Luke Pollard is Labour’s Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for the seat of Plymouth Sutton and Devonport. Born in Plymouth in 1980, he has spent most of his life in Devon. 50for15 caught up with Luke to ask about how local and national issues intersect on the campaign trail.
How do you balance local and national concerns in your campaigning?
It’s a mixture in terms of what you campaign on, but also what people speak about on the doorstep. The vast majority of people, when you ask them whether they have any problems in their area, will talk about a pothole or problems with their bin collection. That doesn’t mean they’re not concerned about the bedroom tax, or they don’t want to see the minimum wage strengthened, or they’re not concerned about tax cuts for the rich. I just think most people’s natural instinct is to deal with what’s immediate to them and their families.
But when you’re having a conversation it tends to flow into what’s happening in the local doctor’s surgery, whether the community group is getting enough money to stay open, what they think about the jobs locally, whether their sons and daughters have a job, whether their sons and daughters have the ability to get their own home at some point, and all those types of things. It naturally flows into more national issues.
I think sometimes there’s a temptation in politics to divide local and national as if they’re two completely different parts of the debate. And the way that politics is structured means that we have local councillors that deal with local issues, and we have MPs that deal with more national issues, but actually that doesn’t matter to the voter, because if they’ve got a problem or a concern, it really should be the job of politicos to provide them with a solution and listen to their problem, wherever it comes from.
For instance, all our campaign stuff that we do here has a mix of national and local issues, because they’re the things that people are concerned about. We don’t have a leaflet template that says, Put Local Issue Here, Put National Issue There. We just have a sense of what people care about in this area. So it might be all local issues or all national issues, depending on which place we’re campaigning in. You’ve got to have a mix.
Does that mean your approach varies according to each individual ward?
It varies within wards as well. In Plymouth we’ve got wards that have ten thousand people in; within that, because of the way Plymouth has developed over the years – especially in Plymouth Sutton & Devonport – you can have very different communities living right next to each other in the same ward. So we’re currently targeting a particular road group, which is when we handle a small number of streets together, rather than targeting a whole ward or polling district. There are about 300 households in the road group, which means that it’s much easier for there to be similarities between them. That means you can target literature much more.
It means we are producing more different versions of leaflets, but we are probably producing the same volume of leaflets at the end of the day. We have a few more people in the office developing them, but when you speak to someone on the doorstep, you can talk through the leaflet with people, and it’s got relevance to them straight away.
I think there’s nothing worse than being disturbed when you’re enjoying your weekend or evening by the door going and someone then talking to you about something that has no connection with you whatsoever. If you’re saying, we’re worried about the local NHS services, or we’re worried about the local roads here, then they’ve got an immediate connection with it, that’s a way of making sure people are communicating what matters to them, and we’re campaigning on issues that do matter to local people. I don’t want to be talking to people who aren’t interested in what I’m saying, I want to be talking to people who understand the relevance of what we’re campaigning on, because we’re campaigning on things that they have themselves raised with us.
How many versions of one leaflet do you produce?
Peverell Ward is a good example. It’s a very mixed area – there’s predominantly middle-class housing, with a lot of African populations, but it’s effectively just row after row of 1920s houses that all look very similar. But when you campaign there, you realise the roads at the top of the street have a very mixed population.
For a normal leaflet run, we’d normally be doing four or five different versions of the stuff. Not every story will change on the leaflets – there are issues that affect everyone in this area, and there are some that will be more specific.
An example of how our campaign varies is that over the last three months the council here, which is Labour-run, has been resurfacing a large number of the roads in Peverell, so where those roads have been resurfaced, it’s important to ask how people are finding it and what people think. But in areas where resurfacing is still to take place obviously the message will not go down as well because their roads haven’t been resurfaced yet, so you do need to target the literature.
So do you campaign on a hyper-local approach, targeting literature even more locally than individual streets?
Your conversation will change from house to house, but generally speaking the lowest level we go down to is streets.
It’s really incumbent on politicians and political parties to put out literature and campaigns that relevant to the communities, and I think in the past all political parties have been guilty of carpet-bombing areas with leaflets that don’t have the same relevance, or believing that one sound bite is going to inspire the entire community from the richest to the poorest, to go out and vote for them.
We all know that that’s not going to happen, and we need to make sure our campaigns deal with reality, not some theoretical fiction that came from a political era a long time ago.
You have supported Ed Miliband’s proposed scheme for regional ministers. How will that affect the balance between local and national issues?
On the doorstep, there’s a concern that the West Country doesn’t get listened to by Westminster. We can see that in the consequences from what happened to the Dawlish railway, when we lost our train line, and that is not just a leisurely tourist route – that’s our main line to the rest of the world, and the rest of the world’s main line to us as well.
I want to make sure that we don’t suffer from that again: it’s all too easy for Westminster to ignore the South West because geographically we are a bit further away. It does take a bit longer to get to us if you’re coming down from London but that doesn’t mean our issues are any less valid, and for me, having people who are there to promote what the South West is doing in Westminster, what our needs are, is really important.
At the moment we’ve got a member of the Shadow Cabinet responsible for the South West – it’s Janet Royall, who’s Shadow Leader of the House of Lords. She lives in the South West, and she’s a fantastic advocate for all things West Country.
