised where necessary by outside specialists
One effect of the feast and famine approach was a growing reliance on outside consultants – not only for specialist expertise but to form the leadership of the CCHQ operation itself. Such advice can be very useful – the 2015 campaign showed that – though it is also reported to be extremely expensive. The Conservative Party should always be willing, where necessary, to hire in advice on particular specialisms; polling, digital technologies, off-the-shelf software and so on all spring to mind. But it must not be in a position again in which the roles of chief executive and senior management team are effectively outsourced. Not only did such a system prove inflexible with short notice – 2015 showed it requires them to be in place for a long period before polling day to be effective – but it also made it harder to design and agree a clear chain of command, with harmful results.
The Conservative Party should be a place where careers can develop
A frustrating and damaging feature of the current approach to Conservative Party employees is a repeated cycle of investing in people’s skills and training when young, only to lose them to the private sector or Government. This is compounded by the irony that such people are often the very same consultants hired in later on in their careers, often at great expense. There’s no way of guaranteeing that everyone will stay forever, nor would a guaranteed job for life be a healthy system, but the Party should adopt at least a medium-term rather than short-term approach to its development of staff. The example of the 120 local campaign managers, hired and trained for the 2015 election, only to be mostly let go just as they had gained their first combat experience, is a depressing one which should not be repeated.
CCHQ must become a centre for supporting Conservative campaigning, not micro-managing Conservative campaigning
The recent General Election campaign was the most centralised that any of those I spoke to could remember. Control of candidate selections, central drafting of almost all literature, insisting on highly specific targeting in a record number of seats regardless of local experience, direct control of candidates’ social media pages, et cetera, et cetera. This had two effects. First, it meant that the potential benefit of local knowledge was too often ignored or over-ruled. Second, it meant that the hollowed-out headquarters visibly struggled to handle all the tasks that it had accrued to itself. Errors were made – such as leaflets being misdrafted, or sent to places they should not have been sent – that appear to have sprung from a machine that was struggling to cope.
A major change in role and culture is required to change this. CCHQ will always be involved in producing and implementing a national election strategy – that’s right, proper and necessary. But the organisation must become more relaxed about the fact that sometimes local officials and candidates will differ in their political views and in their strategic analysis of the local situation. That feeling that I reported from one MP yesterday, that the Conservative Party acts like “a totalitarian state”, enforcing beliefs as well as behaviours at every level, cannot be allowed to continue. Such a centralised role is unhealthy, demoralising and places impossible burdens on the centre.
CCHQ should seek to support Conservative campaigning across our Party, rather than to police ideological differences beyond enforcing the rules on disrepute and so on. It must become better at exchanging views on strategy with those closest to the voters, not simply broadcasting orders down to the associations, the candidates and the grassroots. The philosophy that produced supposedly local leaflets which held almost no information about the area’s issues, or even the local candidate, and which were in some cases sent out without the local association’s knowledge, is unsustainable and ineffective, and must come to an end.
Members should directly elect the ‘voluntary Party’ posts on the Conservative Party Board
While powers were being centralised in the election campaign, sometimes ‘consultation with the voluntary Party’ representatives who sit on the Board was offered as a figleaf to justify doing so. This memorably happened in changing the candidate selection rules, and then in the resulting process of shortlisting and imposing candidates. However, as I reported recently, these roles are only elected by a very small number of members, drawn from the ranks of association officers. Even then, most do not vote and senior posts are routinely uncontested.
Given concerns about CCHQ’s weak culture of accepting constructive criticism, the lack of any mechanism for representatives of the mass membership of the Conservative Party to hold the central operation to account is an obvious flaw in the current arrangements. There is no good reason of cost or logistics which precludes Conservative Party members being able to directly elect their representatives on the Board. Indeed, other parties routinely hold similar elections online. Anyone concerned about a Momentum-style takeover should be reassured by the fact that such representatives only form a minority of the Board itself, but having voices there who truly represent the foot-soldiers who do so much work for the Party would be of clear benefit, and would go some way to dispelling the feeling that members are taken for granted.
