Putney Labour Gain. Three words on an otherwise fantastic night that ought to chill the local Conservative party to the bone.
It is incredibly frustrating for me as someone who is a passionate supporter and member of my local Conservative party. We used to be great at campaigning – what has often been referred to as the ‘Wandsworth Way’ of doing things.
A campaign machine which made its own weather now blows like a reed in the wind.
Some will say this is overblown, that it’s mere hyperbole and that there is nothing we could have done to hold back the red tide.
I think it does show a worrying pattern and there is more on that at the very end in terms of the repeated failures. That’s why I have written this blog. We can be sure the Labour Party are already thinking about what they got right – read this blog post from them.
I hope friends and fellow Conservatives locally will share and discuss it.
All I want is to stop the narrative that this couldn’t be avoided. That everything is ok and we simply sail on unchanged. Given a blog is public there is no secret sauce here and I’m not giving away any data or secrets not already in the public domain.
I’ve bucket loads of thoughts on ideas for new campaigns and how to fix things but that’s a conversation that’s not best carried out in public and in a very different space.
I’m sure some people won’t like it and will try to discredit me as a consequence. But I for one can’t stand idly by whilst a bunch of people I have little respect for and who have let us down badly are allowed to pretend it is all someone else’s fault. They and they alone need to own those three words. Putney Labour Gain.
We have to change. If we don’t change we won’t win.
How bad was the Putney result in 2019?
Broadly speaking I have heard all kinds of excuses from ‘Putney just doesn’t like Boris’ to ‘it is all Brexit’, but broadly I think there are broadly speaking four main themes.
1. Justine Greening was a good local MP
I agree. Whilst we disagreed about much on constituency stuff she was very very good and had built up a strong reputation locally. An endorsement from her would have worked wonders. Sadly it never came. It is not even clear if she voted Conservative.
Six weeks are not long but there were record numbers of retirements and former MPs complicating things by standing as independents. In each and every one of those the Conservative Party won.
Ironically one of the other finalists at the Putney selection was selected elsewhere and is now an MP.
The challenge in Putney was in no way unique and everyone else managed to overcome that.
2. Putney was targeted by Momentum
Yes but so were lots of other seats – many higher in profile than ours. Iain Duncan Smith has been fighting Momentum in his London seat for years now.
This shouldn’t have been a surprise once the majority was slashed back in 2017 we knew we would be targeted.
Despite having 2 years notice we did not prepare well enough.
We had to fight smarter and better because we couldn’t swamp the place with hundreds of young activists.
3. Brexit: in a seat that had voted 72% for Remain was always going to be tough
Yes but we have known that for 3 years! We had zero plan to deal with it.
Plus this over simplistic picture simply is not backed up by any kind of data. In Putney the Labour party added 4.4% to its share of the vote and the Conservatives lost 8.4%.
The really useful BBC graph below shows that we lost far more votes in Putney than in other strong Remain areas.
The average lost was just under 3%. Labour locally did much better than they did in other seats adding when other equally strong Remain seats were losing vote share.
4. The Conservatives just do badly in London
We actually won two seats back this time in the capital. Look at the London average – in the chart below – which saw us slip 1.1% of the votes (a reminder of the Putney figure again – the Conservatives lost 8.4%.) In London overall Labour lost 6.4% of the vote – mainly to the Lib Dems. In Putney let us not forget that they added 4.4% and many more votes. What the numbers clearly show is that the local Labour polled better than the average and we did far worse.
This is not just a Putney thing, it is happening more broadly across Wandsworth. As one Putney Councillor noted on Twitter in three previous General Elections (2010, 2005, 2001) in which the three Wandsworth constituencies put together were within about 3% of the national picture when it came to Conservative votes versus Labour ones.
Since then things have changed. In 2015 (nationally) the Conservatives had 36.9%, Labour 30.4% giving a ratio of 1.214 Conservative votes for every one cast for Labour. Locally the Conservative won 72,169 votes across Putney, Battersea and Tooting, Labour 56,893, a ratio of 1.269, pretty close still.
In 2017 the figures were (nationally) 42.4% to 40.0% (ratio 1.06); locally across the Borough the Conservatives got 62,791 votes, Labour 79,111 (ratio 0.79) i.e. considerably worse than the national picture. In 2019 (nationally) 43.6% for the Conservative to 32.1% for Labour (ratio 1.35); locally Conservatives got 56,132, Labour 80,081 (ratio 0.70).
