This is a tale of two election campaigns in Telford & The Wrekin. One successful, one less so. In the Telford constituency, Lucy Allan, Conservative, was successfully selected in 2013 to challenge David Wright MP, who had held onto Telford by under a thousand votes in 2010 against local conservative candidate Tom Biggins, and was looking to win a fourth term.
In the Wrekin Constituency, Mark Pritchard MP had a healthy majority of just under 10,000 against the last Labour challenger. The local Labour party machine left their selection later than expected and the contest was played out somewhat on twitter. It was a two-horse race between Lee Carter, who grew up in the town and was Chairman of the fan owned local football club AFC Telford United.
Lee is widely acclaimed to be the driving force and passion behind rescuing the club from the ashes when the previous owners business failed. While the club does not have Chelsea sized budgets or crowds, it returns a small profit each year, and has had some success on the field over the years. Ex-employees have told me about the passion and grit that Lee has in all his dealings. Lee was backed very publicly by some key Labour members who were very vocal on social media.
Enter Katrina Gilman. Public sector worker, LGBT campaigner and union official. Katrina was also local, living in the town, on an ex-council estate, in an ex-council house owned by a housing association.
According to some, it was a shoe-in for Lee. Katrina clearly had some work to do. To ensure the best chance of selection, Katrina planned to visit every member who had a vote, to try and influence their decision. A smart move, identifying exactly what needed to be done, and going out and doing it. And she did. Much to everyone’s surprise, although I suspect not Katrinas, she got the votes she needed. In football parlance, Lee was nutmegged.*
There are a lot of AFC Telford fans on Twitter who were surprised to say the least about the apparent snubbing of a well known and successful potential candidate being overlooked for a relative unknown. Myself included, until I learned about Katrinas selection campaign. Katrinas diligent work was a precursor to how she would run her campaign in The Wrekin.
In Telford, Lucy Allan’s campaign was well underway. Lucy breezed onto social media in 2013 shorty after selection and renting a house in Dawley, enthusiastically trying to discover the issues that were affecting locals and get a handle on what causes were dear to Telfords heart. This was a sign of tweets to come. Lucy embraced social media, both Twitter and Facebook at a time when the incumbent MP, David Wright had quit tweeting due to a widely reported faux pas when the person who was tweeting for him got a little carried away and tweeted some unsavoury words about ‘scum sucking Tories’. David claimed his tweet had been edited, but we all know that can’t happen. David Wright paid scant regard to social media after that, no more tweets and very little activity on Facebook.
In the run up to the election, Lucy used social media to recruit potential local councillors, volunteers and supporters. She used video voxpops on Facebook alongside traditional door knocking, leafleting and some innovative wrap around advertising in the Telford Journal. An insider in her office told me that Lucy had a firm policy about social media; ‘Keep it positive, nothing negative about anyone’. Lucy and her team on the whole kept to this, even when pushed & goaded by local Labour activists, that were filling the void left by Twitterless David Wright.
Katrina was not quite so active on social media as Lucy, but probably as active as her adversary, Mark Pritchard. Hard to say, as Mark blocked me when he mistook me for someone else. Long story. What Katrina was doing, was wearing out the shoe-leather, big time. Given the marginal seat just next door, many labour resources were diverted to David Wrights campaign so Katrina was doing much of the work. After the election, Katrina told me that she & her team knocked on 30,000 doors in the constituency.
The day before the election, Labour and Conservatives were as close as they had been for the previous three months according to polls. For Lucy, she needed a small swing to the right in order to win the seat, but all the pundits were predicting a Labour hold in favours of local man, David Wright who had been sitting for 14 years. In The Wrekin, Katrina had a much bigger mountain to climb, in Mark Pritchard.
David Wright came through local government, and took over a safe seat. Not even his most ardent fan could call him exciting, a safe pair of hands for a safe seat. Rarely rebelling, David Was labour through and through. A vote against the Iraq war was one of the few times he went against the grain of the party. That said, David is a nice guy, and very supportive of many causes locally. I found him personable & witty, the half a dozen times I’ve been in his company.
