After meeting Craig Tracey for a pint when I was reporting on the Conservative Party Conference last autumn, the Conservative candidate for North Warwickshire invited me to one of his campaign “Pint in the Pub” evenings in the constituency.
With political apathy a dominant theme of the 2015 election, I was intrigued by how Tracey was attempting to engage with voters at the bar as well as on the doorstep.
“My main thing is to differentiate myself,” Tracey says. “I’m not a career politician, my background is in business. I’ve lived around here so I know a lot of the issues and the communities. I think that’s important to get the issues over.”
The evening I attended was in Polesworth, a large village in the north of the North Warwickshire constituency. The boundary of the constituency does not neatly map onto one town which renders campaigning tactics more difficult. The seat forms a large letter ‘C’ around Nuneaton, taking in Bedworth and Birmingham suburbs, with the north of the constituency more readily connected to Tamworth in Staffordshire.
The difficulty the configuration of the seat has on campaigning was made apparent for me when travelling to Polesworth from Oxford by public transport. Having arrived in Leamington Spa – which is in Warwickshire – I had to continue further along the line into Birmingham, then take a train across to Tamworth, and a further bus to arrive at my destination, back in Warwickshire.
The variety of towns which border the constituency poses challenges for campaigning. No single newspaper covers the whole seat, so candidates have to form relationships with and send press releases to multiple local papers.
But such communication is pivotal to win this ultra-marginal seat. With a majority of just 54 at the last election, Dan Byles won the seat for the Conservatives, but he is standing down at this election, and passes the baton to his former Chairman of the North Warwickshire Conservative Association, Craig Tracey.
The upshot is that picking up votes in pockets across the constituency – such as in Polesworth – is a key challenge for candidates here. The village has a population of 8,500 people and used to be the site of coal mining, as well as numerous quarries and brick works.
I asked Tracey – whose grandfather was a Conservative-supporting pit miner in the 1980s – what impact the closure of the mines in the 1980s had on the perception of his party in the area.
“There are still pockets of people who haven’t forgotten what has happened before. But one of our council candidates who is here tonight is a former miner. Things are moving on, attitudes are moving on.
“My granddad worked at the pit but also bought his council house under Margaret Thatcher. Not everyone is anti-Conservative who worked in a mine.”
As well as talking to the candidate, voters signed a petition against the speed limits on one of the local roads. The ultra-local dimension is an aspect Tracey is focusing on before the election.
“We delivered about 160,000 leaflets and talked to about 7,000 people directly in that 6 month time period. It’s been great fun and identified a lot of issues and where we’ve been able to help.”
Returning to North Warwickshire on our #GE2015 roadtrip in April, I look forward to seeing more about how this geographically diverse constituency.