Cllr Dan Pitt represents Derby Road West Ward on Erewash Borough Council.
In our local election campaign in Erewash, the battle cry was local, local, local. As campaigns go, it was a successful one, even though we faced a gale force headwind because of the handling of Brexit, and the ‘to be or not to be’ European Parliamentary elections. I said to my fellow candidates during the campaign that “aeroplanes take off against the headwind”, and that “we can win this election locally”. These sentiments were also held to a larger or smaller degree by my fellow candidates, and especially by my fellow ward members Gary and Gerri Hickton who were defending councillors. The turnout in my ward of Derby Road West was 37.2 percent, which is quite good going.
The Conservatives indeed did retain control of Erewash Borough Council, with 27 seats out of 57. The others going to Labour, who won 19 seats, and the Liberal Democrats won one seat. We only lost three seats despite the national picture. We also came close to winning seats, for example, in Hallam Fields, where we missed out by only 16 votes.
Well, what did we do? First of all, most of the candidates were selected early (I was the exception as I became the candidate with only four and a half weeks before the election), which enabled the candidates to be known in their patch and to build name recognition and a relationship with the local residents. We also planned and implemented a successful postal vote campaign. We sent out postal vote letters, which were personally addressed, to all known Conservative postal voters before their ballot papers had arrived. We ensured that these letters were on the doormat of the residents a minimum of two days before, and most were done about three or four days before. This meant that we had engaged the residents, and asked them to support us based on our local record. We explicitly planned to focus on the postal voters in this way, as we thought (and we were right) that towards the end of the campaign, there would be a bit of turbulence.
The most important thing we did was to canvass hard and to have a positive campaign that addressed the everyday issues of the residents. In my ward of Derby Road West, we were out canvassing four days a week, with two sessions a day, one in the afternoon, and other one in the evening for four weeks. During these canvass sessions, the number one response on the doorstep was this: “The Conservatives are doing a good job locally here in Erewash, but you have to deliver Brexit.” The second most frequent response was: “I have voted Conservative locally and nationally all my life, but until you deliver Brexit, there is no chance of me voting Conservative again.”
Normally, with strong Conservative voters, the conversation on the doorstep would take no longer than five minutes. This time, however, doorstep conversations were taking 15 or sometimes 20 minutes. This was absolutely necessary. We had to rebuild trust. We had to speak to as many people as we could. We would let the residents have their say on Brexit, and then we would burnish our Brexit credentials, or say that we believed in democracy, and the result needed to be implemented. For me personally, since I campaigned and voted for Leave in the EU referendum, it was quite easy to do this. We would then change the conversation to local issues and the successful record since the early 2000s of the Conservatives in Erewash. The core policies that went down well with residents were: a debt free council, the successful pilot of the bulky waste collection scheme, during which we collected approximately 40 tons of recyclable goods and 5 tons of electric goods (we will roll this out permanently), and the one hour free parking in town centres to reinvigorate the high street.
We backed this strategy up with a leaflet stating clearly that this election is not about parliament and not about Brexit. Instead, it is about your local services and who runs them. We treated residents as knowledgeable adults, and explained that as a council or as councillors, we cannot sort out the arithmetic in parliament or the Brexit process, but we could offer quality local services and a debt free council. Perhaps paradoxically, the announcement that the European Parliament elections were to go ahead assisted in this strategy, as some disillusioned residents were informing us that their protest vote would now shift to the EU elections instead.
Social media also played a role in this strategy. The main focus of social media was through the Erewash Conservatives Facebook page. The main purpose of this was to drip feed the manifesto. Again, the focus was on local achievements and priorities, as well as posting photographs of the candidates campaigning in their wards. My personal social media focus was across multiple platforms such Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. The focus again was on photographs of me, the other candidates, activists, and family members who were out campaigning, demonstrating that we were trying to win votes. When we did speak to residents face-to-face, we were able to persuade them to vote for us, and they did.