Where do I begin when explaining the incredible story of our campaign in Windhill & Wrose this year? Well I suppose to many people the ‘behind the scenes’ stuff is probably not of interest, but if you’re intrigued as to what exactly goes into a local election campaign then maybe this will be of interest to you. If not, you can probably just skip to the last few paragraphs.
The early stages of my candidacy were all fairly standard stuff, deliver leaflets, get out door knocking, pick up casework and so on. It’s not until the election is ‘called’ about a month before polling day that things really go up a gear. At this point you’re in a desperate rush to deliver your election leaflet before the postal vote forms are delivered, roughly two weeks before polling day. This year we managed to get out over 6,600 leaflets delivered to every door in Windhill & Wrose in nine days, which was a record for us.
Having the postal vote deadline splits your election campaign into two distinct sections. The first half involves ensuring your election leaflet is delivered before the postal votes drop, after which potentially up to a third of your ward may have voted already (or however many have postal votes).
After the postal votes drop you then focus on knocking on as many doors as possible until election day, gradually narrowing the focus of your canvassing until by election day you’re racing round the ward from dawn till dusk knocking on the doors of as many identified Labour voters as possible.
In the week that the postal votes dropped we rang literally hundreds of people from across the ward. Our intention had been to door knock as much as possible but torrential rain had forced us indoors and onto the phones.
It was at this point a few of us with a fair bit of experience campaigning began to ‘feel’ that something wasn’t sitting quite right. Although we had decided to start ringing in areas where our vote wasn’t so strong, and progressively work towards our core area, even among our identified supporters we were getting some negative feedback and support for Labour felt a lot weaker than it should be.
We discovered the Lib Dems had hand delivered a letter to every postal voter in the ward, whereas we just concentrated on calling all the postal voters we had down as Labour supporters. This was partially because we were constrained for resources, as we anticipated some phone calls being made in the ward by our Regional Office, which would have had to go down against our election expenses. In the event this never happened and the Lib Dems stole a march on us as their letter, a very aggressive and negative piece of literature against one of our sitting councillors, helped turn some voters against us just as they were casting their votes by post. We were worried that the negative campaigning from the Lib Dems was working.
Of course it’s not a scientific process but we felt that looking at the results of our canvassing, unless something changed we were on course to lose a seat that was absolutely key for Bradford Labour to win if we wanted to take full control of the Council. The Bradford Lib Dems were desperate for it as potential boundary changes could propel the ward into Bradford East, where sitting Lib Dem MP David Ward faces a difficult battle at the next General Election.
We identified two probable causes of a swing against us. Firstly the aggressive and nasty campaign being run by the Lib Dems, which we discovered from conversations with our supporters also consisted of personal attacks on myself and one of our sitting councillors, and also Tory supporters who were disillusioned with David Cameron’s incompetence but still couldn’t bring themselves to vote Labour (an issue the party as a whole needs to address) were voting Lib Dem in an attempt to unseat Labour and kick the Tories too. Ironically the Tories’ problems nationally was benefiting Labour across the country in straight Tory/Labour fights, but in our ward it was encouraging them to vote Lib Dem, making our task harder.
It was with a heavy heart that we pulled in all our volunteers from other wards (effectively ending their campaigns) and massively increased our door knocking activity across the ward.
The problem with canvass returns, strategy and elections is that you can never truly know what has happened until after the election when the final result is known. So we knew as we pulled people in from other wards that it may be a rogue set of returns, or some ado about nothing and we were potentially killing other candidate’s campaigns for no good reason.
On the other hand, even ignoring the ‘gut’ feelings that something wasn’t quite right, we knew that our returns from previous years had been incredibly accurate.
As we ramped up our canvassing presence we started to develop our campaign literature for the final week, which we knew would be essential in convincing our support to get out and vote for us.
The question was how did we pitch our plea to the voters?
The Lib Dems were going heavily negative, a risk strategy that relies on voter anger to vote against the other party as much or more than they want to vote for you. They put out nearly half a dozen different leaflets attacking our ward councillor while we knew on the door they were slagging me off about my age and hair and we were worried it was, incredibly in this day and age, working.
