Michelle Lowe contested Coventry South at the general election, and is Deputy Leader & Cabinet member for Housing & Health at Sevenoaks District Council.
It is hard to remember now, but on May 4 the Conservative Party was 20 points ahead in the opinion polls, and that lead was vindicated by a hugely successful set of local government results – with Andy Street winning the West Midlands mayoralty. We were set for a landslide victory at the General Election. So what went wrong?
My experience as a target seat candidate in Coventry South was typical of many other candidates across the West Midlands, where the party was set to make inroads into many traditional Labour-held seats, whose voters were apparently prepared to vote Conservative at a general election for the first time in generations.
But then two negative factors kicked in. One was the national campaign, and the other as the campaigning instructions coming from CCHQ.
The first nail in in our coffin was Theresa May coming out in favour of fox hunting. The biggest topic of conversation by far amongst these Labour-background urban voters was fox hunting often preceded with the comment: “We never thought she would be in favour of fox hunting. Potential urban switchers began to think that the Prime Minister was the same as any other Tory, and began doubting her. Fox hunting continued as an issue for the rest of the campaign across the Midlands, where we have a number of universities and lots of student voters, and no doubt cost us votes, especially amongst those young people and others.
Voters who had worked hard all their lives to buy their own home to pass onto their children could not believe our social care policy. The average house price in the West Midlands is £250,000, and they saw us betraying their hard work by preventing them leaving money to their children. They were unsure whether they would still receive the winter fuel allowance, and kept asking where the cut off point would be.
The timing of the manifesto could scarcely have been worse, coming only days before postal votes dropped on door mats. Older people protested against May’s social policy confident that Corbyn couldn’t win, or feeling betrayed by a leader who they previously felt was on their side.
As our support drifted away, the Prime Minister took the only course she could, and U-turned on the social care policy, offering a cap – but in the Midlands this probably won’t count for much, given average house prices. The other problem was this change of heart did not look very strong and stable – as was pointed out to canvassers across the country time and time again.
May not participating in televised debates also hurt us. People asked how she could negotiate a Brexit deal if she could not debate her opponents. The person that voters thought May was turned out not to be the person she actually is, at least in their view. People no longer liked her. By contrast, Corbyn seemed relaxed. and sold a vision of helping people just like them.
We did not offer voters a positive vision of a Conservative Britain in which hard work is rewarded, where businesses and manufacturing can prosper, and explain how the proceeds of our new prosperity can be ploughed into infrastructure, public services and tax cuts. We scarcely mentioned the economy; Street focus on an urban Conservative vision for the West Midlands – and he won election.
We also suffered from CCHQ’s campaigning techniques. We were only allowed to target certain voters and were instructed not to deliver or canvass every house. As a result, some Conservative voters were starved of literature and contact with their candidate. By the time that the postal votes hit their mats, they would have only received one piece of literature from us unless they were a target voter, – and that was a letter from May asking them to vote for her candidate.
From the Saturday before polling day in some areas, only 50 per cent of the targeted people we were talking to were actually planning to vote Conservative. We were knocking up Corbynites. And our social media campaign was stilted and unable to connect to the young: we must dramatically improve our social media presence.
We need to start developing policies that address peoples’ concerns which link together into a Conservative vision of a prosperous future for us all – one that reaches out to our manufacturing heartlands in places such as the West Midlands and regain their trust. We need to review our campaigning techniques by listening to local knowledge and adapting to feedback from the ground. For example, candidates were calling for more messaging on the garden tax, but were told to focus on Brexit.
On the positive side we achieved 42 per cent of the vote. We are the biggest party, and by adapting and changing we have a chance to win the next election outright. But we must learn from our mistakes or we face a socialist government that will take Britain back to the 1970s. The stakes are high, and we have a patriotic duty to succeed.