Friday, 22 February 2013

Command and control

A report on the Eastleigh by-election in the Independent earlier this week spoke of hundreds of Liberal Democrat workers being "drafted in". Anyone who is familiar with the party would know that you can't make a LibDem do anything. (A former chief whip likened his task to "herding cats".) The fact is that there was an enormous upsurge of volunteering as soon as it was known that vacancy had occurred in Eastleigh. It reminded me of the spontaneous mass desire to get back at the party's critics after Charles Kennedy was deposed. The vehicle then was a by-election in Dunfermline and West Fife, which saw the current leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, Willie Rennie, returned. It should be remembered that the psephological sage of Strathclyde predicted a win there for the SNP with us vying with the Unionists for fourth place.

This is not to say that the organisation of major by-election campaigns is amateurish in style or relies on inspiration and enthusiasm alone. Although we cannot afford the paid help that the Conservatives are able to put in the field, we now have enough seasoned campaigners (many of them helpfully in Hampshire towns and cities!) to run an efficient by-election machine.

Nor are the conservative media writing us off these days. In fact, there are several stories that the Tories have tacitly given up this fight, which immediately makes me suspicious. In spite of the good showing of the UKIP candidate, potentially taking Tory votes, the result looks likely to be close and any complacency fatal*.

Steve Richards in the Indy yesterday drew attention to the propensity of the current crop of Conservatives, including their Eastleigh candidate, to speak their mind, A-list or not:

An illuminating comparison can be made between Labour’s 1997 intake of MPs and the Conservatives elected for the first time in 2010. The response of most Labour MPs in 1997 was to be genuinely loyal to the leadership and for that enthusiasm to be combined with intense ambition to become ministers. There was much talk about “control freakery” at the top, but most of them were happy to be controlled. Parts of the 2010 Tory intake are markedly more independent – almost as a matter of principle.

It is a great pity that the 1997 intake was so obedient to the party machine. The state of the modern Conservative party is surely healthier, even though it gives more headaches to whips - and to coalition partners! - than New Labour was.

*Update 11:45: since writing the above, colleagues on the ground have confirmed that the usual efficient Conservative telephone canvassing operation continues at full pelt. It is easy to be lulled into a false sense of security by the apparent lack of activity by Conservative campaigners on the ground, as I was when I was first drawn into a local by-election campaign. The eventual size of the Conservative vote was a surprise to me, but not to the experienced people running our campaign.

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