Tag Archives: lorna spenceley

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.

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