HOW LORD ASHCROFT SHOULD SPEND HIS MONEY



Blog for Telegraph by Edwina Currie

Why on earth is Lord Ashcroft spending so much money on polling? There are polls galore. Why bother?

He’s also, bless him, poured a fortune into marginal seats. But all that’s done is alert the opposition, so they’ve cancelled each other out; the seats remain marginal, while Labour and LibDem incumbents have dug themselves in with enormous tenacity. If we win those, it’ll be a nail-biting miracle.

I give him credit for wanting Big Dave in Downing Street. But if he wants to ensure Tory victories in future, here’s what he should do instead with his money: help rebuild the Tory Party on the ground, nationwide, far from the weedy Fionas and Tiffanys of Conservative HQ who’ve never had to scrap for anything in their lives.

Lord Ashcroft and the Party Chairman – Grant Shapps or whoever – should take a cool look at their predecessor Lord Woolton’s reforms of the 1940s and ’50s, of which I and many others were beneficiaries. With Conservatives in the doldrums after the 1945 débâcle, Woolton headed to the universities and made impassioned speeches aimed at the enthusiasm and idealism of young people. In the 1951 campaign he organised “Operation Knocker” in which thousands of young activists went out on the stump, talking to householders on the doorsteps – how many times now do we get, “We never see anybody”? What voters wanted was translated into policy, leading to increasing majorities in 1951, 55 and 1959.

Woolton banned wealthy interests from effectively buying seats; he insisted a modern political party’s strength should come from myriads of grass-roots supporters making small donations, exactly the way the fringe parties (copying Obama) operate today. A target of £1million was set - an enormous sum then - and raised, nearly all locally; a lot of fun, and an active social life, was the members’ rather jolly reward.

Much of the money was spent on a network of trained agents, a system which only died out recently. They worked full time, not just at elections. They had a cynical but principled approach to the job, knowing everyone, picking winners, encouraging the newcomers. Like me.

It worked. Party membership leapt – up to a whopping 2.8 million in the 1960s, when I was off to university myself. There, we were groomed, and it felt great. Central Office sent a speaking tutor; hilarious films were shown on how to canvass; we were bussed out to municipal elections, in droves, the first time most had ever seen a council estate. And we were nudged to gain experience in difficult seats, much as Margaret Roberts did in 1950 and 1951.

The rapid growth of the Greens, UKIP and the SNP shows that ordinary citizens will join political parties, will raise the funds, will pound the streets and deliver the leaflets and canvass the voters’ opinions, and represent them accurately. That growth threatens the hegemony of the two old contenders.

So, Lord Ashcroft: drop the polling, back-pedal the slick campaigning, and get back to basics. You never know, it might work.