Neil Wilson is a candidate for Belfast East at the 2016 Assembly election, and fought the Westminster seat in May.
East Belfast is a former powerhouse of Empire. At one stage we had the biggest shipyard in the world, a huge ropeworks, an aircraft factory that churned out thousands of planes a year, and a highly skilled workforce to match.
We even once had a Tory MP in Gustav Wolff, of shipyard fame. Back then Belfast was to the British Empire what Silicon Valley is the US today – the place where the things that kept us moving were made.
While Shorts is now owned by Bombardier, Harland and Wolff refit oil rigs, and our ropeworks has been replaced by the much underrated Connswater Shopping Centre, we still have a lot going for us.
Heartsine invented the mobile defibrillator and even supply them to the White House from their base on the Harbour Estate. Much of our tech industry is based in the constituency: Citi, Equiniti, KPMG, Datactics, Microsoft, SAP and IBM all have offices here.
Titanic Belfast is a world class visitor attraction, which is about celebrating the city’s shipbuilding heritage as much as it is about our most famous export. And in case you didn’t know, we also have a film studio, where Game of Thrones is made.
But we have our problems. We suffer from the 47th highest unemployment rate in the UK. Drive down the main thoroughfare of the Lower Newtownards Road and you are greeted with scores of empty shop units where there once was the beating heart of a community.
Community spirit is remains strong though and the people are second to none. This is, after all, the place that produced George Best, CS Lewis and Van Morrison amongst many others.
I genuinely love it, so much so that, after eleven years kicking around in various parts of England, arguably as part of our renowned ‘brain drain’, I decided to make it my home and apply to become the Conservative candidate in December of last year.
I didn’t have long to campaign. We weren’t exactly high on the CCHQ priority list.
This was understandable given the nature of the campaign we had to fight – we were always unlikely to make a breakthrough here, and locally we considered our campaign to be about laying the groundwork for years to come.
We started on the back of a pretty poor result in 2014. As a relatively small party of 400 members, without the means to fight a province-wide campaign, we struggled to get going in the European campaign, despite having a first rate candidate in Mark Brotherston.
Our council candidates fared slightly better, with a stand out result in the Downshire West District Electoral Area (DEA) of the new Lisburn and Castlereagh Council proving the value of well-known local candidates, consistency, talking about local issues, and integrated campaigning.
Still, it wasn’t enough to get our candidate elected.
The campaign in East Belfast was always going to be dominated by two parties. Alliance had shocked everyone by toppling First Minister Peter Robinson in 2010.
I have a vivid recollection of being told the result by the Labour candidate at the Newton Abbot count, where I was presiding over another entirely unpredicted result – my jaw almost hit the floor.
The big question in 2015 was whether the Democratic Unionists (DUP) would take the seat back. In this aim they were helped by the Ulster Unionists (UUP), who, in exchange for a clear run in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, threw their lot in with the DUP.
I decided to approach the campaign in an entirely novel way for a Conservative campaign in Northern Ireland: by actually engaging with the electorate.
Conservatives had, in the past, quite simply put too much faith in our arguments and trying to get those arguments into the press. I found this lazy.
Having worked in a couple of campaigning roles for the party in the South West, and having been around campaigns for the best part of ten years, I had a good idea of how to proceed, even with the limited resources we had. There is no substitute for hard work. Ever.
We were to canvass relentlessly, get to understand people’s concerns, analyse the figures and target from there. And, by and large, it worked.
We placed skills and training at the centre of the local campaign. It seemed to me to be outrageous that in a constituency with our history, we couldn’t match people to jobs.
But we also made the campaign about what it should have been about – national politics.
A General Election is about who you want to be the next Prime Minister. And our private polling showed that, amongst our target audience, David Cameron led Ed Miliband by 80 per cent to 20 per cent
I also dropped the confusing NI Conservatives brand. We were fighting the same election as our colleagues in England, so why dilute what was actually a strong brand with a darker tree and an ambiguous ‘NI’? If we really were the real deal then we had to start acting like it.
We soon identified a couple of Mosaic codes that were responding well to various parts of our national and local messages and throwing up a high proportion of Conservative voters.
To test this we deployed direct mail, and were overwhelmed with the response. We then ruthlessly targeted these groups.
The result was that we finished third, with our best finish in Northern Ireland since a second-placed finish in North Down in 1992. We also polled our highest number of votes in East Belfast since that same year.
We were, however, far behind Alliance, who were as shocked as I was to find the UUP vote breaking pretty evenly between them and the DUP.
Could we have polled more? Undoubtedly. We lacked the resources to canvass thoroughly enough, in the end only getting around 6000 doors.
The result of this was that we were unable to get to enough of the disenfranchised UUP voters who had voted for the UCUNF (UUP-Tory pact) candidate in 2010, and present our case for a sensible pro-Union voice. By contrast, Alliance had 107 canvassers out in a single day.
The most depressing week was actually the final one. Our GOTV operation (a first for Conservatives here) revealed that about 50 per cent of our pledged vote was leaving us to “keep the DUP out” or “get rid of Long”, albeit always with the caveat that “you’ll get my first preference next year”.
What lessons are there going forward?
Learning and looking ahead
The main lesson I took from the whole experience is that in order to win in the future we need to build a party that is built from the community upwards.
Telling people that our politics is abnormal is all well and good, but it’s ultimately meaningless if you’re not someone that relates to the people you seek to represent. We get street lights and pavements fixed, we get involved with local campaigns, we don’t just get seen at local events but we actively enjoy them.
And we’ll go forward like this, armed with the knowledge that our overly-politicised society is becoming less so and that we need to work for the community, rather than lecture them on the merits of behaving like the rest of the United Kingdom.
The second lesson is to invest in our young people. We’re blessed with talented youngsters who in the past would have gone off in search of a more meaningful political existence after a few frustrating years.
We seek to keep them engaged and give them real political skills that will serve them well when their time comes. There was a great lack of campaigning experience prior to April – something we have now addressed.
The third is to campaign all year round, and be consistent in candidate selections. Until we’ve built up enough of an active membership base to wrap up a constituency in the last three months of a campaign, there’s simply no way we’ll be able to compete if we continue to settle for late selections of unknown candidates.
There is all to play for in the Assembly elections next year. I was selected in July and we’ve been out on the doorstep ever since. The appetite for change at Stormont is huge and the requirement to vote tactically is virtually non-existent in an STV election.
Our vote will hold up, as a result and we’re playing to win. I’m optimistic and will be busting a gut to represent this place I love in the Assembly, not for myself, but because we can’t actually go on like this.