How the ward was won: Paul Cotterill

In the district elections of 2007, a team of just four activists helped to secure a Labour victory within a safe rural Tory seat never before held by Labour. We saw a 44% increase in the Labour vote since the last time the seat was contested in 2003.

It would be easy to be overly triumphant, and to make claims that ‘all local campaigns should be run like this’.  In fact, we followed the general campaigning guidance issued from the Labour party centrally and regionally. But we do believe that other specific lessons might be learned from what we managed to achieve.

First, we had a different approach to the press. The standard Labour campaigning message is that all opportunities to raise the profile of the party, and especially the candidate in the local press should be seized.  In the Bickerstaffe campaign this was not done, and there were no press releases or calls to the press of any kind.

The local press is distinctly hostile to the Labour party, and could not be trusted to provide accurate information on any story sent to it; we knew that the journalists would most likely seek to twist any story against us.

Instead we developed our own media outlet. The Bickerstaffe Record was first published and distributed in late 2001. The newsletter grew over time, and readers started to contribute articles. We did not Tory bash. It was eventually seen as a local newspaper, rather than a leaflet aimed at promoting a particular message.

Producing and distributing it created opportunities for local activism.  As readers feed back about what might go into a next edition, so key concerns of groups of residents have been drawn out and led onto specific action and campaigns.

Somewhat contrary to accepted Labour party guidance, we found that the obviously ‘low-tech’ style of the newsletter was actually an attraction for readers – presumably because such a style wasn’t linked so much to ‘spin’.

Avoiding wider publicity also helped us to stay under the Tory radar.  Our feeling from doorstep conversations was that the Tories were genuinely surprised to find the level of support for Labour that they did find, and that this soon brought about an element of panic in their ranks.

In this respect, the campaign went against accepted Labour party guidance that doorstep ‘engagement’ and voter identification is more important than leafleting.  But in our view, this allowed for a much more natural approach to the doorstep than we tend to get with classic voter ID work, since people already had a point of reference.

We did deliver a targeted direct mail letter to identified pro-Labour, inserting one paragraph covering our achievements and intentions as they related to the immediate area.  But post-election discussions with residents have not suggested that this was a productive step in the campaign.

Our experience is that most residents simply want to be able to live their lives in peace, quiet and safety, and in a pleasant environment.  None of the issues we covered in the newsletter were very ‘sexy’, but the fact that we covered them and could provide evidence that we were seeking to act upon them all acted in our favour come the election.

The Bickerstaffe campaign also did not follow the ‘prescribed’ method for campaigning, which uses extensive voter identification work in the months and years before an election.  It is much smaller than most electoral wards, and therefore local knowledge was much easier to glean.

Because of Bikerstaffe’s size, our candidate was able to give canvassers an assessment of what reception they might receive on each doorstep. In some cases, this meant identifying which doors might be best avoided to maintain a growing ‘feelgood factor’. This led to more and longer canvassing outings by the small team of regular canvassers.

But its rural nature means that canvassing there is time consuming.  A normal leaflet delivery rate in an urban area of West Lancashire is around 200-300 per hour.  In Bickerstaffe it is about 80-100. We knew that on election day it would be impossible for the remaining canvassers to get round all the identified voters. Instead, we used marked register data from previous elections and used specific criteria to halve the number of houses deemed to need a doorstep call/phone call.

It is also worth noting that, even with considerable canvassing time, targeted mailings and the odd ‘scare story’, the Tories were not able to get their vote above the level they had achieved in 2003. This does suggest that even though they chose a local farmer with plenty of farming history and contacts as their candidate, there is actually quite a low limit to the potential Tory vote.  While the situation may not be the same everywhere, it is encouraging to other areas.

As a group we are proud of what we achieved in this small patch. To suggest that this is some kind of winning formula for other wards would, of course, be presumptuous; indeed it would be illogical, given our insistence on the importance of local knowledge and local flexibility to different situations. But we do think that there are learning points for other Labour campaigners to be gleaned from our experience.

You can read Paul Cotterill’s detailed report into the 2007 Bickerstaffe campaign here.

Tags: , , , ,

2 Responses to “How the ward was won: Paul Cotterill”

  1. Mike Olley says:

    I seems to me that the ward was won because you ignored the advice of the party which of course is geared to getting MP’s elected and not generally cllrs. Add that to a bit of hard work and mix in a candidate who appears not to be up his own rear end and bingo. Hard work pays off especially when we don’t take ourselves so seriously.

  2. […] up around saying what I do when and by the time I’d written it they’d already posted this edited version of what I’d already said here, and are now so bored with me they’ve stopped answering […]

Leave a Reply