Campaign focus: Beating the Tories in Harlow

A week ago today, it was polling day in a key by-election in Harlow, a key Lib Dem / Tory marginal. The result was a win for the Lib Dems from the Tories on a swing of 10.5%. Here Lorna Spenceley, a Lib Dem councillor in Harlow, tells Lib Dem Voice how it happened…

In one sense, if we hadn’t won this by-election we should have been shot.

The circumstances were not at all propitious for the Conservatives, who had gained the seat from us in May 2008. Within five months of his election, the successful Tory candidate was on remand in prison, where he is still, facing charges of sexual assault against a thirteen year old girl.

And in their first year of outright control of Harlow Council, the Conservatives had made some disastrous and unpopular decisions.

The town’s advice centre had had its budget slashed by 84% – and service users had successfully challenged the Tories’ decision in the High Court. 150 sheltered homes for the elderly were to be decommissioned. A popular centre for the elderly was to cease services to many of the town’s older residents. Car parking charges had been introduced in the town’s neighbourhood shopping centres.

And to add insult to injury, senior council officers had been rewarded with pay rises reaching in some cases over £10,000.

And yet.

Harlow is one of the Tories’ very top target parliamentary seats. Their parliamentary candidate is long-established, and supported by truckloads of Ashcroft money that pours into the constituency week by week and month by month. They can afford regular constituency-wide commercial deliveries of glossy colour literature, front-page full-colour advertisements on the local free newspapers almost every week, and a stream of negative, poisonous literature in the ward.

And their majority in this ward a year ago was over 300. We needed a 9% swing to win.

We’d been busy in the ward since our defeat in May. We’d spent the summer with a gazebo, putting it up on green spaces near where people live and delivering a note to nearby residents the day before telling them we were going to be there for our open-air surgery. While the gazebo was up, we’d also been knocking on doors in the surrounding estates, meeting residents and picking up casework.

By Christmas we had knocked on about 95% of the ward – work early in the year that made all the difference in April. We’d delivered plenty of literature, and run our regular surgeries, as well as getting involved in local issues and estate-based consultations.

Our choice of candidate was a good one. John is personable, confident on the doorstep, well-known to lots of people, and lives in the ward. He also has time in the day – and spent much of it delivering leaflets and knocking on doors. Between him and his very small team of dedicated canvassers, they managed to get round the ward twice during the campaign, knocking on doors and listening to residents’ concerns. Recanvassing ‘soft’ voters as well as previous “Outs” was key to persuading voters unhappy with the Conservative-run Council to actually come out and vote for us.

By contrast, the Tory candidate was the only one of the three major parties who didn’t live in the ward; and despite all the Tory leaflets claiming superhuman levels of activity on her part, and calling her “local candidate”, it was hard to find a local resident who had met or even seen her.

Meanwhile, UKIP decided to stand a candidate, and we weren’t sure whether this additional area of uncertainty was going to be helpful to us or not.

We agreed to fight the election campaign on a simple ‘Fight The Cuts’ platform. Before nominations opened, we put a Fight The Cuts petition slip on our regular FOCUS leaflets and started taking it door to door. We designed a Fight The Cuts logo, in a standard Liberal Democrat diamond format, printed up dayglo posters and offered them to residents who signed the petition. And we used the story, and the Fight The Cuts logo, on every piece of literature we produced.

fight-the-cuts-logoUsing the Fight the Cuts petition on the doorstep was very effective at getting initially passive voters to talk to us, sign the petition, accept a Fight the Cuts poster, and then agree to support our candidate. It also picked up email addresses for future use.

The Liberal Democrat Focus brand is well known in the ward; we issue regular A3 Focus newsletters every month or two, and have done for many years. But in addition to these, we needed to put across two clear messages that people would read. We needed to convince Conservative-inclined voters that the continual lies the Tories were telling were just that. And we needed to make sure every Labour voter understood that Labour couldn’t win, and that every Labour vote would only help the Tories.

Two leaflets in particular contributed to our success: both were artworked by someone who hadn’t designed literature for us before, and so looked fresh and different. The first was a ‘Porkies’ leaflet, with a large photo of a pork pie on the outside and a ‘Beware Porkies’ message.

The inside was simply a column of Conservative quotes under a heading ‘Conservative Spin’, and on the other side of the page another series of quotes (from the press and the council) giving the truth. (Thank you, Andrew and Duncan, for the ‘pork pie’ concept). Canvassing after this had gone out showed that it had been eye-catching enough to capture people’s attention, and that the contrast between Tory spin and the actual facts was unarguable.

The second was a leaflet similar in style and layout to Labour’s election literature, with red spot colour, telling Labour voters that their party couldn’t win, and reminding them that we were campaigning against the cuts they too opposed. The usual Liberal Democrat imprint was on it twice, it included the Liberal Democrat Freepost return address and our petition and our Fight The Cuts logo with Lib Dem bird, so it wasn’t intended to mislead.