In short, we did almost twice as bad here in Wandsworth as nationally.
How not to run an election campaign
These are just a few of what I feel were critical errors that I saw being made – there are others – but this blog would then be even longer! A couple of years ago I stood on a platform of reform to become Chairman of Putney Conservatives. I was roundly beaten. But many of the issues I raised than about what I would refer to as ‘smart campaigning’ and the use of social media are still valid. Though Will made good use of short video clips in the campaign and ought to be congratulated on that.
I went to the selection meeting and it was packed with real energy in the room with hundreds of fellow members. Yet the shortlisting of the candidate was a shambles. None of those experienced successful local campaigners and Councillors who applied made it through to the final.
For the avoidance of doubt local means you live in Putney. You get the train or tube to work from here and you just know stuff and have established networks. Successful means just that you have had to have won elections. Losing a seat therefore in my mind did not qualify one of the three finalists despite living in Putney. That lack of experience (she’s a nice person who may yet go on to become an MP) showed on the evening.
Will Sweet is a decent guy. I voted for him but he isn’t local. He doesn’t live here. He lives in St Mary’s Park over by Battersea Bridge and would be just as local as someone living in Wimbledon Town Centre and representing Village Ward. But that was brushed over because he’s a Wandsworth Councillor. A very good one as it happens but he’s not an established Putney Councillor and that would have been my strong preference. Our selection committee deliberately and with a forethought robbed us the wider Conservative membership of that choice.
All of this matters because our new MP Fleur Anderson isn’t local either but we couldn’t make anything out of her living in Balham as a consequence. She’ll never experience the nightmares of the district line or the crush in to Waterloo because she won’t be coming from here. Her visits down our run-down Putney High Street will be just that because she will shop closer to where she lives.
At this stage Will could still have won. He did well on the night and I’m sure will have a very bright future in politics.
The campaign struggled to get going
But there were already signs on the night that we weren’t up for the fight or thinking along the right lines. The meeting was packed and rather than having a call to arms with turn up at XXX location we will have deliveries and canvassing for those who don’t mind knocking on doors (let’s face it this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea). Those running the show gave at best a generic plug and were more interested in taking a photo of everyone for Twitter. Yeah exactly!
Campaigns, successful ones at least, are all about the logistics. It is something we are bad at and here is an example which aligns with that fact we are not strategically smart either. Election expenses are limited in the short campaign – roughly the bit when Parliament is dissolved. And this means that probably all three main parties have more in funds than they can legally spend. But in the period before that the figure is again regulated but in such a way as to make little practical difference.
So having selected Will on the Wednesday night we had 6 days until midnight Tuesday to get out lots of literature introducing Will and framing the choice.
I would have made the following choice. Thursday morning send Will around getting a few pictures for a generic leaflet through all doors. This would have outlined who he is and shown him by Putney station calling for a second entrance etc.
The second would have involved a letter to every known Conservative and possible Conservative (we know this from knocking on doors all year round) plus some key groups such as those with a postal vote. This would have dealt with the Greening thing, talked about Brexit and made clear the choice and built a rapport – ‘I’m going to be knocking on a lot of doors but may well miss you. So if you want to get in touch email me etc’ let me know I have your support by texting this number could have been the roll number to and a simple pay as u go mobile. This would have saved us a lot of canvassing effort and enabled us to focus on those who needed it. If they were not sure they could have texted ‘maybe’. Let’s face it: all the information is incredibly useful.
With so many people present, if everyone had signed up to do a couple of hundred then all this was possible. Like many more I would have been up for the fight and pledged to do a thousand. I was pleased we didn’t have the Brexit blocking Justine Greening – who wouldn’t support the PM I voted for and was not up for it. We instead did nothing.
When I checked with those who run the delivery network in my home ward I was told there was an issue with the printer. I don’t know about the details of that but to me it speaks to a lack of drive and willingness to go the extra mile.
Holding Putney should have been the number one priority for our paid staff. They couldn’t make this happen. Getting a printer to turn it around and have it delivered by Saturday morning so the volunteers had 4 days to deliver was a slog – but that’s what’s required to grind out the result. And results in the election business is what everyone should be judged on.
