How we won Sutton (Cambridgeshire) on an 18.5% swing from the Tories

We had an excellent result in the Sutton Division of Cambridgeshire last week when Lorna Dupre gained a seat from the Conservatives on a massive 18.5% swing. 

Here, veteran campaigner and local team member, Mark Inskip, sets out the background and the campaign.  At the end I’ll say a bit about some of the literature and there are links to some examples:


The by-election was caused by the death just before Christmas of the sitting Tory councillor. He had been ill since March 2014 and had represented the division since 1975 with a two year blip in 2005-2007 when we won the seat but then promptly lost it when our councillor moved away.

The county division is made up of two East Cambs district wards (both two member), Sutton and Downham Villages. Lorna gained one of the two district seats in Sutton from the Tories in a by-election in April 2014 and defended it comfortably in May 2015. We didn’t however gain the second Tory seat in Sutton in May 2015 (combination of a late candidate change and the general election turnout). We didn’t even stand a candidate in the Downham Villages ward in 2015 and the Tories won both seats. So the county division has three Tory district councillors and one Lib Dem.

The Sutton ward has a regular Focus, Lorna also maintains a high profile on social media in the village and is involved in many village events (she celebrated her victory at the weekend’s Winter Beer Festival!). By contrast we have no recent record of action in the Downham Villages ward with the most recent canvass data from 2005. Roughly half of the population live in Sutton village, a quarter in Little Downham village, an eighth in Mepal village, and the remainder in five smaller villages.

The campaign

In January immediately after the funeral of the former councillor, but before the election was called, we delivered a regular Focus to Sutton. Then for the campaign itself we kicked off with an A3 across the division (slightly different versions for the two wards). We then concentrated on canvassing postal voters and followed up with a mail merged and then a hand addressed letter to postal voters.

We then delivered an A4 leaflet to most parts of Downham Villages and started to canvass non-postal votes who had voted in 2015, 2014 or 2013 (around 50-60% of all non-postal voters).

We did some Facebook advertising to encourage postal voters to vote to back up our ground campaign.

Due to the dark evenings we had a phone bank as well as door to door canvassing. We had a mail merged letter to ‘on the day voters’ then a full colour A3 delivered across the division. On Tuesday the county council held it’s budget meeting, finally concluding well after 9pm. We then wrote three versions of target letters for Supporters+’no data’, Squeeze and Switch ‘on the day’ voters which were printed and stuffed on Tuesday evening and delivered on Wednesday.

On Polling Day we had tellers in Sutton and Little Downham villages so covering around three quarters of voters. We delivered a Good Morning to Supporters. We knocked up Supporters and Squeeze door to door. We had a strong Squeeze message because there wasn’t a Labour or Green candidate. Around 6pm we completed door to door knocking up and from around 5.40pm kicked off a phone bank knock-up.

We campaigned both on local issues and on the county council budget. The Tories are the largest party but don’t have overall control. They forced through a 2% rise (accepting the Adult Social Care precept but freezing the council tax). Our group wanted a 4% increase to reduce the impact of cuts to key services. The Tories message time and again in their literature was that the Lib Dems would put up your council tax. We were clear in out literature that for less than 50p a week extra it was better to save services.

We had great help from across Cambridgeshire with leaflet delivery, phone and doorstep canvassing, and further afield with the knock up phone bank yesterday evening. Thank you everyone!

And as you will have seen we gained the set with an 18.5% swing from the Tories.”

Literature examples

As with all the recent big by-election campaigns we’ve seen, the Sutton campaign involved several rounds of general delivery Focus leaflets plus several rounds of targeted literature.

It is also clear from the literature that the team thought very carefully about how to get the message right both in the half of the ward we have a strong track record in and the new half.  They changed the style of the literature as appropriate and did particularly well to adjust the message as the County Council budget became the dominant local issue in the last week of the campaign.

These are the examples I picked:

A4 January Focus – Sutton Ward – PDF

The ‘normal’ ward Focus that went out in Sutton ward in January.  Very good example of an effective Focus, campaigning on local issues.

A4 February leaflet to the new villages – PDF

This was an extra leaflet for the villages in the less campaigned in part of the division.  This presents Lorna as an excellent local candidate in an area where that is as important to many residents as party politics.

A3 final weekend colour Focus – PDF

A very good quality and high impact final Focus.  I generally encourage campaign teams to crank it up like this for the final leaflet.  Note the strengthening of the message about local services in light of the County Council budget situation.

A5 eve of poll letters – PDF

A very effective set of eve of poll letters, targeted to (and I’m guessing here!) supporters, switch and squeeze in turn.  It was both an impressive achievement and exactly the right thing to do to produce these after the County Council budget decision.  Each version puts essentially the same message but in a way that will be most persuasive to each group of recipients.

All in all a very well run campaign and a deserved victory.

Colin Saunderson says

As one of the outsiders who played a modest part in the campaign I would say that a really good hard working LOCAL candidate will always have a good chance. We won back the Huntingdon East district council seat late last year for much the same reason. For me after a mostly disastrous 2015 it really has been great to finish the year and start 2016 with really good wins.

Neil Fawcett says

Thanks for your help Colin.

David Conquest says

Just shows - basic regular leafletting on local issues. Shades of Neil Stanley of Cannock fame.

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