Adrian Lee is a Solicitor-Advocate in London, specialising in criminal defence. He served as a London Borough Councillor for 20 years and was twice a Conservative Parliamentary Candidate. Between 1994 and 1995 he served as Chairman of the National Young Conservatives.
On the eve of the London Mayoral and London Assembly elections, I spent the day campaigning. There is nothing very unusual about that, after all I have been helping on Conservative campaigns for decades. An old friend called Dinah (who just happened to be the local area Chairman) asked if I could lend a hand. However, this time there was something very different about the Constituency Association I visited and the style of organisation that the locals have crafted.
The moment I stepped into the Association office, it became apparent that the atmosphere was different. The first thing that struck me was the central direction of the campaign. Led by the redoubtable Sue, the organisers were working to a strict timetable and had worked out the specifics of what needed to be achieved. There was a great camaraderie here. It was also noticeable that this building was cleaner than most local Conservative premises, with the rooms attractively tiled, painted, and refitted. It gave the instant impression of a more professional working environment. Sue showed me the newly renovated MP’s office and commented on the importance of putting on a good face for visiting constituents at surgeries. Clearly, this Association raised enough funds to cover the costs of maintenance.
A quick perusal of the tables in the main committee room revealed that the literature for door-to-door delivery, despite this being a pan-London election, had been skilfully tailored to each ward. Not only were the leaflets promoting the Mayoral and GLA candidate, but also featured high-quality photographs and contact details of the sitting ward councillors. What was the point of this? Simple, the London Borough council elections take place in 12 months time; the Councillors need to be kept in the public eye; and promoting the ward councillors is not going to distract from the current contest. A closer inspection revealed the leaflets focused on highly localised issues of concern to constituents. Rather than indulging in Labour-bashing, the literature emphasised the dedicated service offered to the community by the Conservatives.
I was then whisked over by car to join the local Member of Parliament and his canvass team working the streets. My driver was a 22-year-old politics graduate called Ben who had worked previously as a Research Assistant to a GLA Member. The first thing that struck me about Ben was his enthusiasm and zeal. This was not just someone who was conscripted reluctantly to help for the day. He was enjoying himself. He was articulate, subtle, and fluent in political discussion and reminded me of my own youth in the 1980s when Young Conservatives and Conservative Students saw themselves as evangelists for Conservatism.
Ben explained that all of the homes in the constituency had already been leafleted on multiple occasions during the campaign and the delivery teams were continuing with this process right up to polling day. Locally, the Conservatives have built an extensive network of deliverers across all of the wards in the constituency. Many of these helpers are not fully paid-up members of the Party, but they are kept in touch all year around and are invited to Association functions. Most importantly, both the local councillors and the MP personally visit the deliverers regularly. Ben told me that the Association continues campaigning between election times with ward newsletters being continuously produced. This local team have adopted an approach akin to the Liberal Democrats in their prime. With the delivery networks firmly in place and the literature flowing through all the letterboxes in constituency, the rest of the Association can concentrate on everything from canvassing to social media.
I stepped out of Ben’s car to be greeted by the MP and his canvass team at around 2pm. Given the fact that this was a weekday, it was quite surprising to me that there were eight volunteers in the group. I was told that whilst the members of the group rotated, they always kept to this number. The team started their work in the morning and continued through to the evening.
The first innovative thing that I noted was that they were not using the old-fashioned methods of canvassing. For a start, the team were less concerned with obtaining thousands of pledges and more interested in meeting and speaking to people. After years of doing this job, they have created their own best-practice rules and have come to realise that having 40,000 pledges (as preached by CCHQ) is not always the best use of their time and resources. Firstly, all of the gathered pledges would have to be input into a database, taking hundreds of precious campaign hours and, secondly, it dawned upon them that it would be impossible to knock-up this number on polling day. So, instead, the locals adopt a more personal conversational approach with constituents. You may think that this would take longer, but in practice they get through the work quicker and it enables them to cover the entire constituency a couple of times during a typical election campaign.
The impact of the new method is immediately apparent. The politeness and enthusiasm that I found on the doorstep was surprising. Many of the voters knew the MP on a first name basis, having met him on numerous occasions over the years, and the councillors were greeted in a similar fashion. On the day that I attended, the feeling on the doorstep was very good for the Conservatives. Even some of the people who told me that they intended to vote Labour stated that they respected the local Conservatives and liked some of their local personalities.
The canvass team represented a cross-section of modern society. Recruitment is not a problem for the Conservatives in this constituency. I first spoke to Christine, a middle-aged Conservative councillor, and a retired gentleman who had been a former Mayor in a neighbouring Borough. However, there was also Ellie, a recent Oxford PPE graduate and Scott, another young graduate, who worked as assistant to the MP. Far from being “pale, male and stale”, the team later was joined by Ekin, a young man born in Istanbul, and two sitting female Asian Councillors. Later, back at the Association office, I met Michael an Afro-Caribbean Conservative Councillor and former Mayor of the Borough. However, I got the impression that all of these folk had been drawn together out of a very strong bond to the core Conservative principles of the free market, the constitution, and, above all, patriotism. Their strong political convictions spurred them on to greater endeavours.
Unfortunately, I had to leave this merry band at around 7.30pm that evening. But the next day they would increase the Conservative majority in their London Assembly constituency from 1,400 to 15,000. This is actually not so surprising when you consider that the MP for this once Labour-held seat obtained over 64 per cent of the vote in the 2019 General Election. So, you may be asking, where is this extraordinary constituency Conservative Association? The answer is Romford and their Member of Parliament is Andrew Rosindell.
For years the Party has dismissed Rosindell and his Romford Conservative Association as both slightly eccentric and atypical. They sometimes smirk at the style of his grassroots campaigns without bothering to notice that the structural substance could be successfully replicated in hundreds of other constituencies throughout the country. He has tailored a bespoke organisation that dominates the political landscape. Ask yourself, wouldn’t we have better served if we deployed at least some of these organisational methods in the marginal constituencies of South Wales?
When the General Election comes, the Conservatives will be campaigning for an unprecedented fifth consecutive term in government. Our success will depend on holding onto marginal constituencies in working-class communities. It is imperative that CCHQ does not just take the outcome for granted and run a generic, centralised, sterile campaign. Neither should they impose the outdated methods of the 1950s on the constituencies, such as four leaflets per campaign and the rest of the time spent on register-bound individual canvassing. Now is the time for re-building the grassroots structures. It is also time for them to put their pride in their pocket and to recruit Rosindell to the cause.