Part three of John Haywood’s journey
In my previous two blogs I described the build-up to the 2019 local elections, when Labour had three town councillors elected in Ringwood, and the start of the period between 2019 and 2023 when we used that platform to build a Labour presence in the New Forest.
Labour local election guidance features the concept of the “long campaign” – that you’re always working to get yourself into a good position for the next electoral contest. While this might be more relevant to councils that elect in thirds or in halves, and thus have more frequent local elections than we do here, it’s something that you shouldn’t take your eyes off even if you live in an area with all-outs. And 2020’s events went to prove that for us.
In 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic effectively put local politics on hold, as people were either focused on supporting the community or were shielding themselves. Voters didn’t want to hear a political message, they wanted reassurance, support and feeling of “in it together” that we did our best to provide. I was heavily involved in my local COVID support group along with councillors of the other political strands on the town council.
Of course there were various restrictions on campaigning in place including a complete ban on canvassing for many months during the lock-downs. In any case, it just didn’t feel right to campaign too stridently, but I was keenly aware that we were missing out on time talking to residents on their doorsteps, and that lost time could be vital.
Campaigning restarts and an opportunity presents
We restarted campaigning with regular newsletters across the town and regular weekend door-knocking done by a team of 3-6 people. People started mentioning that they were reading our newsletters – we were getting noticed. One resident told me “you’re the only party that takes the time to tell us what you’ve been doing for us”.
An opportunity for the town council to purchase a green that was under threat of development was pushed through by my fellow Labour town councillor Peter Kelleher and we made sure that we made plenty of PR from this with the Labour name to the forefront. It’s really important to grab opportunities like this when they come along.
This all fed into my strategy of increasing brand awareness of Labour. My logic in this was three-pronged: firstly I felt that the lack of Labour success in the past was as much about floating and unaligned voters not really knowing much about us locally as specifically anti-Labour; secondly it gave progressive-leaning voters a reason to vote for us; thirdly it defeated other parties’ “only we can beat the Tories here” sentiment, which can be strong in areas like the New Forest.
Time marches on and the Westminster scandals mount
Peter Kelleher came a respectable second place for us in the post-COVID county council elections but we failed to win a town council by-election held at the same time. This proved that it was worth continuing but that there was more for us to do.
It was after this that scandal after scandal erupted in Westminster. We are very careful to focus doorstep conversations on local issues, but these national issues achieved cut-through in conversations in a way that nothing else has. The anger was palpable. We could feel things shifting under our feet and it really was quite delicious. “I’m never voting for the Tories again” was the refrain on doorstep after doorstep. We knew we were on to something.
Door knock, deliver newsletter. Deliver newsletter, door knock. That became the rhythm. Well over a thousand doors knocked in a year despite COVID restrictions. Conversations, casework, visibility.
Our hard work became all the more necessary after a re-warding which introduced a new rural area of national park to the market-town suburban ward where I live, and that represent on the town council. This was a potential headwind in the next all-out local elections, but we were building up to the big day, which seemed far-off, one week at a time. That day soon came round.
2023 all-out local elections
We went into the 2023 local elections with a good feeling that we might finally get somewhere. The most active Labour local election campaign of the whole New Forest was fought in both the big Ringwood wards – on a tight budget as ever for a poor CLP. But with help from dedicated volunteers we hand-delivered direct mail to postal voters, posted direct mail to target voters, and hand-delivered a number of leaflets across the wards. And we continued to knock doors. The campaign culminated with a Get Out The Vote operation on nearly 1,250 Labour promises in the two wards – the result of all that data gathering.
With the new post-COVID requirement for only 2 subscriber signatories for candidate nomination rather than the previous 10, plus an increase in activity in the local Lib Dems, Greens and Independents, we needed to do all possible to ensure that anti-Tory votes went to us rather than to the many other candidates standing.
And we were successful! Another 50 or so votes on our base would have seen 4 Labour district councillors in Ringwood – in fact any of us could have been a lucky one – but when the votes were counted I had managed got my nose across the finish line to become the first Labour councillor elected by ballot since New Forest District Council was first formed in 1974.
So here I am, Labour and Cooperative group leader, secretary, treasurer, whip and sole member. And a Labour and Cooperative district councillor for a market town/rural ward on the fringe of a national park in an area of the country that has never seen a Labour district councillor before. 10 miles from the coast, and definitely in the country!
It’s a long game building in areas like the New Forest, but potential Labour voters are there, waiting to be given a reason to vote for us – especially when the country is at a political crossroads as it is at the moment. But there’s no resting on laurels – a by election could happen at any moment and we need to be ready to expand the Labour group on New Forest District Council. We’ve opened many peoples’ eyes to voting Labour – they have placed their trust in us. Now the hard work really starts to pay that trust back and win more seats.