Ric Holden is MP for North West Durham
Peggotty’s Café, Wolsingham, County Durham
Just a just a couple of days before nominations closed, I got a call and was told that the previous Conservative candidate for North West Durham had withdrawn. After chatting with family and close friends, I decided to throw my hat in the ring.
I thought that the local Association might go for me – I grew up in a similar area (albeit on the wetter side of the Pennines) in a semi-rural former industrial village on the Lancashire/Yorkshire border; I’d got experience having been a candidate before and had been heavily involved in campaigning since I was a teenager.
But, to be totally honest, looking at the previous results, it was difficult to believe that this key brick in the ‘Red Wall’ could tumble.
North West Durham was created in 1950, and had returned Labour MPs comfortably its entire existence. Theresa May and Tim Farron (both good local campaigners) had both been trounced in 1992, and Labour’s majority had varied between a “low” of 15 per cent of the vote (with a 6,500 or so majority in 1983) and a “high” of 54 per cent (with a 25,000 or so majority in 1997.
Even with Jeremy Corbyn in place, Laura Pidcock held the seat very comfortably in 2017 with well over half the vote and an 18 per cent majority of almost 9,000 votes. To win by just one vote would require a swing of almost ten per cent.
To the campaign and the seat: my agent, David, and the Association Treasurer, Marian, met me at the Punch Bowl in Edmundbyers at 6pm on Wednesday, 13th November to fill in my nomination papers.
I’ve since learnt that they had both been very disheartened before the meeting, having lost a candidate, and were worried about having a replacement at such short notice who wasn’t super-local.
I didn’t know at the time but do now that when they both got home that night and called each other to say how happy they were, after meeting me properly, with how things had panned out.
So how and why did a seat that’d never been Conservative go blue for the first time?
I may be wrong, but I think that the former Labour MP who wrote that it was all Tony Blair’s fault was wide of the mark.
As far as I saw, there were two factors the put us in the ballpark: Corbyn (and by extension Corbyn’s Labour Party) and his policy on Brexit.
It became patently obvious to me after chatting to people locally that they felt that they’d been taken for granted by Labour for a long time, but that this had been crystalised by its “we know better” attitude over Brexit – especially after being told by the party in 2017 that it would deliver on the referendum. This was re-enforced by the nature of Corbyn’s Labour.
The average person I met on the doorstep in North West Durham is moderate and sensible. They know you need good jobs and thriving businesses for the tax revenues for good public services. They’re not Marxists obsessed with looking back to the Miners’ Strike. They’re people who want to get on, work hard for their families but have also have a real sense of community, wand ho don’t want to see those working hard at the bottom trapped without opportunity to succeed.
Labour just didn’t understand. Portraying themselves as almost a pastiche of ‘Old Labour’ in a bizarre attempt at cultural appropriation of a “working class” image fell flat. Local people got the same impression they’d have got if someone hung a Lowry on the wall of an Islington townhouse and then waxed lyrical about what a cultural icon Gracie Fields was to Northern millworkers. Labour handed us an opportunity to capitalise on.
The national campaign was tight and focussed. The concentration on delivering Brexit and on the domestic priorities of the British people was bang on. But I don’t think we’d quite have made it in North West Durham if it had been just this national picture alone.
We started campaigning almost immediately. With hardly any data to go on, I blind canvassed different parts of the constituency to get a feel for the most prominent local issues (one of the worst things you can do as a candidate is to fail to recognise that your local association know ‘their bit’ of the area well, but individually rarely understand the whole seat.)
After a couple of nights at a room in the local pub I rented a cottage in Weardale for the duration of the campaign, and purely by being around got myself involved in the local community – including attending a rather boozy night at the Wolsingham showground (thanks Mark!)…
I threw myself into daily campaigning across the constituency with daily Facebook updates and tweets. Our tiny team grew steadily with the support of some of the more active Association members and people who got involved when they saw what we were doing. We went everywhere and spoke to as many people as we could. And people liked it. They liked seeing someone fighting. And they told their friends.
Labour’s reaction locally was unbelievable. I became convinced they had better data from generations of campaigning. Their slavish re-iteration of Labour’s national messaging was helpful. It was like campaigning against a cult rather than a political party.
When Labour did campaign, they turned people off. They had a mistaken belief in the strength of the personal brand of the sitting MP. On the doorstep they’d pretend to be more pro-Brexit or pro-Remain depending on how the person answered the question on the doorstep. Then people talked to their neighbours and found out they were again being treated as fools by the local Labour Party.
And the rest, as they say, is history. On the night we got a 10.5 per cent swing, turning an almost 9,000 Labour majority into a Conservative majority of 1,144.
This is the first of many of these fortnightly columns, and the only one to focus on what has happened, rather than the future. The future is clear, and along the lines of what the Prime Minister has already said. A lot of people lent us their votes this time in the hope of something new and different.
We need to build long-term trust to hold seats like North West Durham. We can win again but we must deliver. Better transport (better bus services, improved roads and, hopefully rail too), protecting and enhancing local services (Shotley Bridge Hospital, GP Services) and ensuring local police and schools have the resources they need are all vital.
What is key underpinning this is for those of us who have had the honour of being elected by these communities to fight remorselessly and with positivity for our communities. The people aren’t stupid as Labour would have you believe. They know that if you try you won’t succeed every time ,but they want you to try – and for your ambition as their MP to match their ambition and aspirations for themselves, their families and communities.
By showing people locally that we get this, we stand a good chance not just of holding seats but of gaining more. If I were in the MP in Wansbeck, Hull East or Sunderland now, I would be rightly very concerned about the next election because it’s clear, from the Prime Minister down, Conservatives see 2019 as a new baseline, not a high water mark.