Earlier this week, the following email went out from CCHQ to the candidates list:
There will be a briefing meeting for everyone on the Candidates List on Sunday 25th May at 10.00 am in Newark, which will be followed by delivering.
I expect all candidates to attend this important briefing, therefore, please save the date and time – further information will follow later this week.
Please email me personally at email@example.com if you are *unable* to attend explaining why.
And please email Gareth at firstname.lastname@example.org for further details.
Thank you for your support as always and look forward to seeing you in Newark.
Grant Shapps MP
Chairman of Conservative Party
PS Please email Gareth now to confirm your attendance.
It’s an interesting starting point to look at a few of the short and long-term trends going on within the party.
For a start, the fact that a number of recipients sent the email on to us is a sign that it stirred a bit of disgruntlement among the ranks of candidates. Many have spent weeks campaigning for local and European elections, some are spending Sunday attending counts, others are peeved that the Newark campaign day will take place in half term, and some just dislike being given only a few days’ notice to trek across the country to Newark.
Of course, the bald answer is: Welcome to politics. If you want to be an MP, a prestigious position which many people seek, then this is just a taste of the sacrifices involved. As numerous former (and some current) MPs have discovered, life in the cockpit of the nation often sucks, and involves giving up your spare time to knock on the doors of strangers, many of whom are then rude to you. With volunteers who stand to gain nothing travelling to Newark to put in their time for the good of party and country, those seeking selection should probably be willing to put in some hard work on the campaign trail, too.
That’s all true, but there’s a bigger issue underlying this minor spat. The two great tectonic plates of a politician’s life – obedience to the party, and obedience to a local area and its association – are slowly drifting apart. Just as backbenchers are becoming more likely to do what their local party wants than what their whip wants, candidates are increasingly locally focused, too.
As I’ve mentioned a few times in our coverage of selections over the last year, there’s been a noticeable increase in the number of locally-derived candidates, and associations are far more sceptical of perceived parachutes or – worse – Westminster insiders than they once were. It wouldn’t be a surprise if candidates are responding to that by committing to potential seats in their own area, working patches over a longer period of time in the hope that when the day comes their face will be recognised, and as a result moving away from the idea that they’re a national party resource.
Just as candidates become more locally-minded, CCHQ’s campaigning machine has come to make greater national demands on them. It has worked hard to improve its by-election game over the last decade, and when a by-election is seen as a test of the party’s reputation it expects to throw the kitchen sink at it. That’s certainly the case for Newark, which has the potential to either blunt Farage and Miliband’s rhetoric or to ruin David Cameron’s summer, depending on the outcome.
This is all complicated by the decline in the Conservative grassroots – which, as we saw all too vividly in Eastleigh, has been precipitous in some areas. Newark by all accounts has a decent bunch of troops on the ground, but after Eastleigh the default position is that the central party must have the capacity to rush people into a seat en masse. That’s why the Prime Minister has made several visits to Newark, each Cabinet Minister is going five times, all other Conservative MPs are expected to make at least three campaign trips to the seat and now candidates have been called in.
This briefing and delivery session on Sunday is part of that approach – it just collides with a fundamental change in the attitudes and expectations of those in the pool of candidates. I’m sure plenty of them will turn up on Sunday, and I doubt there will be any serious repercussions for those unable to attend for whatever reason, but I suspect these are the first grumblings of what may become a more tense relationship as the underlying trends within our party continue to shift.