Month: May 2008

Reflections on Crewe and Nantwich

It would be ridiculous to suggest that the Liberal Democrat result in Crewe & Nantwich wasn’t a disappointment. But given the huge determination to give Labour a beating, I suppose it was an achievement to not be squeezed even more than we were. A slight drop in our vote is in hindsight not a bad result, but given the work that went in and the amazing reception that our candidate Elizabeth Shenton was getting, it is still a huge let down.

The biggest lesson of this campaign is not the anger that people felt towards Brown and the way that people are sick to death of Labour. Nor is it that the Conservatives are now suddenly a credible party to vote for yet again, although both of those are clearly significant lessons from Crewe & Nantwich. No, the most significant thing that has come out of this campaign is that the Tories are learning how to campaign effectively. I have never seen a Conservative activist at 4am before, but when I got to the street where I was delivering Good Mornings, the Tories had been there already and were still delivering. The quality of the Conservative literature in the by-election was good, and included magazines, blue letters and Focus-style ‘In Touch’ leaflets. They clearly still don’t get why the Liberal Democrats do these leaflets and what the theory is behind them as some of them weren’t as effective as they could have been. But the fact they are copying them shows that they realise they work and they are catching up. The Liberal Democrats have got used to being the best campaigners in politics and punching above their weight, but this by-election shows that things are changing and we can’t rest on our laurels.

The huge swing to the Conservatives was not unexpected to anyone who saw the canvassing returns (which as the person who input them all in to EARS I did), but the reassuring thing for Liberal Democrats is that there are a lot of people out there who are still undecided about the other parties and are tempted to vote Lib Dem. The Lib Dem hope was that on polling day, the huge number of undecided Labour and Conservative voters would decide to vote Liberal Democrat. Unfortunately they didn’t, and the motivation to give Labour a kicking was too tempting, something that could still scupper us as a party though if we don’t play the next general election right.

Crewe & Nantwich Constituency reminds me a lot of Eastleigh Constituency. It is surrounded by more affluent constituencies, and despite having a large formerly industrial town at its core, the constituency is largely made up middle class housing estate and well-off towns and villages. So when the media talks about this by-election as proving that the Tories can now win in the North and pick up the votes of ordinary working class voters who were once reliable for Labour, I am less convinced.

Firstly, Gwyneth Dunwoody clearly had a very high personal vote, far more than most MPs have or think they have. So her death simply meant that some of that personal vote will unwind and so instantly making the seat more marginal., despite Tamsin Dunwoody being the candidate.

Secondly, my perception is that many of the traditional working class Labour votes just stayed at home, and some even switched to the Lib Dems (as was shown in the local elections when the Lib Dems picked up Crewe South from Labour). Much of the constituency, including Crewe itself, is made up of middle class housing estates of the sort that swung from Conservative to Labour in 1997. The fact that they swung back to the Conservatives this time should be a worry to Labour anyway, but these were the people who moved on mass to the Conservatives. The fact though that some working class Labour voters can move to the Conservatives or just not vote, shows how much the negative image of the Conservatives has been neutralised.

The Crewe & Nantwich by-election along with the local and London mayoral elections are an undoubted triumph for David Cameron. But what I don’t detect is a huge enthusiasm for Cameron being Prime Minister. Cameron is not yet Blair. People want to beat Labour, and they will vote for who can do that best. That is why the Liberal Democrats were squeezed so badly in Crewe & Nantwich and in the London mayoral elections, despite having the best candidates in both. The positive for the Liberal Democrats is that the party can do very well at the next general election where people believe they can win. That is why the Liberal Democrats did very well in places as diverse as Sheffield, South Lakeland, Burnley, Eastleigh, St. Alban’s and Cheltenham in the local elections.

As I’ve mentioned candidates, I have to say something about Elizabeth Shenton. Most Liberal Democrat staff have at some point had to work for a candidate that they either don’t like or don’t think is any good. But in this by-election, everyone loved working for Elizabeth Shenton. She was really good at talking to voters, listening to what they had to say and relating to what they had to say, but she was also continually cheerful, she mucked in and helped with the mundane tasks like cleaning and washing the pots, she would also make a point of chatting to everyone who was there full-time and asking them how things were going. Most of all though you got a real sense that she actually cared about people and was in politics for all the right reasons. I sincerely hope she does eventually get elected to parliament as she is probably the nicest and most genuine candidate I have ever worked for.

Talking about her candidature though brings me on to the small controversy about us re-selecting our candidate for the by-election. It did have some affect on our vote, but only in a very small way, and with some people it was because they believed the previous male candidate had been ditched so we could have an all-woman shortlist. Well, we did have an all-woman shortlist, but that was simply because the best applicants were women. I still think it makes sense to re-select in these circumstances as the pressure and stress placed on a Lib Dem candidate at a by-election is very different from a general election. To put it simply, how many PPCs normally have to face Jeremy Paxman?

This posting has turned in to a huge tome on the by-election. So I will finish off with two bits of trivia and one slightly enigmatic comment.

