South Shields, Vincent Hanna and a compelling message

by John Braggins

A lot has been written about the South Shields by-election and whether Labour should’ve done better half-way through an unpopular coalition government. And if so who or what was to blame – the lack of organisation, the previous MP, the local party or even the party leader?

First, the facts: Labour’s vote was 50.5% – down 1.5% from the 2010 general election; the Tories’ vote was 11.5% – down 10% and the Lib Dems vote was 1.5% – down 13%.  UKIP, of course, picked up 24%.

So in an ultra-safe Labour constituency in the midst of one of the worst recessions in living memory in which many voters still – rightly or wrongly – blame Gordon Brown and the last Labour government, Labour lost less than 2% of its 2010 vote.

Labour should’ve done better, absolutely, but to blame the lack of electoral data collected before the by-election started is to ignore the fact that there was the lack of a compelling message to galvanise South Shields voters.

I learnt this most graphically at the 1987 Greenwich by-election. The by-election was caused by the death of the popular Labour MP, Guy Barnett and Labour was expected to romp home with an increased majority and indeed the first published poll gave Labour 60% of the vote. The campaign lasted seven weeks, canvassed virtually every household and provided enough data to run an excellent polling day system.

Around 11am on polling day, Vincent Hanna who had pioneered exit polls in by-elections and developed the BBC’s by-election coverage into an art form, came into the party HQ with the news of the first exit poll. “If you want to maximise your effort” he told the assembled campaign team, “pack up and go home”. He continued “from the 11am figures I can tell you that for every two Labour doors you knock on today, one will go out and vote SDP, so if want my advice don’t knock on any doors.”

Like all good election servants we disbelieved the figures and continue our superbly well organised polling day system. Rosie Barnes, the SDP candidate won with a majority of 6,600 over Labour.

I mention this only to demonstrate that no matter how good the organisation is and how much data has been gathered, unless the message is right and is communicated well to voters, it will count for little.

I believe that Labour has a message that resonates with voters, albeit it still needs refining and developing. Undoubtedly UKIP had a message about immigration, Europe and old politics that resonated with voters. Both Labour and UKIP started with no voter i/d, but one of them spent all their time communicating with voters through leaflet after leaflet conveying a message whilst the other was hell-bent on building up its database.

Successful election campaigns are about building momentum and voters in South Shields will have been in no doubt which party wanted their vote the most as evidenced by the sheer number of leaflets delivered. And once UKIP had created that impression, they exploited it mercilessly.

So who or what was to blame?  Organisation was certainly hampered by the historic lack of voter contact, the previous MP could’ve done a lot more to rebuild the local party and the local councillors could’ve spent more time knocking on doors than going to meetings.  But these historic wrongs couldn’t be put right in a three week campaign.

The real culprit was the inability to deliver a compelling message across the entire constituency and instead to spend valuable time collecting data.

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, have set up their own company, bbm campaigns, to take the techniques, principles and attitudes of electioneering into the corporate and not-for-profit sectors.

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7 Responses to “South Shields, Vincent Hanna and a compelling message”

  1. swatantra says:

    Hanna was right. Stop this last minute frantic rushing around like headless chickens. The People have already made their minds up as soon as the ‘Election’ is called, and certainly a week into the campaign. And you won’t get many changing their minds. There is so much media coverage these days that you could do with an escape from politicians plugging their wares and engaging in meaningful debate on your doorstep.

  2. Ash says:

    Wise words as ever John. The other issue which I see seat to seat is poor quality canvassing and doorstep conversation resulting in totally inaccurate data.

  3. david walsh says:

    I too did a little bit of work at Greenwich as I had lived there previously. I have to say that I cannot imagine that there were people at Election HQ who didn’t recognise the SDP surge and its strength given the relentless press campaign (led by the Mail and Sun, as ever) against our candidate, Deirdre Wood. Some opinion polls seem to say we were still in the lead, but that didn’t square with what I was hearing on the estates. I certainly had no doubts about the result, but just got on with the job, confident that things would turn for us later – as they did in Greenwich.

  4. Anniesec says:

    great to hear John still going strong and talking so much sense. Can my twitter feed go back to talking developing those policy ideas into real stories please. Bringing home the northern bank and getting apprentices building houses should have gone down well in South Shields.

  5. Lynne says:

    I’m afraid my loyalty to Labour went out the window with New Labour. We voted in the council elections on a local issue. We voted for someone that was most likely to bring jobs and enhance our town.
    We did get a leaflet from the Labour candidate mentioning something about creating jobs, but saying it and doing it are two different things.

  6. John Reid says:

    My recollection of the Greenwich by election despite the smear against Dierdre was that there was a feeling that the Labour party in general in London wasn’t controlling factions it had said it had under control, I don’t think the Tory tabloids, were changing minds in Greenwich, elsewhere they may have, but the OSS were worse towards us in 92 and I helped Mr Raynsford win it back,

  7. Charlie Mansell says:

    I vaguely recall a London Daily News (a Maxwell Evening paper for London at the time) showing a poll with the SDP in second place, leading to the inevitable collapse of the Tory vote in Greenwich. However I would agree with John we need a compelling message repeated heavily through leaflets. We also needed a good candidate (in South Shields we called that right) and a reasonable amount of voter data so we can then use Mosaic to create more accurate voter pools. The jobs message had been used in the previous 6 by-elections in November and seemed to work reasonably well – especially in the more multicultural places like Croydon North, but it did not have as much emotional resonance when UKIP were surging on voter anger in less diverse areas. What is Labour’s emotional message at present that reaches beyond committed activists and touches disaffected voters? As John implies we still need to do more work on that

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