by John Braggins
The voters of Eastleigh – an old railway town just outside Southampton – lost their MP, Stephen Milligan in unfortunate circumstances on February 7th 1994. A Tory with promise ahead of him came to a tragic end, and was found wrapped in a bin bag after accidentally suffocating himself in an apparently solitary sexual episode.
Fast forward 20 years and an another MP, Chris Huhne, this time a LibDem, was on a fast-track to high political office only to find he was travelling too fast, eventually ending his career in an equally bizarre manner, only far less tragic this time.
So the voters of Eastleigh will yet again face battalions of LibDem Focus leafleters, legions of Tory In Touch deliverers and car loads of Labour Rose activists spreading out across the wastelands of Chandlers Ford, Eastleigh Town and Hedge End.
In 1994, along with my colleague Alan Barnard, I was asked by Labour’s elections supremo, Jack Cunningham, to take charge of Labour’s campaign for the forthcoming by-election. Our remit was to avoid the traditional by-election squeeze on our vote and avoid losing our deposit. We were tasked with finding a way to take the fight to the Lib Dems and to encourage Labour voters to stay with us.
The Eastleigh by-election of 1994 was a turning point for Labour, coming as it did after two by-elections in ‘the south’ – Christchurch and Newbury where Labour’s vote was squeezed almost out of existence. Labour was unlikely to win Eastleigh but increasing its share of the vote and coming ahead of the Tory was seen by Labour’s shadow cabinet as one of the most important by-election objectives in the run-up to the 1997 general election, showing, as it did, Labour could increase its vote in the vital southern key seats.
Straight after the by-election result, when Labour had come second in what at the time was one of only six by-elections since the Second World War to have a swing from Tory to Labour, the recently elected leader Tony Blair was able to say “There are no no-go areas for new Labour.”
In his analysis column for the Daily Telegraph on the Saturday after polling day, Professor Anthony King wrote under the headline “The real winners came second at Eastleigh”. He said “The big news from the by-election …… is that Labour is now back, constituting a real electoral threat to the Tories for the first time since 1979″ and “Such an outcome in a general election would sweep Labour to power.”
And now, the new by-election needs to be treated with equal importance. Once again Labour faces a massive squeeze between the Lib Dems that hold almost all the council seats and the traditional Tory machine, that desperately wants this seat back and who have been organising in the seat for many weeks now.
There are a number of lessons that Alan and I learnt back then that are just as important in the digital electioneering age of 2013 and we happily pass them on to Labour new by-election warriors:
1. Be confident
Eastleigh is there to be won. Make no mistake: a campaign that doesn’t believe it can win deserves to lose. Eastleigh was once a Labour town but lost the habit of voting Labour. That confidence had to be given to the party members back then, and it is exactly the same now.
2. Plan ahead
Plan for the county elections in May; Labour did badly in 2009 with the party in the doldrums at the tail end of the Brown government. Now with the coalition partners falling out at Westminster and soon to be at each other’s throat in Eastleigh, this represents a major opportunity for Labour. Nothing invigorates the membership like fighting elections and the county elections are the best possible building block for this by-election.
3. Communicate the message
Alan Barnard and I ran the early part of the campaign simply to engage with our voters and to start communicating Labour messages – something that, with one or two exceptions, had not been done in Eastleigh for years before. The party had stopped communicating, leaving a vacuum for the Lib Dems to fill. Before we could grow our support, we had to give confidence to our own side – and that included the members.
4. Be visible to give confidence
In 1994 it was only the doorstep, leaflets and phones, now it’s computers, mobile phones, ipads, twitter, facebook and emails. They are all, as Alan Barnard writes in his book ‘Campaign It!’, just useful additional channels to be used to communicate a message. What is most important is for voters to see Labour people out and about in their communities working hard; to see posters in windows and in gardens and then followed with phone calls, emails, texts, tweets, to deliver the politics and messaging of our campaign.
5. Be everywhere
The research I conducted immediately after the ’94 by-election proved beyond any reasonable doubt that the one thing that impacted on voters most in Eastleigh was meeting the candidate – face-to-face. The candidate has to be out on the doorstep, in the high street, shopping centres, at school gates, in the market meeting and greeting people. There should be ‘no hiding place’ from Labour and our candidate should be set a target for the number of hands he/she should shake during the by-election – 5,000 would be a good target to achieve.
6. Be nimble
Know what the Tories and LibDems are doing and make sure Labour is there. The then Lib Dem leader, Paddy Ashdown, was outwitted on his first campaign visit by Labour blitzing the streets and estates he was being taken around, on his last he was outwitted by a Labour phone-bank of just six people who rang every Labour promise in the area he was visiting to remind them of the local Lib Dems failures and of our message.
7. Have fun.
In our 20 week campaign we had the most we could have with our clothes on. That fun was infectious and spread through the campaign team and quickly turned supporters into activists and activists into members. All by-elections seek the ‘big mo’ the trick of a good campaign is having developed momentum, to then build it into a winning coalition of voters.
John Braggins worked for the Labour Party for 37 years. He was the first head-office staff member to take charge of by-elections for the party, running all by-elections for the party between 1988 and 2001. Now he and his by-election sidekick, Alan Barnard, run their own company, bbm campaigns.