Matthew Offord is MP for Hendon
During the 1980s, Conservative Central Office was a formidable campaigning machine. The leadership by constituency agents, our army of volunteers and the regional structure of professional staff ensured that we won in 1979, 1983, 1987 and – miraculously – in 1992.
After the defeat in 1997, the Party embarked on a disastrous programme of what was promoted as modernisation but was in fact stagnation. The regional structure was abolished; agents made redundant and CCO brought everyone and everything into the London Office. Area campaign directors were introduced to oversee whole regions of the country, with little experience or knowledge of what was actually happening on the ground. During the long lead up to the elections in 2010 and 2015, Associations employed Campaign Managers’on 12 or six month contracts to organise the election process, motivate volunteers and act as a conduit between an increasingly distant Conservative Campaign Headquarters (as it had by now become) and the membership.
However, the decision to hold a snap election in June magnified what a farce this situation is – since there was no advance planning, experience or knowledge that was ready to be deployed. There was no pool of parliamentary candidates for selection. Many constituencies did not have candidates in place – unlike some other parties – and as a result many of those adopted had no time to plan and produce good quality literature, no time for local campaigns to be promoted, and no fighting fund built up since the last election in Association coffers. There were no mass mailings to potential Conservative supporters which should have been possible: other parties managed to do it. But of most concern was the indifference of CCHQ to local campaigns.
During the election, parliamentary colleagues were told to go and help in marginal or Labour-held seats, leaving their own seats at risk. We were told that CCHQ polling information showed that the Party was heading for a landslide – but it was not. Many of us were denied access to VoteSource because all attention was directed towards target seats which, had there been a realistic analysis, would have clearly been identified as unobtainable. Other colleagues were denied access to literature and printing resources – and we all had to wait for ever for CCHQ to ‘approve’ any and every statement printed.
Having won my (London) seat in 2010 with a majority of 106, I campaigned and worked to increase my majority. In 2015, I was the Labour Party’s number one target in London – but went on to hold my seat with a 3,724 majority. At the last election, I received 25,078 votes and won with a majority of 1,072. At every election, I have increased the number of people voting for me and the Conservative Party, and achieved this against a backdrop of CCHQ complaining, sniping and telling me that whatever I did was either wrong or not enough – because they claimed to know better than me and my team on the ground. I am glad that I did not listen to them – and, as a result, won in spite of them, not because of them. I have spoken to many colleagues who feel the same way, and harbour the same resentment.
But instead of just complaining, I want to get directly involved, and work to ensure a Conservative victory at the next general election and in the elections before then. As such, I have put my name forward for one of three positions on the Party’s Board reserved for MPs.
The Party has a big challenge task to overcome in London next year with the local elections. CCHQ needs to understand what went wrong in June, and needs a strategy to engage with younger votes, working people and those who are retired. It needs a strategy to inspire aspiration, engage with BME communities, target messages on social media and be relevant in the modern world. All we heard during the election was the offer of ‘Strong and Stable’ government when the public wanted ‘Bold, Brave and Different’. People want to be inspired and motivated to vote, not simply told ‘the other guy will be a disaster’ so vote for us.
And in addition to our campaigning message, I want to seek that measures are in place to support colleagues who lose their seats. We lost some good colleagues who have families and mortgages, and measures must be put in place to establish financial arrangements, introductions to recruitment agents or identifying roles in civil society. We have to ensure that colleagues whose seats are abolished in the forthcoming boundary review (it is still coming) are top of the list for vacant seats. We have to recognise that those on the candidate’s list are not cannon fodder who can be told to trek around the country to attend every by-election at least three times. The demographic profile of seats needs to be considered to match strong candidates rather than imposing candidates based on their ethnic, gender or sexual backgrounds. We need authentic candidates in the right seats, not SpAds given preferential treatment.
And we need a regional presence around the country, so that the Party Chairman can be told what is actually happening on the ground. CCHQ did not know what was happening in Kensington, Battersea or Enfield Southgate, but claimed they knew the likely result in Workington, Darlington and Sedgefield. They did not.
The Party needs critical friends – not time servers. The Party needs someone to speak up not be a sycophant. And the Party needs someone who knows what it’s like to be a candidate with few resources against the trade unions and the Labour Party in a highly politicised seat.
A position on the Board is not a role that I ever dreamt of undertaking, but I feel very strongly that CCHQ has been headed in the wrong direction for a number of years. We need to see a radical change in order to achieve a Conservative revival and, if elected by my parliamentary colleagues, I would be that change.