The Tories are to start campaigning in their target seats in the new year, barely eight months after the general election.
Senior Conservatives have already secured cash pledges from donors to accelerate efforts at Coleshill, the party’s voter contact centre near Coventry in the West Midlands. While voters could be forgiven for election fatigue, they should brace themselves: all three main parties are preparing the ground for the next national contest in 2009-10.
Coleshill has operated at a low level since May 5, but will step up efforts again in January once the question of the leadership has been settled.
Workers will focus on sending out literature carefully directed to target voters in key seats, although some telephone survey work may also be done by volunteers.
“Although the Coleshill operation was still in its infancy at the time of the general election, it has clearly demonstrated its value in supporting the locally based campaigning that is certain to be a key part of the party’s approach in the future,” said Philip Hammond, finance director of the party’s campaigning board as well as shadow chief secretary to the Treasury.
“Politics is becoming more local: the evidence from the general election is clear – candidates who have established a good local base and built their credentials as active and engaged members of the local community earn the respect and support of the electorate.”
Tories cite the success of Richard Benyon, who repeatedly slashed the Lib Dem majority in Newbury before taking the seat on his third attempt, and Grant Shapps, in Welwyn Hatfield, who first fought the seat in 2001 and seized it from Melanie Johnson, a minister, in May.
The huge investment in centralised campaigning during this year’s election reflects a declining activist base in both parties, but also an increasingly professional approach to targeting voters. Donors have promised to cover most of the centre’s costs, more than £1m a year, although some are holding off until the new leader is selected.
Yesterday the Times raised the spectre of yet another candidate, reporting that the Eurosceptic, socially conservative right of the party wanted to put forward its own contender to succeed Michael Howard.
But members of the Cornerstone group of backbenchers played down the suggestion, and one mooted candidate, Bernard Jenkin, ruled himself out. The other, Edward Leigh, is on holiday.
“It’s true that the [existing] candidates have been unsatisfactory for us. None of the three who came to dinner with us seemed sufficiently robust,” said another member of the group, referring to David Davis, David Cameron and Liam Fox. But he added: “I have heard no suggestion we will put someone forward.”
· Labour nominations closed yesterday to be the byelection candidate in Robin Cook’s former constituency, Livingston. The former foreign secretary’s election agent, Jim Devine, a Unison union official, is regarded as the frontrunner. Other contenders include Willie Dunn, deputy leader of West Lothian council, and John Duncan, a former constituency aide to Mr Cook.
Tania Branigan, political correspondent
The Guardian, Tuesday 23 August 2005 00.08 BST