[This item has featured as a guest post on Liberal Conspiracy today: my thanks to Don Paskini]
Crewe and Nantwich is only one of almost 650 constituencies on the political map of the UK. But the by-election there in May 2008 holds important lessons for the protagonists in the upcoming General Election.
Following the death of Gwyneth Dunwoody, Labour were between the proverbial rock and hard place: whether they called a snap by-election, or played a longer game, the Government’s unpopularity put them at a disadvantage. Moreover, they needed to select a candidate, and quickly.
Both Tory and Lib Dem already had candidates in place. Edward Timpson was, apparently, not well regarded by Tory HQ, but the crucial and sensible decision was made by Eric Pickles, chosen to manage the campaign, to stand by him. The Lib Dems, seemingly in a moment of panic, ditched their man in favour of Elizabeth Shenton, who then had start over with local activists. This gave the Tories a head start.
Fat Eric then managed expectations well, while basic research would have told him that the seat was easily winnable. Hence Young Dave telling that the Tories “would give it their best shot”. The press were fed stories of a “rock solid working class seat”, which could be easily disproved by a trip out to Nantwich – solidly Tory – or to outlying villages, and those new housing developments full of potential swing voters. But during the campaign, most of the assembled hackery saw little more than the area between Crewe station and the town centre, and so bought into Fat Eric’s well crafted myth.
Surprisingly, the media did little analysis on past elections, which would have disproved the myth of the working class stronghold. The last time a majority Tory Government was returned – in 1992 – Dunwoody’s majority was under 2,700. There had been only one instance of a five figure majority, that in 1997: then, the Tories had been caught in a perfect storm, unpopular nationally and disliked locally after the rail sell-offs caused delays in new train orders and the Works had to lay off staff.
Labour selected Dunwoody’s daughter Tamsin to fight the seat. Was this a good or bad thing? My take is that it had no bearing on the outcome. I reckon she was the best candidate, but Timpson’s shortcomings – he’s not a natural talker and doesn’t do charisma – were managed by Pickles guiding and coaching him, making sure he got his talking points over. It would be different in a General Election campaign, where the luxury of a personal minder would be missing, but that would be to miss the point. The matter at hand was winning the by-election.
The Tories were allowed to make the running from the start, and their focus was incessantly negative, and personal towards the PM. They stuck to this tack and their discipline held firm. Labour’s attempts to show Tamsin Dunwoody in a positive light made little impact. Elsewhere, Elizabeth Shenton was having difficulty making herself heard, despite Vince Cable being ever present.
The saturation media coverage, and the dispatch of every well known politician to Crewe and Nantwich, also had little additional impact: on one Saturday in mid-campaign, Simon Hughes turned up to assist Ms Shenton, while earlier, Jack Straw had brought his soap box to Crewe town centre, and took questions from all comers, but they need not have bothered. The same could be said of the “love bombing” of often bewildered shoppers in Asda, who for a moment were considered important enough to have Young Dave pack their shopping. The parties’ efforts cancelled each other out.
Was the “Tory Toff” line wrong? Maybe, given that Timpson, although part of the shoe repair dynasty, is not a man of ostentatious wealth. But Labour make Young Dave visibly uncomfortable whenever he is the target of such attacks, so the idea that this contest going the way of the Tories would stop them is groundless.
One controversy was generated by a Labour campaign leaflet, which Fat Eric called out as “racist”. I saw the offending flyer – the contentious part was the policy of ID cards for foreign nationals – and sent it on its way. Was it racist? I think not. Clumsy maybe, and more likely a policy cut and paste job. But racist it had been called, and once more the Tory discipline held: all those from the party venturing an opinion on the matter toed the line. Pickles is supposedly known for his “anti racism”, but on this occasion it seemed more a case of “accusing the opposition of racism at a time likely to cause them maximum damage, and keeping up the attack in order to prevent them effectively rebutting the accusation”. Given Fat Eric’s role in the upcoming General Election campaign, look for that one to be wheeled out again.
The Tories then completed their mission by keeping up the campaigning until polling day. Labour did not. On the last Saturday, I spoke with a Labour supporter who assured me that they would return to get out the vote, but later that same day, a conversation with the campaign HQ on Nantwich Road left me with the impression they had given up. So it was: the evening of polling day was a quiet one in what I call “Redbrick Crewe”, the area that returns Labour and Lib Dem councillors. Labour had already admitted defeat: the Tory majority therefore flattered Timpson.
What will happen at the General Election? Well, unless the Tories score a substantial swing, Timpson will be unseated. David Williams, his next Labour opponent, has the presence and the patter: he is a natural politician. Edward Timpson will have served his purpose.