John Strafford is Chairman of the Campaign for Conservative Democracy.
Last month, I wrote an article for this site warning the Conservative Party not to be complacent about the coming general election. At the time, the press were forecasting a 200 seat majority and opinion polls were showing the Tories near the 50 per cent mark. What I had not factored into my warning was incompetence. The result in the election was disastrous for the Party. So what went wrong?
I said that at some point there would be bad news, and the Conservatives would get terrible publicity. I didn’t expect the bad news would come as a result of the launch of the Party’s manifesto. It was an appalling document with hardly any positive points in it and the presentation was abysmal.
The general election had been announced back in April. Very soon, CCHQ started telling some constituencies what candidates they could have. This was totally contrary to the rules for selecting candidates, and was only pushed through using the clause in the Party’s Constitution which gives the Party Board the power to do anything in the interests of the Conservative Party. This was a clear abuse of power and was unnecessary.
The campaign started as a very personal campaign with the emphasis on “Theresa May – strong and stable”, and vicious personal attacks on Jeremy Corbyn. The electorate does not like personal attacks. I had an official communication from our Conservative candidate, Dominic Grieve, which did not mention the Party once. If you are going to make the campaign personal, it is a mistake to refuse to debate on television, as Theresa May did with Jeremy Corbyn. This gave an impression of fear
In the week before election day, the Prime Minister visited Slough. I went to the meeting which was held in a large industrial unit. Only Party members were invited and about 400 turned up. May walked in with Boris Johnson. He took the platform and gave May a five minute introduction – All written down; no ad-lib. Then the Prime Minister gave a speech of about 10-15 minutes on the theme of “strong and stable”. No questions. They both then departed. Any leader knows that on an occasion like this you wander round, shaking hands, motivating the troops and giving them hope for the battle to come.
Meanwhile, my constituency of Beaconsfield had been asked to help in Slough (a Labour held seat with a then 7,000 majority) and Harrow West (a Labour held seat with a then 2,000 majority). After leafleting in my own constituency, I decided to go to Slough to help there.
I looked for the address of their committee room on their web site. It was not there. Eventually, I found an address which was on a rundown industrial estate with hardly any parking. I arrived at about 6.30 pm, and when I said I would bring the canvassing returns back to the office that evening, the two volunteers told me that the office was about to close and that the industrial estate locked its gates at 7pm. So I arranged to return the canvass sheets the next day.
The canvass sheets were provided by CCHQ, and included questions to which you mark the answers out of ten. Each elector had a sheet. Each one would take at least ten minutes to complete. Great, if you have 500 helpers in a by-election – but totally impractical if you can number your helpers on one or at best two hands. I asked how much of the constituency had been canvassed, and was told 20 per cent. So there was no way that canvassing would be completed by election day.
Concerned to hear this, I asked where the committee room would be on election day. Those present did not know. I then asked if the polling stations were being manned on election day. They didn’t know that, either. Next, I asked if they had a list of helpers. No, they hadn’t. Tearing my hair out, I then asked who was in charge. I was told it was a woman from CCHQ based in Southampton. We did then our canvassing, and returned the sheets the next day at 3.30pm. The office was locked so we pushed them through the letter box. The result in Slough was an increased Labour majority of 17,000. I gave up.
The day before polling day, I went to Harrow West, arriving at 7pm. Once again, the address was not on its web site. On arrival, I was told that the Harrow West committee room was closed, but that they were sharing a building with Harrow East which was open, so I delivered leaflets for the Conservative candidate, Bob Blackman, who was returned with a majority of 2,000.
On election day, I returned to Harrow West to help in knocking up. To my surprise, I came across several strong Labour supporters, and then I noticed that in some cases the last contact with them was in 2012! The Labour majority went up from 2,000 to 13,000.
It seems that all these constituencies were following CCHQ’s instructions. The result was a disaster. On election day, party members were being directed to constituencies like Slough where there was no chance of us winning, whereas constituencies which we lost were starved of people. It is quite clear that CCHQ did not have a clue about what was happening. At the same time Labour were pouring supporters into constituencies, boosted by their then membership of about 550,000.
In my ConservativeHome article, I warned about the dangers of only being capable of fighting marginal seats. I asked where these are, adding that “some “guess work” will be required to decide where to put our resources, but it is “guess work” and it could go horribly wrong.” And it did.
Party organisation should be the responsibility of the Party Chairman. He or she should control the campaign. All consultants, special advisers and so on should report to the Chairman, and he or she should be answerable to Party members at an annual general meeting. The leader determines policy and priorities: he or she must take responsibility for the political aspects of the campaign.
The Leader of the Party must now take radical action to change the structures of the Party to ensure this debacle does not happen again, and if she doesn’t then we will have to get a Leader who will! A decision is required by the time Parliament goes into recess. Time is running out.