Thursday, 7 March 2013

A Post, Post-Eastleigh Post

Let me explain that rather confusing headline.

The Eastleigh by-election was a major Political event, which caused a great outpouring of thought, ideas and reaction after it’s conclusion. Hundreds of articles and blog posts (see here on have picked over the bones of it. 

Probably the most often repeated idea was that ‘it is only a by-election’ and therefore it is completely different, thus discounting the value of any conclusions that can be drawn from it. I don’t agree. There is much that the Conservative party in particular can learn from it.

Having read so many different views on the subject (via Politicus), the major points that I have drawn from the wide range of views for each of the different Political parties are as follows:

UKIP – UKIP played a blinder here. They managed to mop up a huge protest vote taking votes from all three other major political parties. Some dismiss UKIP's march forward as simply a protest vote that will evaporate at a General Election. But, success breeds success and this result will undoubtedly encourage other people to vote for UKIP in the future because they are less likely to see their vote as being wasted. UKIP have further enhanced the perception that they are a serious mainstream party with an increasingly strong vote-winning machine.

Labour - With a minor 'celebrity' candidate and after nearly three years of Coalition Government, Labour should have done better. The result was really a reflection of the fact that they are not seen as a differentiated alternative. There was little or no evidence of a protest vote against the Coalition going to Labour.

Liberal Democrat - The Liberal Democrats did extremely well to win this in light of the fact that the seat was vacated by the previous Lib Dem incumbent being convicted of perverting the course of justice, and the furore surrounding the Lord Rennard allegations. They managed to neutralise these issues and concentrated on harnessing their local dominance.

The key to their win was not the short term by-election campaign but many years of effort that they have put into this area, converting it from a strong Conservative constituency (In 1992 the Conservatives held the seat with 39,000 votes to 21,000 Lib Dem) to a Lib Dem stronghold with every single local Councillor being a Liberal Democrat.

Conservatives - This by-election was not an absolute disaster for the Conservatives when compared to the other parties. The Conservative vote was reduced by almost the same proportion as the Lib Dems but it illustrated and widely exposed three huge problems.

1) The strategy of attacking Liberal Democrat 'marginals' as a major priority at the next election is going to be very, very difficult to achieve. Grant Shapps needs to think carefully about this. He won his seat against Labour - The Lib Dems are very different opponents  They build a constituency grass-roots ground-up street by street, ward by ward providing them with a huge Get The Vote Out machine at election time.

2) The vote on the 'right' is split. Nigel Farage's 'The Conservatives Split our vote' quip resonated because it is so true. It was interesting to hear that a presumably rehabilitated Andrew Mitchell was seen walking in St James's Park (the traditional venue for clandestine meetings) with Nigel Farage after Eastleigh. Some kind of deal is essential if a vote split is to be avoided at a GE.

3) The Conservative vote winning infrastructure is in tatters. Many years ago, the Conservative party developed a powerful machine for doing exactly what the Liberal Democrats still do very successfully today. One of the elderly residents in the constituency in which I live explained it to me very simply - "when I was young, the Conservatives always held the best parties". In other words, they worked out what young people wanted (to meet the opposite sex) and then provided them with an opportunity for fun and social activity whilst involving them in the party.

This was the key to getting people involved early. The Conservative Agent career structure was designed around this. Agents were employed to organise events and gather new members. Members brought friends along to events, they met local and national politicians, kept coming back and joined, then invited their friends etc etc.

But this machine was never adapted to changing social expectations. The employed agents simply kept on ploughing the same furrow, doing the same things in the same way and get ever decreasing returns. The Diary of a Conservative Agent blog is a huge fund of information that illustrates exactly how outdated and ineffective the structure has become.

Conclusions - For the Conservatives

Unless the Conservatives can do some kind of deal with UKIP, the Conservatives are going to have to come up with relatively radical national policies to win the next GE. Radical because they need clear differentiation from the other parties, and because they need to differentiate what they have done in Government with the limitations of a Lib Dem partner and what they could do as a Conservative party in Government alone. They do not have the feet on the street to Get the Vote Out so they will have to rely on high profile national messages.

For the longer term, the Conservatives are going to have completely redefine the way in which Conservative Associations operate and completely redefine the model. It's way too late for evolution. Revolution is the only option. Small incremental changes that should have been made in the 1980s and 1990s were never made, so now the problem is huge and the structure needs a total change.

Unfortunately the Agent/Association model had one huge flaw. It didn't include a mechanism for it's own evolution and self-development. Much as I admire the dogmatic, self-less years of effort that these stalwarts have put-in, they are simply not part of a successful future.

Grant Shapps has his work cut out and the future of the Conservative Party, if it is to have one, depends on what he does next.


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