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Karen Allen: In the wake of the South Shields by-election, I see signs of hope for the Conservatives in the north-east

Allen KarenKaren Allen was the Conservative candidate in the recent the South Shields byelection.

Being re-selected as the Conservative Candidate in South Shields, to fight in the shortest by-lection campaign since the Second World War, was both a privilege and a steep challenge. After learning of David Milband’s resignation on 31st March, I was clear in my mind that the only thing to do was to put myself forward to stand again in the seat. Having grown up in the town, attended the local comprehensive school and having my family and friends living there, I felt totally committed to both the Association and Party in the North East.  

With a mere 21 days from my re-adoption to poll day on 2nd May what lay ahead? In 2010, the Conservatives polled 7,886 votes, which was 21.6% of the vote - representing a 4% swing from 2005 and, to boot, we’d pushed the Liberal Democrats from second down into third place. Let us not forget that was at the height of Clegg-mania! The mood in South Shields during the by-election campaign was immediately different to that of 2010. There seemed to be a more pronounced malignant attitude towards politicians generally and now, to make things worse, David Miliband - himself originally parachuted into the seat - had deserted South Shields with his leadership aspirations in tatters.

Of course, it was massively and personally disappointing to see Conservative support reduced from 21.6% to 11.5% in just three years, but I think it’s important to take this result in context. Voting in by-elections rarely rewards governing parties. We need only look to other Northern by-elections[1] (I  don’t think it provides any useful insight to compare and contrast results in marginal seats Corby and Eastleigh), but the real shock of the night was the humiliation faced by the Liberal Democrats, who polled an eye-watering 352 votes only, putting them into seventh place, only marginally ahead of the Monster Raving Loony Party.

UKIP, riding the wave of their rising national profile, stood a candidate for the first time in South Shields and were rewarded with 24.2% of the vote. Despite signs during the campaign suggesting that UKIP could gain votes from disenchanted Labour voters, it is very clear that the UKIP votes were mainly from those who had previously voted Conservative - and this is getting the national scrutiny it rightly deserves.

I want to look only at this result in the context of South Shields and the North East. The May 2nd result actually returned a 35.7% centre-right vote share, leaving Labour with a 3,648 majority only due to the low turnout. This is extraordinary, and would only a matter of years ago have been unprecedented. South Shields is probably the safest Labou seat in the country and is the only constituency since the 1832 Great Reform Act never to have returned a Conservative MP.

In the absence of local elections in South Shields, it wasn’t surprising that turnout was only 39.3% (down from 57.7% at the last General Election) but what is most interesting about this figure – albeit not that surprising if you know much about the voting patterns in the seat – is that of the total votes cast, a staggering 58.2% were made through postal votes. I think this really needs attention. The registration system and eligibility criteria needs to be reviewed. With postal ballot papers being returned a whole two weeks ahead of the ballot – particularly in a three week campaign window - surely this presents a challenge to democracy. I would have been fascinated to learn of the differential in voting patterns between those who visited the ballot box and those who posted their vote to the town hall – in the knowledge that much of the previous Labour vote must have stayed at home on 2nd May.

In the last two parliamentary elections, South Shields has attracted a number of Independent candidates or candidates from fringe parties, which is presumably explained by 2013 being a by-election, and 2010 providing an opportunity to stand against the then Foreign Secretary.  These circumstances have chipped away at the Labour vote share. In 2001 and 2005, Labour respectively held 63.2% and 60.5% of the vote.

So what we must not fail to observe is that the Labour vote has fairly substantially decreased over the last eight years. Miliband went from 60.5% in 2005 to 52% in 2010, which is not surprising for a general election in which the nation was moving away from Labour. But what is surprising and very interesting is that Labour’s home grown 2013 by-election candidate - only two years away from a general election,and  in one of the safest Labour seats in the country - only secured 50.4% of the vote, and not a return the bigger share  which we know is possible in South Shields. This surely must present grave concerns to Ed Milband. Why are Labour not gaining a higher vote share at this stage?

There are lessons we can learn from South Shields and my observations come with an element of detachment - as someone who is able to stand back to look back in, since I have spent the last 15 years of my life working in the City of London, and campaigning for the Conservatives in the South East. It is vital as a party we adequately identify and differentiate our campaign strategy in the North East (which is similarly true for other regions).

To say it’s important to run a local campaign sounds as though I am stating the absolute obvious – of course this is vital where ever you are in the country – but I have seen at first hand that the electorate seems to identify more with the candidate than the party.  There are some preconceptions of the Party which need effort put into if they are to be broken down, and I do believe it is possible to do that. South Shields wasn’t flooded with Cabinet Grandees in April  - but I am not sure that the electorate was that impressed by the never-ending plethora of shadow cabinet members that the Labour candidate was almost drowned in.

The now defunct South Shields Progressives – a group set up in the 1950s by a group of former Conservatives – controlled the then County Borough of South Shields Council until 1974. Interestingly, Northumberland  was one of the few areas of the country in which Conservatives made gains this May in the local elections - on Northumberland Country Council, we won an impressive four seats (the Liberal Democrats shed 15 of theirs). There are pronounced concentrations of centre right voters in South Shields and in the North East, but we only have MPs in Hexham and Stockton South. We need to reach out to the electorate in the North East, with the right candidates and the right local campaign strategy, with appropriate time and funding, if the party is to win nationally in 2015.

[1] Barnsley 2011 – Conservatives 8.3%, Rotherham 2012, 5.39%, Middlesbrough 2012 6.3%, Bradford 2012 8.4%


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