After seven attempts, starting with an election for Vice Chairman of the Student Union at Kingston Polytechnic, I finally succeeded in getting myself elected on Thursday in a by-election which was caused by Ed Northover, the former Councillor, moving to Hong Kong. The good people of Larkswood Ward in the London Borough of Waltham Forest saw fit to put their faith in me to serve them as a Councillor and I am grateful for their support. It is a pleasure to join some long time friends in the Waltham Forest Conservative Group.
The result was also a good one. We did not quite achieve the level of success when Ed was elected in a by-election in 2009, but the background context is now very different. However, we took the Conservative share of the vote up from 56% to 67% compared with the same election held on the day of the General Election in May 2010.
Labour’s share of the vote actually went down, from 26.8% to 22.7% and the Liberal Democrats saw their vote collapse to just 3.8% from 16.8% in 2010. Two other candidates, a Green and a Liberal, took the rest of the votes.
Looking back over other by-election results, it appears we achieved something almost unique in the last year, a substantial swing to the Conservatives. Even on the same day as my election, Town Ward in Hammersmith was electing another new Conservative councillor, Andrew Brown, in the seat formerly represented by that giant of Local Government, Stephen Greenhalgh. The result there saw a substantial swing away from us.
So why did we do so well, and are there lessons others can take from this?
Firstly, there was one major local issue which damaged Labour. At the very southern tip of the ward lies the iconic Walthamstow Stadium, home to greyhound racing since the 1920s. The stadium has been closed since 2008 when the owners sold to a Housing Association developer who had their massively over-high, over-dense proposals approved at a fractious planning committee meeting in Early May. There has been a long, bitter and very public battle over this and local residents were appalled when it appeared that Labour members of the committee voted as one to back the proposals amid allegations that they had in fact been told by party whips to support them.
Conservative councillors have subsequently led efforts to persuade Boris to reject the proposals when they are referred to him and this was the issue which most people mentioned on the doorsteps.
But this alone does not explain our success. We fought the campaign like a marginal. Immediately after the planning decision on the Stadium and before Ed’s resignation had even been announced, the ward was delivered with a specific in-Touch newsletter about the decision. We then set off on a six week campaign. We set up a by-election specific website – using Weebly, so it was free – and used Mailchimp to contact supporters and helpers with campaign specific e-mails to encourage people to come out and help.
We delivered three further leaflets focused on our achievements in the ward, but specifically highlighting my own experience, and then finally highlighting local support. These were designed to create maximum name recognition for me rather than following a generic Party design and clearly worked. (You can see them on the website here).
We also delivered three letters, again with a candidate specific letterhead. The first went to known support and uncanvassed households and set out my key themes of fighting against over-development and standing up for Chingford against a council which largely ignores this part of the Borough. All postal voters not canvassed as against us then received a letter on the day postal ballots were issued encouraging them to vote. With over 55% turnout of postal votes, this had a positive effect.
Finally, we delivered a letter to our known support over the last three days with a knock on the door to firm up the vote and confirm any postal votes which had been returned. Come polling day, we had already noted over 200 voted marks. Overall, we canvassed every street once and some twice, recording voting intentions for over 1,500 residents and took our total of recorded VIs in the ward over 50%.
Of course, we didn’t do it alone. Whilst the core local team turned out regularly, three times a week, sometimes more, we had a lot of help from others. Our three London MEPs came and our MP, Iain Duncan Smith, who is really well liked locally, joined us three times and got a great reception from people, even securing two votes in the pouring rain at 9pm on polling day when he called me up to take an elderly couple to the polling station.
During the campaign, we recruited six new deliverers, all now getting involved beyond just delivery, and other help came from across North East London. On polling day, we had help from over 40 people, half local, but with people coming from Barking, Tower Hamlets, Peckham, Newham, Dagenham, Romford, Hornchurch, Redbridge and Enfield. We ran a full knock up of over 2,500 electors.
So, why did we do so well? In part because we were building on existing support built up by good local councillors and because Labour had shot themselves in the foot over a prominent local issue, but mainly because we worked bloody hard and didn’t take a single vote for granted. With London Borough elections coming up in just 22 months, that is something we are all now going to have to do, starting now, if we want to deliver a good result – and give the Conservative party a springboard for outright victory in the General Election of 2015.