On 16th October, Andrew Waller clinched an empthatic victory in the Westfield by-election to regain his seat on York council. Andrew’s campaign agent Steve Galloway, has written the following review of their impressive win and how they went about gaining the seat from Labour.
Thursday 5th May 2011 was as bad an election results day in York as anywhere else in the country. Overnight we went from having 20 Councillors, and the Leadership of the Council, to third place with only 8 members.
In multi vacancy wards, in what was an “all out” election, we did poorly even losing the Westfield Ward where – at least in parts – we had enjoyed having Liberal Democrat representation since 1973. Labour won all three seats with an average of 43% of the poll compared to the LibDem’s 35%. The casualties included myself and Andrew Waller– both former Leaders of the York Council.
Labour had concentrated over 100 activists into the ward in a “decapitation” strategy which saw parallels elsewhere in the north of England. This was the low point for the party nationally with much of the blame for poor services and declining living standards being placed on coalition policies. Whatever the motivation, we were out and we needed a strategy to reverse the result.
We immediately decided that – for all York Central constituency wards – whoever had finished highest in the 2011 poll would be our candidate in the event of a by-election. This allowed us to promote a particular name. In Westfield the nominated candidate was Andrew Waller who had a high local profile anyway. We did not guess that this was a plan which would wait on the shelf for over three and a half years before being implemented.
Campaigning throughout the year
Focus newsletters had been the mainstay of our campaigning for 4 decades and we decided that this must continue. An A3 Focus was delivered to each household on a quarterly basis. 6 different highly localised editions are published broadly covering each polling district in the 6000 household ward. About 2000 a month were published – effectively that was the limit of what we could afford to print and deliver.
We also upped our game on social media (3 or 4 stories are added to our My Councillor web site each day) and visitor numbers increased to around 2000 a month. Twitter was used extensively (but Facebook less so). Against the national background, it proved to be difficult to sustain membership and our critical newsletter delivery network.
But another factor was working in our favour. Labour had selected 3 Councillors all of whom lived on the other side of the City. They had little knowledge of the Westfield area and even less commitment to it. The Labour Leadership expected them to be voting fodder at the Guildhall. After about 12 months the cracks began to show, One of the 3 (Lynn Jeffries) quit Labour over claims of bullying and, after a short time as an Independent, joined the LibDems. We had a LibDem councillor again in Westfield albeit not in a way that we had planned or particularly sought.
As well as the traditional Focus, our support in the area had been consolidated through regular campaigns on topical issues. Almost immediately after taking control of the Council, Labour started to make arbitrary and, to many residents, seemingly irrational cuts. One of these was a decision to close a recycling centre in the west of York. It was highly unpopular and was one of the issues which we were able to exploit long after the centre site had been built on.
Labour continued to make unpopular decisions and underpinned them with almost school boy mistakes (the new Labour Council Leadership had little experience). They achieved national notoriety when, having introducing a ban on traffic crossing one of the city centre bridges, they discovered that the signage used had been unlawful. To this day they are still refusing to make a general refund of the £1.8 million that they collected in fines.
Growing disenchantment with Labour was becoming apparent in the responses that we were receiving through our individualised residents survey, that we conducted each year. The survey forms are personally addressed (mail merged from an EARs extract) and localised at street level. They are colour printed and we regularly get around a 25% response rate.
We were half way through undertaking the survey when tragedy struck.
Lynn Jeffries – who was disabled following a skiing accident some years ago and who had been helping with the survey – was found dead at her City centre bungalow. She had been in poor health and it seems that she had suffered a heart attack.
Labour tried to call a by-election even before Lynn’s funeral had taken place. It was a couple of weeks later, however, before the vacancy notice was published and this gave us time to complete our survey and deliver a report back Focus before the by-election expense limit kicked in.
Labour – having done nothing for over a year – attempted to deliver 6 newsletters and a survey before the election campaign started. The sudden interest was not lost on residents.
Our survey (which includes a question on voting intentions) revealed the following likely Council election result:
Our share was broadly in line with what we were polling 10 years ago in the area.
Labour, having started in 2011 with 26 Councillors, had haemorrhaged support with another Councillor crossing the floor during the summer to join the Conservatives and a second choosing to sit as an Independent.
We started the campaign with Labour on 23 seats and the combined opposition on 23.
It seemed that the Westfield result would determine the fate of the Council –and because of a highly controversial “big growth” draft Local Plan put together by Labour –possibly the fate of the City.
Two weeks later two more Labour Councillors were to jump ship and form an “independent Labour Group”. Whatever happened in Westfield, Labour had lost overall control of the Council.
