The Telegraph’s Political Editor James Kirkup claimed earlier this month that “the Tory party machine has failed its constituencies, and it could cost them the election”.
He cited the case of the constituency of South Ribble where, seven months after incumbent MP Lorraine Fullbrook had announced she was stepping down at the next election, a local candidate had yet to be selected in her place.
However, in the 14 constituencies where Conservative MPs have announced they are stepping down, 9 have new candidates in place. If you discount Louth and Horncastle (as Sir Peter Tapsell only announced his intention to stand down three weeks ago) then around 70% of these seats now have replacement candidates.
But the picture elsewhere is far from rosy.
Among the top 50 marginal seats the Conservatives hope to win from other parties in 2015, just 32 have parliamentary candidates in place. So with the general election just over a year away, only 64% of seats are able to promote the person they want to be their next MP.
The contrast with Labour is striking.
According to LabourList, the party has identified 106 target seats based on the national swing needed, as well as demographic and regional vote share models plus local government election results.
Of the top 50 seats on this list, 48 have candidates in place.
Looking further, the figures actually get worse for the Conservatives. Of the top 75 target seats, just 53% have candidates. Among Labour’s top 75, 97% have candidates selected.
The Liberal Democrats are in the worst position of the three main parties.
Of course, being a much smaller party in relation to Labour and the Conservatives means like-for-like comparisons are more difficult. You wouldn’t expect the Lib Dems to have a target seat list of 100+. However, of their top 50 targets just 23 have candidates (46%). Even their top 20 prospects have just half the number of candidates required.
It’s very clear that Labour’s party machine has really got itself into gear and raced through the selection processes. The Conservatives and Lib Dems have a lot of catching up to do but to be this far behind just before such a hefty schedule of local elections will be disappointing for them.
For many local parties, the Euro elections on 22 May are an irrelevance. What really matters for their prospects and their communities are the council contests happening on the same day. Make no mistake, these are big elections: all 32 London boroughs, all 36 metropolitan boroughs, 74 district councils, 20 unitary authorities and five mayoral contests. Having a parliamentary candidate in place would usually mean more resources brought into play to boost the local election campaign but also a chance for that PPC to improve their local profile and forge links with Councillors and candidates; links that will be vital to fighting the general election campaign which will no doubt kick off within weeks of the local contests finishing.
If all three main parties were at similar stages it wouldn't be significant. But Labour is way ahead and will be enjoying a number of benefits on the ground. Conservative and Lib Dem HQs need to step up, and fast.
If you’ve been at the centre of a local election campaign, perhaps to win council seats or get a prospective MP into Parliament, what time did you get up on polling day? For some, it was 4am.
Yes, 4am. Those hardy individuals would’ve been taking part in what’s called a “dawn raid” – delivering an early morning piece of literature on polling day from 5am until 7am, when the polling stations open. Is it really worth the effort?
The vast majority of activists will probably tell you it isn’t worth it. The prospect of a 4am start when there’s a whole day ahead of campaigning until polls close, plus the Count which can run to the early hours of the next morning… no thanks. Especially as that 4am start comes on the final day of what has been a gruelling 6 month campaign of knocking on doors and delivering leaflets in all weathers, not to mention years before of weekend campaigning and fundraising.
Perhaps those not wanting to appear soft will argue about effectiveness. What difference will a single leaflet make at that hour when there is until 10pm to knock on doors and get people out to vote? The key hours are really 4pm to 8pm, they’ll say – and they’re not wrong on that point.
However, when some council elections (and even some Parliamentary seats) can be won by the smallest of margins – sometimes a handful of votes – don’t you want to take every opportunity possible to turn out your supporters?
That is essentially what dawn raids are for – turning out your supporters, not everyone else. That's what all of your efforts should be about, and missing a chance to do that won't help you.
Dawn raids therefore have to be targeted at the electors you’ve identified as likely to vote for you. Just because someone has told you on the doorstep or via a survey that they’ll vote for you, doesn’t mean they will actually turn out. They have to be motivated (by your campaign message), informed (about where their polling station is and when polling day is) and reminded of this a number of times to ensure they actually turn out. Because, amazingly, polling day is not as big in their lives as it is in ours.
Dawn raids therefore not only need to be targeted at supporters but for maximum effect, it needs to go to supporters living near polling stations. Your eve of poll leaflet can go to supporters living further afield.
It needs to be bright and simple. “Good morning, it’s polling day. Don’t forget to vote for [your candidate] between 7am and 10pm at [polling station]”. That’s it.
The difference between a dawn raid leaflet and almost any other un-addressed leaflet is this: it’s highly likely it will be on the doormat on its own. No pizza leaflets, household bills or leaflets from other parties for company. Your supporters will know it’s been delivered early in the morning and, provided you didn’t bang the gate or kick over the milk bottles, it will prove to them how hard you are working to win their vote.
If polling day is the culmination of months (possibly years) of effort, what else will you be doing between 4am and 7am that morning that will be more effective in securing victory?