Quite how they conducted their poll, I’m not sure – they never got back to me.* But the Countryside Alliance is claiming that around a fifth of its members have fallen out of love with the Conservatives. And not just because David Cameron shows precious little sign of keeping a promise to repeal Labour’s ban on hunting with dogs.
As with the end of any affair, there are any number of reasons why things have turned sour. Apparently, the inability (or unwillingness) of the Government to do much about energy prices is also driving freezing-cold country-dwellers to despair, as is its refusal to think about extending fuel subsidies currently enjoyed by, among other far-flung places, the Scilly Isles to the rest of rural Britain. And the Coalition’s apparent determination to stick to its guns on HS2 and to make it easier to build on rural land are doing it no favours either. So much so apparently that, while two thirds of CA members still see themselves voting Conservative at the next election, some 13 per cent are now toying with the idea of voting Ukip.
If all this is true it represents, as others have noted, not so much a threat to the Tories’ hold on their heartlands – the kind of seat where the Conservative Party could put up a fox as its candidate and still win handsomely – as to their chances in more marginal seats. That’s because it’s claimed (who can tell if it’s true?) that in 2010 between 12- and 15,000 CA supporters took part in a campaign organised by Vote-OK, to help Tory candidates unseat vulnerable Labour (and Lib-Dem) MPs, on the assumption that, once safely (or, in some cases, precariously) installed at Westminster, they would then obediently vote to let the hunting dogs out.
Quite how much difference their efforts really made to getting Dave into Downing Street, only for him (and those victorious newcomers) to turn round and ignore all those promises, is actually a bit of a moot point.
Claims that they were responsible for winning 36 battleground seats are just that – claims. The only pukka research I could find on the impact of Vote-OK goes back to the election in 2005, where it was estimated that they may have been worth just over 1 per cent on average – admittedly handy but probably not that crucial in that many contests.
Of course, Vote-OK’s impact may have been greater in 2010, although, as in 2005, we’d also have to consider those voters actively put off voting Tory by a knock on the door from the green welly brigade. Certainly, it’s hard to believe that the thousands of pounds worth of DVDs that they delivered (you can see the invoices here) will have persuaded many people to change their mind.
That said, we shouldn’t dismiss all this out of hand as a classic bit of push-polling that garners its instigators a nice bit of publicity for their particular issues – for two reasons.
First, it is one of those straws in the wind – yet another illustration of the disillusionment felt by self-styled traditional Tories with a leadership made up of, in their view anyway, metropolitan, even metrosexual liberals. That’s a sentiment which may bite the party on the proverbial at the European elections, a time when voters are either too apathetic to care or else much less shy about giving their regular choice a bit of a kicking.
Second, it’s a reminder that boots – even Wellington boots – may well count more than ever at the next general election. Both main parties are furiously trying to copy the sophisticated voter-identification techniques pioneered by the Republicans and particularly the Democrats during the last US Presidential election. But that game is a game of two halves.
It’s one thing to find out, in minute detail, who is most likely to vote for you. It’s another to have enough people to do the phoning, facebooking, and knocking on doors required to actually get them down to the polling station to put their cross in the right box. Labour’s relationship with the unions may be a little rocky right now, but it will almost certainly remain good enough to ensure that, with the additional assistance provided by its slightly bigger (and probably younger) membership, it will perform as well in the second half as the first half of that game.
Even if the economy is going gangbusters by the spring of 2015, winning an overall majority at the next election is going to be, as they say nowadays, a big ask for the Tories. That means they’re going to need all the help that they can get. Losing a little support in the shires might seem worth it as long as what loses Mr Cameron that support helps him gain it across the nation as a whole. And more building, lower spending, and foregoing the chance to kill more foxes probably all fall into that category. But it might not be as simple as all that. And anyway, as countryside Conservatives, especially if they’re church-goers too, might well remind the Prime Minister, “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
*Tim Bonner, the Countryside Alliance’s Director of Campaigns, did kindly come back to me later in order to let me know that the polling of its members was conducted by ORB, which is reassuring.