Line Kristensen is a former Head of Strategic Campaign Planning for the Conservative Party. She was closely involved in Eric Pickles’ 2017 General Election Review, has worked on numerous campaigns around the world, and currently works for NationBuilder.
Since Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008, political parties and campaigns around the world have grown more reliant on analytics and purchasing expensive data targeting models from consultants. In most of Europe, this is now often prioritised at the expense of the ground campaign.
Paid canvassing is against the law in the United Kingdom; campaigns need volunteers to contact voters, whether that be over the phone or in person. In order to turn out volunteers, campaigns need to know who they are, where they live, what motivates them, and what they’re willing to help with; and they need to keep track of this information for years at a time.
Unfortunately, many operatives forget that they need ground troops – real people having real conversations with voters in their own communities – to collect voter data. If you don’t have the troops, then what data will you feed into the expensive model?
Building capacity on the ground must be part of a long-term plan
In 2015, the Conservative Party won the General Election because it fought a disciplined national campaign, combined with a targeted ground operation in approximately 100 constituencies. The data that fuelled the targeting efforts was collected by activists on the ground. These volunteers were recruited, trained, and nurtured by campaign managers in place up to two and a half years in advance of the election.
Two years later, the Conservatives had no credible ground game in the seats that mattered, as capacity building was neglected during peacetime. Without a centralised system, it was hard for people at the top to know what little was there, so when the snap general election was called, the Party tried to move around troops they didn’t have.
As recommended by Eric Pickles’ General Election review, campaign managers have been placed by the Party into key seats around the country. This, and the commitment to deliver on the other recommendations, has been spearheaded by Sir Mick Davis. However, campaign managers are not a silver bullet and having them in place is not a solution on its own.
CCHQ needs to create a culture of accountability and be able to scale operations
Having spent spent six years at CCHQ, and a lot of time campaigning in the United States with a generation of expertly trained organisers, I have three questions the Party needs to ask itself.
1) Does CCHQ have systems in place for real accountability and oversight?
In 2012, I took a month off from my job to join President Obama’s re-election campaign in Florida. The trip was quite an education on how to run a credible ground game. From a young organiser named Alexis, I learned that real numbers rarely end in five and zero – if an organiser repeatedly report those numbers, then they are not telling you the truth. If you said you had twenty-three volunteers out canvassing that day, then there had to be a real list of names and data to back that up. Data was paramount, and all of it had to be captured daily.
Without a real system there is no oversight or accountability, and it’s too easy to get caught up in a game of smoke and mirrors where the Party either embellishes or does not want to know the truth about the number of people they have campaigning on the ground.
By not holding people to account by demanding real data, the Party cheats itself and overestimates how many people on the ground it really has. This has happened repeatedly over the years, and it can lead to disaster when the campaign then tries to move around non-existent volunteers. The first step is to realise that true scale of the challenge the Party faces, rather than partaking in a guessing game.
2) Is recruiting activists the top priority on the ground?
Don’t let anyone tell you that no-one wants to volunteer for political parties. Mostly the Party is just uncomfortable asking people to step up and get involved or the Party isn’t explicitly telling them what they need to do.
Before the 2015 General Election, I ran an exercise with campaign managers in target seats that involved giving them a list of strong Conservatives in their constituency. I asked them to spend about 45 minutes calling through the list to recruit volunteers by using a specific ask. On average you can make 30 such calls per hour; of those calls, you will speak to about ten people and recruit three to five volunteers for delivering leaflets, stuffing envelopes or canvassing. If five volunteers then do the same for two hours each, then within the first week you’ve called another 300 people, spoken to 100 people, and recruited another fifty volunteers. The problem is that most people find this hard to do. So if it is not a priority from the top, then it is not something campaign managers will prioritise.
Capacity-building will always compete with a number of other priorities, and due to the lack of oversight and accountability this work often loses out to what needed to be done here and now.
The pressure to get 100 voting intentions over a weekend is a short-term goal, and it can often be counterproductive, as campaign managers can end up relying on themselves and a handful of dedicated volunteers to achieve the goal. It would be much more constructive if the target was to recruit new volunteers, and get them to join in the next campaign sessions.
3) Is the Party preparing to grow?
A campaign manager’s job is to organise herself out of a job. She needs to create an army that can grow, and that entails actively recruiting volunteers, training them, and then empowering them to deliver the ground game.
On my first day on President Obama’s re-election campaign, Alexis left me to run the hectic office for a couple of hours while she was out. Little did I know that she was assessing my leadership and organising skills. When I did a decent job, she asked me to step up and do more.
To grow the Party, campaign managers should assess potential volunteers and only ask them to step into a leadership role if they are the right person for the role. The good news is that the more people a campaign recruits to volunteer, the more likely the campaign is to find the right people to step up.
When you have the right team working together with a common aim, you get a steady stream of fresh data to feed the machine and you enable the campaign to scale and do even more than it could do before. The campaign manager should never do all the campaigning herself – she is the conductor, ensuring everyone sings the same tune.
Lessons for CCHQ and the wider Party
The Conservative Party needs a centralised system where all area and campaign managers must log volunteer hours each day. This must be an ongoing priority set from the senior leadership team, and the reinforcement of its importance should not be delegated to more junior staff members.
Campaign managers must have weekly targets for volunteer recruitment calls, and one-to-one meetings with potential volunteers. While I don’t suggest hundreds of calls per day as many campaigns in the United States demand, it isn’t unreasonable to expect a minimum of six hours of recruitment calls per week. If you manage to recruit more than six hours’ worth of volunteering in a week, then you’re already better off than you were before the calls.
Train and empower campaign managers to build and lead healthy teams. Enable them to coach volunteers on the latest campaign techniques, and demand they enforce a culture of mutual respect, transparency, and teamwork.