Saturday, September 01, 2007

Cash for constituencies?

Peter Bradley was a superb constituency MP and a real loss to the House of Commons - there is little doubt that Peter would have been a Minister in the 2005 Labour government and would, today, be a key player in Gordon Brown's new administration.

Peter has spoken and written at length about the Tory camapaign to win the Wrekin in 2005 but his piece for Progress is the best yet - it makes very sobering reading.

Few would have dreamed after the local elections in May that by August we’d be contemplating another Labour landslide next Spring – or even earlier. But though there are many reasons to be cheerful, bitter experience warns that a healthy lead in the polls, even if it’s accurate, cannot guarantee that Labour will win a fourth term at the next election.

I should know. Right up to the declaration in the small hours of 6 May 2005, the BBC had been predicting that Labour would hold The Wrekin. But when the votes were counted, I was out of a job. How had it happened? I had been a hard-working, high profile MP with, I’m told, a good local reputation. In 2001 I had increased my majority. In 2005 I lost my seat.

It was only after the election when the Electoral Commission updated its register of party funding that I discovered that I had been a target of a devastatingly effective Tory tactic which captured dozens of seats in 2005 and could cost Labour the next election.

The Conservatives know, as do we, that in the marginals local campaigning can make a decisive electoral difference. They also understand that a lot of money buys a lot of campaigning. Now they have seen for themselves that cash can win constituencies.

In the six months before the election, my Tory opponent received £55,000 from a fund coordinated by Lord Ashcroft, now Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party, which targeted over £1 million on 93 marginal constituencies. In some, the objective was to protect Conservative MPs with slender majorities; in others it was to soften up relatively safe Labour seats for the next election; but in the key seats such as mine, it was to skew the result in the Tories’ favour.

So in the run-up to the election, when I could afford to print just one constituency-wide newsletter which party volunteers struggled to hand-deliver across a large semi-rural seat, my opponent was posting propaganda to every household in The Wrekin on an almost weekly basis. And while I was hoping the local papers might take a paragraph or two from my latest press release, he was taking out paid-for advertorials as often as the fancy took him.

The lesson I learned was a hard one: no matter how well liked MPs may be among the 5,000 voters with whom they are in contact, it’s the other 60,000 whom they cannot hope to reach without massive resources who decide elections. That is the calculation the Tories made and they are right.
In Spring 2006, I published an analysis which showed that 24 of the Conservatives’ 36 gains had been targeted by their localised funding strategy. It also made very clear the link between differential spending and disproportionate swing: in those seats the Conservatives had on average more than twice as much to spend as Labour – and in The Wrekin 11 times more – and in them they secured an average swing of 4.5% compared to a national average of 3.1%.

Unsurprisingly, the Tories are quite open about their plans to repeat the exercise at the next election and as things stand there is nothing to stop them. When I argued eighteen months ago that legislation was urgently required to cap spending on local as well as national campaigning, my proposal was widely accepted within the Labour Party, in Downing Street and, understandably, among the large number of former colleagues now in super-marginal seats.

But, while the Government awaits the recommendations of the interminable Phillips review of party funding, nothing has actually happened and, in legislative terms, if the election is to take place within the next nine months, nothing can.

So Labour faces at least one of two dilemmas. If our poll ratings persuade Gordon Brown to seek a new mandate sooner rather than later, we risk winning the popular vote but losing the election in the seats which matter most. If we delay until appropriate legislation is in place, even assuming the damage has not already been done, we lose the initiative and jeopardise our lead in the polls.

Which brings us to the second dilemma. The other way to counter the Tory threat is to match their cash in the key seats. In the circumstances, that might be regarded as an undesirable but unavoidable short term solution. But at a time when both Party and public want an end to the funding race and a return from US-style campaigning to more traditional forms of voluntary activism, it brings with it serious political risks. Besides, with the Party £20 million in debt, where’s the money going to come from?

But the stark fact is that the Conservatives need to win fewer seats than they did last time to wipe out Labour’s majority and, if they do, who governs Britain could be decided not by who wins the political argument or even the most votes but by a handful of Tory millionaires in a handful of marginal seats.

One way or another, Labour will have to resolve this dilemma very soon. If not, despite all the recent soul-searching about party funding, money will talk louder than ever at the next election, a lot of good Labour MPs will lose their seats and Gordon Brown could be the next Leader of the Opposition.

Peter Bradley was MP for The Wrekin between 1997 and 2005.

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