Wednesday, 22 July 2015

#ToriesForCorbyn should be careful what they wish for

Unlike many of today's activists and social media commentators I recall the political battles with the hard left in the 1980s when Militant Tendency were ascendant. 

By "hard left" I don't mean the quinoa eaters of Holland Park Comprehensive, who wish to change society through adjustments to the tax and benefits system. I mean the real "hard left", the ones who hate us and all that we stand for.

In the late 1980s I was politically active in Merseyside and still bear the emotional scars. It was a tough and unpleasant time to be a Conservative activist. My mother and I were sent hate mail, including letters lined with razor blades, stones and eggs thrown at our windows were a weekly occurrence and one night my car was turned upside down by a group of lads shouting "Tory scum". 

I was campaign manager for Liverpool's last remaining Conservative Councillor, Stan Airey in Childwall, before he was defeated by the rising tide of the Left in a ward which would be 70% Conservative in the south. I was one of the organisers of a group called "Liverpool Against the Militants" which brought together businesses and taxpayers to try - in vain - to stem the tide of anti-enterprise municipal Socialism. And I was there with a ringside seat, when Derek Hatton, Tony Mulhern and Liverpool's Militant Tendency brought my home city to its knees, provoking Neil Kinnock's famous words at Labour's annual conference:

"I'll tell you what happens with impossible promises. You start with far-fetched resolutions. They are then pickled into a rigid dogma, a code, and you go through the years sticking to that, outdated, misplaced, irrelevant to the real needs, and you end in the grotesque chaos of a Labour council -- a Labour council -- hiring taxis to scuttle round a city handing out redundancy notices to its own workers . . .I am telling you, no matter how entertaining, how fulfilling to short-term egos -- you can't play politics with people's jobs and with people's services or with their homes. "

"Over the water" in true-blue Wirral we had been fighting more or less successfully to stem Labour's rising tide. A pragmatic Conservative council had retained control throughout the early 1980s but, like most of the Metropolitan Boroughs, demographic changes and a general antipathy towards Thatcherism was making it increasingly difficult and our majority was ebbing away. 

The rise of the Militant Left two miles away in Liverpool was, we thought, a godsend. Our messaging changed from one of competence and good management to "don't let Militant do to Wirral what they've done to Liverpool."  How could all those tens of thousands of aspirational middle class voters consider such a thing? 

That year was a bloodbath. We lost almost half of our council seats we were defending and overall control of the Council. The following year Labour became the largest party and a year later they took control. 

What went wrong?  

Looking back I believe we actually fought the best campaign we could, it just wasn't good enough. And this is the threat many of those #ToriesForCorbyn probably haven't considered. 

In the election of 1986 the Tory voters in the middle class aspirational wards poured out in their thousands. In the leafy suburbs overlooking the River Dee our majorities doubled - some wards were won with 75% of the vote and majorities of 4,000. But these wards were always going to vote Conservative - and still do.  Piling up 4,000 majorities in Heswall and Hoylake achieved nothing at the Town Hall. The damage was done in the battlegrounds, which Labour won with ease.   

To understand the threat posed by Jeremy Corbyn we need to consider what happened not just in Liverpool, but in Islington, Coventry, Sheffield,, Lambeth and many other areas too. 

The Conservative Party has always been capable of turning out our vote, and in 1986 with the threat of Militant we managed to increase turnout even further, by a few hundred in most wards. There was also some evidence that some moderate Liberal voters switched to us to stop Militant Tendency, but equally Labour gained many radical votes from the left of the Liberals as we did from the right.    

What we failed to anticipate was the 'radicalisation' of those who had previously given-up on politics or had never participated. Just as those in search of spiritual understanding are attracted by the simple messages of evangelism, so those angry and disenfranchised with society were attracted to the equally simplistic messages of Militant Tendency.  Turnout in the polling stations with the highest levels of social inequality and unemployment almost doubled, swamping any additional tactical Tory votes from elsewhere. One by one the Tory seats fell - and with them control of Wirral Council. We have never controlled it since.  

Similarly in the 1987 General Election a Militant Tendency-backed Labour candidate came within 279 votes of defeating the popular and respected incumbent, Lynda Chalker, as MP for Wallasey, in a seat which had been Conservative for 100 years. Uniquely in Merseyside the Conservative vote-share held, but Labour's vote increased from 32% to 42%, almost all from higher turnout which, at 80%, was the highest ever. More evidence of how Militant's simplistic messages empowered thousands of voters who had never previously voted. 

Should Jeremy Corbyn win it will be great for our Party in the leafy suburbs of West Kent and Surrey and Dorset - but these are the seats which Labour don't need to win and probably never will. The danger for us is in the dozens of constituencies which we win against Labour with the benefit of differential turnout.   These are the constituencies which will decide the government - and these are the constituencies which almost certainly contain thousands of voters in search of the simple answers than Burnham, Cooper and Kendall won't provide but Jeremy Corbyn might. 

Tories for Corbyn need to be careful what they wish for!

1 comment:

  1. Hello Andrew

    Great article and very accurate reflection of what happened here, the last time the Hard Left had any influence.