Reflections from an unwinnable seat

by Matt Wilson

Along with a couple of hundred other PPCs I went into May 7th knowing with absolute certainty that Labour would lose.

In my seat.

Yes, I had been chosen for the peculiar ordeal of standing in an unwinnable, in my case the Tory heartlands of East Surrey. I would lead a team of wonderful, long-suffering, grassroots activists into a hopeless constituency battle, hoping that across Britain we would win the electoral war.

Why would anyone do this?

As someone relatively new to capital ‘P’ politics, transitioning from a career in the third sector, I saw the experience of being a candidate and running a campaign as uniquely valuable. Furthermore, I like that election time provides an opportunity to speak up for issues and causes that haven’t had the airtime that they deserve. In a one party state such as East Surrey alternative and dissenting viewpoints are rarely heard in the public square. If opposition candidates won’t speak out then no-one will. And of course there’s also the chance to generally rattle local Tories and ensure they stay put rather than hoofing off to campaign for their chums in more marginal constituencies.

I was determined to put up a fight and run our campaign as if we actually stood a chance. That involved a proper canvassing operation on the ground, lots of online engagement, and seeking to win the debate at each of the five hustings events where I faced the Tory incumbent and also opponents from the Lib Dems, the Greens and UKIP, plus an independent, who was too right wing to be the UKIP candidate! All of this meant spending lots of time engaging with people who don’t see the world through spectacles tinted with the Labour rose. That experience furnished me with some fresh perspectives on how Labour needs to change in order to become the party of government once again.

The lessons I took away can be understood as three fundamental political tensions:

Progress vs Preservation  

During three months of campaigning I witnessed primal emotive forces at work in the hearts and minds of voters. Pulling one way was the desire for progress, the hopeful voice, making promises, articulating dreams of a better future. Labour speaks this language quite naturally. Yet, pulling the other way, I heard fearful voices too, instincts of preservation, concerns about the loss of traditions and of patterns of living that afford people identity and meaning.

In countless hundreds of conversations on doorsteps and elsewhere it was apparent that what we like to call ‘progress’ isn’t viewed positively by large swathes of voters. Allied to this, they don’t view Labour as a party that respects Great Britain’s identity and heritage. How is this the case? Surely Labour’s achievements have played an enormous part in making Britain great. Well if that’s true we need to remind the public because many of them don’t appear to think so. In the weeks and months ahead, as we look beyond Old Labour and New Labour to a ‘Labour 3.0’ I hope we resist making a binary decision to be a purely ‘progressive’ party. If we are to ever appeal to a broad enough electorate to command a majority then we need to show that we understand and honour the role of history and tradition too.

Personality vs Policy

There really is no preparation for being a parliamentary candidate other than being a parliamentary candidate. There’s nobody to hide behind, it’s you in the spotlight and you need to deal with both the opportunity and the challenge that the role brings. The lesson here is that who you are matters to voters, as well as what you stand for. Indeed some voters are more interested in who you are than what you stand for.

I had a peculiar exchange on a doorstep in Caterham with an old fella who was clearly en ex-serviceman, an officer-type. After five minutes or so of fast-paced conversation he concluded, “Young man, I like the cut of your jib and you shall have my vote!” I’m no longer young and I’m not quite sure what a jib is, but I was happy for the support. Similarly, it was apparent at the hustings events that the public weren’t very happy with some of the candidates responding to questions by reading verbatim from party manifestoes. Voters expect to know where YOU stand.

Eclipsing all this though is the reality that however confident or insecure you may be in your own qualities as a candidate, many voters will simply react to you as an embodiment of the party leader. My experience of being lambasted on the doorstep regarding Ed Miliband’s perceived failings will be familiar to most who took part in the street-level campaign this year. Personally I had no problem defending Ed, I liked him, but next time around I hope I won’t have to spend time trying to convince voters of our leader’s character and competence – a party leader ought to convey that message themselves.

Public vs Private 

Living and campaigning in bluest Surrey felt a bit like waking up day after day in a Lego-land version of the Britain that the Tories want to create on a grand scale. It’s place where the poor are very effectively hidden on council estates tucked away down country lanes, perched on the side of hills or backed up against railway tracks. Here the Conservative dogma of public sector = bad and private sector = good is being worked out uncontested. Why do we need Sure Start centres if we can have private daycare nurseries? Why should the council provide care homes for the elderly if a private company can run them instead? Why should the NHS run community healthcare if it can be outsourced to Virgin Care for a mere £500 million?

This is Cameron’s Britain, blending market-arrogance with managerial-incompetence, to the frustration and despair of taxpaying residents. Austerity has merely provided the catalyst to accelerate the process. Yet here is found though, a potential key of future renewal for Labour. Somehow, without appearing statist, we need to put forward a plan for establishing tangible and meaningful democratic accountability within public institutions. I found communities desperate to have say in the life of their local schools and hospitals. People are angry about the poor service provided by their local railways and bus services, but have no way to influence decisions as the networks are all privatised. Therefore, we must begin to connect our renewed emphasis on community organising with a root and branch re-engineering of our BLP and CLP structures, opening them up to become more inclusive of and welcoming toward the communities in which they are rooted. This is where we should start the Labour 3.0 project – from the ground up rather than the top down.

In the final analysis I didn’t cause the local bookies any heart attacks as the Tory incumbent sailed home as expected. I was however pleased to increase the number of people voting Labour by a third on 2010, reversing a downward trend that had seemed intractable since 2001. More valuable than that though were these insights gained, which by sharing, I hope may serve in some small way to enrich the debate about Labour’s future.

Matt Wilson was Labour’s parliamentary candidate in East Surrey

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2 Responses to “Reflections from an unwinnable seat”

  1. David Walker says:

    Why would anyone do this? I think the truth is a bit simpler, than you have made out.

    You were simply serving your time and will be given a much-more winnable seat to try and win at the next election. If the Labour Party sees you as a potential star, you will be parachuted into a community that you know nothing about and where the Labour vote is weighed, rather than counted.

    You have no business background, although the 2 years you spent as a graphic designer in the 1990s puts you way ahead of most other Labour candidates, in terms of real-world private-sector experience.

    Sorry, but it is hard not to form the impression that you are just another typical metropolitan comfortably-off socialist on the first part of the well-worn electoral conveyor-belt.

    If you aren’t contesting a seat in the industrial wastelands, next time out, the party probably doesn’t rate you or you just haven’t done enough networking.

    It doesn’t sound like you did a great deal to find out what makes the average East Surrey voter tick (by average, I mean with a job in the private sector, a car and a mortgage, or someone who has retired with a private pension).

    If you had simply set up a stand in one of the shopping malls on a Saturday afternoon, with a sign that said ‘Come and tell me why this is an unwinnable seat for Labour’, you might have gained some insight.

    Why can’t Labour win a seat here? Do you think it’s because the people are just wealthy and without compassion? Why would you even seek to represent them, if that is the case?

  2. Sioned-Mair Richards says:

    We had the opposite. I live in a northern Constituency. Our Conservative Candidate came from deepest Surrey. A cllr whose ward has the most expensive housing in the UK. It was also a “I’ll stand here to win my spurs” experience. No understanding of the poverty of the area, no attempts at solutions. At the hustings simply said that migrant labour is great because they’ll work longer hours for less money. No thought about what that does to people in precarious jobs or living in marginal communities with a lot of private sector rented housing. We do truly appear to be two nations. Maybe we need Disraeli back!

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