Alex Story is a former Olympic rower, who fought Wakefield in 2010 and Leeds North West in 2015.
Now that the fog of political war has lifted is a good time for us to look critically at what we as the Conservative Party have achieved and how.
After the celebrations, having put some money on a Conservative victory, I kept thinking that we could have won more. After all, we fought a dying party led by an unelectable man weighed down by an inescapable legacy of failure.
Our strategy, set in concrete early in the last parliament, was to prioritise and fight 40 targets seats above and beyond the 307 seats we had won in 2010. Our plan for 2015 was based on the notion that we would be less popular by 2015 than we had been in 2010.
This view was supported by strong data and psephological theory. With such ideas in mind, CCHQ set about allocating resources centrally to seats deemed most winnable according to targeted polls, scientifically conducted by qualified experts.
In other words, our plan was to fight only 12 per cent of the seats that weren’t already ours. On election night we won 24 extra seats or just 7.8% of the total available. In the meantime, the Scottish National Party won 95% of Scotland’s seats up from 10% in 2010.
Of course, context matters. However, the SNP has been the party of government for a few years in Scotland. That didn’t stop them winning big.
Our approach was defensive and designed at a time when the narrative of a one-term government was taking hold. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with being defensive.
But the question begs to be asked: why constrain ourselves? When I stood for Wakefield, from 2007 to 2010, the boundaries had just been redrawn. Wakefield constituency was inheriting wards from Ed Balls’s old Normanton seat.
During our canvassing sessions, we quickly noticed that Ed Balls was extremely unpopular. The team pushed for Morley & Outwood to become a target seat. CCHQ took a lot of convincing but the local Wakefield Conservative team was nothing if not persistent.
Eventually, Morley & Outwood became a target for the 2010 elections. On election night that year, Antony Calvert, an excellent candidate, came within 1,000 votes of victory from a theoretical Labour majority of over 12,000. Fortunately, Morley & Outwood kept its target status for the 2015 election. Andrea Jenkyns picked up the mantle where Calvert left off, and, against all the polling odds, won to the delight of all Conservatives.
By keeping Morley & Outwood as a target, CCHQ and the local association worked together to deliver victory. However, there were many seats that could have been won had the pressure been kept up. The neighbouring seat of Wakefield became the UK’s 21st most marginal seat in 2010 but was dropped for administrative reasons.
In addition, a 41:41 campaign sounded, in marketing terms, much less catchy than a 40:40 campaign. As a result, our campaigning foot was removed from the Labour Party’s throat for nearly five years.
Mary Creagh, since the election a failed candidate for Labour’s crown of thorns, survived to live another parliament. She increased her majority slightly but the Conservative vote remained very strong, in particular given that UKIP’s vote went from zero in 2010 to a huge 18 per cent in 2015.
By focusing arbitrarily on a mere 12 per cent of the seats that were available for us to win and by diverting volunteers and candidates away from their own seats, we fought a mathematical fight and ran the risk of tearing apart the good will so important in a volunteer organisation.
In some cases, volunteers, recruited locally, had to choose between supporting their local candidate, often the reason why they joined the party in the first place, and implementing CCHQ orders to fight in someone else’s seat to which they had no emotional attachment. There is nothing quite so disheartening, for a team, as seeing your volunteers sneak out of a campaigning session to drive 30 miles to deliver someone else’s literature.
Furthermore, by not fighting in all seats, we gave many Labour MPs a free ride to parliament and enabled their forces to be deployed and concentrated in our own 40/40 seats. In the end, we only won slightly over 60 per cent of our targets.
Our plan was telegraphed. The Labour Party read the message and focused, as we did, on our target seats. Ironically, anyone who did any actual campaigning would have felt very little animosity against us on doorsteps. The anger, manufactured by the Labour Party, was non-existent.
Of course, in politics, numbers and strategy matter. The experts in London are paid to deliver victory and this they did. Thankfully. However, in politics, swagger, belief, and relentlessness can pay huge dividends. Ed Ball was beaten not in 2015 but in 2008 when we started to fight him properly. Mary Creagh won on the day CCHQ excluded Wakefield from our attentions. How many more Labour MPs are still in position now because we took the fight elsewhere?
In the end, we won. That matters a great deal. But how much greater could our victory have been, had we acted less like accountants and more like an irreverent, confident and bullish political force, fighting local battles where candidates and volunteers felt they had a chance to win a crushing electoral war?
With Ed Miliband leading an intellectually vapid shell of a party, our opportunity was to destroy the Labour Party in England as the SNP did in Scotland. As it is we left the beast half dead on the ground. That in my view is a great shame. In the end, although I am truly pleased to see the Conservative Party back at the helm, I can’t help feeling that we played small and won small as a result.