Photo by Sunphol Sorakul
Artillery Row

The Tory machine is falling down

Faulty data analysis isn’t why the last campaign failed

The once formidable Conservative campaigning machine is in a state of decay. Does this matter? Not if the Party has a clear lead among voters as it did at the last election, but in a tighter contest it can make all the difference. Campaigning activity is more about ensuring your supporters are sufficiently enthused to actually vote, than it is about converting opponents. The Batley and Spen by-election last month prompted dismay among Conservatives not merely because they lost, but due to their deficiencies in the “ground war” operation. 

There was exasperation over Conservative activists dispatched on Polling Day to “knock up” those who transpired to be Labour supporters. Rather than reminding Conservatives to go and vote, they found themselves getting this message across to their opponents. 

For all its sophistication, data prediction ended with the crude assumption that the rich are Tories

Some have blamed Vote Source, the Conservative Party’s campaign software that records voting intentions, but the failing was human rather than technical. Vote Source was programmed to override the information from canvass returns. Instead it relied on predicted voting behaviour according to data profiling. Various data brokers sell this information to political parties. Both the Conservatives and the Labour have used a well-known product from Experian called Mosaic. Opinions differ about how accurate this type of predictive data turns out to be. It is certainly sophisticated. Experian claims Mosaic “uses over 400 data variables”, including general socio economic factors – such as age or whether people rent or own their home and a vast array of minutia about our spending habits and personal characteristics. 

The 2017 General Election put great reliance on the data driven prediction approach. The reason was that historic canvassing records were felt to be a poor judge after the EU referendum. Brexiteers, who had previously voted Labour, might switch to the Conservatives. Remainers might switch away from the Conservatives towards Labour or the Lib Dems. A fair point. But the data prediction also proved unreliable. For all the minutiae, it still seemed to end up with the crude assumption that the rich are Tories. 

The absurdity in Batley and Spen was that people being “knocked up” had been canvassed and declared themselves Labour supporters just days earlier. The campaign persevered with a prediction that had already been disproved. It was like hearing a weather forecast that it would be dry and refusing to take an umbrella when leaving the house later, even though by then it was pouring rain. As the Prussian field marshal, Moltke the Elder, cautioned: “No plan survives contact with the enemy”. 

These lapses in the Conservative campaign were embarrassing and given Labour’s majority of only 323 votes in the by-election, they may well have been critical on this occasion. But there would be a danger if the wrong lessons were learnt. The weaknesses in grassroots Conservative election campaigning go well beyond computer glitches.

Some have called for Amanda Milling to be replaced as Party Chairman, but that role is more about communications and diplomacy than the mechanics of organisation. The Party does have a chief executive Darren Mott, but he is held in high regard. It is by no means apparent that replacing him would be any kind of panacea. Vote Source probably should not be abandoned by the Tories it usually works well when used correctly. Mosaic (or one of its rivals) should still be used. It helps target relevant messages to different types of voters and where voters are uncanvassed, it is better than simply guessing their allegiances. 

The real challenge is to revive the Party’s membership. Not just to increase the number who set up a standing order of £25 a year for their membership sub though that would be a start. That could probably be achieved with a few advertisements in the Daily Telegraph. More important is to coax new and existing members to take a more active role. 

So often the hyperlocal election machine has broken down. In the past it would be routine for each Ward to have a “Committee Room” set up in the sitting room of a supporter. Canvassers and tellers would be recruited from that Ward with all the convenience, efficiency and credibility arising out of its being a community endeavour. Constituency associations tend to have a more long term outlook, whereas the priority for the Party leader and Party Chairman will always be the next election. CCHQ may also feel that gaining new members is of limited use if, when they pass on details of the recruits to constituency associations, no effort is made to make contact with them. 

An Association Chairman might find it easier to drift along with gentle decay 

The Campaign Managers sent into target seats exemplify this tension. Their salaries are paid by CCHQ, to whom they are beholden. They might decline to carry out a task given to them by the Association Chairman on the grounds they are busy with work from CCHQ perhaps compliance checks demanded by the Electoral Commission or something of that sort. Perhaps these constituency Campaign Managers might feel a bit too grand to stuff envelopes or hold a clipboard during a canvassing session. They could argue their mission is to be more strategic: giving guidance on the type of campaigning and the messaging. Yet, even if bright and capable in that respect, they have the disadvantage of being outsiders with little or no local knowledge who will be gone again in a few months. If they attempt to become too assertive they risk being told, as with Jackie Weaver: “You have no authority here.” 

A better focus might be employing more campaign staff at a regional or county level on a permanent basis. Their role could include ringing new members to check they were being encouraged to become involved. These Campaign Managers could assist with arranging prominent Party figures to speak at universities.

Another objective could be better property management. Too often constituency associations own an office that is left empty and in disrepair. Keeping it involves significant costs Business Rates, insurance, utility bills and so forth. Should it be rented out? Or part of the building rented out? The result may be more modest campaign premises but ones properly maintained and staffed and also affordable. Such decisions might be obvious but making changes can prove daunting. Fearing ingratitude from any upheaval, an Association Chairman might find it easier to drift along with gentle decay. Offering professional help and advice could make a difference. 

The 2019 General Election was, of course, a triumph. There is a danger in assuming the winners got everything right and the losers got everything wrong, however. Labour’s advantage in the level and engagement of their membership was not irrelevant it was simply offset by other factors. To conclude the “ground war” doesn’t matter would be a great mistake. The good news for the Conservatives is that the tiresome computer glitches at Batley can be easily overcome. The bad news is that the real challenge of building up the manpower for an effective campaign machine is much more daunting. Thus far it is not even being seriously attempted.

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