Cllr Jamie Bartch represents Whinfield Ward in Darlington.
The local elections 2019 took place against a backdrop of voter apathy and anger over the delay to Brexit. Once again, Westminster politics cast a shadow over the local election efforts of hard working Councillors and activists across the country. However in Darlington, on the northern banks of the River Tees, birthplace of the railways, and the gateway to the Tees Valley, we bucked the trend.
May 2nd delivered us a gain of nine seats, securing a net increase of seven seats, taking us to 22 members, and wresting control from Labour who have controlled the authority since 1991. We did suffer two losses in College ward where party stalwart, Ian Galletley, and his new running mate, Nigel Kendrew, lost to the Green Party in a heavily concentrated and targeted campaign.
Whilst we faced the same national backdrop as everyone else, and met with the same anger over Brexit from all quarters, we went into these elections with a number of local advantages. These were: a newly selected parliamentary candidate which brought renewed enthusiasm from members; a virtually full slate of candidates for the first time in over 30 years; and a number of local issues which had Labour on the back foot.
Those local issues included the highly controversial proposed move of the much loved Crown St library. This is housed in a beautiful listed building bequeathed to the town by the Pease family who along with others were Victorian Quaker industrialists who provided much of the architectural heritage the town enjoys. A concerted local campaign by the Friends of the Library, and two court cases, aided at the outset by our former Parliamentary Candidate, Peter Cuthbertson, left the Council with much egg on its face and some huge taxpayer funded legal bills to boot.
A much hated traffic management experiment called the Haughton Throughabout, imposing misery on many residents caught up in daily delays just to leave their homes was also cause for much unhappiness with voters. A general sense of disappointment with the Council pervaded the town and this was typified by dirty streets, uncollected litter, and rampant fly-tipping, exacerbated by the introduction of charges to dispose of certain waste. Added to an almost consistent absence of response from many Labour Councillors when contacted by residents regarding issues.
A failure of the council to listen and act on business endeavours to help meet the challenges our town centre faces, which are not dissimilar to the decline of high street retail we see across the country, was met with universal agreement when discussed on doorsteps.
We did not hold back in highlighting these Labour negatives and firmly fixing blame on the ruling Labour party. Regardless of what resources you have, you can still pick up a piece of litter and put it in a bin and we highlighted this with a swathe of Litter Picks across the town, sharing this extensively on social media. Every social media post featuring negatives was accompanied with #DarlingtonDeservesBetter. We got very creative with our video and graphic production, using local images featuring our positive policies agreed in our manifesto. We started with simple static graphics, progressing to rotating graphics accompanied by music, and then we introduced videos made on the hoof, quick street based videos with candidates. We then got a little more imaginative with our “carpool” interview videos. We had a lot of fun creating these and even shared some of our out-take videos which were amusing and created engagement online.
All of our positive policy proposals were accompanied with the #VoteBlueOnMay2, and even the hashtag became a video too as we would recite it at the end of each video and on our mass group photos.
We kept our social media fast paced and ever changing, especially when our tactics were copied by our opponents. Every time they posted in a similar vein to us we would deliberately change tack fast. We would also at times “lift” some of their output and directly challenge it. (This became our #Why now? mini campaign where we directly challenged the validity of the timing of our opponents pledges.) We also deliberately used a mix of more polished Conservative branded graphics mixed in with very localised issues being addressed straight to self-held camera which gave unique Darlington authenticity to the whole media campaign.
Our objective was to leave no room for any opposition to fall back on pushing the tired stereotype that Conservatives were unapproachable and not “of the people.” By the end of the media campaign we had successfully blown that campaigning option out of the water. We were streets ahead in perceived connectivity with residents which then helped to break the ice in any doorstep canvassing as residents were starting conversations with campaigners regarding what they had seen on our social media. There is nothing better than being greeted on the doorsteps with “we’ve seen your videos online”; the ice was broken before we had rung the bell.
We started the campaign by selecting our target seats. However, this time we did not just look at seats we had won in the past or had councillors in presently but instead looked at seats which had been held by Labour for decades. Wards where we had only ever been able to offer voters a token gesture opportunity to support us. Using a moderately scientific method we selected a number of targets which would be a focus in our campaign where the Labour majority wasn’t overwhelming but had previously not been given a second thought as to whether they would be a target. Seats like Whinfield, and Stephenson were chosen.
By choosing targets early and having candidates in place many months before the elections we were campaigning in some of these target wards up to a year in advance. We were able to make sure residents knew candidates were standing and they were standing to win. We had our wobbles as the day drew closer and the national picture became more unhelpful but across our whole campaign there was a real sense of optimism on the doorsteps that, yes, it was time for change.
Our campaign had an energy and life about it which seemed to catch the imagination of voters who invariably agreed with us that Darlington did indeed deserve better. We still delivered leaflets (over 100,000 in the four weeks leading up to the 2nd May) and wrote letters to the local newspaper, but our social media engagement got our message to many very quickly.
If we had had a campaign manager in place, and a greater number of members, and had more effectively responded to the threat to our colleagues in College Ward we would almost certainly have secured an overall majority, fixing a firm blue patch on the map North of the Tees. As the first step on this journey of Conservative revival and renewal after decades of Labour taking the north for granted we will take those nine gains and build on them.
As one of the five boroughs which make up the newly formed Tees Valley Combined Authority, headed up by Ben Houchen, we had the support and encouragement of a key figure in the region who has just completed the extremely popular and vote winning project of purchasing the local Airport from Peel Holdings and bringing on board a new operator. Nationalisation is not normally a Conservative Policy but in this instance, and for us here locally, it works. Pragmatism, not ideological purity, wins hand down in the North.
If it’s good for Tees Valley it’s a vote winner. Across these five local authorities, Labour lost 51 seats. They lost just over 80 nationally – we know we must be doing something right.
The Darlington parliamentary seat is made up of 17 of the 20 wards in the borough, the other three being rural and rather oddly sitting in the Sedgefield seat. Boundary Commission proposals place the three wards of Sadberge with Middleton St George, Heighington & Coniscliffe, and Hurworth into the Darlington seat, which would make the seat a ripely tipped gain for us at the next General Election.
Even without the Boundary changes we are optimistic. The change in the Council saw the spread of our support right across the town even in traditionally “Labour” wards, where changes in the housing stock have delivered new hard working councillors for us. There is also the unpopularity of the high profile Labour MP who plays second in command to Keir Starmer on the Brexit brief in a heavily Leave constituency. So the prospect of a Conservative win in Darlington is something that we are all working hard for. Analysing the results from last week and taking an average of the Labour and Conservative votes in each ward and aggregating them together, the wards making up the Darlington constituency gave the Conservatives 8,081 votes and the Labour Party 6,755. Clearly a fun piece of maths for us which gives us hope for a Tory gain in 2022 or sooner.
If you have never been to Darlington, easily accessed from three junctions on the recently upgraded A1M and on the East Coast Mainline just over two hours from Kings Cross, you would be very welcome to join our campaigning in the months ahead, and whilst here visit some of our great local businesses, or even pop into the Head of Steam Railway Museum.