If we don’t have such a relationship with a printer (I’ve no idea either way) but then that speaks to the issue that we don’t put out enough material in peace time (we haven’t had a leaflet about the Council and our Councillors for well over a year now – probably closer to a year and a half) to be a valued client.
This lack of intensity sadly continued throughout the campaign. We delivered less literature (just a couple of things plus the election address which comes via Royal Mail) than the other parties and it was less good. So we missed a huge opportunity and Will hadn’t even been the candidate for 7 days.
Failing to make the most of the opportunities
Will did however get some lucky breaks. One such was the hard left policy not just to abolish all non-state schools but to actively take their assets. Putney has a large number of them especially Prep Schools and a large number of local residents send or have sent their kids there. For example Putney High School would be shut and the site liquidated. From the Labour conference in September till the launch of the Labour Party manifesto on 22nd November what was official Labour Party policy because its conference is the sovereign decision making body.
It wasn’t the only missed opportunity we could have hit Labour hard on the Garden Tax – or other issues. But given Will is responsible for Education on Wandsworth Council this was a fantastic opportunity to paint his Labour opponent as hard left. This wasn’t just about private schools, it was an attack on private property and the freedom for parents to choose how to educate their children. Will actually had done a motion to the last full Council Meeting so had a track record he could flag up. We should have made Labour pay dearly but didn’t.
On Hammersmith Bridge it was a similar story. This is causing chaos in Putney. The displaced traffic makes things a misery for thousands of local residents and all this largely because a Labour Council (Hammersmith) has not done a good job. A great pledge to build a new bridge under the Conservatives should have seen us go to town with special leaflets and the like. It simply didn’t materialize.
We don’t seem to understand how to motivate our supporters
Elections are not always won by the party with the biggest amount of support. Often you can win if you are better able to turn out your supporters on the day. That’s something the local Conservatives have been traditionally very good at. There were for example always more Labour supporters in Roehampton but those who did go and vote wanted to back their local Council. This is called GOTV (GET Out The Vote) and to do it we need to motivate our support.
Direct mail is a key part of this. My wife has a Postal Vote and there are around 15,000 postal voters roughly 1 in 5 people vote this way in Putney. The turnout is consequentially much higher than turnout in person. Most will send them back within a few days – there is lots of academic research on this. This year they happened to land on the doormats on Saturday morning and the vast majority would have been in the post as people set off for work on Monday morning.
Best practice in a campaign is to time a letter from your own candidate so it is in the post with the ballot. Few in Putney got one from the Conservatives. My wife did however get one from Labour and the Lib Dems. Perhaps my wife isn’t in the system as a known Conservative so they missed her out. But that’s odd as she too is a Conservative member. But she would still be a blank and given you know postal voters are almost certain to vote – why would you every actively exclude her?
It is a similar story with non-postal voters but again there was no letters to known Conservative supporters. A case could be made that things have moved on. That these techniques are now out of date. So why is every other party doing it and the Conservatives in other seats?
Another example is the poll card – the Town Hall delivers one so you know where to go and vote. It helps remind people if the parties do their own. These are normally delivered from the Monday to the Wednesday before polling day. Labour had a very successful one and when I was telling on polling day a lot of their supporters brought them along. We did nothing.
Perhaps we lacked headroom in our election expenses. But the Labour Party also have professional paid staff and an office so they fit it in – we made choices and not to do basic GOTV i.e. an eve of poll leaflet or dawn raid is simply unprofessional.
We have simply lost our way locally
The Count and declaration in many respects showed up yet another issue. This time with the Council. I watched the results roll in. Count after count. Win after win. Labour loss after loss. Go back and watch the fab Cllr Mrs Jane Cooper as Mayor read out our results. The background is largely blank and there are just these weird looking thrones behind her and the candidates. It is a tiny thing which speaks to a much bigger truth. Wandsworth is a beautiful place. Parts of it are very photogenic – we could have made any backdrop – lots of other Councils managed it.
So why couldn’t Wandsworth? There are a few possibilities as to why. Conservative run Wandsworth simply doesn’t care. It doesn’t want to look its best. Perhaps Council officers think that it is not a priority and elected Councillors are not directing them or asking the right questions to ensure they get them to change. It surely can’t be about money – the cost of a giant banner is at most a few hundred pounds. It is just a small but symbolic example of how the Council has lost it way.
