A group of us from Norwich and Norfolk have been to Henley to help in the parliamentary by-election to replace Boris. And ... wow.
It is a fantastic corner of the country; picturesque, gentile and with sky high house price. This former seat of Heseltine and Johnson is really part of the Tory heritage; and it shows.
Apart from the quality of conversation you can only get when you jam that number of Tory activists together for a 3 hour car journey, the first amusing moment of the day was the branch of Timpsons (of Tory victor in the Crewe by-election fame) proudly displaying their "John Howell - Conservative" signs. Quality effort there!
A few thoughts on the day; certainly not comprehensive and just what we saw. We drove through Henley (and, apparently for some time Reading too - well done driver!!) and also spent the morning and afternoon in 2 reasonably sized villages outside of Henley. I am not transposing this on the whole constituency; just as we saw it.
The Tory by-election machine is very well ordered. The sector office was a few minutes from the station and that site must have taken some getting. All the walk sorts were ready, bundled and ready to go. We signed in and were turned around in minutes; except after lunch when there was so much help a queue formed out of the door. There is a lot of high quality literature going out and the administrative support is good; much better than any by-election I have bene to before.
The poster war is being won, and won decisively, by the Tories. What is surprising is where we saw posters. There is one massive LibDem poster up in the centre of Henley, across from the Thames. Other than that we saw nothing - and the poster effort is normally the sign of the LibDems on a roll. Even in the villages we were delivering to some mixed areas, and certainly parts you would expect any LibDem campaign to focus on. The Tories have visable signs and plenty of sites. Indeed, the most irritating point of the day was walking up a massive driveway, to find a tiny A4 Tory poster in the window!! The Tories are also - importantly - beating the LibDems in houses as well as fields.
The parties are macthing each other leaflet for leaflet. We delivered a newspaper in the morning; and mine sat on top of a freshly delievered LibDem newspaper. In the afternoon we delivered a glossy brochure, which sat upon a new LibDem Focus leaflet. However, I saw no LibDem activists at all during the day, whereas we did pass other Tories. Again, the site of the famed LibDem by-election machine is being able to "control" the constituency with literature and they clearly haven't done this. And one other thing.
The LibDem campaign is actually more negative than I had read about. All of their stuff is aimed squarely against Howell; and in some cases it is very nasty. The Tories have, thus, gone for a straight bat positive campaigning approach. The only person I actually spoke to all day (well, the only elector of Henley anyway) said they had been turned off by the LibDem campaign and whilst not totally behind Howell they would vote Conservative because they were, at least, campaigning positively. Good news; but only one person, I know. The LibDem literature is a good standard but the message and the themes are, in my opinion, all wrong. They ought to stand back and look at what they are doing.
There was an amazing amount of Tory activists, and young activists. At the pub at lunch time, it was like reliving the conferences when I was 18 or 19; I knew a large number of people there and we are now 10 years on, mostly PPCs and feeling that we are the generation that will shape the future of the party. Great food, everyone was upbeat and ready to take on the world. Quite frankly if there had been a by-election in Jarrow the people there would be working flat out for a Conservative gain. The team work and positive attitudes are a stark contrast to that which I knew even 5 years ago; amazing what 49% in the polls does for you.
A great day ... so, a prediction? Before today I was quite worried we were heading for Bromley territory. But now if it goes wrong it wouldn't be for the wrong strategy, candidate or campaigning. In fact, if it did go wrong it would prove that negative campaigning and playing very, very dirty does work. However I believe it won't. I think a cut Tory majority on a much reduced turnout. And I will awake early Friday morning to see how wrong I am!!!