Restore greater democratic input into candidate selections, and select far earlier
As this site has covered at length, the centralised candidate selection process proved very damaging. Many candidates were left disillusioned, and much of the membership rightly felt that they had been stripped of one of the democratic rights that they valued most. The emergency rules under which that process took place should be scrapped, and the inroads that had been made into local democratic input in recent years ought to be reversed. The practice of centrally imposing hundreds of candidates, without any local choice, should be rejected entirely. The need for the candidates list, and the use of PABs to assess the merit of candidates to join that list, is reasonable and practical. However, the gradual encroachment of CCHQ into what ought to be a democratic process, first by advising associations on long-listing and short-listing, and latterly even requiring such processes to take place physically inside headquarters, under supervision, ought to be reversed. Conservative Party members have shown themselves time and again to be very good at selecting candidates who can win even very difficult seats, and who go on to become very good MPs. It’s time to trust them.
The fact that no candidates had been selected before the snap election was a deliberate choice – assuming that an election was still three years away, CCHQ had not allowed associations to select. Even had the next election been in 2020, rather than 2017, this would have been a mistake. Earlier candidate selection gives focus to an association’s efforts, and gives the candidate the benefit of far greater name recognition when election day comes round. There should be a general presumption in favour of selecting much earlier.
The impact of recent scandals relating to campaigning was severe and lasting – understandably and mostly justifiably. But it was both wrong and a serious error for the Party to develop an apparent allergy to the very concept of efficiently directing activists into the seats where they are most needed. As a result of that error, the 2017 campaign saw tried and tested tactics and operations from 2015 dropped, in favour of an approach that was found not to work back in 2014. The campaign suffered as a result.
No-one would suggest recreating the RoadTrip that proved a tragic disaster. But it is long overdue to get back to using and further developing the things that worked – namely, the Team2015 approach, of a focused effort to persuade and incentivise a trained and experienced core of activists to travel to selected battleground seats. The Labour Party did so in the election, to great effect, and is already doing so again in the seats of Conservative MPs whom it hopes to defeat next time. Having wasted two years, and valuable experience, the Conservative Party is currently wasting yet more time. A successor operation to Team2015 must be created as soon as possible. If the branding sounds like a reputational problem given the blurring of what happened in which arm of the campaign, call it something else. In fact, call it whatever you might wish – but make sure it happens.
Hire permanent local agents or campaign managers wherever possible
Placing CCHQ on a more permanent campaign footing will help to overcome the problems of poor data and more general unpreparedness. But the local campaign operation would also benefit from a greater degree of stability, and a sustained opportunity to gather and use campaign experience and local knowledge. Over the years, the Party has periodically hired and trained waves of agents and campaign managers, only for many of them to later fall victim to the same feast and famine approach that afflicts staff at the centre. This is a waste, and regularly means either doing without professional campaign staff on the ground or repeatedly starting again from scratch in training them anew. It will be expensive, but there must be a recognition of the need for agents or campaign managers to be employed permanently in far more target seats and Tory-held marginals. The development of Multi-Constituency Associations offers an opportunity to do this by pooling resources – the successes of Andrew Kennedy in West Kent offer a model for sharing such a role between seats.
Create a new outreach programme to woo or build allied third party groups
The “red tide” of third party groups which were broadly allied to Labour – or, at minimum, opposed to the Conservatives – took a heavy toll in the election. From deploying activists, to driving high levels of organic sharing on social media, to well-organised union campaigns, such as banners in schools and letters about cuts from headteachers, the number of groups lined up with the Opposition was in stark contrast to the small number allied to the Conservatives. Labour’s success or otherwise in this field is not something that can be stopped. But the Conservative Party must do more to bolster its own hinterland.