  • Gemma Garrett and her Beauties for Britain party are planning to stand in Henley, and contrary to the media coverage, they aren’t complete bimbos and they seem quite bright actually.
  • Two of the people working on the Lib Dem campaign have history with Tamsin Dunwoody. I was the regional agent in West Wales in 2003 when she was elected as an AM there. Hywel Davies who ran our by-election print room in Crewe was the Lib Dem candidate against her when she lost in 2007.
  • Ask people who were there on polling day about the man with the owl.

All in all, and despite me being unhappy with having to go there straight after the local elections and despite the result, this was one of the most enjoyable elections I have been part of.

Photo: Taken by me. This was the view from my office window throughout the by-election. Fairly mundane admittedly but I got quite attached to the comings and goings at the Chesapeake factory behind our office.

Eurovision 2008

I didn’t watch all of Eurovision this year as I wanted to spend the evening catching up with friends after weeks and months of election campaigns (more of which later). But I did see quite a few of the songs, and I just don’t understand how Russia won.

I understand all the arguments about political voting, but for a country to win it usually has to have much broader support from across Europe and not just from friendly countries.  Which is why I just don’t get how this song could win.  I thought it was dreadful, and yet people from across Western, Central and Eastern Europe voted for it, although I see the UK didn’t. The best song rarely wins, but whereas last year’s winner for Serbia was at least a decent contender, I just don’t get this year’s winner for Russia.

The winner in my view should have been one of Armenia, Ukraine, Sweden or Greece.  Oddly this is a group of countries that are completely different and yet they are starting to put in consistently good Eurovision songs evry year, many of which would be pretty credible mainstream songs that would do well in the charts without Eurovision.  I also thought that Iceland and San Marino (who never made it to the final) seemed decent tracks from what I’ve seen.

As for the UK entry, yet again I thought it was a poor song, which whilst not so bad that it should have come last, certainly shouldn’t have troubled the top half of the scoreboard either.  I hope that biased voting doesn’t scupper the UK’s changes of ever winning again (although as I pointed out last year, it is more complicated than just being about neighbouring countries), but we shouldn’t expect to do well if we don’t enter a credible song.

Beyond my wildest dreams

We always knew that winning control of Sheffield was a real possibility, despite the (now ex-) Tory councillor saying in her leaflets that the Lib Dems couldn’t possibly take control. But the result of Thursday’s election was absolutely stunning. It wasn’t just the upper end of what we expected, but the upper end and then some. The best examples of how big a win it was are:

  • In 2007 we held East Ecclesfield with a majority of 74. This year we won by 692.
  • In 2007 we gained Hillsborough from Labour by 491 votes. This year we took our second seat in the ward with a majority of 1,119. As a result the Lib Dems elect another blogger – Joe Taylor – and someone who I think will go a long way in the council group.
  • Last year Gail Smith reduced Labour’s majority in Mosborough to 349. This year in a double-vacancy not only did Gail Smith and Chris Tutt become the Lib Dem councillors for the ward, but Gail got 791 votes more than the highest placed Labour candidate. It was particularly good to see us win this ward at last as we have long thought it was somewhere that should be good territory for the Lib Dems. It is also the ward I stood in ten years ago as a paper candidate.
  • Finally, the most amazing result was in Walkley. Last year Penny Baker gained the seat from Labour with a majority of just 36. Despite a huge campaign from Labour that included some nasty and scaremongering literature, Lib Dem Diane Leek won with a majority of 780. Although we have had councillors in Walkley for around 15 years we have never managed to get a large majority, this year was the exception. Diane is also hugely popular in the party in Sheffield, and so everyone was really pleased. The final irony in this result was that the defeated Labour candidate Veronica Hardstaff, who is a former councillor for the ward, is the sister of Chris Tutt who we elected as a Lib Dem in Mosborough.

For me though the best result was in Dore & Totley where Colin Ross beat Anne Smith, the last Conservative in the city. We all went through a rollercoaster ride of emotions at the count as each ballot box made us change our view as to whether we would win or not. But winning this year has not only rid Sheffield of the Conservatives, but it has also ended the view that we are never able to win the final seat in Dore & Totley. This was our fourth attempt at defeating the final Conservative in the ward. In fact in the past we have even managed to win the ward by more than 2,000 votes one year, but then lost by 300 the year after. It just never seemed possible to win that last seat. When I started working for Sheffield Hallam Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg said to me “whatever you do, you have to make sure we hold on to the last Lib Dem seat in Dore & Totley”. Well, here we are three years later and not only have we held on to the last Lib Dem seat, but gained the other two as well. I am also really pleased for our new councillor in the ward Colin Ross. He was councillor for Dore & Totley until 2004 when he lost his seat after a very personal campaign against him by the Tories. This year he had to endure another negative onslaught from the Conservatives, but he won anyway without having to stoop to their level. We had so much ammunition we could have used against Anne Smith, but we decided not to use it.

The other surprise in this election was how well we did in Darnall and Arbourthorne wards. Although we had a very keen and hardworking candidate in Darnall who we thought could do well, it was still impressive to see him move us from third to second and cut Labour’s majority from 1,111 to 555. In Arbourthorne it was an even bigger shock as we never even delivered a leaflet and yet cut the Labour majority from 1,269 to 512.

So now the elections are over, the hardwork starts. The Liberal Democrats have an extensive and interesting manifesto that will both make the city a lot greener, but also make a transformation in the way it is run. There are some exciting times ahead.