I am afraid this has the makings of a rather long post, so bear with me. On 10 February, following the Dunfermline by-election, I wrote this...
"The LibDems are past masters at persuading all those who don't like Labour that they are the only ones who can defeat them and I suspect that this accounts for part of the reduction in the Tory vote. But let's not kid ourselves. The Conservatives need to think about what will happen if there's a by-election in a Labour marginal in a rural area. Just how do they convince the electorate that it is they who are best placed to oust Labour, rather than the LibDems? To be frank, we haven't fought a good by-election campaign since, well, I honestly can't remember. I understand a special by-election unit was set up recently. I hope it is going to be given the campaigning resources it will need, because although we all say by-elections don't matter, the way they are fought sends out important signals to party workers about how the Party is geared up to fight a national election. It's important that when the next by-election occurs in an English seat with a good Conservative vote, the Party is fully prepared to fight it."
So what happened in Bromley & Chislehurst? What lessons should the Party take from the result and what should happen now?
Firstly let's look at the result. The BBC is spinning for all it's worth that the Conservatives lost 11,000 votes, only mentioning as an afterthought that the turnout was a mere 40%. If there had been a 40% turnout in the General Election the majority would have been about 6,500. The Conservative vote went down from 50% to 40%. The LibDem vote actually only went up by 1,620 although their percentage rose from 20% to 37% - whatever way you spin it, that's a real achievement. However, the Labour vote collapsed from more than 10,000 to a mere 1,925. They went down from 22% to 6% - from second place to fourth. There will be several Labour MPs in South London who look at that result with absolute horror. UKIP overtook Labour to grab third place and increased their vote from 3% to 8%. I have to say that while I never thought we would lose this seat, I never thought we would get a bigger per centage than in 2005. LibDems were constantly saying that if we didn't get 60% (or even 70% in one case!) it would be a disaster for Cameron. In my view it was always inevitable that our vote share would decrease. The Labour vote was always going to go to the LibDems (and, as it turns out, UKIP), and any right wing dissatisfaction with the Conservatives would transfer to UKIP. However, none of this can explain why 11,000 Conservatives just didn't bother to turn out and vote - or why our campaign machine failed to get them out.
WAS BOB NEILL THE RIGHT CANDIDATE?
The LibDems fought a viciously negative campaign against Bob Neill personally. It worked. The 'Three Jobs Bob' line stuck. A the time of the selection I thought that if there was a good local candidate, the local association would be well advised to play safe and pick him or her. When Carroll Forth announced she would stand I thought she'd get it. On the face of it Bob Neill fitted the bill, being the local GLA Member. But the LibDems were able to exploit the fact that he didn't live in the constituency - neither did Ben Abbotts, but we were too polite to point that out. Well, when I say "we", you know what I mean. Bob also appeared like a Tory candidate of yesteryear - he didn't look like the new model Tory candidate. In some ways that may have been a blessing, but he didn't fit the brand with the consequence that the campaign team found it difficult to market him as part of the 'change' message. However, all that said, I still believe they were right to pick him. If an identikit 'A' Lister had been picked the result could have been worse and instead of this morning raking over the bones of a narrow victory I can easily see the circumstances in which the Party would have been in meltdown and blaming the whole 'A' List strategy and modernisation approach for the defeat.
WAS OUR CAMPAIGN UP TO IT?
It's clear that the Conservatives fought a campaign based on issues and did not campaign negatively. There was not a single mention of the LibDem candidate in any of their literature. By contrast, the LibDem literature devoted huge amounts of space to slagging off 'three jobs Bob'. They also built their candidate up to be a local campaigner who lived locally, married with two children - well, you know the rest. They lied, they cheated, they exaggerated, they misled. And they nearly won. What does that tell us? As Bob Neill said in his victory speech "If you [Lib Dems] sometimes wonder why it is that people in this country are turned off by politics, get a mirror and look at yourselves". He's right, but did we drop the ball by not hitting back? Should we get more negative in future? I'm not very familiar with our campaign in Cheadle but it appears that we adopted a much more negative approach there and it just didn't work. So that's not much help. But LibDem by-election successes are not rocket science. They follow a set format, both in strategy and literature. We should have woken up to that long ago and developed a strategy to counter it. The campaign in Bromley was a mirror image of that in Dunfermline. It should therefore come as no surprise to us. The challenge now for the Party is to develop a strategy for the next one. We might not be lucky enough to be defending a 13,000 majority in future.
