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Conor Burns MP: The real lesson of Eastleigh is that the Tory grassroots are dying. Here's how we should revive them.

Screen Shot 2013-03-03 at 11.54.39Conor Burns is MP for Bournemouth West. Follow Conor on Twitter.

I thought carefully before writing this article.  About whether to bother.  I write it secure in the knowledge that cloaked in the anonymity of the internet it will get comments asking what right I have to comment on Eastleigh given my track record there.

One Hedge End resident in the constituency remembered me last weekend and gave me the most memorable doorstep experience of the last few weeks.  He assured me that he had voted for me “both times”. Before saying, “Well it’s worked out pretty well for you son – you’ve got the seaside and Huhne getting a cell”!

So yes I have a track record in Eastleigh – I fought the constituency twice.  And I lost it twice. I contemplated a third (because the party asked me to) but for reasons I will explain I decided against.

However with over six years as the candidate there and nine years as a local resident I did want to use my knowledge to help Maria Hutchings in her fight.  Over the last few weeks I made fourteen visits to help in Eastleigh – fortunately it’s not a long drive from Bournemouth (even without speeding). I came back as an activist.  I delivered leaflets, canvassed and asked friends to join me. I had no input into the campaign beyond street campaigning.

I make no comment positively or otherwise about the campaign.  And I refute any blame being attached to our candidate. Maria Hutchings is a lady of authentic decency as anyone who knows her will attest.

But knowing Eastleigh as I do and having seen our campaign up close (and, yes, accepting that I lost by more than 3000 votes in 2001 and by 568 against Chris Huhne in 2005) I would make some observations about what happened there and the implications and lessons for our party more generally.

Firstly the LibDems are seriously dug in.  People have noted that the LibDems control every seat within the Parliamentary constituency of Eastleigh on the borough Council.  They do.  They also have every County Council seat within the Parliamentary constituency.  Less noted was their dominance on the Parish and Town Councils of Bishopstoke, Hamble, Hound, Hedge End, West End, Botley and Fair Oak. There are probably in excess of 130 ‘Councillors’ at different levels within Eastleigh - working for the LibDems year in and year out in their areas.

Secondly the LibDem local brand is very strong and the Conservative local brand is very weak. This doesn’t mean that we can’t win the seat in a general election as Michael Ashcroft’s Friday poll showed. It does mean we will struggle to win against them on local issues.  One piece of analysis after my 2005 defeat showed that if people in Eastleigh had voted in the general election in the same way as they did in the County Council elections (which were held in the same day and on close to co-terminus boundaries) Chris Huhne’s majority over me would have been in the region of 7,500 not just 568.  Our local brand is broken and it is directly related to our local strength on the ground.

Thirdly the LibDem message is accepted as the genuine one not just because of local strength but because of frequency of repetition.  During the by-election we seemed to think that we had found the silver bullet to discredit the LibDem candidate because we had proved he had voted for a development when his leaflets indicated he has voted against.  I was asked to tweet late at night after a ‘big meeting’ had finished and the outcome was a poster that showed the LibDem candidate ‘faced both ways’ on development.  Anywhere else this might have worked.  Not in Eastleigh.  For more than a decade-and-a-half leaflets saying that the LibDems had ‘Saved our Green Fields’ or ‘Fighting Tory County Council Plans for Building on our Open Spaces’ have been popping through letter boxes every two months – without fail.  You cannot discredit a trusted regular message (however untrue it is) in three weeks. Despite seeing some of the ‘Green Fields’ they were ‘protecting’ in my time at Allbrook Hill and Dowd’s Farm now covered in houses and flats it made no difference.  Our lack of on the ground credibility made our message mute.

Fourthly and perhaps most difficult for me to stomach: the Borough Council in Eastleigh is pretty well run.  It performs its core functions well and it keeps the Council tax down.  Some of this is due to the success of Conservative-controlled Hampshire – but without an organisation heralding that it doesn’t really matter. 

Perhaps lastly to understand the context of Eastleigh – we have no opposition in any recognisable form to speak of.  Yes there are four Councillors who sit on Eastleigh Borough Council from outside the Eastleigh Parliamentary seat. The Leader of the Group was first elected to the Council in 1955 and had served continuously for almost 58 years.  No one could ever quite remember when he became Group Leader. I leave it to others to wonder why when the LibDems have taken every other ward in the Borough including formally true-blue areas like Hamble, Burseldon and Hedge End. They seem very deliberately to leave the Conservative Group Leader’s ward alone entirely.

So knowing what I knew before the by-election and finding that almost no one raised Huhne as the reason for the by-election on the door step I was not very surprised at the outcome.  And despite what is being written about the consequences and implications for the next election I stand by what I told the Prime Minister before polling day – there are precisely none.

Yet I can’t help but feel there are huge implications for us as a party in the way we operate, campaign and support the Conservative family in our constituencies.

I worry that there has been too much scorn about the role and value of our members and our Associations.  There is a tendency from some (often newcomers to the party) to dismiss the role of those who stuff envelopes, attend coffee mornings, do telling on election day. Yet in places like Eastleigh they are our party.

It’s certainly true that elections in the modern world cannot be won on a purely constituency/ bottom up approach.  But as the last election showed, surely elections cannot be won on purely on a national/CCHQ basis?

I used the word ‘family’ to describe the Conservative Party and its members deliberately.  When I joined the party it felt like being part of a family.  We campaigned together, we socialised together. Firm friendships were formed. Party conference was like a great extended family gathering. You met friends from all over the country who you often only saw at conference.  We came together as Members of the Conservative Party – deliverers, ward Chairman, MPs, YCs, University students, Association officers and just ordinary members – but as equals who were there for one reason alone which was a shared belief in Britain and that Britain’s interests were best served by Conservative values in Government.

Today I feel that too many are slightly embarrassed by our members and more comfortable with a conference of corporates and lobbyists.  I’m told they help us make a profit from conference.  Perhaps they do.  But I fancy that very few of them will stick leaflets through the doors on a cold November afternoon in Hedge End, West End, Botley or any of the other places in Eastleigh we need to win to get an MP there.

I would like the real lesson of Eastleigh to be this – it is almost impossible to win on the ground in areas where you have almost ceased to exist on the ground.  And that we should put as much effort and thinking into how we revive our local base as we do into central driven campaigning.

So here are a couple of ideas:

  • We raise millions every year to spend on CCHQ.  Let’s devolve more of that money to the coal face in our target seats.
  • Our agent infrastructure is close to extinction. Let’s not just bring in people in the run up to an election and make them redundant afterwards. Why not bring back a proper agent career path and ensure shared professional coverage in areas we need to win?
  • Remove the £25 minimum membership.  I remember joining when Margaret Thatcher was Leader – the fee box was left blank and the question posed, ‘What price freedom?’
  • Give the conference back to those whose party it is – our members.

On that last note I end on, to coin a phrase, ‘a generous open offer’ to the Conservative Party. Our members loved coming to Bournemouth.  We have a plentiful supply of relatively inexpensive and quality small hotels and B&Bs. Bring the annual conference back to Bournemouth: and it’s only a short drive for the new members we need to attract in Eastleigh to ensure the new MPs career is short-lived.


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