Back in 2014, Paul Goodman explored the possibility of dividing CCHQ into a campaigning organisation and a longer-term, strategic foundation that focused on developing the Conservative Party’s relationships with groups in civil society. Whether that approach is best, or whether the existing CCHQ simply needs a unit dedicated to the task, there is a need for a new outreach programme to woo – or encourage the founding of – third party groups that are in broad alliance with the Party’s aims. To do so will require talented people, and just as importantly a relaxed view of ideological differences. CCHQ cannot view organisations on the Centre Right primarily and resentfully through the lens of where they disagree with the Party – it should focus on where there is common ground and welcome their help. Sometimes that might mean taking difficult decisions, such as accepting donors giving money to organisations other than the central Party.
Re-establish a Conservative youth movement – or more than one
Conservative Future was closed down in the aftermath of the tragic death of Elliott Johnson. That was a blanket approach, driven by a somewhat panicked central party which was understandably keen to do anything to avoid any further sniff of scandal. A review was promised of what to do next, but I understand that it is only now – two years on – reporting to the Party Board about the future of operations relating to young members and activists. The lack of Conservative Future, or a successor to it, was keenly felt in the General Election campaign, both online and on the ground. It is well past time for a youth movement to be re-established – indeed, ConservativeHome has been arguing that it would be wise to do so for the past year.
Given that other groups are spontaneously springing up in that vacuum, including at least one which has proved troubled and embarrassing within its first weeks, there is a natural nervousness about endorsing or accepting independent youth campaigning organisations. However, if they are kept entirely outside the fold then they will still continue to develop and then crash in public. CCHQ’s Youth Outreach Officer should be empowered again to make contact with and offer advice to anyone looking to found their own organisation. That will require a relaxed acceptance that there may be ideological or policy differences between the national Party and potential youth organisations – it’s not a surprise that young activists interested in politics might tend to cluster based on their shared ideas and opinions. In keeping with CCHQ’s new role as a facilitator of campaigning, rather than an enforcer of ideological obedience, we should be willing to see a range of competing organisations come into existence, and they should be helped to avoid the pitfalls (and prat falls) that they might otherwise suffer.
Embed the ’22 properly in developing policy and the next manifesto
Finally, a word on the manifesto process. I wrote on Tuesday that this was “necessarily secretive”. That is true to an extent – most parties (barring, apparently, Labour) control the release of their policy announcements in order to maximise their effectiveness when announced. But the system for writing the 2017 manifesto was far too closed. In seeking secrecy, it failed to consult with people who would undoubtedly have raised grave concerns about the effects of its most damaging proposal: the social care policy. That includes ministers, but it also includes the 1922 Committee, which has a serious and useful series of policy committees. Conservative MPs are well-placed to suggest new ideas but also to flag up things they know will prove to be a problem when presented to their voters. They, after all, have rather more skin in the game, standing to lose their seats if others get it wrong.
That process of writing and launching a manifesto without proper consultation should not be repeated. The ’22’s policy committees and leadership should be embedded properly and permanently in the manifesto process, with a guarantee of involvement in proposing and then scrutinising ideas.
This is just a beginning
The dozen proposals above are simply a start. Others will pore over – and argue over – them, and that is as it should be in a democratic political party. The official reviews of the Conservative Party’s structure and campaigning will report back soon to the Party Board and the National Convention – we hope that they, too, will be willing to be brave and honest in their examination of what worked, what didn’t and what must now change.
There’s an inevitable tendency after a bad experience to seek a silver bullet to fix the problem that caused it. Just as inevitably, there is normally a blame game about which individuals are responsible. We should listen to the facts revealed in such examinations, and act on them where possible. Changing people and policies can undoubtedly make a difference. But we must not neglect the underlying structural issues in the Conservative campaign machine which contributed to and exacerbated those other problems.
Come the next election, we will need to use this machine again. It has many positive features – not least its many dedicated volunteers, and vast institutional knowledge of fighting and winning elections – but we must no longer turn a blind eye to its flaws. Had the Conservative Party used its 2015 victory as a window of opportunity to clearly examine what went right and what went wrong, and to build on its successes, it might not have suffered the loss of its majority two years later. That mistake must not be repeated.
>To read the previous two articles in this series, click here for our investigation of the national campaign, and click here for our study of the ground operation.