This August, 50for15 covered 6 of our 50 constituencies, travelling across and around the country to bring you a taste of the marginals that will determine the 2015 general election outcome. Naturally, each constituency has its idiosyncracies – the most interesting of which I’ll recap below. Some common themes are beginning to emerge, though. All-women shortlists divide Labour and Conservative candidates. Opponents suggest the legacy of the selection process will dog candidates through to the election; whereas supporters indicate that the question is a non-issue, never arising on the doorstep. In areas becoming a three way struggle, candidates try to focus on the positive case for their strengths; though we might wonder how long this lasts before descending into a EU-based slinging match. UKIP are certainly rattling the nerves of major party candidates – and Labour are worried about retaining their vote as well as the Conservatives, whose more euroskeptic voters have long courted UKIP. We’ve also offered new insight into how candidates adapt to boundary changes; how Scottish independence interplays with general election campaigning; and how young people with LGBT rights on their minds can no longer be assumed safe votes for the parties of the Left. Now, let’s look back over what we found when we spoke to candidates and party activists in the constituencies covered during August.
In Brighton 50for15 caught up with Colm Howard Lloyd, Chairman of LGBTory. As the name suggests, his organisation promotes LGBT rights with the Conservative party. With a Pride event to rival London’s – in a city 50 times smaller – Brighton’s general election conversation is unlikely to be unaffected by LGBT issue, activists, and candidates. The only constituency with a Green MP, Labour came second and the Conservatives third in the 2010 general election count for Brighton Pavilion. Nationally, a backlash against the current government from left-leaning areas is not unexpected in 2015. But, Cameron’s Conservatives have immeasurably strengthened their LGBT rights credentials with the long-awaited introduction of marriage equality. In Brighton, Howard-Lloyd reflected that “When I was 18 it was considered quite odd to be, quite frankly, gay and Tory. It surprises me that now we have big [LGBT presence in] university memberships. Attitudes are changing.” While some at Brighton Pride still displayed hostility towards the Conservative contingent, they tended to be older voters for whom section 28 still remained prescient. To be young, gay and Conservative is certainly no longer a paradox – and in Brighton Pavilion, this relatively new bloc of sympathetic voters has the potential to make this marginal a three way fight.
Ian Murray, Labour candidate for Edinburgh South, took us on the campaign trail for a day. Though the majority of the literature distributed was related to the independence campaign, voters who answered the door relegated the question to second place. As we have found elsewhere, local concerns – and not necessarily those which can be resolved by a local Parliamentarian – loom large. In Edinburgh, issues like weeds between the paving stones proved the most popular topic of doorstep conversation. Behind the super-local and the topic of Scottish independence came the general election, in third place. As you’d expect, as long as the independence question dominates, loose coalitions of activists coagulate around the yes/no axes. Scottish Labour activists, for example, have worked side by side with their general election enemies in Edinburgh South while campaigning for Better Together. Paul McKay, one of Murray’s staff, commented that this cordial entente would have no effect on the general election campaign, once the independence vote was cast. Less certain, though, was the effect that a ‘Yes’ vote would have on Labour’s campaign strategy for GE2015. “A Yes vote would completely change the situation. It would be unclear what the vote would be about,” McKay says. “A No vote won’t change the campaign at all.”
Plymouth Sutton and Devonport
Luke Pollard, Labour candidate for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport, spoke to 50for15 about his campaigning strategies. Even within the same national party, not all candidates approach the age-old method of doorstep knocking with the same formula. Pollard observed that, as the character of Plymouth Sutton and Devonport is one of diverse communities living in very close proximity for one another, a highly targeted approach is possible – and expedient. His campaign team consider each ‘road group’ – an area of around 300 houses – and tailor any given leaflet to that group, to maximise relevance to those constituents. The South West has, in the past, proven to be a difficult region to contest as a candidate of the Left. Pollard cut his teeth on South West Devon in 2010, which he described as “much like banging your head against the wall”. As Con/Lab marginal, Plymouth Sutton and Devonport offers more friendly ground. The effect of such targeted campaigning will be interesting to observe; though ‘hyper-local’ variance of literature by household occupants, a predominant feature of data-driven strategies in recent US presidential elections, remains absent from the marginals we’ve seen thus far.
