I now have some more information regarding the technical and data issues with the London Mayoral Selection process, which we revealed this morning.
There has indeed been a serious problem with the VoteSource system. This is the first time its membership software has been used (extraordinarily, given the importance of the Mayoral selection), and it isn’t yet clear why CCHQ has had such trouble extracting the complete membership lists from the system. It’s possible that there are problems with some of the data, too, but the full issue has yet to be ascertained.
Nonetheless, I’m told the selection ballot will be going ahead as planned. Between now and Sunday evening, all eligible Party members and members of the public who have registered will be sent an email confirming that they have a vote on the mayoral candidate, and notifying them to expect an email containing the voting information from Electoral Reform Services.
If you are a Party member in London, or you have paid your £1 to register, and you have not received an email by Monday you will have to call a helpline on 0207 984 8011 in order to get the email or secure a postal vote.
Oddly, given the emphasis put on access codes by the party machine in the first place, they now say that they aren’t really required to register to vote after all. Which is lucky, because numerous people who are supposed to have received them haven’t got one. Apparently the access code is a fast-track way to get your details onto the list. The decision has now been taken to automatically register for a vote all eligible members with an email address listed on VoteSource.
This does of course involve relying on VoteSource again – the list it contains, or at least the list it is putting out, still needs work. The original list pulled from VoteSource was incomplete, and in some cases was missing a large proportion of membership data. CCHQ is now banking on the manual checks and corrections carried out by volunteers at Association level (if they have had the time to do so) being accurate and complete – Association officers will be sent yet another list to check next week, putting more demands on them to fix an issue not of their making.
The likelihood is that some people will still be missing. Members whose email addresses aren’t on the system, who don’t want their email on the system or who may not have an email address at all will be left to phone CCHQ along with anyone still missing from the list due to data errors.
There are a number of issues arising from all this.
1) Activists are angry. Those I have spoken to are frustrated by what they perceived as the implication that they had made data errors, when in fact the central system had suffered a fault. Their frustration is compounded by the expectation that they will correct the errors themselves. On top of that, several point out that there is yet to be any apology for the situation. The words “shambles” and “chaos” come up repeatedly – not a good start to a campaign in which their work will be essential
2) Confidence in the selection has been dented. West Ham Conservative Association has now passed a motion of no confidence, calling for the timetable for the ballot to be extended by a fortnight. As reported this morning, the Area Chairman for London North East has asked for a one week delay for CCHQ o ensure all the data is correct.
3) The communication was confused. From the emphasis put on access codes which we are now told are non-essential, to leaving registered voters wondering for weeks if their registration had been successful, the process has not been explained well to Party members or supporters. It should not really have to reach the point of open criticism, complaints in the 1922 committee and Association no confidence motions before it becomes clear that there are problems.
4) The issue still isn’t fixed. By forging ahead on the hope that the list of eligible voters is complete, and planning to plug gaps as and when they are notified of them, CCHQ are risking the credibility of the ballot.
5) Yet again, VoteSource is in trouble. It defies belief that having spent millions of pounds on developing their own database, the Conservative Party is now reduced to checking and correcting its accuracy by telephone calls and volunteers manually checking spreadsheets. We have reported before on the debate about whether VoteSource is really a preferable system to one of the many available off the shelf – in this case there’s no doubt that commercially available software would at least have been trialled already by its manufacturers and other users, whereas VoteSource was untried and fell short.
The question of declining confidence in the VoteSource system is perhaps the most serious of all these problems. A well-functioning computer system is essential if the Conservative Party is to build on the success of the voter ID and targeting operations which proved crucial in the marginal seats in May. If the system isn’t working, or if activists don’t feel they can trust it to work, then that targeting effort will be undermined.
It isn’t just grassroots members who are deeply suspicious of VoteSource. I’m told that at the last meeting of the Political Cabinet before the election, there was a presentation about the IT system. Several Cabinet Ministers were unconvinced – some said that their Associations were running Merlin, the old system, in tandem as an insurance policy against technical problems. Theresa Villiers informed her colleagues that she had printed off her voter contact data in hard copy because she expected the system to break down during the Get Out the Vote effort on polling day. It was a justified precaution – as we reported, VoteSource did indeed break down in various constituencies on the big day.
These problems should not happen in a professional party which seeks to remain electorally competitive.
The problems in the London Mayoral Selection are only the latest reason why people are losing confidence in VoteSource. From Cabinet Ministers to grassroots activists, Tories have learned to fear that the Party’s chosen IT will let them down. In London, it has done so again.