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A few days before the Eastleigh by-election, I ran into a prominent Tory backbencher. What did he think of Maria Hutchings?, I asked. Was it not awkward that, within a month of David Cameron’s ultra-modern crusade to legislate for gay marriage as Tory initiative, he found himself backing a candidate whose attitude towards individual freedom is such that she not only opposes this extension of marriage rights, but would like to restrict abortion to a stage at which many pregnancies have not even been detected, and thinks that the economic effects of immigration can be summed up as ‘reducing the pot for the rest of us’. Didn’t he accept, at least, Steve Richard’s claim that such ideological chaos proved that Cameron had lost control of the party?

‘Not at all,’ my parliamentary friend replied. ‘With any luck, the voters will think she’s with UKIP. And then we might actually have a chance of winning the d—n thing’.

As we now know, poor Maria had no such luck. And ape UKIP she did – even to the point of leafleting the saturated voters with her name emblazoned against the UKIP colours of purple and yellow, under the dubious banner ‘local UKIP MP backs Maria’. True, she was kept pretty quiet by her minders after her disastrous attempt to explain her (perfectly reasonable) decision to opt for private education. But her message had already got through to the voters of Eastleigh: as many canvassers have reported, Hutchings’ reactionary brand of conservatism was her best-known quality on the doorstep.

Certainly, the spectre of social conservatism was not the only problem with the Conservative campaign in Eastleigh. As Matthew d’Ancona has pointed out, ‘the localisation of political combat is sharper than ever.’ The party of Huhne, Hancock and Lord Rennard may currently come across as a League of Extraordinarily Un-Gentlemanly Gentlemen, but they do know how to run a local campaign for local people.

It is not just the famous gravel pit in Hamble-Le-Rice. The allegedley Tory-backed development of a golf-course has been just as controversial, allowing local Lib Dems to leaflet with this old image of the remote Tory toff. In a time of mass disillusionment with politicians, councillor Mike Thornton successfully presented himself in Lib Dem leaflets as a grown-up administrator who had honed his skills on local issues. His campaign website still hosts four revolving banners: an attack on the gravel pit; an attack on the golf course development; a call for a new bypass at Botley and a defence of Liberal Democrat tax policy. That’s three local issues, and one national issue of bread and butter economics. They won Thornton the seat.

It will be hard going for the Tories to scrap with Lib Dems on local issues in forty different seats come the 2015 election. To hedge against their national obscurity, Liberal Democrat MPs have long invested in building highly personal, local followings in their core constituencies. And as Rupert Myers reveals in The Spectator, Eastleigh exposed deplorable inefficiencies in the Tory ground game. The accuracy of data was so poor, claims Myers, that ‘we called quite a few dead people’. No doubt that was just the thing to persuade the grieving relatives to vote Tory.

Hope may lie on the horizon. Today’s Sunday Times talks up the market value of METIS, a new database of voter information. But those who have looked closely at the failings of the Romney campaign should be more wary of anyone claiming to sell technology as silver bullet. Romney’s disastrous ORCA database did as much to damage to his electoral prospects as any debate flip-flop. The system required local tellers to input their latest turn-out information, but then wait to hear a data analysis from headquarters in Boston. Experienced local campaigners were left waiting in polling stations, banned from driving to get in the vote until they had been given Boston’s instructions. And they waited. And they waited. Because, on election day, and election day only, the entire ORCA system crashed.

The lesson of ORCA is not that technology always fails, but that it is no substitute for local knowledge. The Tories have plenty of work to do if they are to develop a local network to challenge Lib Dem or even soft-Left majorities in 2015. But challenge on the centre they must. Because much as the Tory backbench may try, it is simply impossible to outflank UKIP on the reactionary Right. Can they really out-crazy a party who bring the Hamiltons to canvass? Maybe CCHQ can encourage a defection from MEP Godfrey Bloom, whose primary quarrel with modernity is that women have forgotten how to clean a fridge, although he’s also eager to explain that ‘no businessman with a brain’ should employ those with functioning wombs. Of course, to really match UKIP, Tory HQ would have to bring in the party leader to back up ‘dear old Godders’.

Maria Hutchings may have looked like UKIP, swum like UKIP and quacked like UKIP, but short of actually sticking a UKIP rosette on her jacket, she still could not pick up the core UKIP vote. Meanwhile, the Tory rosette she did wear wiped out any chance of picking up the mid-term protest vote, which if posters like this are anything to go by, formed the core of UKIP’s swing. More seriously, her reactionary views lost her any chance of undercutting the Liberal Democrat vote – and the Liberal Democrats, in case you had forgotten in all the UKIP madness, actually won the seat.

Fortunately, the Tory Party, unlike UKIP, is only mad North-North West. If it sticks with a modernizing wind, it might yet be able to tell a hawk from a handsaw.

Kate Maltby is a doctoral student researching the philosophy of Elizabeth I, and was from 2010 – 12 the theatre critic for The Spectator’s Arts Blog. She has also written on politics and culture for The Spectator’s Coffee House, Standpoint, The Times, The Times Literary Supplement, The Financial Times and The Huffington Post.

Follow Kate on Twitter: @KateMaltby


The guest blog is published every Friday and views held by contributors are not necessarily those of Bright Blue, as good as they often are.