When 50for15 met Labour candidate Lee Sherriff, for an interview at her Carlisle offices, we touched on collaboration between different layers of government in Carlisle; dealing with boundary changes; and all-female shortlists. Though the national party campaign team don’t vary their literature by ‘road group’ as Luke Pollard does, the local council produces regular newsletters which vary ward by ward – and the degree of collaboration and personnel overlap between the local and the national enables close campaign coordination. Sheriff only became a member of the Labour Party in May 2010, but already has seats on the local council and the city council, as well as the general election candidacy for Labour in 2015. She rebuffs the suggestion that her rise can be explained by shortlists; though she supports their use as a ‘temporary measure – but that when you look at the numbers and the current ratio of men to women in Westminster, it’s something that is needed’. Sheriff declared her intention to run before Carlisle’s being a shortlist constituency was announced, and characterises the subject as ‘more of a press issue… It’s not something I’m picking up on at all, as an issue, when I’m out campaigning’. Her strategy for dealing with the addition of conservative wards, partly responsible for the Conservatives’ 2010 win in Carlisle, is to treat nowhere as a no-go area, and to reallocate time to rural areas once overlooked by Labour.
In Grimsby, Conservative candidate Marc Jones offers a rather different view on Labour’s use of shortlists. “I think that they do nobody any good, least of all the candidate who is selected. Under no circumstances can anyone then say that that person was genuinely the best for that seat”. Whether the shortlist affects voters’ perceptions of competence is a separate issue, and one on which Jones didn’t touch. Sheriff’s account would indicate that voters’ perceptions of competence are largely unaffected. While direct, impersonal debate on the question is unlikely to characterise any election campaign, 50for15 will be keeping an eye out for voter reactions to shortlists in the 2015 elections. The normative question of shortlists is likely quite distinct from their effect on who wins, which is what we’ll be watching closely for. Jones has more pressing issues at his door in Grimsby, though. The Conservatives’ 2010 candidate Victoria Ayling defected to UKIP in 2013, and the question of an EU referendum is on the minds of his constituents. Jones feels that “it’s to UKIP’s advantage if we don’t win this election because they know that that puts Labour in charge. If Labour is in charge then more people will want to vote UKIP because they will want to be out of the EU”. Hints, then, of a negative point – perhaps inevitable in a three way marginal – against both Labour and UKIP, powerful for voters who would tend towards either: vote one, get the other later. Yet, as an overarching campaign narrative, Jones is determined – for now – to pursue positive arguments for his election: “You either fight each other, or you tell the public what you genuinely will deliver. In a positive way you say, this is what I’ll do, and this is why you should vote for me. I will focus a lot more on that than what other people are doing.”
Cleethorpes is a Con/Lab marginal with a 7% UKIP vote in the 2010 election. We spent a day with the Labour campaign going door-to-door, and met with their 2015 candidate Peter Keith, the husband of former local MP Shona McIsaac. UKIP are growing their voter base – and it’s not only Conservative voters making the euroskeptic transition. One voter we spoke to said “I had been a Labour councillor a couple of years ago. But now I’m supporting Mr Farage. I don’t support all of his policies but I just want to be out of Europe and send a message to those politicians in London.” But, it’s not only UKIP’s EU stance which is attracting new support. The feeling on the doorstep in Cleethorpes is that national politics is too London-centric. The anti-establishment character of UKIP’s rhetoric and personnel appeals not only to those who want a more independent Westminster; it also calls to those who dislike the perceived elitism at the heart of our national politics. Yet, paradoxically, figures once considered to be at the heart of the establishment are moving towards UKIP – and they’re being welcomed with open arms. Douglas Carswell, once Conservative MP for Clacton, switched to UKIP and triggered a by-election at the end of August. Carswell is Charterhouse educated, has a Masters in British Imperial History, is founder of the Cornerstone Group (a bastion of traditional Toryism) and has 13 years as a Conservative candidate under his belt. To say that Carswell lacks anti-establishment credentials is an understatement. Yet, his UKIP switch is still welcomed by the UKIP leadership – and, perhaps, their voters. When we spoke to Peter Keith in Cleethorpes, he certainly thought so: “if UKIP wins Clacton, then they will probably win 20 to 30 seats at the General Election”. In this mire of contradictions, one theme stands out: no party can afford to be complacent about retaining their vote in an area experiencing the UKIP effect. When the margin between the leading parties is small, even a small ripple of sympathy for a minority party can change the tide.