In the euphoria following the unexpected scale of our victory we must not avoid addressing the very real problems we have with our ground troops. We would be failing in our duty if we missed this once in five years opportunity to rebuild our activist base and reform the relationship between the party and those who support us in the country.
We won on Thursday due to the accuracy and strength of the "air war", and thank God for it as I doubt very much we could have won had we been solely reliant on "boots on the ground".
There are of course exceptions. We still have Associations who manage to maintain a first rate campaign organisation with the sole purpose of winning elections. In my own patch, Chatham & Aylesford is a prime example. Despite being Kent's smallest Association with just over 100 members, C&A activists, with no outside help, delivered this year eight pieces of literature to every household, canvassed every voter and went back on the outs. Over 80% of C&A members were actively involved in the campaign. I even had to deploy C&A activists into other "safer" Kent seats with 3x the membership to assist with clerical and delivery tasks.
Despite sending over 1,000 "man hours" of campaign support to 40:40 seats and our phone bank making in excess of 5,000 GOTV calls, I still received a degree of flack for putting too much resource into our West Kent "safe seats". I took much of this on the chin, but I did respond snippily to one senior figure by reminding him that his own target seat had a 13,000 majority in 1992 and was considered "safe" - had we not taken it for granted we probably wouldn't have lost in in 1997 and then had to spend 15 years and so much money to win it back. He graciously accepted the point.
I absolutely accept the need to deploy activists where they are required, but there must be a balance. In our so called "safe seats" we may still have a large membership, but most are into retirement and far from fit and active. In many of these seats a lack of a sense of urgency, little professional support and a laissez fair approach to campaigning has weakened our base and deskilled our activists. I have visited many such constituencies in recent years and I despair at how often I hear that "canvassing irritates people", "more than one leaflet puts people off" and "there's no point doing anything on polling day as people have already made up their minds". Too many branches spend their days finding tellers for polling stations and run lovely "Committee Rooms" but then don't do anything with the information the tellers provide as "we don't have the manpower to knock-up". When I suggest that perhaps the one or two activists they have would be better knocking on doors reminding people to vote than sitting at a polling station looking at those who have already voted, I am viewed with suspicion and horror. Apparently, "if people go to the polling station and there is no Troy teller, they will change their mind and vote for another party". Really?
On the other end of the scale, in large swathes of the country there is little or no Conservative organisation at all. I know these are seats we will probably never win, but we have done politics and our own campaigning ability no favours by allowing ourselves to become irrelevant in so many constituencies. There are now entire cities with no Conservative councillors and I know of three large cities where there are fewer Conservative Party members than we have in an average branch in West Kent.
Does this matter? Actually yes it does. In 1992 my home constituency of Wallasey was held by 279 votes in no small part thanks to dozens Liverpool activists, knowing they couldn't win locally, coming to help Lynda Chalker defeat Labour. If we relied on that campaign support now it simply wouldn't happen as those activists are not there. In the 1980s Merseyside returned seven Conservative MPs with majorities of between 5,000 - 20,000. Now there are none. When we have no-one on the ground shaping the narrative we cannot be surprised when the narrative (and the ballot boxes) are dominated by those with opposing views.
The Conservative Party is at its best and strongest when we are part of the day to day life of our local communities. That doesn't mean busing-in coachloads of willing activists in the weeks before an election. It means having Conservatives on Neighbourhood Watch Groups, residents' associations, parish councils, credit unions, parochial church councils, play groups and all the other groups and societies which form part of our communities. I accept that Kent isn't Merseyside or Manchester, but there are wards in West Kent which elect Conservative councillors with thumping 60% majorities despite having equal levels of social inequality as any areas in our great northern cities. Why? Because we have identified and nurtured activists from within these communities who share our values, work hard for local people, gain their trust and subsequently win their hearts, minds and votes.
In West Kent we are going to strike whilst the sweet taste of victory lingers. Within weeks there will be a thank you card to every voter (localised by ward) and a pre-paid reply card for people to sign-up as a "registered supporter" at no charge. We will nurture this group for the future, as I believe from within them will come our next generation of activists, councillors and community leaders.
Having won an election the easiest thing is to celebrate then do nothing in the safe knowledge that we have five more years. If we don't strike now we never will. By November the gloss will have faded and the cold winter nights will deter. By spring it will be business as usual and the moment will have passed.