With RoadTrip2015‘s unbridled success in Newark, Harlow MP Rob Halfon speaks to Paul Nizinskyj about its family values, how it can help us win a majority next year, and its future as a campaigning model after the election.
Rob Halfon was quite impressed with the Queen’s Speech this year. As perhaps the Conservative party’s loudest advocate for fighting Labour on their own turf with calls for empowerment, full employment and redistribution via curtailing state control, lowering taxes across the board and creating the right environment for businesses to thrive, he had little to complain about regarding the tax cuts, fuel duty freeze and increase in the number of apprentices announced by Her Majesty. Except the odd Lib Dem policy on plastic bags, of course.
But while sound policy that speaks directly to people’s day to lives is an absolute necessity for securing a Conservative majority government in 2015, so is getting that message across, Rob says. And a quiet grassroots revolution in the Conservative party has already provided the model for delivering that message, he says, in the runaway success that is RoadTrip2015. For those unfamiliar with this phenomenon, Tory activists from all over the country converge on one point to deliver some 40,000 leaflets in a crucial seat – they are provided with transport, cheap accommodation and a free curry in a perfect combination of campaigning and (at times very intimate) socialising.
“People joined the Young Conservatives in the 1950s because of the social aspect and because they were with people who shared their values.” he says. “This is a 21st century version of that – it’s a social network but it’s also something more. On the Saturday night in Newark, for example, we went for a curry and they asked to do a vote of thanks. I told them what made this so special was that it wasn’t just a group of people, it was genuinely like a family, with people looking out for one another. Politics isn’t just about ideology and principle – that’s the cement but what makes it a success is relationships. So often, organisations forget that, but when they came to my local party it injected a whole new lease of life into them. The enthusiasm is infectious and it really boosts morale.”
More than one ‘relationship’ was certainly created during the Newark leg of the RoadTrip2015 campaign but that is the tremendous power of this grassroots campaign, wisely championed by party chairman Grant Shapps, as it unleashes the latent energy of the party’s young activists. Gone are the days, it seems, where associations struggle to drag one or two of their CF members out for an afternoon with the promise of a cold sandwich at the end. Gone, in a very permanent fashion with the RoadTrip2015 model becoming the basis of Conservative campaigns after the general election too, Halfon believes. “I really hope the momentum will keep going,” he says.
The UKIP threat is, of course, a wildcard that the Conservatives have not had to deal with since the days of the SDP in the 1980s and this will inevitably make the 2015 campaign somewhat different from those that have gone before it. The Newark result returned that increasingly familiar mix of success and failure for UKIP, however, with the party coming second but losing out to Conservative candidate Robert Jenrick by more than 7,400 votes. This, Halfon says, is evidence that a sound message and hard campaigning will not be in vain in general election campaign, as presently frustrated voters think about who they really want to run the country.
“I was standing in a pub in Newark that friends of mine owned and this guy behind the bar said he would support UKIP but said he thought the Conservatives were doing a brilliant job turning the economy around. He said the reason he was supporting UKIP was because he was fed up with politicians. This suggests to me that, when it comes to the election, when it comes to who’s going to put bread and butter on the table, they will vote Conservative. I think UKIP will attract people who don’t normally vote in 2015 and I think think we need to answer those voters. When it comes down to it, if we get our message out there and be authentic, we can win.”
Activists unused to ‘Blue Collar’ Halfon’s language may wonder how authentically Tory his message is, as he very purposely uses the language of the socialists to get his very small-state, low-taxation brand of Conservatism across, which makes sense in a working class seat like Harlow but it could well prove to be a vote winner nationally should the PM adopt it as his own in the run up to the campaign – after all, this was essentially the principle behind Margaret Thatcher’s success in 1980s, particularly in Halfon’s own county of Essex. And it could hardly do any worse than last time.
“I believe in the Big Society very strongly,” he says, “because the idea is that social enterprises are as important as economic enterprises and people power is as important as state power. But it was complicated to explain to people in the few weeks of an election campaign and I really think this one will be different. The best way for us to win is to be enthusiastic about our very moral mission about aspiration and we’ve sometimes got to be counter-intuitive in Conservative ways – for example in very openly supporting redistribution.
“We’ve cut taxes for the well off from 50 per cent to 45 per cent, raising £9bn extra in revenue, so we should do the very Tory thing and redistribute that by cutting taxes for the poor. It comes down to what you prefer – a gesture by taxing the rich or more money for schools by cutting taxes? We need to show we are on the side of the poor and we do that by reforming the economy and getting people back into work and cutting their taxes.”