Mark Pritchard on the other hand is a different animal. Some of his campaigns are laudable if a little off the wall. A ban for keeping primates as pets, and no animals in circuses are a couple of his triumphs. He famously went up the Wrekin in a tank to campaign for the local A&E. Also famously, he was involved in a newspaper sting about using his parliamentary connections to benefit himself. He did threaten to sue but I haven’t seen anything. And I’ve looked. Mark is a bit of a thorn in the side of the establishment, and it’s fair to say he attracts some derision for not really connecting with his constituency in a way that many expect.
Move up to Election night. I, along with a couple of colleagues, Jon Farmer, and Jake Bennett who, along with Mark McCreddin are all part of a team filming the local council meetings to try and get local people more engaged in local politics. We thought it might be fun to live stream, live tweet and periscope the whole thing for the public. So we did.
I arrived at the count about 11:45pm on the 7th. Verification was well underway. Most of the candidates were already there, on the count floor, observing with their agents. Watching body language, it was all very jovial and good natured. David Wright vs Lucy Allan, Mark Pritchard vs Katrina Gilman.
One of the guys went for a smoke and I went along and saw a relaxed and jovial Katrina Gilman. A quick interview with Katrina and she was well aware that a reduced majority for Mark Pritchard would be a great result, and for her, running a good and credible campaign was her prime objective. 30,000 doors knocked, 3000 emails personally answered and still smiling. Objective achieved before the declaration.
I saw Katrina in a hustings event a few before. I was impressed with her performance as she calmly sat next to an animated Mark Pritchard and explained her thoughts to a business audience.
We made our way back to the count hall. The mood had changed. While Jake was able to corral many of the candidates to me for interviews, but word got round the gathered media that David Wright was not talking to the press. Lucy Allan on the other hand, while very guarded about the potential result, gave an ‘at last it’s over’ kind of interview where she mentioned that her social media campaign helped people find out the kind of person she was, and communicate, with little expense, what she was doing day to day.
The Wrekin Declared
The Wrekin was called first. Before the public declaration, the candidates are gathered together in a small circle to get the provisional results. At this point, if there are only a few votes in it, or the count is disputed, then a recount could be requested. In the case of The Wrekin, no such recount was required and the candidates moved to the stage and we fired up Twitter, YouTube and Periscope to tell the waiting followers, many of which were still with us at 4am, the news as it happened. As it happened, Mark Pritchard retained his seat with an increased majority.
The Telford count continued, the mood of the Labour councillors was visibly unenthusiastic. David Wright brushed past me in the press area and muttered ‘Oh dear, blimey’ but in relation to what, I have no idea. I did try to get a comment from Davids election agent, Richard Overton, but was given short shrift, no doubt down to previous encounters.
4:20pm it was Telfords turn. Richard Partington, the chief returning officer called the candidates to the scrum well away from the media area to give them the provisional results. Davids head appeared to drop and the other candidates looked at Lucy. They all turned to make their way to the stage and Lucy tried her best poker face, but Mark Pritchard who was stood behind me, read the signals and did his best fist-pump.
David Wrights campaign manager, Richard Overton was heard passing comment to a comrade; “It’s shit” as the candidates lined up near the stage. Labour councillors and supporters who were gathered were visibly shaken, some in tears, as the announcement was made. These are the people who had been posting Labour Doorstep photos almost daily over the last few weeks.
What went wrong with David’s campaign? Was it the lack of social media? Was it the questionable social media antics of some of his supporters? I follow over 5000 people in Telford on Twitter. The backlash against what was seen as petty bickering and attacks on Lucy certainly resulted in a few lost votes but a 1500 swing? I doubt it.
One Labour supporter suggested that David had probably not been around over the last year as much as he could have been, one chap who lived in his street said that David had not even said hello in the last year. Could David have been complacent?
Another supporter of David speculated that, having served three full terms he would get a decent payoff and a pension so at least financially, he would be alright. David is a proud man, I doubt this would be the case.
Did David just run out of steam? Did Lucy offer something different? Was it the thought of Miliband & Balls running the country? What do you think?
*All was not lost for Lee, he successfully won a seat on the borough council.