But Labour were furious – so much so that they reprinted the front of the leaflet on their own eve of poll leaflet, so large that the biggest words on their leaflet were our headline that ‘only the Lib Dems can beat the Tories here’!

Polling day was scary. The Tories had bussed in help from London and elsewhere; and the level of Labour activity was unexpected and worrying; both the current and the previous Labour MPs were out on the doorstep. We had our own small team, plus four other people from outside Harlow who each gave us a few hours of their time and whose help was invaluable. We delivered a targeted 6am Good Morning, and did two knock-ups on the ground as well as using the phone. We knew it was close – 50 votes either way. But which way?

By 9 pm residents had been leafleted, knocked and telephoned to death – by all parties – but the committee room organiser still sent people out for one last knock-up in areas with a considerable amount of our identified vote still to get out. The reaction was very good considering how late people were being called on. Even at 9.30 pm, two of our party workers found an elector who hadn’t voted, and phoned the committee room for a lift to get them to the polling station.


John’s majority of 60 votes over the Tories – a 10.5% swing – was a delight. It was a bitter blow to the Conservatives, who had come to the count suited and booted, prepared for a group photo with their victorious candidate, and sloped away empty-handed and demoralised. We hadn’t managed to squeeze the Labour vote – their last-minute activity increased their vote on the previous year. But we’d done enough.

The result shows that the Conservative vote is very fluid, and can be defeated by a robust and determined Liberal Democrat campaign.

We didn’t really do anything new or startling in this by-election. We simply decided what our message was, kept putting it on pieces of paper and putting them through letter boxes, and knocked on doors and talked to voters. Not even Lord Ashcroft’s millions can stop any of us doing that – and it works.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • I thought the Lib Dems wanted to be distinctive. So why use the same design for leaflets as Labour? It sounds like you want people to think you are Labour.

    Can politics not be a battle of ideas?

  • Grammar Police 7th May '09 - 5:42pm

    @ Voter, it can’t be a battle of ideas unless you can get your ideas across – there’s nothing wrong with trying to make your points in an eye-catching way.

    If people would normally chuck away leaflets but pick something up because out of the corner of their eye they see Labour’s red – then I don’t think that’s a bad thing, as long as it’s clear who the literature is from (which it does above) – they can then read Lib Dem ideas and make their own minds up.

  • That leaflet, if true, crosses the line.

  • Note they don’t show page 2 – where the imprint is.

  • Matthew Huntbach 8th May '09 - 2:50pm

    There is a vocal group within Liberal Democrat bloggery which seems to believe cuts is what we should be about. They argue that true liberalism means small government and minimal tax.

    I am one of the few people who tackles this lot head on, to the point where I’m beginning to think I’m in the wrong party, because I end up being painted as some sort of socialist loony who doesn’t understand what liberalism is about and so should never be in their party and there’s no-one saying otherwise.

    The funny thing is that I myself would be quite reluctant to fight an election campaign on “Fight the Cuts” unless I was sure I could comfortably put the case either for alternative cuts or for extra taxation or for the cuts really leading to longer term problems which would result in more expenditure later on.

  • It rather depends what the ‘cuts’ are- at a national level, I would be happy to cut ID cards, but would be reluctant to cut funding for FE colleges, say.

  • Grammar Police 8th May '09 - 4:44pm

    Anon at 7.37pm, unless you haven’t noticed – that’s only one side of the leaflet; Harlow Cons didn’t bother to put the full leaflet on their site so people can make their own minds up.

    Second Anon and Matthew – bloggers, in my opinion, tend to come across as more dogmatic. Most Lib Dems I know are nearer to your position. My view is that “cuts” to taxation at the lower end are a good thing ;o)

  • Matthew Huntbach 9th May '09 - 10:29pm

    bloggers, in my opinion, tend to come across as more dogmatic. Most Lib Dems I know are nearer to your position.

    Right – so why does no-one else take them on? And why don’t the bloggers show the courage of their conviction and attack Lorna Spenceley as they attack me when I suggest there’s a case for state expenditure and taxation and that liberalism shouldn’t necessarily mean reducing it to the minimum?

  • David Allen 9th May '09 - 11:21pm


    Well, perhaps it’s because Lorna Spenceley has just won a byelection on a platform of higher spending, so Jules Mart and his friends from Ultraliberal Jihad think that their best strategy is to keep very quiet!

  • Lorna Spenceley 11th May '09 - 6:31am

    Fighting the cuts doesn’t necessarily mean higher spending. During our time in shared control of Harlow Council, the Liberal Democrats – together with our Labour (then) partners – worked very hard each year through the ‘star chamber’ process to find savings, efficiencies and economies to avoid cuts to front line services, and to keep the council tax down. We handed the incoming Conservative administration a balanced budget, as Audit Commission reports confirm.

    By contrast, the Conservatives have made massive cuts to the front line, slapped parking charges on neighbourhood shopping centres in the middle of a recession, given huge pay hikes to senior officials – and still managed to charge an above-inflation council tax increase.

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