I’ve sure everyone is heartily sick of the Ealing Southall by-election by now, but I thought I’d add a few final thoughts.
The Tories made a big play about how they were, to paraphrase one Iain Dale commenter, “parking their tank on the Lib Dems’ lawn”. Many of their leaflets did indeed ape our style (although as I said earlier, they were appallingly amateurish – in particular their version of “Talk of the Town” OK Magazine style literature), but they were still infused with Toryish notions about the candidate standing stiffly and self-importantly in every picture. I don’t think I saw a single photo of Tony Lit actually listening to someone talking in any of their literature. Of course such photos are always posed, but they send important subliminal messages about your candidate. Of course, if you come from a Conservative standpoint and see politics as a thing done by important men in suits rather than for ordinary people (it’s interesting to compare and contrast the photos posted on the Facebook groups for Conservative Future and Lib Dem Youth & Students: the former has portraits of Cameron, Hague, Osborne et all, the latter is full of pictures of LDYS campaigning, partying and doing lewd things to one another. Same age group, different planet), you will struggle desperately to get your head around such a concept.
That leads me onto the choice of Tony Lit himself. Why would you even consider a non-local candidate who wasn’t a party member, let alone impose him on the local party (I heard Caroline Spelman on Today yesterday saying that the ES campaign showed that Cameron was committed to localism – ha!)? But Tony Lit does rather conform to the ideal Cameroon candidate, not because he is minority ethnic, but because he is a dilletante. To be sure, he isn’t a top hatted toff like Boris Johnson or Zac Goldsmith, but he screamed money. Far from seeing this as a problem in an economically under-performing place like Southall (I should be careful here because I actually loved the place and have added it to my list of places I might consider moving to), the Tories tried selling him as a ‘local success story’. In doing so they blithely ignored the fact that his ‘success’ is rooted in his father’s money; but when have ‘meritocrats’ ever let the truth get in the way of a good story? Again, it boils down to a Toryish concept of the candidate as ‘hero’ as opposed to ‘public servant’ and one that I’m not convinced has much traction outside of the sort of cosy suburban areas that the Tories have retreated to over the past couple of decades. Far from modernisation and reaching outside of the Tory supporter base, Cameroonism is looking distinctly old fashioned and inward looking from where I’m sitting this morning.
Then there was the bad tempered nature of their campaign. I for one was taken by surprise by the sheer intensity of it. It started with Grant Shapps bizarre claims about ‘poster lotteries’ which he still hasn’t offered any evidence of and continued with a stream of threats to either sue their opponents or sic the police on them. In the event, only one campaign team are being investigated by the police: the Conservatives, for allegedly leaking the result of the postal vote count. The Grant Shapps/YouTube incident will live on forever as an example of quite how mad, bad and plain stupid the Conservatives can be.
But there was another, more subtle but in some ways even more lamentable aspect of this. In by-elections, tensions among party activists run high. There are regrettable incidents such as the Watson/Kemp addiction to using rentamobs to intimidate their rival candidates. But as a general rule you make a point of being polite to one another when you cross each other in the street or tell at a polling station. There is simply no need to make it personal.
The Tories I encountered in Ealing Southall however were something else. Without fail, if I crossed one of them in the street, they would sneer, mutter something rude under their breath or otherwise make it clear that I was wasting my time and the Lib Dems were about to be victorious. One Conservative woman was polite when she drove up to me on the eve of poll, but that was simply because she was trying to plug me for information (having just carefully taken the Lit posters off her window ten metres down the road).
In fact – confession time! – it was one particularly unpleasant incident outside the Conservative HQ in West Ealing that lead me to blogging about that Billy Taylor post on their Facebook group.
What is clear from these incidents, and from a cursory glance at the blogosphere is that the Conservative campaign team committed the ultimate sin of convincing their own activist base that they were on the cusp of victory. You don’t piss in your own backyard. The innocent little CF monkeys who were so arrogantly sneering at rival party activists in the street two weeks ago will have had their hearts broken. It was clear from the outset that the Tories weren’t getting activists in sufficient numbers, despite the hype. Next time, they’ll have to rely on Paul Seery to do everything (if he hasn’t defected to Labour by then). And that’s not to mention all the political journalists, such as Jonathan Isaby and Michael Crick who they were quite clearly telling fibs to. Campaign teams in backwater, moribund seats get this sort of electionitis all the time, but when your senior by-election task force gets carried away like this, you have a crisis on your hands. Just how badly do you think they’d have screwed up if it had been a General Election?
Finally, you have to ask serious questions about David Cameron’s judgement. I’m not just talking about his decision to put his personal credibility on the line, to the point of having his name on the ballot paper, but of his decision to dedicate so much party resources to a campaign that went nowhere. Let’s be quite clear about something: the Conservatives did play a decisive role in denying the Lib Dems another by-election win. The Tory campaign was effectively a spoiler, muddying the waters, confusing the media and enabling Labour to present it as a straight Labour-Tory fight. If they hadn’t gone for it in the same way, perhaps concentrated their resources in Sedgefield where they were second, the Lib Dems might just have been able to take the seat.
Of course, for people like the aforementioned Paul Seery, that is mission accomplished. But if Cameron thinks that, he should resign. Coming a poor third in Ealing would not have got them worse headlines than they received yesterday and today – indeed without the over hype, they wouldn’t now be getting spanked. But it would have damaged Brown and brought his honeymoon period to a crashing end. Instead, Brown’s bounce has been consolidated. From a strategic point of view, it has to be one of the worst political miscalculations ever.
It could be that the Tories genuinely believed they had a real chance of winning, but who managed to convince them of that? Nothing is certain in politics, but if you can’t guarantee with 100% certainty that you are going to come at least second, you should never campaign to win. I think I learnt that in Primary School. What do they teach those crazy kids at Eton?
There is a comparable pre-1997 example. In 1995, Labour took a strategic decision to challenge the Littleborough and Saddleworth by-election, a Tory held seat where the Lib Dems were second. They ran a hard, even nasty campaign, that many Lib Dems still feel sore about. The Lib Dems won, but Labour significantly came second and went on to take the Oldham East and Saddleworth seat in 1997 (which they hold to this day). Peter Mandelson knew exactly what he was doing. Did Grant Shapps?
All this suggests that, for all the froth, Cameron doesn’t really have a clue what his anti-Brown strategy should be. He’s done a good job at making people sit up and pay attention to the Tories again, but he’s done a lousy job as changing hearts and minds within the Conservative Party itself. He surrounds himself with top hatted toffs and dilletantes, and calls it ‘diversity’. At the height of his popularity he nearly lost the Bromley by-election, while at the height of Gordon Brown’s popularity, he ends up humiliating himself when he didn’t need to. The money continues to flow in, some of it not from the clinically insane, but money can’t buy you activists in the North and other areas they need to win. And now we have a return to back to basics and posturing over Grammar Schools (sorry, ‘Grammar streaming‘), entirely at the behest of the very swivel eyed loons who have been keeping them in the political wilderness for the best part of two decades now. It isn’t looking good.
(and after all that, I failed to blog about my favourite Tory election leaflet of all time! Maybe later).