Since our victory in Oxford West and Abingdon (OxWAb) a lot of people have asked me: “How did you do it?”.
“Apart from having a genuinely brilliant candidate and an awesome and talented campaign manager?”, I usually reply.
The reality is more complex than that, founded on years and years of building our local campaigning capacity and a big chunk of luck in the make-up of the constituency in the circumstances of this election.
It is also important, to be honest, that a lot went wrong during our campaign. The timing and circumstances made for a very challenging campaign in many ways. I don’t pretend for a moment that we were slick or got everything right.
I could write a whole book about how we won, but here are five of the key factors that did contribute to our victory.
1. Long-term capacity building
OxWAb has worked hard to build our campaigning capacity for decades. We have a high regular income, with what was then called the ‘Golden Tenners’ Standing Order donation scheme more than 30 years ago. It now brings in more than £15K a year and we work hard to keep increasing it. We raise similar from councillor contributions.
Our membership is now nearly 1,000, up from a low point of just under 400 five years ago when we set out to achieve a good net growth every quarter. We also run a wide range of events at constituency and branch level, and a good mix of campaigning, political and social. Thanks to the Membership Incentive Scheme this has also contributed to our finances.
After losing the seat in 2010 we set out a very ambitious plan to rebuild, which then formed the basis of our then bid to join the Strategic Seats programme. This combined specific electoral objectives for each round of local elections and six key capacity building targets that included membership, income and poster sites. This then guided our campaigning work. It meant that we were ready to fight a very strong campaign in 2015 (when the circumstances led to an increased Tory majority) and the groundwork for the win this time.
KEY POINT: We can’t always determine the circumstances an election will be fought in, but we can build our own capacity so that we are ready to fight a winning campaign when the circumstances do allow us to win.
2. Integrated campaigning
Our constituency wide campaigning and our local election campaigning are fully integrated.
Our campaign plan includes specific electoral targets for every round of elections. We fight every by-election to win. We aim to have an organisation across the whole constituency, even though we then target during an election period.
Campaign literature includes a mix of national and local issues, and the candidate campaigning alongside each local team. The precise mix is based on whatever issues are live at the time. We run active, issue based campaigns, and in a way that encourages maximum participation.
We have one Campaign Team that runs the campaign overall, and strong teams at branch and ward level.
The result of this approach is that our local councillor base has held up relatively well (though we lost seats during the coalition period) and had particularly good results in the 2013 county elections.
In this year’s county elections we fought a fully fledged campaign in the equivalent of 80% of the constituency, and this had a very positive impact on the General Election campaign. It meant we already had a high level of local credibility across most of the constituency, had already established a strong squeeze message and had a number of very strong local issues Layla could pick up and run with.
We also did our best to ensure that our constituency campaign built on the material the national party was sending out. So as the national party distributed literature about our plan to invest in the NHS, Layla was campaigning on local health issues.
KEY POINT: Building a strong local base is a good thing in its own right, and is also an essential part of building enough credibility to challenge in a constituency. A strong local campaign and a strong constituency wide campaign reinforce the success of each other.
3. Basic good practice
However brilliantly we did, 90% of it was just basic good practice done well, and lots of it.
There has been a lot of discussions recently about whether delivering lots of leaflets still works, whether blue letters still work, etc. Based on our experience they are an essential part of getting the message across.
We did a large number of leaflets (mainly full colour and glossy), a newspaper, tens of thousands of target letters, a full run of election addresses, and more blue and cream letters than ever. (In fact, about 15,000 households got both a cream letter from Layla and a blue letter from their local county councillor in the last week of the campaign.)
We targeted a lot of the literature, by different voting groups, other demographic data, to strong Remainers, Postal Voters, and by area.
We already had a high level of historic canvass data, and we had already knocked on thousands of doors during the county elections. This meant we did have a lot of up to date data, and then did thousands more doors and phones during the campaign. We used the various pools in Connect to target our effort.
We ran a very strong poster campaign, again started during the county elections. Because of the work we’d done up to 2015 we had a lot of sites on Connect and that gave us a good list to start from.
We worked the Postal Vote hard (and won it, narrowly) with target literature and door-knocking.
KEY POINT: Our basic, long-standing campaign techniques work. 90% of what we did in this campaign is absolutely standard stuff. We probably just do a lot more of it, a lot more often, in a lot more of the constituency, than most.
4. New ideas
We also tried to make good use of new techniques.
We have a NationBuilder website that we use for online petitions, collecting email addresses, campaign and social events and fundraising (as well as news stories). The number of email addresses we have has risen steadily over the last few years, and we use the ones we do have to get more by encouraging the sharing of petitions and news.
We’ve made good use of Facebook advertising. We’ve promoted videos (a good example here), online petitions, poster sign ups and links to third parties. We promoted various tactical voting sites, for example.
We have a busy ‘Virtual HQ’ on Facebook which is a very good way to get information out to people quickly. We sent out a whole series of emails about campaigning and to raise cash. But we also still do mailings to members and helpers through the post.
One key point is that these new techniques are still tied in with the traditional campaign. It’s about reinforcing the same messages, just through different and additional channels.
It is NOT a magic solution though. Social media and other new techniques work by enhancing a strong basic campaign, not by replacing it.
KEY POINT: Effective use of social media, websites and online tools can enhance our ability to get our message out and can make organising the campaign quicker and easier, BUT it can’t replace doing the other 90% of basic campaigning.
5. Right message to the right people
Well before the county elections, we identified four key large groups of voters that we thought would swing county seats, and subsequently the General Election. (Alongside EU voters for the county elections).
These were: Weak supporters; Squeeze voters; Remain Tories; and, Switch Tories.
Between them, we thought that, if we could win, it would be by swinging these groups our way.
We then worked out how to best present our message in order to maximise the number of voters we could swing in each of these groups.
We adapted as the campaign went on. For example, it became clear that we were winning back our weak supporters well, and that we had probably won over as many Remain Tories as we were going to by half way through the campaign. We then shifted the emphasis onto the other two key groups. This fed into our canvassing priorities and our literature and social media targeting.
We also picked up very quickly that the Dementia Tax issue was having a big impact on the Switch Tory group, and increased the emphasis on that issue. In fact, I decided to drop a whole round of localised leaflets with a constituency wide Dementia Tax leaflet in the middle week of the campaign.
These decisions were based on regular monitoring of canvass data to see how different groups were shifting and feedback from canvass teams each day.
KEY POINT: Most voters will not change their voting intention during a campaign, and those who have never voted previously mostly won’t this time. The key is to work out which voters might change, and to identify how best to persuade them. Our campaigning effort should be targeted at those individuals.
One additional point: we couldn’t have won without the additional support of members from many nearby local parties. We are very grateful for that help.
Take a look: examples literature from the campaign.
I've been told they had a fantastic, dashing young Campaign Organiser also.
absolutely fantastic, Neil. Although beyond the wildest dreams of the Fylde constituency, I would be grateful to know how you determined that we narrowly won the postal vote.
One cannot see the ballot papers on opening. I presume you were not able to tell which polling district these postal voters came from.
Conor - I heard he is a very modest chap too :-)
Hi Pam - they had already verified the postal votes as they came in, and we had not been able to get any useful information at that point. At the start of the main count they emptied all the postal vote ballot boxes to count into bundles of 25 and we got tallies at that point. We were consistently a bit ahead of the Tories, and with a much lower Labour vote than the final totals too.
How did you identify the Switch Tory group? Was that just using the target pool by Connect or something else?