Especially in the South West – this probably won’t shock you – Labour won’t win every seat and we know that our support is concentrated in certain areas, but that doesn’t mean the issues we’re fighting on are any less relevant, and if Labour is to win in 2015, we need to win seats here, which means we need a party that listens to the concerns of people in the South West.
And Jan, fighting for us in London, as she has done on rail and many other issues, is fantastic, and I want to see that continue into government. Gordon Brown had regional ministers, and Ben Bradshaw, MP for Exeter, was the South West’s minister, and he did a fantastic job of raising the profile of West Country issues. Now the South West Select Committee didn’t quite hit off, because the Lib Dems and the Tories boycotted it, which is a shame, because it was a genuine platform for South West issues to be heard on a national scale.
So when it comes to our campaign to get a fast and resilient train line to Plymouth, because of the collapse of the railway at Dawlish in February and because of historical problems with the train line, and when it comes to the need to base more of the Type 26 frigates in Devonport, if we don’t have a really strong voice in Westminster, we’re going to miss out on that investment. That’s why, for me, anything that helps promote our voice in Westminster is a good thing.
You are a member of various national societies, such as the Co-operative Party, the union Unite, and the Fabian Society. How does your membership these national organisations fit into your local allegiances?
The way I explained it at my selection meeting is that I’m a supporter of the Labour movement, and the Labour movement is not just the Labour party, but also includes the trade unions, the co-operative movement and the co-operative party, and I’m really proud of all three of those things. All three of those bits have had their challenges over the past couple of years, but that doesn’t mean they’ve lost their relevance to the Labour party and the politics that I believe in.
To take an example, looking at where Labour’s 2015 manifesto is coming from, there are more co-operative ideas, stemming from the co-operative party and the co-operative movement than there have been in the past, and that is a very good thing.
We’ve got a really big focus on cooperation in the South West, and we have in Plymouth for a very long time, and the trade union movement in Plymouth is such an important part of so many workplaces. The reason we have tens of thousands of union members in Plymouth is not because there’s some surge of lefty-ism going on, there’s a genuine need and a genuine use for trade unions here, and people do support the solidarity that comes along with it, but they also understand that trade unions do a very valid job, and, to my mind, the trade union side, the Labour Party side, and the co-operative movement generates a good combination. Fundamentally that’s where the Labour Party comes from, and that’s where the future lies.
What about your membership of the Fabian Society?
I find the value I get from being a Fabian Society member is the high-quality political thought that I get every month. It’s a great way of challenging my own beliefs, and reinforcing and adding to the information I’ve got. I really value the literature they send through. Although they keep sending me Young Fabian emails – I’m a bit too old for that now – they’ve got a great way of connecting with people.
It’s harder for us in the South West because we don’t have that critical mass of population that Manchester or Birmingham does, so we don’t have a local Fabian society that is as active as the ones in London or in other big metropolitan areas, which means there’s a risk we miss out on some of those debates and discussions.
I’d love to be able to spend more time writing for some of these organisations because I think some of the things we’re doing in the West Country, especially in Plymouth where we’ve got an outstanding and innovative council, who, frankly, if it were the London Borough of Plymouth rather than Plymouth City Council in the South West, would attract the attention of the Fabian Society, especially on co-operation. But because we’re in the South West, some of that really innovative work doesn’t get forgotten about so much as never discovered in the first place, and that can’t be right.
In the above video, Luke Pollard dresses as a pasty. He specifically recommended our using it in this article.
A person can be born in one place and develop a passion for another. You were born in Plymouth, but why is it you are so interested in the South West?
It’s a really simple answer here; it’s because it’s my home, and you’re right you can be born somewhere and have a passion for another place, but there is a real sense of personal pride about our city in Plymouth. We can – people in Plymouth are locally called Janners – have a very self-deprecating sense of humour and like taking the mickey out of ourselves, but we have a great city here, and the bit I get frustrated about is when we seem to lose out on things, and when we’re not getting our fair deal.
I don’t think this government is helping the South West in the way it needs to, and in my mind you’ve got to stand up for your beliefs. I have worked away from Devon before, but the reason I always came home for the weekend is because this is my home, this is where my family is, and this is who I want to be. Because of that connection – it’s very hard to embody, but it’s home.
You lived in Chester from 1992 to 1998. Were you never tempted to make Chester your home?
No. When my mum moved to Chester – she had been working at Marjon’s [the University of St Mark and St John], one of the universities in Plymouth, and the theology department in which she was working closed, so she had to get a new job, and we moved to Chester – it was just the place I was living, it was never my home.
At every opportunity I came back home, since my dad lives and was working in Plymouth, and I used to stay with him during the holidays. Partly because my parents were divorced and because I wanted to go home, I had this connection even during the time I wasn’t here, and when I’ve been away with work since, I’ve spent more time than I can possibly think about on those First Great Western trains from Plymouth to Paddington, and I’m passionate about getting that rail link sorted. This is the place that really matters to me, and I couldn’t imagine standing for Parliament anywhere else.
Even though Labour typically polls poorly in the South West?
I stood in the South West Devon in 2010, which is much like banging your head against the wall as a Labour candidate, and I fought really hard in those areas because I felt a passion for it. There was no way I was ever going to win South West Devon, and I knew that.
I was at LGBT Labour drinks in London a couple of years ago and people were saying, “Why are you in the South West? We literally can’t win there.” That was a London-centric-bubble-after-a-few-beers type comment, but, well, I’m there because it’s my home, and because we can win there.