One of the most difficult things any campaign manager must to do is manage resources, particularly when managing the hopes and expectations of candidates who are fighting seats which we are almost certainly not going to win, and convincing candidates in safe seats that adding a further 500 votes to their 2,000 majority at the expense of the target seat next door is not in the best interests of the Conservative Party.
For me, this lesson struck home in 2003. I had just moved to Kent and my predecessor as Tonbridge & Malling’s Agent asked me to “adopt” the candidates standing for council in the neighbouring constituency of Chatham & Aylesford. The constituency had been newly formed in 1997, bringing together the two weakest parts of otherwise safe Conservative seats. Rallings and Thrasher has predicted a notional Conservative majority of 14,000, but the constituency was won by Labour by 2,800. This was further increased in 2001 to 4,400. By the time I arrived, the Association was lacking manpower, money and motivation.
I remember to this day turning up on a cold and blustery March morning to find a gaggle of confused and demoralised candidates who had been over-promised and under-resourced. The older candidates had lost so often that they had given up hope. The new recruits, though no fault of their own, had little training and no guidance. By the time of my arrival the die was cast; the best I could do was provide practical help and bolster morale until we could regroup after the inevitable defeat.
And what a defeat it was. Despite the best (albeit misplaced) efforts of the candidates and their small teams of helpers, just four Conservative Councillors were elected (from a total of 29) – and this was during the mid-term of a second Labour government in a generally affluent area of Kent. Of those four wins, three were holds and there was just one gain. A further 19 seats which we had hoped to gain were lost. After ten years of fighting, the constituency had a Labour MP, two Liberal Democrat County Councillors and, at district level, we held just four seats compared with Labour’s 13 and the LibDems’ 12.
But in hindsight, the defeat was a blessing. The battle and the ensuing disappointment formed bonds and friendships which are rarely seen in politics, and which still endure today. But, just as importantly, it brought home the need to work smarter and target resources effectively. After so many successive defeats, it was obvious that “one more heave” would result in “one more defeat”.
So members accepted that we would need two elections to reach our goal, and wards were allocated and targeted on that basis. Candidates were selected almost immediately to ensure maximum campaign time, and were chosen for the non-target wards on the basis that winning would be a two-term slog, and they would be expected to help deliver victory elsewhere first. The strategy paid dividends. In 2007, we won all eleven targets and, by 2011, we had won ten more – and, by this time, the parliamentary seat and two county seats, too.
Chatham & Aylesford has always been a small Association of 150 members who have “punched above their weight”. But what drove them on was teamwork, and the brutal realisation that it was better to share in someone else’s victory than to suffer yet another personal defeat. And on that wonderful night when the votes were counted and we gained eleven opposition seats, the loudest cheers came from the losing candidates, because they always knew they were not going to win (their turn would come) but that, for the first time in over a decade, they could share in a victory which their teamwork had helped deliver.
During the lead-up to the 2010 general election, this small team were delivering more leaflets and recording more canvass data than any other in the UK. Our CCHQ Campaign Manager wrote at the time:
“I have never known an Association which so closely resembles the very voters they seek to represent. They achieve so much, as they are far more united by a collective determination to win than they are divided by the personal squabbles and personality clashes which so often lead to conflict.”
We are fortunate in West Kent: due to sharing establishment and staff costs six ways, our Associations are generally free from the financial constraints which affect so many, but we are still limited by time and manpower. Sadly, too often, this does not stop candidates in seats which have returned Conservatives with 70 per cent of the vote since the 1950s demanding more resources – or candidates who were selected on the basis of them being a “paper candidate”, with the expectation that they will support the marginal seat next door, from suddenly believing they can pull off a victory despite the Conservatives polling just 22 per cent last time.
Recently, a paper candidate who had received a firm “no” after several consecutive requests for more resources said to me: “the trouble with you, Andrew, is that all your care about is the Party, and not the feelings of the individual.” This comment hit home: I accept that my focus is on the collective outcome, with perhaps too little consideration for the feelings of the individual. But in fairness, those candidates were selected on that basis, and it is not me who is trying to move the goalposts.
Perhaps I should let go of those memories from 2003 when we all suffered from the equal sharing of misery. For me, dream work makes the team work. Losing an election by 200 fewer than last time is no consolation in a contest when the winner takes the only prize. Personally, I would rather bask in the warm glow of a colleague’s victory than enjoy a defeat of my own creation.