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Conservatives Are Struggling To Rally Activists On The Campaign Trail

Rishi Sunak delivers a stump speech in Milton Keynes (Alamy)

5 min read

​Exhausted Conservatives have struggled to rally volunteers to drum up support on the doorstep, particularly among young Tories with whom the Prime Minister’s early election pledges have not landed well.

When Rishi Sunak set the General Election date for 4 July, fatigue had already set in on the campaign trail following a bracing set of local elections in which the Conservative Party lost half of the seats it contested. In the wake of May’s dire results, one MP often went out door-knocking accompanied only by their dog in the absence of willing human helpers.

With the formal General Election campaign now underway, some incumbent Conservative candidates with five-digit majorities expect to lose their seats. Labour has held a strong polling lead over the Conservatives for nearly two years, and since the election was called, the picture hasn’t improved much for the governing party. The latest YouGov survey gave Labour a 27 point lead while research from More in Common found they were ahead by 19 points. JL Partners have recorded the smallest Labour lead which stands at 12 points. 

"I think you always have to look at the polls overall and the general direction of travel rather than one in isolation," a minister, who is already resigned to defeat, told PoliticsHome. 

So far, Conservative volunteers working to spread the party’s campaign message don’t seem much more enthusiastic than the candidates they’re recruited to cheer for. Activists have described a "disorganised" operation at Conservative Party Headquarters (CCHQ) with faulty tablets forcing them to abandon the electronic system for accessing voter data and resort to printed lists for phone-call sessions. "A lot of the people there were new, and I'm not convinced they'll all come back," one Tory source said.

A Tory campaigner from Kent told PoliticsHome they felt their local association had been abandoned by the party's central office. "[CCHQ] is not investing anything, it is taking power away from associations to the point that it's actually not worth being a member,” they said.

“It's not that the people aren't there. It's just that people aren't motivated. And if we motivate them and give them a reason to get active again, they will come back.”

An incumbent Tory candidate acknowledged in recent months they’d had nowhere near as much activist support as they did in 2019, when the party won the general election with a large majority. “When you have one per cent of people voting for you, then the number of fit young people going out and campaigning gets smaller and smaller." 

One key group of activists that the party is struggling to mobilise is young volunteers who would usually offer essential stamina on the campaign trail. Sunak’s policy offering so far – which includes bringing back national service for 18-year-olds and bolstering financial support for pensioners – has done little to appeal to that age group.

“The Conservative Party needs to urgently review their policy offering to younger voters,” said Liv Lever, Director of Blue Beyond, a grass-roots think-tank created to engage young Conservatives.

"Younger members are struggling to advocate for the party’s policy and campaign as it is, and if the Conservative Party carries on it will push younger members away completely.

“The way for CCHQ to mobilise young Conservatives to campaign is by offering them policies that do not penalise young people, and something to believe in.”

Rishi Sunak
CCHQ has been keen to promote and get Rishi Sunak to debate Labour leader Keir Starmer as much as possible during the election campaign (Alamy)

James Cowling, Managing Director of the grassroots group Next Gen Tories, believed there needed to be a "big bold" economic offering that would appeal to younger people but warned against stoking intergenerational wars with individual policies. "This isn't about young versus old, but how we can make a society that works for all," he said. 

The focus currently remains on Sunak himself, with CCHQ keen to get the Prime Minister in front of the public as much as possible with a presidential style campaign. On Tuesday he will go head-to-head with Labour leader Keir Starmer with a debate on ITV.

But weary senior Tories are critical of Sunak’s handlers for early mistakes, which included sending him to speak to press at the site where the Titanic was built in Belfast, inevitably inviting questions about a “sinking ship”.

"[The campaign team] are just not political,” a minister told PoliticsHome. “They don’t think these things through as a journalist or politician would.”

A Conservative Party spokesperson said: “The general election is far from a foregone conclusion. No matter where you go in the country, there is no love for Labour.

“It won’t just be Conservative activists motivated by the frightening prospect of Sir Keir Starmer in Downing Street. Hardworking families and business owners will see more and more the damage Labour want to do with Angela Rayner’s plot to introduce 70 French-style regulations.

“The British people are not fools. They can see clearly that Labour has no plan and would take them right back to square one.”

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