Richard Short is the Deputy Director of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists, and was Parliamentary Candidate for Warrington North in 2015.
It is now a matter of record and results that this year’s was the worst national general election campaign we have run in a generation. True, we polled more votes in many seats than we have for a long time. But, compared with the 20-point pre-campaign lead we had in the opinion polls, we could have done so much better.
Failure to capitalise on the poll lead, coupled with our failure to stop Labour support rising will be debated by many. But it is worth looking at where we were successful, and what went right, in the hope we can replicate that, and secure better success at the next general election. Not least because, if we do any worse then, we will almost certainly see Prime Minister Corbyn.
I was a candidate in 2015, but for reasons that have yet to surface, found myself without a seat to fight this time. So, I decided to ‘tour’ the UK campaigning from Greenwich in the South to Chorley in the North, but spent most of my time in Derbyshire, helping Lee Rowley get over the line with one of the few Conservative gains we had in England. I also spent time in Chesterfield: as Deputy Director of the Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists, it seemed only natural to team up with the Director of the CWTU, Spencer Pitfield, who was our candidate there.
In Chesterfield, we achieved the highest number of Conservative votes since 1979, and the largest share of the vote since 1955. Nationally, we achieved well beyond expectations — being in the top ten for the largest increases in vote share for the Conservatives, with a 16.7 per cent increase. If that increase had been replicated in seats with only slightly smaller Labour majorities, we may well have kept the high poll ratings, won the landslide they predicted, and lost fewer, if any, seats. So what did we do right in Derbyshire, and in Chesterfield, in particular?
Michelle Lowe has written on ConservativeHome about how controlling CCHQ was in its chosen target seats — and, during my ‘tour’, I saw for myself how that was indeed the case. In one target seat I visited, which the unsuccessful candidate doesn’t want me to name, we went to an area that CCHQ had told them not to. Apart from not being able to take a photo or tweet our presence — in case CCHQ got to know — I was astounded that this area was seen as a ‘no go’ area. Not a leafy suburb — but not a sink estate, either. It was a very typical housing estate where ‘Just About Managing’ was the norm, and yet the instruction from the centre was to avoid it.
Being non-target, Chesterfield had no such control from the centre. The campaign was very local, with strong and enthusiastic support from the local association. Spencer and I decided which areas were to be canvassed, which to be leafleted, and how much. Literature was produced and tailored locally, using the local association’s knowledge of what works locally. It’s no mistake that I’ve used the word ‘local’ and ‘locally’ repeatedly: local works.
What also works is sheer hard graft and long days. It’s fair to say that all our candidates — whether centrally controlled, or not — worked so incredibly hard. But in a seat where targeted intelligence from CCHQ was lacking, there was little alternative but to paint with a broader brush, which meant blanket coverage across the whole constituency. Early in the campaign, we felt disadvantaged not to have the considerable support of the central machine. But, in hindsight, it is very likely that the reverse was true: being free to use local knowledge, with no outside direction, brought in the votes.
It is worth noting that a party official told me they were interested in a seat I knew well, because, according to their research, the Labour vote was very soft. I disagreed strongly, as I knew from my local knowledge that the Labour core was solid — and I was proved right. I’m not unique here; Michelle Lowe’s account vindicates this.
The difference comes from the will of the candidate on the ground being allowed to work. Thoughts on where the campaign went wrong are being well reported, but what was clear — and not only in hindsight — was the inability of the controlled target-seat candidate to react. When a national campaign is in trouble, good local candidates can adapt and pick up the slack to minimise the loss and maximise advantages.
Both Spencer and I are seasoned, experienced campaigners, and we were able to do just that in Chesterfield. And, with the area’s high blue-collar vote, our association with CWTU undoubtedly helped. The Labour incumbent kept his seat, but he knew he had been in a very hard-fought campaign — and, that without the blunders of the national campaign, it could well have ended very differently.