IS FRANCIS MAUDE RIGHT?
Francis Maude had appeared on the media this morning describing the call as "a bit of a wake-up call for us - that we've got a long way further to go". He told the Today programme: "David's been rightly, driving a process of change in the party - and the simple truth from this election result is that we have to drive that change faster, wider and deeper, because we have to supply more and more positive reasons for people to vote for us. And I'm sure we will do so." Is he right? I didn't see all the literature at the by-election but the pieces that I did see seemed to be too reminiscent of the literature we used to use under Michael Howard's leadership. David Cameron is our main electoral asset, yet we didn't make the most of him in the literature. There were rumours that the local Party had too great an influence on the campaign literature. If true, that was a mistake. We didn't stick to the CHANGE brand. When I was delivering letters on Saturday I was rather appalled to read the text. It was straight 'dog whistle' appeal stuff. This needs to change and change fast. Those in charge of campaigning at CCHQ need to ensure that in future, it is they who control by-election campaigns and control the message. You can't have two masters. Either CCHQ are in charge or either the local Party are. This campaign bore all the hallmarks of neither being the case. So going back to my original question, is Francis Maude right to say we need to drive change faster, harder and deeper? If by that he means changing the perception of the Party he is 100% right. It is clear that it is the Conservative label or brand that is damaged. If you asked people Do You Agree with David Cameron on X? And then asked the question Do You Agree with the Conservatives on X? I suspect the percentage saying Yes to the first question would be markedly higher than the second. And that's the challenge - to get those Yes figures identical. And that means proving to people that change is not just superficial, but it's deep. This is not something that can be achieved overnight, or within six months. It will take time, and results like this must not deflect the overall strategy. It must also not provoke a knee jerk reaction to do something drastic like impose all women shortlists, which is something I suspect is gaining currency among certain people.
WHERE IS THE CONSERVATIVE CHRIS RENNARD?
Chris Rennard is the LibDems' campaigning guru. He has total control of all by-election campaigns. What he says goes. He has the total respect of every LibDem (and many Conservatives!). Astonishingly, following Gavin Barwell's departure from CCHQ there is now now "in-house" Director of Campaigning. This situation must be rectified. Lynton Crosby was the nearest we have had in recent years to a Director of Campaigning, and in a very short time he built up a tremendous respect both in CCHQ and throughout the Party. We need someone like him to take on the role again now. Not in two years time, but now. I do not have any name in mind, but if I were to send one message to Francis Maude and David Cameron it would be to impress on them that the recruitment of a new Campaigning Director should be something very high on their agenda.
WHAT ARE THE LONG TERM CONSEQUENCES OF THIS RESULT
None. Well, that's not quite true. While this by-election will have no bearing on a general election, there is one consequence which will be to the benefit of the Conservatives. It entrenches Ming Campbell in his position. In the long term - and in a general election - Ming Campbell is not a vote winner for the LibDems. No matter how they spin it, not a single person who switched to the LibDems in Bromley did it because they were so impressed by Ming. But the overall result does mean that those in his Party who have become exasperated by his leadership will find it more difficult to shift him. And that's good news for the Conservatives. No Conservative should panic over this result. The YouGov poll in today's Telegraph shows the real national position. We're on 39%, 6 ahead of Labour. And that's something few of us would have imagined possible only six short months ago.
Perhaps the best summing up of the situation comes from John, someone who has posted on the ConservativeHome Bromley thread this morning. He takes these lessons from the result...
1. Never ever complain about the other party's tactics, blame yourself for not anticipating them and knowing how to counter them.
2. Don't take anything for granted, thank your lucky stars that the LD's don't have a more marketable leader.
3. UKIP may not have had a particularly good night, but between now and the GE they could improve. UKIP has the potential to cause considerable damage to the Conservative Party in some seats.
4. Don't be misled by opinion polls, they are very reliable as far as it goes. Remember they are snapshots of opinion at the time they are taken, things can change!!
5. Some of us remember, when at byelections when it was guaranteed that the main opposition party would benefit from swings of 20% or more. The B&C result shows just how different British politics are becoming.
I wish Bob Neill all the best. I suspect he hasn't enjoyed the last few weeks very much, but now he can get on with being a worthy successor to Eric Forth and look forward to a huge majority at the next General Election. And what now for Ben Abbotts? Frankly, my dears, I don't give a damn. He should be ashamed of himself for both his campaign tactics and his behaviour at the count. Click HERE to watch the video of Bob Neill's victory speech to see what I mean.