Cllr Joel Charles is the Deputy Leader of the Conservative Group on Harlow Council.
We should never become complacent about our opponents and their ability to mobilise numbers on the ground to get out their vote. I think the local elections in May proved that the Conservative campaigning machine is stronger than our critics thought. It is no surprise to the thousands of Conservative activists knocking on doors all-year-round that we achieved the results we did. If we are going to learn lessons ahead of the next tranche of local elections and, indeed, the next General Election, now is the time to do it.
Momentum organisers and their activists are constantly refining their voter targeting and use of campaigning resources to maximise electoral impact. They regularly organise training sessions for their activists across the country. Our local activists are faced with an evolving landscape, one that is even more adversarial because the radical left are infiltrating every tier of the constituency Labour Party machine and pushing negative tactics on the ground. Frank Field’s resignation has laid bare the battles being fought between moderates and radicals in Labour heartlands.
None of us are under any illusions that the coming months will see crucial decisions made as part of the Brexit talks with the European Union. Now more than ever, we need to pull together, share ideas and campaign hard to build a stronger ground war machine that learns lessons from the past.
I think our Party has an opportunity to embrace new ways of campaigning to stop the increasingly emboldened hard-left in its tracks. This can be achieved by embracing the ‘new town’ Conservative approach. For 15 years I have fought Labour street-by-street in Harlow. It is not traditionally a true-blue district – but a ‘new town’ Conservative style of campaigning broke that consensus many years ago.
The breakthrough came in 2008 when I was first elected to Harlow Council – the Conservative Group took control of the district for the first time in the town’s history. Robert Halfon was elected soon after in 2010.
This year we gained Staple Tye from the Labour Party, beating their hard-left Parliamentary Candidate by a single vote.
These results were not achieved overnight by any means. We knock on doors all year round, often in the evenings when most people are in, send out targeted estate letters and surveys to understand local priorities.
In Harlow, we fight elections every year as the district council holds elections in thirds. We have observed the growing influence of the hard-left over the past few years and have developed an effective approach to beat them. We focus our election campaigns on four or five messages that complement national priorities. On the doorstep during the last local elections, solid Conservative voters wanted to know about our plans for Brexit and the economy, but floating and soft Labour supporters consistently raised questions about the cost of living and the NHS. Building a clear campaign narrative that balances local and national priorities is crucial, anchored by punchy campaign themes so that voters get used the same set of messages. Say it, say it again and then repeat it. Be positive too. Do not engage with opposition messages, that is their job.
Of course, there is no silver bullet for campaigning, we need to use every means possible – door stepping, telephoning, leaflets, adverts, social networks, surveys, newspapers.
While CCHQ sends out targeted national messages on social media, we use our own digital feeds to send out locally targeted posts and infographics about our campaigns. Of course, social media is no substitute for canvassing and leafleting, but investing time in a local digital campaign footprint complements other election activity.
What will make a difference to national election campaigns is a focus on supporting and building more targeted community messages to win over voters. Selecting candidates early helps because campaigners can build a more local campaign, relating better to voters on the ground. But we need to be more ambitious than that. It’s time to invest more resources in activist training, developing a new breed of grassroots campaigners leading the Conservative charge.
To deliver more locally focused campaigns, the Party should:
- Encourage candidates to join community action groups, tackling litter hotspots and clearing neglected community spaces for people to enjoy;
- Invest in locally targeted social media advertising across all platforms – don’t just rely on the national campaigns;
- Engage more with local charities, faith groups and resident organisations;
- Focus election campaigns around four or five positive messages. Lead the narrative locally and avoid getting bogged down by responding to the oppositions priorities;
- Help candidates organise more ‘community hall’ events to engage with voters directly; and
- Get more involved in community activities to find members and volunteers to build a groundswell of local support. We need to build an activist pool that can take on the ranks of Momentum members that flood constituencies at election time.
The next General Election will be a fight between us and a hard-left Labour Party that will bankrupt our country if they win power. If we do not change our approach now and focus on community campaigning to build a real impetus for future Conservative gains, the success and prosperity of future generations will be at risk. It’s time to invest in a good pair of trainers…