Baroness Shirley Williams and Tessa Munt MP with candidate Helen Groves

With the cold winter weather now set in, the result in a by-election in Wells Constituency in Somerset at least gave us some heart-warming news. Although we didn’t managed to win we achieved an impressive 15% swing from Conservative to Liberal Democrat.

The Brent division of Somerset County Council is a collection of small villages in the Somerset Levels sandwiched between the resorts of Weston-super-Mare and Burnham-on-Sea. Until 1988 it had a Liberal councillor, but since then it has become the safest Conservative seat in Somerset with them receiving nearly 70% of the vote in the last county council elections. The death of the previous Conservative councillor gave us a chance to win the seat back, and although we had a very active candidate and ran a strong campaign we couldn’t quite overturn their huge majority.

Our candidate Helen Groves was a town councillor from Burnham-on-Sea who was involved with a number of local community groups. As soon as we knew back in September that there was to be a by-election the campaign started with our candidate and her team knocking on loads of doors over the coming months. We also had lots of help from across the South West. Certainly this face-to-face contact and identifying local issues early made a big difference as it allowed us to run very local leaflets picking up on specific campaigns in each individual village.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives chose a local farmer and district councillor as their candidate. He already represented part of the division and so in that area at least he had good name recognition. However, he did also have a somewhat controversial reputation following an incident in 2007 when he threw a dead sheep at a crowd of school children.    The Conservatives had few people on the ground until right at the end and spent a lot of money on posting out huge volumes of professionally printed direct mail, leaflets and even a tabloid newspaper. Much of the direct mail was targeted at getting their voters out – a potentially good tactic when turnout is likely to be low – but it only had one uniform message across the whole division. We spent far less, however we had far better campaign messages that combined the very local and the countywide. During the campaign the Conservative county council spent £61,000 on losing a judicial review on library closures and had decided to turn off speed cameras – a big issue in a division that includes the M5 and the busy A38.

What this by-election showed though was that even in big very rural county divisions, it’s still possible to run very intensive election campaigns that make an impact. We didn’t win, (although we think it was the biggest swing from the Conservatives to us in the constituency in 30 years), but if we can get a 15% swing against the Conservatives in other places in the next county council elections we will do very well indeed.

The other by-election on the day was:Rochford DC, Rayleigh Central

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