After one of his many unfortunate generals sustained a particularly abject defeat, Abraham Lincoln remarked that the man was "confused and stunned like a duck hit on the head." Such is the state of the Conservative party after the U.K. general election of June 8, an election the party felt sure it would win overwhelmingly but in which it somehow contrived to lose seats. Though technically a victory, in that the Tories remain the largest and governing party, it was in every other sense—and especially as judged against expectations—a profound and confusing defeat.
There will be many postmortems, but sometimes the reasons for failure can be more easily perceived at the ant's level than by a view from on high. Fortunately, for the past five weeks, I've been an ant. Throughout the election, I was in the beautiful city of York, embedded in the campaign of Ed Young, Conservative candidate, published author, former speechwriter for David Cameron, brilliant and compulsively energetic redhead, and a friend and former student of mine.
It wasn't surprising when Young lost: On polling day, we both agreed defeat was likely, while nursing a hope that he might squeak through. Local party leaders agreed. On the night of the poll, a campaign insider told Young that he'd win by 100 votes. Yet in the end, he lost by 18,000, a more than two to one margin. Young did increase the Tory vote—no small feat in an election that saw a national swing against the Conservatives. But the dynamic had changed since the last election, with both the Greens and UKIP deciding not to compete in York. That helped the Labour candidate increase her totals from two years earlier, and by far more.
I can honestly say that I didn't see this coming. I reviewed the daily canvassing returns, which—after Young and his team had spoken with 10 percent of York's electorate—had him ahead of Labour by about a percentage point. Yes, the national polls were gloomy, but the feeling on the doorsteps, particularly over the final few days, was so good that it was easy to discount the pollsters. As York hasn't had a Tory MP for 25 years, Young followed the locally controversial—but correct—strategy of seeking out marginal Labour voters: There simply aren't enough true-blue Tories in York to win with Conservative votes alone. Raised in York and buoyantly proud of the city, Young was relentlessly positive, arguing that a member of Parliament needs to do more than lead protest marches, the stock-in-trade of the sour Labour incumbent, Rachael Maskell. His devoted campaign staff slogged their feet off—one walked over 30 miles on the last day of the campaign alone, as did Young himself. If effort, ability, and honesty were enough, Young would have won.
Obviously, they weren't. Young needed about a 7-point swing—that is, for 7 percent of those who voted Labour in the 2015 election to vote Tory this time—to draw level. With the Tories nationally seeing a swing against them of over 1 percent, Young had no chance. That, really, is the fundamental fact: In a marginal constituency, a good local campaign can make the difference between success and failure, but the context for any local campaign is set at the national level. But if that is the only lesson the Conservative party takes away from this fiasco it will be missing the point, because the experience of being on the ground and behind the scenes convinced me that its apparatus for fighting and winning elections at the local level is broken. True, there is no substitute for policy and political competence at the national level. But the party's failures at Westminster find their reflection in the failures of the Conservatives as a local campaigning organization.
The struggle on the ground between Labour and the Tories is a study in competitive strategies. Labour is long on union activists, so it uses bodies, not brains. Its strategy is to fight hard, not smart. In York, Young usually had fewer canvassers on the ground—rarely more than 20 at a time—than his opposition had canvassing teams. He wasn't outspent, or if he was, it wasn't by much. And on an individual level, he wasn't outworked. But he was definitely outmanned by the unions. As one Tory activist put it to me, "there's no way to fight a tidal wave of shit." Officially, of course, that's not what the party believes. The Conservative answer, its strategy, is to rely on data, and in particular a computerized tool called VoteSource, which collects hundreds if not thousands of pieces of information on every voter in an effort to identify those who already vote Tory, and those most likely to be persuaded to do so.
VoteSource is not all bad, and it's certainly better than its predecessor, Merlin, which was notorious for producing a magically large number of system crashes. In York, VoteSource wasn't infallible at picking out possible Tory votes, but it did often send Young to parts of the city that insiders said were hopeless, but where he nevertheless got a good reception. Admittedly, it also sent him to places that turned out to be just as hopeless as local opinion held them to be. But as a tool to track canvassing results, and as a mechanism for breaking down preconceptions, it does have advantages.
The problem at the local level for the Tories isn't VoteSource. It's the interface between man and machine, and the assumptions behind that interface. A minor but telling example: VoteSource assumes that everyone lives in a house with a front door. It has no way to track addresses in apartment towers to which canvassers can't get access. As perhaps 10 percent of addresses in York are inaccessible to outsiders, this was a major headache and a serious waste of time. Canvassers were repeatedly dispatched to addresses that proved impossible to reach. The maps VoteSource generates are useless, another headache. Worse, and more fundamentally, the Tory canvassing strategy, though undoubtedly perfect in the lab, appeared to have been designed by a marketing research team that has never worked with any actual campaign volunteers, or ever ventured outside Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ).
The essence of the strategy, as recommended by CCHQ and as intended by VoteSource, is to try to figure out not just what party voters support, but how intensely they feel about it. The theory is that most people who tell a canvasser they're undecided have leanings one way or the other, but won't tell you about them out of politeness. Marking them down as merely undecided confuses the issue and encourages candidates to waste valuable time on voters whose minds are already made up. So to reveal the hidden intensities, in each doorstep encounter with a voter, the canvasser is supposed to follow a script that yields a 1 through 10 response. This is a genuine problem: Young's campaign canvassed hundreds of undecided voters who turned out not to be undecided after all.
