And so to Southampton, a city divided into two constituencies, which, for some strange reason, were given more imaginative names than “Southampton West” and “Southampton East.”
Southampton Test and Southampton Itchen are named after the principal rivers that flow through the city and down into the docks. Together they make up the only spots of Labour red in an otherwise Conservative-blue Hampshire – only one Liberal Democrat was elected in Hampshire in 2010, Eastleigh’s Mike Thornton.
But, of course, if 50for15 is interested, it means Southampton Itchen is only Labour-held by the skin of its teeth. First won for Labour in recent years by the current MP, John Denham, in 1992, Southampton Itchen had been held by the Conservatives from to 1983 to 1992. And at every general election since 1992, Denham’s majority has been reduced: by 2010 it had fallen to a perilous 192 votes.
This is not too much of a problem for Denham personally, who is stepping down at this election. But his replacement, Rowenna Davis, is fully aware of the problem: “We’re practising the Arnie Graf model of doing politics – our majority has been going down over the past twenty years. So we need to do something new,” she tells me, as I join her canvassing around the constituency.
The Arnie Graf model of politics is something Davis knows a fair amount about – in her previous career as a journalist, she wrote a 2,000-word feature for the Guardian about how Graf had been employed by Labour to advise on how to revitalise the party in the wake of their defeat in the 2010 general election. Although his final report was not widely circulated, the key findings were that Labour needed to do more to inspire its members, welcome newcomers, be less London-centric, and generally make the culture of the party less bureaucratic.
What this translates to in practical, general-election terms is the need to focus on improving the lives of constituents, rather than just knocking on their door and asking them which way they’re going to vote on polling day. The Economist’s analysis was that the model paid healthy dividends last February in the Wythenshawe and Sale East bye-election in the suburbs of Manchester, where there had been fears of a UKIP surge at the expense of Labour. The UKIP surge certainly happened – from fifth place in 2010, UKIP moved to second – but there was also an 11% swing to Labour, giving them a majority of 8,960.
In Southampton Itchen Graf’s recommendations have put into practice by focusing on, for instance, the renovation of a playground in Bitterne, near where Davis lives. Various fundraising efforts were made by the Labour Party and local businesses, and now, with some additional help from the council, the playground has been renovated.
The canvassing session that I join is similarly designed to practise Graf methods, or rather begin that process. The team is targeting local private renters, and trying to work out what their most pressing concerns are. It’s not necessarily the simplest of tasks, though: “private renters are one of the hardest groups to keep track of,” says one activist. “They move around frequently, and they’re often not in: young professionals tend to work long hours.”
Emma Reynolds, MP for Wolverhampton North-East and Shadow Housing Minister, had also accepted an invitation to join the group, although she was not emphasising either of roles on the doorstep. “It encourages party members that an MP’s here… I don’t introduce myself as the shadow housing minister, unless it’s relevant.”
The traditional rivals to Labour in Southampton were the Conservatives. However, in this election, they are also facing competition from the Greens and UKIP. “You’ll speak to elderly, ex-Labour voters, and they’ll tell you to f**k off, they’re voting UKIP,” recounts one activist.
A key part of Labour’s success in Southampton over the years has been the student vote. Lord Ashcroft’s most recent poll in Southampton Itchen, in August of last year, put Labour and the Conservatives both at 34%. This was against a general trend in Labour-held Conservative targets, such as Birmingham Edgbaston, Bolton West, and Hampstead and Kilburn, where Ashcroft reckoned Labour was considerably ahead. However, the polls were taken during the summer, when many students and academics would have vacated the city, so it is possible this, artificially, reduced the predicted Labour vote.
However, the student vote is looking less reliable than it once was. The perhaps under-publicised changes to voter registration have made it likely that fewer students at Southampton Solent University will be able to vote. A student activist, whose responsibilities included encouraging registrations amongst his peers, reckoned only around 20% of students had registered, many simply being unaware that they needed to.
Another challenge for Davis is the increasing support for the Green Party among students – it is no coincidence that the Greens are pinning a lot of their hopes on Norwich South and Bristol West, both of which are home to large student populations. “Students tend to want to vote for ‘none of the above,’ but because I’m young, because I look quite like them, it’s hard for them to say politicians are all the same,” she says. “Me and John Denham look very different.”
It may also prove difficult for Rowenna Davis that her links to Southampton only go back a few years. She is keen to point out that her family have ties to Hampshire – her grandparents lived in Hayling Island, and her father in Portsmouth – but it’s not much compared to Royston Smith, the current Conservative candidate, who has served as a leader of Southampton City Council and was, in fact, born in the ward that he represents on the council.
“It’s not about where you’re born and brought up, it’s about where you make connections,” Davis contends.
She has certainly done her best to make connections in the city. Soon after her selection, she tells me, she dropped off business cards around the constituency that included her personal mobile number. “My phone exploded… People still say they have my card pinned to the fridge.”
Like Boris Johnson and Winston Churchill among others, Davis worked as a journalist before becoming a politician, writing mainly on social justice issues for the Guardian and New Statesman. But feeling frustrated that just writing about problems in society wasn’t do much to fix them, Davis moved into politics.
What effect does her journalism have on her politics? “I was trained to hate it when politicians didn’t answer the question, so I always do, which got me in some hot water over my suggestions on rail on BBC 1’s Sunday Politics – they went further than the party line.
“It means I’m honest on the doorstep. I’ll say what the party line is and my own position. So, for example, I’m in favour of investing the money we’re spending on Trident in conventional military capabilities and elsewhere – and I’ll tell people that.”
But won’t straying from the party line have a malign effect on her career in Parliament? “Not if I’m just aiming to be a constituency MP… I’ve promised myself I’ll refuse any further responsibility [in Parliament], even if I’m offered it. I’d want to appreciate how amazing the role is rather than keep on climbing.”
Really? “I’d think about it again in the next Parliament, if I’m still there.”
A useful aspect of moving from journalism to politics is that her potential constituents will occasionally recognise her from the telly. But there is a limit to how beneficial contacts in the national media are when standing to become a local MP: “I turned down Newsnight the other week. It’s not worth it for Southampton Itchen – people don’t mention Newsnight on the doorstep. Plenty of people mention the local paper and the local radio, but I don’t have those contacts.”
The day I joined Southampton Labour canvassing was also Davis’ thirtieth birthday: the team was especially large, perhaps because they’d been promised curry at the end of it all. “Lots of people say how young I am, actually [when out door-knocking]. So it’s quite uplifting really.”