Worse, their leaflets had absolved them from any responsibility for the state of Bradford over the last decade, despite being in control of the Council in a Tory/Lib Dem coalition for the best part of ten years. They were also claiming credit locally for everything under the sun, leading to bizarre conversations with voters lauding their candidate with achievements that our councillors had done and they had nothing to do with!
Our initial instinct was to go positive on our own campaign. We knew that if our own vote turned out we would win the ward. However, the sheer scale of the Lib Dem attacks and misleading comments forced us to reassess our strategy. Extra attack lines were inserted into our leaflets and we hastily printed off a full-on Lib Dem attack leaflet, criticising them for their many foul ups since jumping into bed with the Tories. Nonetheless we kept a strict focus on their policies and avoided personal attacks. I had pledged in my election leaflet not to resort to personal attacks and I was determined to stick to it.
A large batch of direct mail was printed off and posted out to our supporters most in need of encouragement to turn out and vote. It was vital we made sure people knew that unless they voted Labour they would end up with a Lib Dem.
By this point, the week of the election, we had spoken to hundreds and hundreds of people in the last couple of weeks. It was already shaping up to be our biggest local election campaign ever in terms of people spoken to on the door and we had only just hit election week.
The direct mail was posted, our Get out the Vote (GOTV) leaflet was at the printers, and every night we were out knocking on as many doors as possible to persuade people to come out and vote on polling day.
Our GOTV strategy had also changed in light of the Lib Dem attacks. We switched from a strategy that involved blanket leafleting a strong Labour area to one more focussed on face to face conversations with Labour supporters, meaning we reached fewer people but the quality of the contact was much higher.
From dusk till dawn on Wednesday and Thursday we set about doing this, knocking on doors and dropping leaflets through letterboxes until our feet throbbed, knees creaked and backs ached. At least mine did, other people twice my age didn’t seem to struggle as much as I did, but then I have my double patella tendon transfer surgery of a few years ago as a handy excuse for my pathetic physical conditioning.
For election day we rented out a room at Shipley & District Social Club to act as a campaign HQ for most of the Shipley constituency and ran our campaign from there. Tellers were placed at every polling station to note who voted, which we then cross referenced with our own sheets identifying Labour supporters so we knew where our support was turning out and where it wasn’t.
With around two hours left before polls closed we all pulled back from the doorstep and returned to the HQ to phone voters for the vital last hour.
Finally, with a big countdown from our amazing volunteer organiser for the day, we stopped calling and slumped back into our chairs, exhausted but satisfied we had done everything we could to get our vote out and give ourselves the best possible chance of victory.
From there we dashed to the Wetherspoons in Keighley, near where the count was being held at Keighley Leisure Centre for a bite to eat (I couldn’t eat much as I was so nervous) before going on to the count.
Funnily enough, you’d think that once the polls closed the election is effectively ‘over’ but for the hardy and fantastic volunteers who come to the count with you there is still another four or five hours to go. When you consider polls close at 10pm you realise how long election day really is for these people, many of whom have taken the day off just to help you out.
At the count you have people counting votes while you have tally sheets with all the candidates written on. You are allowed to watch the vote counters tally up the votes and note down what you can. This helps give you an idea of the percentage of your vote in each ‘box’ (all wards are split into boxes, essentially the different polling stations) and what the final outcome will be. The count is also the point where you have to make sure your votes are being correctly identified and not being put into the pile of another party.
Now, as I’ve already said we knew it was potentially going to be a knife edge result. I was confident that our organisation on polling day would be far, far superior to the Lib Dems’. Nonetheless, we knew we were being squeezed within a few minutes of sampling the votes.
It’s at this point that having a ‘stat man’ really matters. We calculated that to win the Liberals needed to gain a 7.15% swing against Labour. We knew there was a big postal vote swing from our canvassing returns but given the margin of error in these things we genuinely had no idea how things would turn out.
As our samples came in from the vote being verified (checked for incorrectly filled in votes etc), we could see we were being squeezed in every box. A quick calculation showed a swing to the Lib Dems of roughly 5-6% across the board, which was not enough to win them the seat, but was within the margin of error so we really couldn’t be sure.
