Saturday, 24 May 2014

How we won the battle for Tunbridge Wells

It's no secret that last year (for the County Council elections) UKIP ran us close in Tunbridge Wells. They had the "big mo" and were confident of victory. The media thought likewise; Michael Crick was at the count with a camera crew to record for posterity the night True Blue Tunbridge Wells was lost by the Conservative Party.  He left disappointed.

The result however was a wake-up call for us all. Even in Tunbridge Wells we could no longer deliver one or two glossy leaflets and wait for the majorities to pile-up.I recall to this day the feeling of dread as I saw the ballot boxes being emptied and UKIP running us close, even in what were once rock solid Tory villages. Had it not been for the amazing work we had done recruiting postal voters and driving turnout, things might have been very different indeed.

We knew that with the 2014 Borough election co-terminus with the EU poll, Europe would be higher on the agenda than 2013. It would only take a small additional swing to UKIP to deliver a significant swathe of Borough seats. UKIP knew this too.

In the wake of 2013 election, I organised a seminar for all branch chairmen, activists and councillors. I was brutally honest in my assessment. "Had these been borough not county council elections, we would have probably lost 7 borough council seats."  Interestingly, these were (more or less) the same seven seats that UKIP bloggers were predicting they would gain on Twitter a few days ago.

Time and again we drummed home two simple mantras

  • More leaflets = more votes
  • Winning elections is not difficult - it's just hard work
We put in place a demanding schedule of doorstep campaigning across the constituency, commencing in June last year. We didn't just visit the marginals - we went into every ward and village to demonstrate we were taking no voter for granted. Greg Clark MP was truly outstanding in supporting this activity - he was out there every single time.

We selected our candidates in summer, allowing 9 months of campaigning and profile building. We implemented in full the CCHQ mandatory selection rules, every candidate (even long serving incumbents) were re-interviewed and had to re-apply for their seats. None were deselected, but it imposed a discipline. By making candidates outline their campaign plans and community involvement it focused minds on the forthcoming campaign. Even sceptical (and at times hostile) councillors concluded the process was fair and even helpful in terms of defining their work and the campaign ahead.

We produced a series of borough-wide newsletters, the back page containing generic copy and the front pages ward-specific, to promote our candidates and give them ownership. Candidates were banned from talking about committees and local government bureaucracy; every story had to be about what they had achieved for the people they represent.

We made a principled decision not to attack our opponents (or allow others to do so by proxy). Throughout the campaign we remained positive and respectful. We fixed our four campaign themes early - four positive messages about what the Conservatives had or would achieve and we stuck to them rigidly throughout.

Every candidate bought into the plan; we had absolute campaign discipline. No-one went off message or even tried to do so. Even long standing councillors who were sceptical about what I was asking them to do accepted (sometimes with reluctance) the need for one more leaflet. There were no prima donnas demanding their own leaflets, or a different shade of blue on the posters.

By polling day we had delivered almost quarter of a million newsletters and had spoken to (or the doorstep or telephone) over 20,000 residents. In our target seats every Conservative pledge would have received at least ten points of contact with the Conservative Party since the last election (four points of contact in the week before poll). This included a hand written pledge letter to approximately 20,000 voters on the eve of poll.

So, what did this actually achieve?  For the geeks I am pleased to publish a statistical analysis (below) put together last night by our Chairman, William Rutherford. Despite UKIP being at their highest level in the polls and throwing the kitchen sink at Tunbridge Wells...

UKIP vote share fell from 30% to 23%
Conservative vote share increased from 38% to 46%
(Labour and Lib Dem vote share remained steady at 13% each)

A direct UKIP to Conservative swing of 7.5%

Well done to a magnificent team. They fought like tigers and deserved to win.


1 comment:

  1. Very interesting and I am proud of my old colleagues, plus the voters of Brenchley, Matfield and Horsmonden.