But the script is so terrible, so robotic, so obviously fake, so unreadable, and so off-putting that no volunteer I tested it on could get through the first paragraph without laughing or cringing. Not a single volunteer could be prevailed upon to read the script, and though I had more sympathy with the party's data-driven approach than most of Young's volunteers, I don't blame them. I have no doubt that the data the script would collect—if it didn't provoke a fight-or-flight response—would be better than the canvassing results Young's team gathered, which turned out to be totally misleading. But a brilliant tool that no one will use because they can't stop laughing isn't all that brilliant. By leaving local campaigns trapped between a system that they don't trust and won't use, and the inadequacies of traditional but undermanned canvassing, the party is doing real harm to its chances.
And on the local level, that sums up the problem: The system was designed in the lab, not for real life. Over the past decade, the Tories have followed a strategy of relentless centralization. For example, all local literature has to be approved by CCHQ and created on a system called BluePrint from standardized templates, which invariably include a lot of centrally dictated text. The templates are inflexible and often allow no concessions to local circumstances: Young's "get out the vote" (GOTV) cards, for instance, proclaimed the election was being held "today," which made it necessary to deliver them at 6 a.m. on polling day. (Labour's cards named the polling day, which allowed them to be distributed ahead of time.) The party produces no literature that can be used as a window poster, which meant the Young team had to try to distribute posters individually, a nearly hopeless task that, like the distribution of the GOTV cards, consumed manpower Young's campaign didn't have. BluePrint stalls and crashes when overtaxed, which during an election is almost all the time, and it takes four or five business days to deliver anything: One of Young's volunteers was stunned to be told that the party's (centralized) printers didn't work on weekends, even during an election.
All this centralization makes the party's local campaigning strategy deeply incoherent. Young, like all candidates for parliament, was legally allowed to spend only a little more than ¢12,000 (just over $15,000) in a constituency of about 74,000 voters—a fact that makes any comparison between U.S. and British campaigns irrelevant, if not silly. He thus had to rely on centrally produced literature (which didn't count against his spending allowance, but which wasn't local), on his BluePrint literature (which allowed only a dash of local content, if that), or on personal contact with voters (guided by the trembling hand of VoteSource). The party, in other words, wants to use data and standardized literature to compensate for its shortage of volunteers, and to prevent them from screwing things up—but in the end, it needs those volunteers to collect canvassing data, distribute literature, and persuade voters. It wants to fight smart and from the center, but those campaign spending limits, and the emphasis that Britain places on contact between candidates and voters, mean it has to get on the ground and get local if it wants to win marginal seats.
For that, it needs volunteers, of which there aren't enough. And to the extent it does have them, they don't like its literature or its script. Nor do many of them see any value in collecting data—I lost count of the number of arguments I witnessed between believers in leafleting (described as "showing the flag") and advocates of a data-driven approach. The former regarded the latter as politically naïve and could never grasp that data collection does have the potential to improve targeting over time, while the latter regarded the former as doing nothing more than contributing to York's paper recycling efforts. Of course, you need both literature and data. But if the Tories can't loosen their centralized stranglehold on literature, can't improve the way they ask volunteers to collect data and convince them that this effort has some value, and don't invest more time and energy in building up local parties, they will be completely at the mercy of national trends, and will keep on losing marginal seats that might be winnable, or might over time be made winnable.
York, it turned out, wasn't marginal at all. But when the campaign started, it was thought to be marginal, so it was a Tory target. The local party organization was a good deal better than many I have seen, but it could have been better still: Over the past seven years, they'd canvassed about as many voters as the 8,000 that Young and his team talked with in under five weeks. Young's reward for his energy was to have the regional help he'd been promised—under the party's mutual aid system, whereby candidates in winnable seats are assisted by volunteers from neighboring ones—taken away from him by CCHQ, on the grounds that he didn't need it. More fundamentally, the party's strategy of centralization, of fighting elections only at election time, and of targeting only winnable seats means it doesn't invest much outside election season in building up local party organizations anywhere—but especially in seats that aren't currently winnable. And that means the circle of potentially winnable seats tends to shrink over time, because the party does nothing to expand it. York, for example, is unlikely to be a Tory target in the next election.
In essence, the party has adopted a centralized strategy that neglects the local party organizations on which it still reluctantly relies, and that aims not to increase the number of winnable seats between elections but to win those that are winnable when an election rolls around. It is an approach of doing just enough, and it is highly vulnerable to falling just short. From every point of view, this Conservative campaign reflected that centralized strategy, from its robotic emphasis on a "strong and stable" government, to its deification of Theresa May (who was the focus of the entire campaign to an extent that might have made North Korea's Kim Jong-un envious), to its tedious literature (called "generics" in the office, for good reason), to the way it controlled and directed volunteers, even down to the words it wanted Young's team to say.
Obviously, the sources of this Tory defeat run deeper than its approach to local campaigning. But the way the party campaigns locally is symptomatic of the broader problems that led to the defeat. It has become a top-down party that distrusts and alienates the volunteers it needs to be competitive, and tries to fight presidential-style campaigns in a nation that doesn't have a president and instinctively resists efforts to impose one. It does not understand Labour voters (with whom it has made no headway since the 2010 election), the pro-Brexit UKIP supporters (if it did, most of them would never have joined UKIP in the first place), or true blue Tories (whom it evidently disdains), and it made no effort to win, or even fight, a battle of ideas.
It is increasingly, like today's Labour party, a reflection of the concerns of cosmopolitan London and the political class, yet it can only win by appealing to voters who retain a sense of place. It remains a better choice than Jeremy Corbyn's Labour party, and, rightly, the British people made it the largest party in Parliament. But as everyone on the Young team recognized, it fought an incoherent and incompetent campaign, one that reflected its isolation as both a political and a governing party. Yes, Labour won the election. But, fundamentally, it was the Tories that lost it.
This piece originally appeared in The Weekly Standard