h1

Reporting from the front Lyme

November 26th, 2019

From the PBer who could be an MP in 17 days time

As regular readers will know, I am the Conservative candidate for Newcastle-under-Lyme, a seat that has been Labour for a century and has not elected a Conservative since 1880. However I am now facing a majority of just 30, in a seat that voted around 63% to Leave. That’s the official Borough figure – Professor Chris Hanretty has the constituency a touch lower at 61.6% but observers who were at the referendum count disagree with that adjustment!

In truth no-one knows what that majority of 30 should have been, after an epic cock-up by the local authority disenfranchised approximately 1000 residents, but that’s another story. Therefore Paul Farrelly’s mandate for the last Parliament was very questionable (through no fault of his own, I should stress). Paul himself maintained a very strong personal pro-Remain stance throughout that Parliament.

What follows is my experience of the campaign so far – I have been as open as possible, and although my account necessarily reflects the Conservative perspective it is an accurate account of how I have found things on the doorstep.

Selection

Both main parties ended up selecting their candidates for this constituency fairly late in the day. I was selected on 24th September and the Labour candidate was not selected until after the campaign had effectively begun, on 1st November.

These extra five-and-a-half weeks have been very helpful: although I didn’t know exactly when the election would be I immediately reduced my work hours and started campaigning. It also helped immensely to be a local candidate [I work in Stoke and co-own a business in Newcastle] who already knew and got on with the councillors in the local party. I had also already campaigned here in the 2018 local elections.

Organisation

The minutiae of designing literature, organising direct mail campaigns and setting up delivery networks does not make the news but in marginal seats like Newcastle it is vital. I have been helped by having an excellent volunteer agent, and also support from CCHQ.

As we approach the final couple of weeks of the campaign I have reached every household once, the vast majority of those who vote at least twice and many of the crucial undecided target voters multiple times.

The Doorstep

Three issues have come up more than any other.

1. Brexit

You know that your messaging is cutting through when you hear voters quoting it back at you, unprompted. “Get Brexit Done” is a very appealing message, not only to Leavers but also to many Remainers. Although I won’t deny that there are some ex-Conservative voters we have lost over Brexit, this is (currently) more than outweighed by Labour switchers. I have had any number of first-time Conservative voters, including a 79-year-old ex-miner in Knutton and a 78-year-old ex shop steward in Bradwell.

Having not been an MP is also an advantage. I have had a number of canvasses where a resident has started by saying they weren’t going to vote at all, because “what’s the point, they’ve ignored us” – but I have often been able to talk such people round, agreeing with them that the last Parliament has been a rabble that has sought to frustrate the referendum result. And voters aren’t stupid: they don’t blame Boris for missing the 31st October deadline.

2. Jeremy Corbyn

Mr Corbyn really is going down terribly in seats like my own. The Conservative database has a coding system for recording canvassing data (“Strong Conservative”, “Brexit/Conservative waverer” etc.) but I have joked to fellow candidates that we need a new code of “Not Labour” based on the number of times I have heard that.

Clearly, just like point 1 above, this is also borne out by national polling. In 2017 the same people probably didn’t like Jeremy Corbyn much but they didn’t really believe he could win. This time they are much more aware that he really could be Prime Minister, and they don’t like the sound of that one bit.

3. Newcastle town centre

The third issue is the sense of pride people feel in their town and borough, and their fear that it is losing what has made it special. This follows the decline of shopping in the town after the national high-profile insolvencies of established names, and also a well-loved market that is not as vibrant as it once was. This Borough is known by the soubriquet “Loyal And Ancient” and has a Mayor dating back to at least 1318. Newcastle has also been returning MPs to Westminster since 1354, so there is a huge amount of civic pride in the town’s history (aided and abetted by the friendly rivalry with our upstart noisy neighbours in Stoke-on-Trent!)

Towns across the country have suffered from both internet and out-of-town shopping, and also the unintended consequence of the increase in university numbers (students leaving to study elsewhere and never coming back to their hometown).

So the Government’s recent focus on towns, which I have written about before on this site, is exactly the right message for seats like mine. The Stronger Towns and Future High Streets funds are very saleable policies, both in my literature and on the doorstep, but more than that there is a sense that we are recognising the importance of a sense of place and community to people.

Being a candidate

Being a candidate in a marginal seat is extraordinarily hard work, and I salute my fellow candidates, of all parties, who are doing so. You spend most days on the doorstep (in pretty rubbish weather!) and then come home to vast numbers of emails – some personal, but many auto-generated by campaign websites. You also have to manage your social media and organise the nuts and bolts of action days, meeting points and leaflet delivery networks. And at least half of such candidates end up losing…

Prognosis

Last time the seat was extremely polarised, with a result of Lab 48 Con 48 LD 4. I would expect the Lib Dems to double their score, and we now have a Brexit Party candidate (UKIP stood aside in 2017) and a Green as well.

The Brexit guy may keep his deposit, but not much more: I have rarely found direct support for the Brexit Party on the doorstep, but a number of surveys (earlier in the campaign) would come back marked 10/10 Conservative but also 8/10 Brexit Party. I interpret this as Leave voters holding my feet to the fire! I have found one or two Greens on the doorstep but their biggest source of votes will be at Keele University.

Turning to the red-blue battle, I am cautiously optimistic that we may see a “Con Gain” in the early hours of December 13th. But I remember the 2017 campaign and so I will be taking nothing for granted. I really enjoy the direct contact of canvassing and listening to people’s concerns, and I will be doing as much as I can in the final fortnight.

Aaron Bell

Aaron is a long-term contributor to Political Betting, posting under the username Tissue_Price.