Our main challengers in the by-election were Labour although we kept a wary eye on UKIP particularly after the Clacton result. But UKIP turned out to be naive and they failed to maximise a situation which had seen them record the largest number of votes polled in York at the Euro election held in June. (Labour second, Tories third, us – embarrassed).
Both the Tories and the Greens had half an eye on the balance of power on the Council and did very little work during the by-election campaign.
We kicked off our campaign with a full colour tabloid. The aim was really to remind electors that Andrew was the local man, worked “all the year round” and that Labour had made a mess of running the City. It was well received.
Having surveyed every home, we determined to go round again and canvass eveyone. We produced another highly localised canvassing leaflet which we used to highlight key issues in a neighbourhood. The leaflet had a poster on the reverse (which was displayed by some residents).
All literature emphasised that Andrew had only been 139 votes behind when he was the runner up in 2011.
We aimed to squeeze the Tory and Green vote. To our surprise Labour also tried the same tactic highlighting in their literature a graph saying a vote for the minor parties would help us. Labour’s other main tactic was to try – as they saw it – “guilt by association” linking Nick Clegg’s supposed failings with Andrew. Their attempt to focus on national issues was to fail spectacularly.
As expected, Labour put a lot of feet on the ground. They were so centralised in their approach that they failed to recognise differing moods in different areas. They now require their Councillors to spend at least one hour each week (usually on Saturday mornings) identifying that they describe as “Labour voters”. However the information is of little value if there subsequently is a mood swing.
On polling day we saw Labour “knocker ups” visiting the homes of people who were definitely supporting us. Labour had failed to recognise the change in mood that had taken place.
We had some ill fortune when access to our printing facilities was unavailable to us for about a week. Critically the problem arose 2 weeks before polling day. It meant that we had to restructure our campaign and a glossy leaflet – scheduled to go out on the weekend before polling day – was brought forward. I can’t praise enough the Sheffield based print firm Evolution print who turned the job round in 48 hours.
As it turned out, the glossy leaflet did hit homes at the precise time that 900 postal votes also landed on doormats. We had previously sent a target letter to Postal Voters so the message was consolidated. Of the 3000 turnout, over 700 voters were to return postal ballots.
Labour had issued their glossy leaflet a week earlier. It seemed that they had learned little.
Entering the last 10 days of the campaign, we had canvassed 75% of the ward (we would complete a 100% canvass). We were also attracting good numbers of helpers mainly from elsewhere in York, but some from further afield in Yorkshire (although nothing like as many as Labour). Some telephone canvassing was taking place in the background.
Targeted letters were going out on local issues. These would be followed up with personally addressed letters to Definites/Probables together with squeeze letters to Tories/Greens. Soft Labour was also targeted.
Our final Focus was localised (6 editions). It repeated the recurrent themes and majored on Labours “Big City” growth plans.
Labour’s Local Plan was knocked back by a Council meeting a week before the election. On the same day two Labour Councillors jumped ship. There was extensive TV coverage of the turmoil.
Labour issued two personally addressed card/leaflets (A5 and probably both printed at the same time) during the last 7 days of the campaign. The quality was poor. They had enjoyed some success in 2011 when providing their supporters with a pseudo polling card (more useful when there are 16 candidates for 3 seats). It didn’t work this time.
Our last communication with electors was a blue letter.
Polling day was largely conventional with (slightly) humorous leaflets used to encourage voting. In addition several helpers used Connect to telephone potential voters. By this stage we knew we had won, it was simply a question of by how many.
Votes 2014% 2011% Change
Jason Brown Conservative 118 4% 15% -11%
Louise Corson Labour 588 20% 43% -23%
Sam Kelly ED 5 0% 0% 0%
Judith Morris UKIP 398 13% 0% +13%
Andrew Waller LibDem 1804 60% 35% +25%
Alison Webb Green 87 3% 7% -4%
Total votes cast 3000
2011 figures are based on party average vote
NB in 2011 Labour won all 3 seats in Westfield
We were fortunate in one respect in so far as the by-election fell in a ward where we had been consistently politically active and where we had an established well known candidate in place.
In truth, if it had fallen elsewhere in York then we might have struggled. Spotting the right issues is important as is making the most of the mistakes that your opponents make. In the latter respect York Labour were charitable in the extreme.
My impression on the doorstep is that we are through the worst but it will take a lot of work to get back to where we were, although it can be done.
By-election campaign Agent
You can see Andrew’s acceptance speech here