The constituency of Brent Central, in northwest London, is a strange place. It’s new, for one thing: It was created by amalgamating and splitting several other constituencies in 2010. If the incumbent member of Parliament, Sarah Teather, had not decided to stand down, it might have stayed Liberal Democrat, which — in this election, when the Liberal Democrats are forecast to lose about half their seats — would have been an achievement for that party.
It might have stayed Lib Dem even after Teather quit, but in March, the party’s new candidate and former chief fundraiser Ibrahim Taguri told an undercover reporter posing as an Indian businessman that he could donate money to the party via a “cousin” in order to conceal his largesse. Taguri quit the race, and was replaced by yet another candidate, but he may not yet be in the clear: Charges may be pressed against him after the May 7 general election, in the hope that the case will expose corruption higher up in his party.
In these circumstances, you might think that the seat would be a shoo-in for the Conservatives, the Lib Dems’ coalition partner. In fact, it’s Labour that will win Brent Central today: One poll shows the swing to them is a massive 19 percent, which, if all other things remain as they are, would give Labour 60 percent of the vote.
So far this May, I’ve visited Darlington, a constituency where Tory candidate Peter Cuthbertson is a long shot, and Bradford West, where Tory George Grant can win only if his opponents knock each other out. In Brent Central, Alan Mendoza, the Tory candidate, has no hope at all. But the constituency has its points of interest, as I found when I joined Mendoza and a team of supporters for an evening of canvassing on Tuesday.
It’s all about media strategy and base mobilization, not base expansion.
Mendoza was a founder and is today the executive director of the Henry Jackson Society — which, like its namesake, the American senator (Washington State, 1941–83), defends and advances liberal, capitalist democracy – and he knows how to get people organized. His friends moved up and down the streets of Brent Central with near-military precision, every address leafleted, every doorbell rung, every result recorded. But while Mendoza’s an idealist in policy, he’s a realist in politics. He knows perfectly well that he’s not going to win, though that fact doesn’t deter him in the least. The Tories took 11 percent in Brent Central in 2010, and there’s no way they should be that low. The area is steadily gentrifying — the houses we were leafleting sell for around a million pounds, though not all the constituency is that pricey. It’s also heavily, and illegally, subdivided: A lot of doors that were supposed to have one or two doorbells had four, five, or even six. Quite a lot of the people who answered were obviously Eastern European, with a limited command of English. They can’t vote in British elections, but the disparities between the data Mendoza’s team were using and the people who actually live in the constituency point to the real problem: The local party doesn’t exist.
In all the constituencies I’ve visited this month, the same complaints have emerged again and again. First, Tory candidates are selected far too late — Mendoza wasn’t picked until January, which is laughable. Second, local party organizations range from feeble to entirely absent: The Brent Central team hasn’t had so much as a list of local party members. If you don’t know whether you have a constituency until January, and you don’t get any local, institutional help, you are going to lose — even if you’re working hard, and even if the constituency is potentially winnable. Late selection of candidates would make sense only if this were the 1950s, when Tory constituency associations were a good deal stronger.
Third, there’s tremendous resentment of the party’s demand that no-hope or slight-hope candidates abandon their constituencies to help neighboring candidates with better chances. Treating candidates this way achieves little and annoys everyone. This may sound like a small thing, but it’s a matter of both personal pride and respect for supporters and potential constituents. Being selected to stand for Parliament is an honor: To have your party imply that it’s pointless is wounding.
Fourth, while everyone understands the logic of focusing on winnable constituencies in the short term, there’s also resentment of the party’s lack of interest in building constituency organizations for the long haul.
#related#The Tories announced their “40/40 strategy” — focusing on the 40 winnable seats and the 40 most likely to be lost — in October 2012. No one on the pointy end of the spear sees any evidence that comparable thought is going into preparing the ground over the long term. There’s no modern equivalent of the post-Disraeli Primrose League, no up-to-date replica of the Conservative Clubs of the same era.
What this means is that, after the dust settles tomorrow, the Tories are likely to achieve their goal — to be the largest party in Parliament — but they’re not at all likely to have a majority. Perhaps if they focused a bit less on winning the seats that are, on the narrowest definition, winnable, and a bit more on growing beyond those boundaries, they’d be in better shape.
— Ted R. Bromund is the senior research fellow in Anglo-American relations in the Heritage Foundation’s Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom.