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The Conservative grassroots are withering - and the party leadership has no plan to revive them.

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By Paul Goodman

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I went to Eastleigh on Wednesday to "add my strength to yours", as Fotherington-Thomas used to say in the Molesworth books, and was given pledge letters to deliver in two areas.  There will always be errors in a canvass, but three of the households to which the letters were addressed had UKIP posters in a window, two had Liberal Democrats ones, and a smattering had posted notices saying "No more by-election leaflets, please" (or less polite variants on that theme.)

On my way back to the campaign office, I ran into a Conservative MP who was also a senior member of the campaign team.  He said that pledge letters had not necessarily been sent to voters who had been canvassed, but to those who had been identified by Mosaic - the "unique consumer classification based on in-depth demographic data".  It's a statement of the obvious that seeking to identify voters through Mosaic is no substitute for having local people on the ground.

As I pointed out in the Daily Telegraph last week, Eastleigh is an extreme example of a problem that has haunted the party for years, and is coming home to roost now we're in government.  We are feeling the consequences of the decline of political party membership - in my view, more than Labour, which has the trade unions to fall back on in election campaigns.  (They ran an effective 'ground war" in 2010, despite Brown's dire "air war", helping to hold a vital tranche of midlands and northern marginals.)

During the course of this Parliament, Tim Montgomerie and I have been told, during three visits to CCHQ, first, that local Associations were more of a hindrance than a help at the last election; second, that they are indispensable to winning seats (the senior party figure we met told us said that CCHQ was considering presenting awards at the annual conference to Associations with big membership increases) and, third, that local Associations are past their sell-by date as a vote-gathering force, and that local networks of leafletters are more reliable.

I agree that the old-fashioned Association model doesn't work, but this chopping and changing is alarming.  More importantly, those local networks don't cut the mustard.  Leafletters have their limits.  Local activists involved in "social action" - many of those I know and have known are involved in local charities and voluntary groups and clubs - are effectively ambassadors for the party.  This is no less true of councillors.

I got a text this morning from a campaigning Conservative MP which reads as follows:

"Eastleigh is not just UKIP but crap party organisation, second-rate officials, and centre not understanding letting grassroots wither.  Need mass membership prog and clearout of current officials many of whom have been there for years."

In response to which - and in summary - three points:

  • A poor craftsman blames his tools, so I'm reluctant to lump the blame for Eastleigh on officials.  But my source is well-informed about how the party machine now works.  As Tim Montgomerie wrote earlier today, we'll return to the subject soon.
  • The party sought to follow the Obama campaign during the Eastleigh contest by building up an Obama-style database of voters.  But "boots on the ground" were essential to Obama's campaigning strategy.  The Tories had few indigenous ones in Eastleigh.
  • David Cameron has sought to follow Tony Blair by defining himself against his party.  ("I am the heir to Blair.")  Downing Street isn't slow to point out that he polls ahead of it.  But while this may help the Conservatives in the short-term, it is harming them in the long - even in the medium.  Boosting your own brand at the expense of your party will - arguably - bring it benefits for as long as it wins general elections.  But it didn't win the last one.  And Cameron may well not be in Downing Street after the next.


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