I am going to make some early remarks about the by-election; and I stress early because I have been so tired I haven’t really thought through all the angles. I also hope this to be an honest account of what happened.
For those who do not know the circumstances or the campaign on the ground or the local factors this could be a confusing result; on sites like Vote-2007 a lot of people simply applied the polls or the national situation to the result. Many people thought that could lead to a Labour win. I have to say, the one result that – until the day – I thought utterly unlikely was the Labour win. On the day it was clear that Labour was moving its core block-vote and a lower turnout could have meant them squeaking back in. That is why the utterly efficient Tory get-out-the-vote was so important.
It is also important to remember the history of the ward; a factor which is largely ignored in the analysis of the result. Bowthorpe had, for a very long time indeed, been Labour’s safest City berth. The challengers in the ward were the LibDems, and after a narrower result in 2000 – if I recall correctly Labour held on by a couple of hundred – the war settled down into a familiar pattern of results. When I took over as candidate, Labour were polling around 1100, LibDems 750 and Tories 350. In 2003, the year I first stood, it was Labour 1100, LibDems 614, Tories 609. So, remember, this ward has a longer LibDem history and has a big LibDem vote within it; much larger than the natural Tory bloc. The reason that the LibDem advance looked so impressive is that the Conservatives had squeezed their vote so effectively in the 04-08 period and they were starting from an ultra-low base of around 195 votes. So when I see LibDems claiming a hell-of-a-result, I really want to point out that this was exactly the same sort of result they have always got in this ward.
Then there was the campaign itself. The LibDem bandwagon hit Bowthorpe hard; they produced at least 9 A3 leaflets during the campaign, on top of god knows how many more plus direct mail. The LibDems pounced on this ward the day after John died and relentlessly pursued it in the next 7 weeks. The sheer weight of campaign support they received was phenomenal; I have never seen anything like it – something the Tory Party ought to take note of. Nobody could deny the effort that went in; they imported campaign organisers and their Eastern Region Director was here for the whole of the campaign. Labour had, similarly, support from amongst others their London Campaign Director. We had no such support in any way, shape or form.
Given the money, the campaign support, the backing from local MPs it is remarkable that anything stopped the LibDem bandwagon. But when it came down to it, local issues and local candidates matter more than the weight of leaflets you could deliver. I am very proud that local people turned their backs on negative politics and voted for a candidate who offered a positive vision based upon years of getting results. The LibDems will no doubt point to an increase in votes; they should be looking at why their vote share ever fell that low in the first place; their campaign bought them back up to where they were. They should then look to see if their own campaign is what killed their candidate in the end; more of this later.
Sometimes, the thing is not what you have but what you do with it. And I would like to comment on the campaign that each party ran – but that’s for another day (after sleep).