Cllr Paul Mercer is a member of Charnwood Borough Council. He is a member of its cabinet with responsibility for Strategic and Private Sector Housing.
On May 4th the Leader of the Labour Group on Leicestershire County Council, Robert Sharp, failed to get elected in what was ostensibly a safe Labour division. He was just one of 382 councillors to lose their seats and, on paper at least, the outcome was not dissimilar to other results around the UK. There were, however, three important differences.
The first is that the size of the division had been reduced by 1,792 electors from 11,373 to 9,581 by removing one of the six polling districts. This consisted of new private houses which, in the past, yielded a significant number of Tory votes. Ted Parton, the candidate and my fellow councillor on Charnwood Borough Council, needed to increase the Conservative vote by 64 per cent to win on the old boundaries. This change was therefore likely to have pushed the target past the 70 per cent point.
The second is, because Sharp was their leader, Labour put up a particularly determined fight to save him. On two occasions during the campaign we bumped into Willy Bach, Leicestershire’s Police and Crime Commissioner, who was canvassing for Sharp and on the day Labour activists were drafted in from across Leicestershire to assist in door-knocking. We knew that Labour would not relinquish this seat easily and we therefore planned accordingly.
The third reason is that Labour resorted to a vicious style of campaigning which it had never carried out before in Loughborough. In an attempt to emulate the way in which the Liberal Democrats sometimes misrepresent opinion in order to appear the underdog a ‘Help me STOP UKIP’ letter was circulated in which the Labour candidate claimed – completely untruthfully – that the UK Independence Party had “targeted the Shelthorpe Estate and are confident of replacing me as your County Councillor”. He urged people to “help me stop UKIP winning here”. In fact, the UKIP candidate had not ventured out of his old people’s home.
A more vicious leaflet claimed that the Conservatives were running a “fake campaign” and that they “obviously think they can’t win clean”. It made the ludicrous allegation that Ted had proposed “street bouncers with tasers” to deal with “rowdy students”. It suggested that being a county councillor “demand[ed] a level of skill and competence that may be beyond him”. And anonymous posters – which Labour denies responsibility for – appeared on the day of the election urging voters to support the Labour candidate and stating “Don’t let Dolly ‘Ted’ ruin the Shelthorpe community like he did in Southfields!”
In devising a strategy two years ago, we realised that it would be difficult to achieve such a significant swing using conventional campaigning techniques and we identified 10 specific tactics that we would use in order to get Ted elected. It would be injudicious to reveal all of them even though they were entirely legal and legitimate but some of them did appear to be particularly effective during the campaign.
The first challenge was to find new activists. Loughborough was fortunate in having an active group of Conservative Future students at the University and our MP, Nicky Morgan, put a lot of work into assisting them with their recruitment efforts. The chairman of the group, the indefatigable Adam Stares, also became vice-chairman of the association with responsibility for recruitment and had almost single-handedly boosted its membership by 35 per cent. This gave us enough volunteers to ensure that leaflets could be quickly and efficiently distributed across the division.
Ted was well known in his half of the division but it was important to get all of the electors aware of his existence and we had a logo created with the slogan ‘Because YOU matter’. This appeared on most of our election material.
A successful campaign in the 2015 borough elections had already given us a significant amount of intelligence about voting behaviour. We supplemented this with information gathered during the referendum campaign in 2016 and then a division-wide residents’ survey that we carried out in 2015-16. This enabled us to carry out far more precise canvassing during our five-week election campaign.
We had also discovered that simply canvassing a road once was insufficient and in the areas where we had a lot of support we went back again and again and again. Of course, each time the visit was easier because there were less people to call on. There were still some houses in the ward that have received more than a dozen visits in the four campaigns were we still have yet to meet the residents.
We knew which parts of the division we were most likely to find votes but were determined to visit every single house and flat at least once and we achieved this objective by the fourth week of the campaign. This left the final two weeks to concentrate on revisiting the more electorally lucrative areas. In total we put about 600 hours into door knocking.
Nicky was elected in 2010 after a considerable amount of hard work as the Conservative candidate having been selected before the 2005 general election. She was re-elected in 2015 with a comfortable majority and this was, in part, a consequence of the effort that she had put into the constituency. This meant that there was a gradually growing residual Conservative vote which also benefited us in 2015 and 2017.
One of the important techniques we have discovered is to keep an accurate record of our canvassing on a spreadsheet and in both elections this has enabled us to predict the result with a surprising degree of accuracy. In the final week of the campaign we had calculated that we should win, having achieved our objective of finding the same number of pledges as votes at the last county council elections in 2013. We were helped by one of Sharp’s fellow Labour councillors incautiously saying he thought Ted was going to win. We therefore politely declined offers of assistance, including one from Nicky, and instead suggested that it was more important to assist in other parts of the town.
We are still unsure about which of the ten tactics were most successful and both the national political situation as well as Nicky’s local support were clearly important factors. Sharp later claimed to the Leicester Mercury that he “saw it coming”, said that it “has been tough on the doorstep” adding: “All we have had back at us is Brexit and ‘Bloody Corbyn’.” He suggested that “we can’t hide behind it any more. It’s a fact Jeremy Corbyn has had a negative impact on us in this campaign.”
Sharp’s observation about the Corbyn effect was undoubtedly true but it does not completely explain why the Labour vote dropped by 342 votes and the Conservative vote – even after losing a favourable district –increased by 408 votes.
A noticeable number of voters mentioned Corbyn as their reason for not voting Labour but it was also the case that a similar number – and especially amongst older women – mentioned how much they admired the Prime Minister, Theresa May, and several remarked that “she’s one of us”. Corbyn and May definitely had a respective push-pull effect on the electorate.
What was also apparent from the results is that simple leafleting may not have a great deal of impact. The extreme right-wing British Democrats had also decided to run a candidate in the division and it distributed three different professional and well-written leaflets across the division – 16,500 in total – but it only succeeded in attracting 30 votes. This suggests that it was generating one vote for every 550 leaflets. We were more selective and most electors only saw the election address, our regular newsletter and leaflets tailored to identify issues specific to an area. The latter tactic usually worked although one resident, when told that ‘speeding cars’ was a key local issue responded: “Yea – the new Audi, it’s really fast!”
There is a limit to what any candidate can do because of the overwhelming effect of national political opinion but what we believe we have achieved in winning what one local journalist called a “big scalp” was to demonstrate that the use of fine-tuned campaign techniques coupled with hard work and rigorous statistical analysis can win enough extra votes to achieve a victory in an ostensibly ‘safe’ Labour area.
The only downside of having run a successful campaign is that three constituencies have now asked for advice about how to defeat their Labour candidates at the forthcoming general election.