Campaigning as an independent parliamentary candidate in Devon

What have I learnt from the recent General Election? Well, aside from the obvious – (1) the manipulation of the media by the Conservative party is absolute, (2) politicians can and will lie in order to get elected without anybody questioning what they say & (3) Moretonhampstead is a socialist enclave in the heart of True Blue Devon, I have learnt this:

It is and probably always will be really difficult for an independent candidate to challenge an established, mainstream party MP seeking re-election.

I watched the campaign of Claire Wright with interest as we had a previous employer in common, I work in the constituency where Claire was standing – Devon East – and also I liked what she had to say. Claire’s campaign went brilliantly and there was a real groundswell of support, great coverage in the press, strong performances in hustings and bookmakers flagged Claire as a potential upset in what is traditionally seen as a safe Tory seat.

The final count gave Claire a 24% share with 13,140 votes which was a huge achievement for an independent, first time candidate but the winner, Hugo Swire, the constituency’s Conservative MP since 2001 polled 25,401 votes – a 46% share. Given that Swire had been largely absent from his constituency during the campaign and a couple of months early had made the news with some ill-considered jokes about benefits claimants at a charity auction, this showed how strong the Tory hold is on the constituency and also the resources the party can call on when required. Claire’s campaign had some financial backing and a team of volunteers behind it but the Conservative party has such financial clout, focused and experienced local activists and also access to land for billboards which the mainstream parties struggle to challenge, Couple that with the backing in the mainstream media – party political broadcasts, ministers and others appearances on prime time TV and of course some biased reporting in the country’s most popular papers – and also that many voters can not be swayed from how they have always voted then how could an independent make the breakthrough?

An independent cannot offer sweeteners to elderly voters in the form of pension promises or tax breaks. An independent cannot get exposure on BBC Question Time. An independent cannot get their policies and message, however good they might be, on the front page of the Daily Mail, Times or Sun. Maybe though Claire’s campaign can be a first step; exposure and experience before a 2nd tilt at it in 5 years time.

In Central Devon (the constituency in which I live) my friend & local musician Andy Williamson was standing for election as a candidate for the Green Party. Andy fought a great campaign, understated to some extent but one which obviously registered with the electorate as he polled a respectable 8.9% share in what is seen as a super-safe Tory seat. What was really interesting in Central Devon was the presence of an independent candidate coming from a totally different angle from Claire in Devon East.

Arthur Price announced himself with a short speech at hustings in the Moorland town of Bovey Tracey as someone dismayed with politics and politicians in this country; someone looking for a “conviction politician” who he could trust. Unable to find one, he stood himself. Arthur didn’t expect to win, he didn’t even expect to have his deposit returned. He didn’t canvas or doorstep or have any financial backing. What Arthur did have was an energy which was lacking and a real belief. For someone not looking for votes, simply to have a chance to confront and challenge the incumbent MP and have his opinion heard, Arthur made a splash. His votes numbered in the hundreds rather than thousands but given that his exposure was limited to hustings in key towns, limited local press and social networking through Twitter and Youtube his standing showed what might be possible. You can read Arthur’s profile here and check out his election song here (really!).

I learnt a lot about the political process in Devon by attending the count in Okehampton on election night, thanks to an invite  to be a Counting Agent from Andy Williamson. There I saw the Conservative machine in action and I don’t mean that in any bad way. The Tories in Devon (and I presume across the country) are geared up to put their candidates in a strong position and it is something that other parties should learn from.

I didn’t appreciate until Thursday night the huge amount of “staff” that a serious party might have present at the count; Local councilors, agents, counting agents and of course the candidates themselves all present. I attended as a counting agent, strictly speaking to observe and challenge any discrepancies but it was interesting to see how the Tories mobilise – each of them had a clipboard and pre-printed tally charts and as each box was emptied, verified & pre-counted they were sampling and counting, in some cases quite accurately. This breakdown of voting lets them know where to target their efforts: Was Bovey Tracey “true blue” but Chudleigh marginal? Was Chudleigh Knighton a low turnout and if so is it always? Is Moretonhampstead actually anti-Tory and if so can they afford to sacrifice it and concentrate on the marginal areas where they might affect the outcome with less effort? No other party was mobilised like this. I didn’t see a labour badge until 3AM by which time the Tories had enough info to know they’d won comfortably but also how to tackle their next few campaigns. Interestingly the lack of a Labour presence on the night backs up the reports of Labour’s 35% strategy in the election. Are Labour candidates in safe Tory seats simply token efforts with no real support?

Many of the Conservative party members I spoke to at the count were surprised at the results around the country, following such a negative campaign (the “fear factor” of the SNP scare story, the personal attacks on Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon, etc) and some dubious claims by the party. It was interesting to hear many agree with my suggestion that it didn’t make sense that Central Devon was a safe Tory seat given the levels of unemployment, low average wages, the lack of opportunities for the young and infrastructures under pressure due to the cuts, that many towns in Devon would seem to have more in common with traditional Labour areas than Conservative.

The recent data published on votes by age group showed that the Conservative party won by securing the over 65 vote, a demographic courted by David Cameron in the run up to the election. Was that data accurate? it is likely that his was just a poll, a sample and like all such data their is a margin of error but it does make sense. It is certainly something that Claire Wright agreed was a challenge in her campaigning, along with the fear of the SNP breaking up The Union!

What does it all mean though for an independent candidate (or Labour or Green) looking to stand and win in such a seat? I believe that a good run up is needed over several years, perhaps starting as a Town Councillor in order to build a profile and get known as someone who makes a difference. The challenge comes when one needs to tackle the whole constituency, particularly one as large as Central or East Devon; how does one find the time and money to compete with a full time politician? Most of us need to work so taking the role full-time unpaid is not realistic. Perhaps taking a lead from Arthur Price in his use of social media in order to get noticed? Twitter, Youtube, Facebook and online versions of the papers are prevalent and will likely be more so by the time of the next election,

Also something to consider is the age of voters. Does one naturally lean to the Conservatives with age or do your political beliefs remain unchanged? Is the seemingly crucial over 65 age group something that the Tories can rely on in years to come or will that Blue vote be diluted? Many disenfranchised younger people too young to vote this time around will be able to vote in 2020. Will cuts, tuition fees and a lack of opportunity push these people towards an alternative?

Much to think about, including of course, “will I stand?” but I think importantly we shouldn’t accept any seat as being safe for any one party, it is not healthy to accept the status quo without question and I am sure many politicians will agree that any party needs to be held to account in order to stay current and be sure that they are representing the electorate.