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Graeme Brown: Why didn't we the general election? Reflections on the campaign from the coalface of a Midlands marginal

Graeme Brown Graeme Brown was the Conservative candidate in Dudley North from September 2009 until the General Election. He cut Labour’s majority from over 4,000 to 650.

With a Conservative Prime Minister in office, it is understandable that the result of a General Election held less than two months ago appears to have been forgotten by most of us. Yet, the Conservative Party didn’t win an overall majority. If we are to win one in future, (and I hope that is still our aim!) we need to understand why.

Tim has already written a comprehensive account of why he thinks we failed to get a majority, and I don’t wish to repeat his analysis. I do hope I can offer a slightly different perspective on it though – I was one of the Tory candidates who lost in a marginal seat  – I may have been an MP now if we’d won a majority in the Commons, so I guess I have a vested interest in understanding why we didn’t!

Every marginal seat is unique, and the reasons why one seat is won and another seat is lost will vary markedly. As a candidate who lost, I of course made mistakes, and will readily admit to them. However, there are some issues that stood out to me during the campaign ‘on the ground’ which I’m not sure individual candidates could have had much effect on – I set them out below.

The Economy
I was knocking up in one of my ‘good areas’ at about 6.30pm on election day – I met a man in his late 30s in his driveway and I asked, of course, if he’d vote for me. He said he still wasn’t sure – he was a disillusioned Labour voter who didn’t want to vote for Gordon Brown – but, that, he "wasn’t sure, with the economy as it was, that now was the time for a change”.

My heart sank at that point. We had just endured the worst recession in our history (with the West Midlands the worst affected region of the UK). Banks had collapsed under a regulatory regime established by the then current Prime Minister 13 years ago. Our budget deficit was massive and unsustainable, and entirely the fault of the government. (There are of course 20 other points all of us could make here about the Labour government’s economic incompetence). And yet at 6.30pm on election day, a relatively affluent middle class voter in Dudley was still weighing up if he’d be safer with Gordon Brown.

Despite the expenses scandal, which would have suggested that incumbency would be a handicap in the election, many incumbent Labour MPs in marginal seats did much better than new Labour candidates did. Labour MPs hung on in Edgbaston and Gedling as well as in Dudley North in the Midlands. Wolverhampton South West and Broxtowe (both of which we won narrowly on small swings) are other examples of marginal seats where incumbent Labour MPs fought off the national swing to us. The Labour MPs in all these seats were hard-working and well-known and their personal vote probably saved them (or almost did), especially at an election where politicians in general were hugely mistrusted.

‘Tory Cuts’
All the way through the campaign, I was stopped by pensioners asking me if we were going to cut their free bus travel or winter fuel payments, or young mums who were convinced we were going to remove tax credits for the low paid. I always tried to set people straight, but of course for every one person who stopped, there must have been dozens more who believed we’d cut these things who I couldn’t speak to.

David Cameron attacked Gordon Brown for lying about ‘Tory Cuts’ in the debates, (though it was never followed up consistently in the national media afterwards). My Labour opponent’s literature didn’t tell blatant lies on these issues, which I understand wasn’t always the case elsewhere. So why did so many people evidently believe that we would cut these things?

Anecdotally, I’ve heard that in the West Midlands, the fear of Tory cuts was spread by word of mouth, often by union activists – the driver of the minibus taking pensioners to a Day Centre or a union rep in a nurses' staff meeting at the local hospital. The ability of the unions to spread political messages by word of mouth, particularly across the public sector, is something I don’t think the party has fully grasped, but I believe it harmed us in the campaign.

The Messages
Labour had a crude but simple message – ‘Vote Tory, get Cuts’. We didn’t have a similar simple message. I’m a big fan of the idea behind the Big Society, but one of my more memorable email exchanges of the campaign was with a Tory voter who told me very bluntly that he didn’t have time to appoint his local Police Inspector and help manage his children’s school – he had a business to run! As the Labour leadership contest is confirming, immigration was a huge issue in urban areas in particular, and yet voters I spoke to were sceptical of our willingness to tackle it because they didn’t hear us talking about it at all (I’m not saying we didn’t talk about it, I’m simply saying that voters I spoke to felt we weren’t).

The Labour Campaign
As well as focusing on the failures of the Tory campaign, I think we need to give credit to the Labour Party, and to Gordon Brown. Despite everything, he didn’t lead Labour to a catastrophic defeat. They have 90 more MPs than we did in 1997. If they win 30 more seats at the next election (as many as Michael Howard did in 2005), it is almost certain they will lead the next government. On the ground, Labour knew where to fight, and where not to. In the seats where they did fight, they got their vote out. Some staunch Labour polling districts in Dudley North that struggle to get turnouts of 25% at a local election were seeing turnouts of close to 60% - I understand that this was the case across the country, and particularly in London. The Labour ‘Get Out the Vote’ machine is formidable and deserves our respect.

Of course, some of these points may be best tackled by proving ourselves in government – a ‘Tory Cuts’ message may be much harder for Labour to sell in 2015 if winter fuel payments and free bus travel have not been cut. But I do think it’s important that we understand why we didn’t win the election. I’d be interested in reading about other candidates’ (successful as well as unsuccessful) views from an ‘on the ground’ perspective on Platform over the next few weeks. Before we get completely absorbed in governing and forget about the 2010 election completely, we must understand why we didn’t win it, and what we need to do better next time.


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