By this point it’s passed 1am in the morning, we’d been out since 8am and everyone is suffering from exhaustion. I had piercing, sharp pains behind my knees but I was too nervous to sit down. Tensions are high and you’re having to stand shoulder to shoulder with the very person you’ve been campaigning so hard against for the past few weeks and months, made worse when you know some of the things they’ve been saying about you on the doorstep.
The Lib Dem GOTV leaflet had a silhouette of ‘Labour’s unknown candidate’ claiming I wasn’t local (I lived closer to the ward than their candidate, who lived in Bingley), hadn’t campaigned in the area (my very first Labour campaigns were in Windhill & Wrose) and had no record of doing anything in the area either (my election leaflet detailed the casework I’d done including some significant work helping get Windhill Skate Park completely re-painted and worked up). It was hurtful but I was aware that this was tame stuff compared to how dirty some election campaigns have been in the past. In that respect, it was a useful ‘tougher upper’ to be subject to lies and distortions from the very start.
As the hours ticked by we genuinely couldn’t work out how it had gone. We knew we had won the day, so to speak, but couldn’t figure it out once postal votes were factored in. I stated it was 51-49 in our favour but I later found out some of us privately thought we had lost, while Philip Davies, the Tory MP for Shipley confidently stated that if we lost he would run round the counting hall naked. I was tempted to sabotage a box of votes there and then…
Once the votes are verified they are all mixed together and then counted properly. It is at this point you have a chance to sample the overall vote, i.e. not split into boxes or postal votes etc. As we got to work on this, with our volunteers apologising repeatedly for potential errors in their sample due to fatigue and exhaustion, I looked at their samples over their shoulders and saw we were losing or neck and neck in nearly every sample.
My heart sank but one corner of the tables where the vote was being counted had us surging way, way ahead. Was it a rogue sample or was this our core area that our GOTV operation had encouraged to come out and vote for us?
We returned our samples to our ‘stat man’ who estimated that we were ahead by around 180 votes. It was quite simply too close to the margin of error to be sure either way.
At this point at the count they start tagging the votes. By this I mean they bunch the votes for each party into sets of 50 and put a rubber band around them, then pile them into a box. When this happens all parties start craning their necks to see how large their pile is compared to the other parties. Being six foot five is an advantage at this time!
The problem was that even if we were ahead by 100 votes, which would be two stacks of 50 votes, it was far too close to tell from the distance we were to the box. For every 1,000 votes, they stick in a marker card, and we all agreed that our pile stuck out further after the 1,000 marker than the Lib Dem pile did.
But was their pile a little more compressed than ours? Did that mean their pile, though shorter, had more votes in it? What was the gradient of the piles? How did that affect things?
Such is everyone’s desperation at this point these are the ridiculous questions you are asking yourselves as you desperately try to glean the result in advance. Of course, it doesn’t affect the result either way but you’re so desperate to know. One of the Tories even came over and tried to count rubber bands as a way of seeing how many votes we had! Funnily enough he reckoned we were 100 in front…
Other wards were declaring by this point, and it was looking good for Labour across the area, winning big in Keighley particularly (which was being counted at the same place as us) although further afield in the district we knew Respect were picking up a few seats.
Then, amazingly, they pulled out all the votes from Windhill & Wrose and counted them again! No explanation was given for this but it increased the tension dramatically. Had someone complained? Was the result so close they wanted to do a mini-recount in anticipation of a controversial outcome?
The votes were quickly recounted (they were already split by party after all) and restacked, and we were still none the wiser as to the outcome.
Around 2:30am we were finally called over to hear the provisional result. The officer started reading out the results and we could see the Tories had been squeezed hard; their vote had dropped to around 300 from around 600 last year. Then our result was read out, and we had roughly 1,600 votes. Down 300 from last year but we knew turnout was lower too. I felt 1,600 was pretty respectable and that it would take an amazing surge in support for the Lib Dems for them to take the seat. Not that it eased my nerves any.
