Political predictions are fun but not often useful. Conventional wisdom says that you shouldn’t extrapolate by-election results, with their local factors and high concentration of media attention, onto the UK map. Having said that Eastleigh is (or was ) number eleven on the Conservative hit-list and the Conservative/Lib Dem battles in the South will have a big impact on whether the Conservatives can get a governing majority in 2015. There are lessons to be learnt.
Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat
Elections are not about the election time, they are about the infrastructure you have put in place in the previous years. The Lib Dems became and remained strong locally because they worked hard at a long-term plan. For a number of years the Council leader dictates that each Lib Dem councillor has to canvass two streets every weekend. This knowledge is retained so they know who their voters are and what the undecideds main concerns are. Such organisation allowed the Lib Dems to get almost half their voters to vote early, by post. Maria Hutchings was an enthusiastic local candidate but she had no infrastructure until the by-election was called, and by then it was too late. The Conservative’s lack of local intelligence led to incidents like Boris Johnson – a great campaigning asset – being sent blind into areas to canvass people who were never going to vote Conservative.
A UKIP-esq candidate and a UKIP campaign doesn’t do well against UKIP
The Conservative brand exists in a political limbo-land. Maria Hutchings would have voted no to gay marriage. She would vote yes to leaving the EU. David Cameron recently promised to hold an EU in/out referendum. The Conservative campaign was heavily based around immigration. Leaflets threatened potential UKIP voters with the fact that a vote for UKIP would let the pro-EU/pro-open boarders Lib Dems win. 24% of voters told the Conservatives that they didn’t believe the Tories were nasty enough.
Elections are local because voters don’t trust the Westminster bubble to care about them
John O’Farrell – the Labour candidate – was amazed that majority of leaflets were about local council issues, where the MP would have no power, rather than important matters of state. Logically he has a point, but what the Lib Dems have understood for years is that voters connect most with what’s in front of their face. Lord Ashcroft’s poll of opinioons in Eastleigh found that voters have greater confidence in the Conservatives to deliver nationally. 37% believed the Conservatives have the best policies for getting the economy growing and creating jobs, compared to 13% who said the same about the Lib Dems. 47% said that the Conservatives were best at controlling immigration compared with 11% for the Lib Dems. The Conservatives should make a strong concerted effort to get voters in target seats to prioritise the national. This is where their advantage is.
Labour needs the Lib Dems to be strong in the south
The 1997 election still dominates the UK political map. In the three elections since the Conservatives have fought back much of the red tide in Southern seats and parts of the Midlands, but the Lib Dems have held onto most of their 1997 gains. Of the 58 seats Clegg’s party hold the Conservatives are second in 66% of them. In only 3 of these 38 seats Labour are close enough in third place to make a winning leap possible. The other 35 roughly have a profile of Lib Dem 21,000 votes, Conservatives 18,000, Labour 3,500 and UKIP 1,200. The Conservatives best hope is for the Lib Dem vote to collapse towards Labour, thus allowing the Tory candidate through. What is a nightmare for the Lib Dems is also troubling for Labour.
Let them pay for cake
“It was the ‘sign in, pay for your coffee, and f-off and canvass’ conveyor belt that so hacked us off. Carrot cake would have been a nice touch, but 90p for instant coffee? I don’t think so.” This comment from a Conservative volunteer might not seem like the most important aspect of the campaign but it’s the little things that make relationships work. (Over the campaign Lib Dems received over 100kg of cakes from volunteers (h/t @IanDunt)) There is a crisis in the Conservative grassroots that the central party is unwilling or unable to resolve. As soon as the Eastleigh by-election was called the front page of the Lib Dem website asked whether you could canvass, telephone or donate to the campaign. On the Conservative website there was nothing. After much searching I found a generic press release announcing our candidate. If I hadn’t have contacted my local association or proactively kept an eye on ConHome then I wouldn’t of known how to help. It’s nice to be asked. There is no coincidence in the fact that as the Conservative volunteer party becomes weaker UKIP’s voter share increases.
My conclusion from the by-election is that if the Conservatives are going to have any chance of getting a majority in 2015 they need to start campaigning now. Maybe Grant Shapps, with his 40/40 seat strategy, is already on the case. But if Lynton Crosby is the answer he needs to employed for a lot more than a couple of days a month.