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Tom Waterhouse: The challenge for the Conservatives in London

Screen Shot 2012-06-04 at 05.55.41Tom Waterhouse of Rhombus Communications. Follow Tom on Twitter.

The most important election result we’ll see between the last general election and the next saw Boris Johnson returned as Mayor of London. Throughout the count on 4th May, the bar charts on the live screens showed that this two-horse race was going to be won by a nose. The result was closer than most opinion polls had been suggesting in the run up to polling day. Boris edged it by just 3% in the end, but in elections it doesn’t matter if you win by 10 votes or 10,000, so long as you win.

The Boris campaign victory was more remarkable than people have given it credit for. This is understandable given that it was mainly viewed as a Boris vs Ken bout, with the latter seeming to punch himself in the face again and again and again. Indeed, the most significant moment in the campaign was the exposure of Ken’s hypocrisy on his tax affairs, something I understand was worked on for over a year.

Having such a disastrous candidate meant Labour lost the “air war”. But on the ground things were much more even. Two years ago Labour had strengthened its grip on the capital, with the Conservatives’ net gain in parliamentary seats in London masking a more significant development. Having the general election on the same day as local elections meant much higher turnouts. Labour enjoyed a net gain of 191 councillors. The Conservatives had a net loss of 68 councillors. Further to this, Labour gained control of 10 more councils, while the Tories lost control of three. Despite enjoying a net gain of seven parliamentary seats, the Conservatives still trail Labour 38 to 28. This is the stark reality in London – have a look at the difference in political control of councils between May 2006, and May 2010 above it. From this you can see why the Boris campaign was at a disadvantage on the ground, especially as Labour could also tap into the 670,000 trade union members in the capital.

So, despite Boris being a far superior candidate, it was still far closer than the polls were predicting. Andrew Gilligan correctly identified why this was:

"The main reason it was closer than everyone expected is perhaps this. Labour had fewer supporters, but was better at getting those it had to the polls. Compared with 2008, turnout was down everywhere. But it fell by less in the Labour areas than in the Tory ones".

This is what’s called differential turnout, and most elections are decided by it: one party doing a better job of motivating their supporters to go to the polling station than their opponents manage to. This is all down to the effectiveness of the party machine. In 2008, the electoral cycle was in the Tories’ favour and the Boris campaign had many more resources to work with. Not just more councillors, but parliamentary candidates in places where there weren’t MPs, and hordes of council candidates in wards where there weren’t Conservative councillors. The campaign sought to get rid of a tired Labour Mayor, under an unpopular Labour government.

In 2012, two years from the failure to break through in London and with a mid-term Conservative-led government in place, things were much tougher. The Daily Mail has described how Lynton Crosby set up his own election organisation separate from the party because the Tory election machine in the capital is so “rickety”. All of this together is why the Boris campaign was more remarkable than people have generally given it credit for. Some MPs have recognised the scale of this achievement, with Lynton Crosby being given the credit he deserves for running such a disciplined campaign.

The fact is, in places like London where the trend is for the Conservatives to have less elected representatives than Labour, the electoral cycle means the party has more activists a few years before a general election, and generally much fewer activists in the two years after. It takes time to recover. In 2008, conditions were near perfect. In 2012, it should have been the perfect storm.

The challenge for the next Conservative campaign for the London Mayoralty will be to cope with the effects of the electoral cycle. Things were tough in 2012, being only two years since a difficult set of election results. Running the 2016 campaign – which looks set to be just one year after a demanding general election – will be even more difficult. Understanding the campaigning capacity in each Association will be vital in drawing up plans for delivering literature and knocking on doors. Therefore, one important step to mitigating the effects of the electoral cycle in 2016 will be a stronger, more direct and personal link between the Mayoral campaign team at the centre and Conservative Associations across the capital.

In every Association, there is usually one individual whose say-so ensures the election machine in that constituency begins to grind into action. Sometimes it’s the Association Chairman or President, the MP or PPC, the Agent or maybe even the council group leader. The Conservative Mayoral campaign team, as well as replicating the superb set-up of this year’s operation, will need to add someone who can identify these people and be on first-name terms. Having this two-way communication will be crucial. Otherwise the 2016 campaign may not get out of first gear.


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