Then the officer started reading out the Lib Dem result. Ours had been read out as one six zero four (or whatever it was) and we knew a recount would be called if their result was within 50 of ours. So when the officer said ‘one…four…’ I knew immediately we were far enough ahead that a recount couldn’t be called and started scratching my head furiously!
At this my wife broke out into a sob, while a few of the blokes with us stifled a roar, before I turned round and raised my arms and shouted, I think, ‘We’ve done it! By 200!’ before collapsing into the arms of my wife and one of our volunteers, while the entire group started cheering and shouting.
It’s hard to describe really, especially when so many of the public don’t really care about politics at the best of times. But that moment, the precise moment that the officer read out ‘one…four’ and I started to turn round, from facing the officer as a candidate and turning round as a (not yet technically a) councillor, seeing the face of our volunteers who had worked so hard for the party and for me as the candidate, and seeing my wife who was crying with relief, was genuinely one of the best moments of my life.
I read an article on the Labour Uncut website the following day saying that nothing beats the drama of a local election count, not even X-Factor, and while you’d never win that argument down the pub it is absolutely, undeniably true.
We had won, and our samples on the night had, once again, predicted the result almost exactly. There were a lot of group hugs and bear hugs from everyone in the Shipley contingent, while councillors and volunteers from Keighley came offer to do the same. In the space of a moment I had gone from a candidate and volunteer to a colleague to our councillors on Bradford Council. And of course it was our volunteers who helped put me there, it was their moment as much as it was mine.
I looked round and saw a few blokes with watery, red eyes. I asked if they were about to cry (I came incredibly close to bursting into tears at the end, prompted by relief, exhaustion and also by my own wife crying), relieved it wasn’t just me fighting back tears. But they just laughed and told me they were absolutely knackered. Oh well, just me then. Not for the first time.
As we waited for the final result to be confirmed and read out to the hall (which I filmed for posterity, naturally) we chatted about the final result. There had been an almost direct swing from the Tories to the Lib Dems of about 6%, but it wasn’t enough to beat us.
We all agreed that it was down to the immense amount of work we put in over the last few weeks (not that the preceding weeks and months weren’t anything short of substantial). I had calculated that we had spoken to over 1,500 people in the last three weeks alone, not including election week (where I later worked out we spoke to another 500 people, and probably knocked on 1,000 more doors).
It was a brilliant study in how to run an election campaign, and lessons learned here will stay with me forever. If we hadn’t picked up on that early ‘unease’ as postal vote forms dropped, if we hadn’t pulled in volunteers from other campaigns to help the key seat, if we hadn’t targeted so precisely and effectively, I have no doubt we would have lost the seat.
But we did do all those things and more, and we won, and now we have three Labour councillors in Windhill & Wrose for the first time in roughly seven years.
Responsibility of Office
And of course, despite all the hard work of the last seven or so months of being a candidate, it’s at this point that the hard work really begins. That feeling of elation is quickly tempered by the responsibility of office, knowing that people will now rely on you to help them and that you have a responsibility to do your best for the community that has just elected you. We also knew as the night went on that Respect looked as if they might edge out our leader and the leader of Bradford Council, Ian Greenwood in Little Horton, a result that would shake all of Bradford politically if it happened, as we realised upon waking later in the morning it did.
There would be time to deal with that later, nonetheless, it was by far the most amazing and intense campaign I’ve ever worked on, and it was a privilege to do it with some amazing councillors in Susan Hinchcliffe and Vanda Greenwood, and our amazing volunteers who put in the hours without complaint. I won’t even go into the story about the poor sod who had to buy £300 worth of stamps for us at short notice (don’t worry, we paid him back).
The biggest thank you of all though, belongs to the wonderful people of Windhill & Wrose, who by putting a tick in the box next to my name and party have put their trust in me to do my best for them, their families and their community for the next four years. It’s something I’ll keep in mind at all times as I strive to do my best for them.
As for the question the Lib Dem candidate asked people on the doorstep, ‘who wants to vote for a 28 year old lad with a pony tail?’, it turns out the answer is the good people of Windhill & Wrose!