The most marginal Tory-held seat in England

Simon Letts

Firstly some background – I was the Labour candidate in Southampton Itchen in June’s general election, the seat that we lost by 31 votes to the Conservatives making it now the most marginal Tory held seat in England. I am also the leader of Southampton City Council, one of those ‘red dot’ councils that have traditionally given us hope here in the South.

I joined the Labour party in 1984 at the height of the miners’ strike with ambitions to fight Thatcher and the evils of capitalism. I have fought in various ways eight general election campaigns. This without doubt was one of the strangest and my first as a candidate.

From the outset I must say that I am not one of those people who has been working night and day to be an MP. I was as surprised as everybody else to be rung in the pub on the Sunday before Mayday to be told by a regional official that I had got the job.

At the start of the campaign we had three aims all of which were designed to assist my good friend Alan Whitehead in his attempt to hold Southampton Test. Firstly we thought my local profile and name recognition would concern the Itchen Conservatives enough to ensure that they stayed in the East and did not venture into Southampton Test. Secondly, we wanted to use the campaign to highlight some of the achievements of the Labour Council and build towards the 2018 local elections. Thirdly, we wanted to keep the margin of defeat down to a manageable amount to give the candidate in the 2022 election some chance.

With the polls showing a 20 point Tory lead the national party were throwing the kitchen sink at holding Southampton Test – we had five full-time people working on the campaign including the recently retired Mike Creighton, former national head of compliance and had got off to a flying start with a campaign focused around Alan’s record as an MP and his commitment to the city.

I had a small but dedicated campaign team lead by Paul Lewzey my agent and Gordon Cooper our local campaign organiser. Our first decision was to lift and shift the leaflet strategy from Southampton Test. We spent the Monday in between speaking at the Southampton May day festival and a canvass session in the Bitterne Park ward rushing around the city taking suitable photos to support the first leaflet. We had it designed and written and at the printers (an excellent not for profit outfit in the city) by Tuesday lunchtime and it was back and out for distribution on Friday afternoon. My Conservative opponent – as well as having the advantage of a two week start – was also supported by at least four whole constituency-wide national leaflets which were paid for and delivered by the national party. Our literature could only be delivered by our brilliant local membership.

We started knocking doors and the response was at best mixed. Large parts of Southampton Itchen voted strongly ‘Out’ at the EU referendum and the residual effects of this were coming through in our returns. Older people (who tend to be in when you knock), and in particular men, were strongly against, with Brexit and our national leadership being mentioned as reasons for why they as ‘Lifetime Labour voters’ would not be supporting us on this occasion. It was not looking good. However, we were getting support in unexpected areas. For example, in Bitterne Park ward which we have not won since 1981 we made progress with a more Liberal professional electorate

I started to populate my diary with events, hustings and the occasional media appearance. BBC South asked me to participate in their Southern debate show. This turned out to be a chaotic affair with five candidates and a very engaged audience. It took place after the manifesto launches and it was the first hint to me that the mood of the country had started to shift. It was also the first time I heard the phrase ‘magic money tree’ spouted by a Tory. Their candidate had a set of pre-prepared central office soundbites which she tried to work through. The audience were having none of it and were very anti-Tory. Peter Henley the veteran political reporter said afterwards that even he was surprised that ‘self-identifying’ Tory voters in the audience were critical when he asked them to contribute. The focus of the campaign had changed and the themes of the excellent Labour Manifesto were starting to cut through.

In Southampton we were still focusing on the Test constituency and working the agreed strategy. We were getting bigger turn outs to our Itchen campaigning sessions thanks to the active involvement of Momentum. We were noticing an increasing number of undecided voters on the doorstep and a trend for younger voters, when we found them in, to be enthusiastic about the Labour brand. We receive a financial boost when UNITE backed us with additional funds. This did allow us to produce additional literature. The polls were starting to close with some, including the YouGov constituency analysis, now putting Itchen in the ‘too close to call’ column. My small campaign team asked for an additional meeting with the Test team to talk about the polling day activity.

The view of the regional office had not changed and this was backed up by Mike Creighton. They thought we could not win Itchen, the positive polls were outliers and Test was still at risk. The focus on Test was re-stated but we were allowed to run a local knock up using only Itchen members. The regional instruction remained the same – ‘Go to Test’. I imagine this was a reflection of a national strategy which was struggling to keep up with the then rapidly changing national mood.

Polling day arrived and the Itchen members were brilliant. We had a hundred people out knocking doors and getting the vote out. This matched a similar Tory effort in the seat.

In Southampton Test they were overwhelmed with volunteers. A few days after polling day a friend told me he was knocked up twice on election day after he had already told the team that he had voted Labour. Reports came in that in the university areas, young people were queuing around the block to vote. It was too late to switch the strategy and the die was cast.

On election night I reflected on the campaign with Alan Whitehead. We both thought he would win and I would do better than our original estimate of a 6,000 or so loss. Then the exit poll came and the game changed.

For an hour or so it looked like we had won. I had made no plans to be an MP. I hadn’t thought about an office or staff or working in London half the week. We had no succession plans for leader of the council. Hundreds of thoughts went through my head at a time when I had been up for close on 24 hours. Then the blow came. A hundred Tory votes had been mistakenly put in our pile. On the third recount we conceded having lost by 31 votes.

At that point Alan Whitehead was home and dry with a massive majority in Test. News came in that we had won Portsmouth South for the first time in history. The Theresa May strategy of an early election had utterly failed. An attempt by large sections of the media and the establishment to portray our radical agenda as electoral suicide had proved to be false. Despite my personal position it was a triumph for the Labour party and a clear indication that the public mood, particularly on austerity and public service cuts, had shifted. We owe much of this to Jeremy Corbyn who stuck to what he believed in throughout the campaign and articulated a radical vision for our country.

Epilogue

The work goes on.  Over the next year Southampton City Council will open a new arts centre showing a commitment to the part that creative industries play in our city. We will commission our own housing factory to produce quality homes to rent built by Southampton people, for Southampton people. We will start work on our second Extra Care housing scheme which will give our vulnerable elderly residents independence in a supported environment. Having safeguarded sites for employment land we will see new high-end manufacturing jobs return to the city. We will make Southampton a sustainable city that our residents are proud to live in.

When the next election is called we will be ready.

 

  • This article was corrected on 15 August 2017 to remove reference to the previous candidate in Southampton Itchen.

1 comment:

  1. Verity

    A very good piece which demonstrates to me the combined weaknesses of over reliance on past rules of who wins with a vaguely anti Cobyn thrust. The strategy adopted by the Regional and national office’s perspective that, ‘Jeremy cannot win’ was clearly at play. This was further illustrated by the instructions to outlying candidates not to actively campaign for Labour (presumably lest it diminishes efforts for Alan Whitehead’s Test). This anti – Cobyn infection throughout the Labour hierarchy had seriously weakened Labour’s performance. Next time along with Momentum I will be in Itchen as well as voicing loud opinion at the regional office’s attempts to stop instructing minimal activity for my own patch. These ‘experts” voice can learn much by actually listening more ordinary member’s instincts. This story adds to the previous candidate’s Fabian report of financial over – enthusiasm for a previous leader’s appeal.

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