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In Politics, The Winners Write The Narrative

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(4 May 2018, 03:40.  Rumpled campaign manager and newly elected city councillor, both exhausted as we’d been awake for 24 hours by this point)

I’ve been informed by LGM’s senior management that I haven’t published a post since June 7, 2017, and that bad things will happen.  One excuse reason for my extended absence is that I rather accidentally found myself managing a city council campaign for nine months.  The campaign occupied most of my spare time (when I wasn’t busy with the whole day job thing, or drinking) and most of my thoughts.  It was a roller coaster of emotions and events.  What follows, in a four part series edited down to easily consumable bits, is my personal, professional, and academic narrative of this campaign.  This post is a general introduction, and discusses the electoral setting and my strategy.  The second considers how both setting and strategy forced us to push the envelope in ways that weren’t always well received by the local party. The third discusses some of our mistakes, at least one of which went rather national.  The final post covers the result.  All this is subject to change at the whim of the author, and this is — obviously — a somewhat self-serving post.  But, SPOILER ALERT: we won.  So I get to do these things.

As long time LGM readers will know, not only do I teach electoral politics (and everything else) at an English university, I’ve also been active in the Labour Party for the past five years.  During last year’s snap general election, the parliamentary candidate put me in charge of the ward where I have done most of my work, which I briefly discussed here.  It’s the smallest of the eight wards in this constituency, but we achieved his largest vote share, largest aggregate majority, and the highest turnout in the city at 79.7%.  What we did, worked.  So a week after polling day, I sat down with a couple city councillors in a pub and started plotting the next campaign: defeating the three-term incumbent Conservative city councillor representing this ward.

(Where it all began: your loyal correspondent, Cllr. Jonny Morris, and Cllr. Bill Stevens, one week after the 2017 General Election, plotting the 2018 Drake Campaign.  The Providence Inn, in the heart of Drake Ward).

The Ward

Drake is unique for its heavy concentration of a student population, and this population defies the standard operating procedure of the Labour Party in knocking up doors based on the electoral register given how transient the student population is from year-to-year.  That said, the ward does have islands of a more traditional residential population, primarily concentrated in electoral district MA, but also parts of MD.  Therefore, we are tailored our messaging to each demographic in the ward. Residents received one message, students a very different message.

The Basic Strategy

The Conservative incumbent had increased his vote share in three successive elections.  First elected in 2006 on 30.4% of the vote, he was re-elected in 2010 on 34.6% and again in 2014 on 44.2%.  In the first two, Labour finished third.  I worked on the 2014 campaign, and while we finished second, we were crushed by 18%.  Margaret Corvid, our candidate in 2018, has an interesting backstory — she is a former dominatrix, which the local newspaper happily did a long story about a year prior to the election. With images to illustrate.  So here we faced our first major decision — what the hell to do about this?  Margaret was planning ahead when she agreed to the story, of course. She wanted to run for council, knew this could, just maybe possibly, be perceived as a liability, so putting the story out there a year in advance was calculated.  As such, while some in the campaign toyed with a flaunt it strategy, we adopted what we called the shrug approach.  If it comes up (and it did, through proxies), we’d simply point out that everybody already knew about this, it is a legal profession here, she paid her taxes, and just what the hell does it have to do with potholes?

The other potential liability that we faced is that both Margaret, and her campaign manager, are American.  Not only did we immigrants come over here to steal British jobs in a decidedly anti-immigrant atmosphere, but we were also after their elected positions.

The positive strategy was two-fold: erode the support of the incumbent, Steve Ricketts, and mobilise enough Labour voters to get us over the top.  The strategy of Drake 2018 was primarily a mobilisation strategy, and one aimed specifically at student voters. In the 2017 GE, students (nationally) voted L 68%, T 19%, LD 10%, with the Greens on 2% and UKIP 1%.  Our baseline was the 2014 results in Drake, which had 25% turnout: Conservatives on 44.2%, Labour on 26.3%, Greens 14.6%, UKIP 8.8%, and the Liberal Democrats at 4.4%.  We assumed that the 2014 results would hold (they didn’t, of course, but this baked in a careful, conservative element to both the strategy and any projections) and that students mobilised to vote in 2018 will break with roughly the same choices that they did in the General Election. Based on these assumptions, we needed to increase turnout in Drake from 25% to 35% in 2018, and if we did and our assumptions hold, we would win.  Only just.  And nobody in the local party thought we could increase turnout in Drake to 35% for a council election.  And they were right.

A target of a 35% turnout did present a challenge, as since Ricketts’ first election in 2006, Drake has never hit that high in a Council election outside of the two years it ran simultaneous with a GE.  However, we thought we had three advantages going forward. First, in 2011, turnout was 33.8%. Second, turnout in Drake led the city in the 2017 snap election, at 79.7%; techniques we employed on the ground for registering student voters from day one of the snap election in 2017 were again being used in this council election: in short, we were knocking on every door, encouraging registration, regardless of whether or not it appears on the official register that we have access to. Third, while turnout in 2014 was only 25%, it needs to be noted that polling day that year was 28 May, long after students had left the university. This year, it was 3 May.  It was later in 2014 due to the requirement that it run simultaneous with the EU Parliament elections, and since 2014, the university has dramatically changed its teaching calendar (because Plymouth University, my employer, sure does love the permanent revolution). Lectures used to end in late March, but for the past three years, lectures continue on through 18 May in 2018.  In short, students would still be in residence on polling day 2018.  And Students were key to the strategy.

I’ll get into the specifics of the strategy in tomorrow’s instalment, and how the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland used us as a prop during PMQ’s.  Until then, a personal observation.  This was a campaign built entirely on the work of volunteers, from the candidate on down.  Nobody was paid a dime, though two of us (the candidate and myself) were legally obligated to ensure that we came in under our spending limits (hey, look, USA: campaign finance laws that work!) and towards the end it appeared as though we could possibly obliterate our limit and end up in court.  In all, we had around 40 different people filtering in and out of the campaign over those nine months. I had two deputies to whom I delegated a great deal of work, and one has become a close friend of mine for a variety of reasons.  We benefited greatly from the relentless support of several senior figures in the local party. While they didn’t agree with every move we purposefully or accidentally made, they did recognise that this ward is different, and it was a target ward for a reason.  Several people rose to the occasion, displaying talents beyond what we could have expected for the money we were able to throw at them (precisely £0).  We held some fundraisers, which involved local talent (When Dean Hutchinson releases some records, I encourage everyone to buy them). There were a few short clips, which made some noise here and beyond.  For the first seven months, we were, by choice and strategy, a relentlessly negative campaign.  The candidate and I were in daily contact, sometimes for hours, over the course of those nine months.  Some friendships were frayed, others destroyed beyond salvation, relationships formed, broken, and some reformed, and alcohol was consumed.  In other words, just a year in the life of most human beings, but with the added focus of trying to win an election.

Back in December or so, I explained some of the more hilarious, unprintable elements of this campaign to Rob, and he replied “if SEK did politics, he’d do your campaign”.

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