A Team photo of a Team 2015 event: mystery member on far left as viewer looks
The Tory campaign in 2015 is far better organised than in 2010. So said, unbidden, several members of Team2015. This is the force of thousands of volunteers raised since 2013 by Grant Shapps, for deployment during the general election to about a hundred marginal seats. They are enjoying themselves.
Amid earnest prognostications about what may happen on May 7th, and lamentations about public disengagement, the festive side of politics can easily be overlooked.
But it was the most immediately noticeable characteristic of the several dozen members of Team2015 who on Saturday went campaigning in Ealing Central and Acton, in west London, where the Conservative MP, Angie Bray, is defending a majority of 3,716. As I arrived, beer, wine and sandwiches were being consumed and photographs taken.
This felt more like an informal wedding than a political event, with different groups of people being called to pose for each picture. But inclusiveness trumped any strict adherence to guidelines, and within a few moments I found myself agreeing to stand on the extreme left of the group reproduced here.
Bray is not included in this picture: she had gone off to be filmed canvassing by a local BBC camera crew. But I have known her for about 30 years, so here was another similarity to a wedding: the meeting of old friends. Team2015 works because it is convivial as well as practical.
The message sent at the start of the week via Facebook and email to members of Team2015, urging them to turn out on Saturday in Ealing and many other seats, promised “an action-packed campaigning stint, including a celebration with free drinks”. Those drinks can mean a lot to students and others on low incomes: especially as the pub is often where one gets to know people, and has the most rewarding conversations.
Each week, a leading Tory writes the invitation to take part in the campaign, and this time it was by Sir John Major, who began:
“I joined the Conservative Party on my sixteenth birthday. Back then, there was a simple choice: the Labour Party, who would give you a hand-out; or the Conservative Party, who would give you a hand-up. With the Conservatives, I saw a Party of aspiration. They were prepared to help people – like me and many others in Brixton at that time – who wished to build a better future for ourselves and our families.”
Several thousand people answered this call. Over refreshments in the local party headquarters, and later over free drinks in the pub round the corner, I met a few of them. Team2015 is a kind of umbrella organisation, which can be used to direct activists to wherever their efforts may be most valuable.
Andrew Halstead said he got involved through donor events at which you could also volunteer to take part in campaigning. He did so because “otherwise you feel almost as if you’re with the generals in the chateau behind the front line in the first world war”. His father, Sir Ronald Halstead, was for many years treasurer of the Centre for Policy Studies.
Luke Springthorpe, chairman of London Conservative Future, said that compared to the last general election, when he found running a branch in Manchester “a real nightmare”, he now felt there was “a real sense of direction”. There were “so many people asking for your help all the time”, and he wanted to “make sure we go to the right places”, which required some sort of central direction.
Conservatives are traditionally suspicious of central control: the constituency associations have enjoyed a high degree of autonomy. But one of the advantages of Team2015 is that you do not have to join the Conservative Party, and hand over a subscription of £25, in order to join. You can sign up without becoming a party member. It is in many ways more suited to an age when you can register an interest in something just by sending an email.
In his own seat, Welwyn Hatfield – where he lost in 2001, won in 2005 and greatly increased his majority in 2010 – Shapps built up a group of 1,000 local people who are supporters but not members. This gave him the idea for Team2015. Another version of this idea, RoadTrip2015, brought Tory activists flooding into the Newark byelection, encouraged by the promise of a great night out in Nottingham afterwards. Campaigning and clubbing went hand in hand.
To make politics pleasurable has a long Tory pedigree. Randolph Churchill, father of Winston, achieved this on a grand scale with the Primrose League, founded in 1883, in which several million men, women and children enjoyed dressing up and receiving elaborate titles and decorations, while doing a vast amount of voluntary work for the Conservative Party. Women were thereby brought into mainstream Tory activities, as Lord Lexden, the League’s historian, has recorded.
Today there is again a pressing need to bring new groups into mainstream Tory activities. The party is under pressure in London in part because it has not yet been as successful as Labour at recruiting ethnic minority members. Amid the throng of activists in Ealing on Saturday, I met Bota Hopkinson, who is originally from Kazakhstan and has founded a group called Eurasians4Conservatives, intended to appeal to the 600,000 people from the various parts of the former Soviet Union who now live in the United Kingdom.
Her son Maxat Ramazanov, who is 22 and studying finance and banking at Cass Business School, explained the thinking behind this venture: “This is just to get Eurasians into politics. Currently a lot are not involved in any political party. Historically we are conservative-inclined. We went through socialism in the USSR: we like entrepreneurship and individuality as all the time in the Soviet Union these were suppressed. We want to get people campaigning for the Conservative Party because it is the party we love and Conservative values lie close to our hearts.”
Who knows what success that particular project may have? But one of the advantages of Team2015 is that it allows new things to be tried out by new recruits. It has a spontaneity about it: is not just a way of directing potential Tory supporters from the centre.
One veteran of the Newark by-election, where the Conservatives held off a strong challenge from UKIP, recalled that voters there were almost inclined to talk too long on the doorstep. In London, the opposite problem applies: many voters are so busy, or so disenchanted with politics, that they do not want to talk at all. Charlotte Kude, who works for David Campbell Bannerman MEP, said after canvassing in Ealing: “A lot of people seem to be proud to say that they’re not voting. That annoys me. If you don’t vote you have no right to complain.”
My own experience of canvassing in Ealing was not immensely encouraging. We set out to reach some electors who had not before been reached, but the doors of their expensively refurbished houses mostly remained closed: either silence reigned, or we were informed by by intercom that no communication was desired. In some cases, a child disclaimed all knowledge of a parent’s whereabouts. The high point was when a woman said in an irate tone that she was far too busy with some domestic crisis to talk to us, whereupon her husband pursued us down the street and assured us that he at least would be voting Conservative.
I ended my visit to Ealing more convinced of the merits of this form of campaigning than I was at the start. Next week’s email to Team2015 will be written by Lord Parkinson, who as Chairman prepared the party for victory in 1983.