Austerity has been really painful in Wandsworth because it was already very lean and low tax. It still does a great job in many respects. But the cuts therefore hurt. The choices were hard and painful to make. But what doesn’t cost money is a vision. We see very little sign of that but there is lots of good stuff happening. Local Councillors are on the whole hand working and do a good job. But there is no narrative or story about the Council’s work. Communications is vital but seems to be an afterthought at the Town Hall these days.
It has gone from having the first Council website in the country to a clunky and outdated communications model. Just talk to a Councillor and ask them what the three things they did for your ward last year were and what three they will be doing next. Many I suspect would struggle. We need to once again become campaigners. These improvements are not just a good in their own right they are also a vital source of the data needed to help win elections.
It wasn’t always like this and the Council has played a key role in making Wandsworth a better place. They have been instrumental in getting longer trains and the station upgrades in Putney and at Earlsfield. But voters want to know what’s next. The transformation of Battersea Power Station is of little interest to voters in Putney. They want to know what we are going to do and they don’t mind us standing up to others to get results.
That doesn’t just mean sticking it to Labour Mayor Sadiq Khan, it means standing up to a Conservative government too. Under Mrs May you would have thought this was easy.
The Conservatives in Government underfunded our schools (something Boris has put right) and presided over a business rate policy which has destroyed Putney High Street (again the new PM is trying to turn this around). I voted Conservative in 2017. But the party wasn’t perfect. Voters get this. Historically this was a core part of how Wandsworth out performed the national picture.
Voters are sophisticated and reward those who stand up for them. That doesn’t mean the council ought to go to war with a Conservative government. But there is a way and tone of going about it. Surrey Council are perhaps the best example of this in recent years when they challenged the government on council tax and got a better deal as a consequence. Why hasn’t Wandsworth done likewise?
What the Council has been historically good at is taking on the Government and standing up for local residents. Though I would struggle to think of a single example of that in the last decade.
The Council used to have a USP in its low tax and when I first joined local back in the noughties this was still a very powerful tool on the doorstep. But it is now 27 years since that historic event. See here for the background. I saw a fantastic bit of analysis on this and its diminishing impact on the Conservatives electoral performance but the paper is (sadly) not mine to share.
I think as the borough has become more prosperous the low tax agenda has become less important. My Sky TV bill is more per month than the Council Tax and so it doesn’t really matter. Something similar occurs for the many local residents for whom the service charge on their flat is a far bigger consideration than a few pounds here or there on the Council Tax. Wandsworth Conservatives still offer fantastic value for money – it just matters far less than they perhaps realise.
What the Council certainly hasn’t done is reinvent itself in light of the younger demographic living in the borough today. It clearly has a majority at the Town Hall but does not command majority support amongst local residents. It got less votes than Labour when it was last up for election in 2018. The Conservatives have not won a borough wide election since 2014.
The fact is that the relationship with the Council and the local party is symbiotic. We the active membership cannot be strong unless they are strong. The Conservative Council together with the local party has to once again start campaigning for things and offer a positive vision. There are a heck of a lot of young professionals locally just like my wife and I.
The Conservatives have a small majority on the Council and in 4 wards only held on to the Councillors they needed by just a 118 votes (in Earslfield it was just 10 votes that saw 1 Conservative hold on; in Nightingale it was 62 votes; in Shaftesbury 35 votes and St Mary’s Park just 11).
We should be asking ourselves some very hard questions about why they find the Conservative Party as unappealing as the table below shows.
Repeated Failure – this is not a one off!
I wrote this section but decided to remove it from the main body as it made the introduction over long. This election was in my view the fourth failure in a row is part of a broader pattern. We’ve had a run of bad elections now and I saw the same thing in each of the last three years.
- In 2016 we lost the local London Assembly Seat. This was all Zac Goldsmiths fault as the local narrative went. Sadly it stuck. But it is utter rubbish. We held this seat in 2000 when the hapless Steve Norris was the Conservative Candidate; Mr Blair was walking on water and every Parliamentary seat in Merton & Wandsworth was Labour. In 2016 we had 3 of the 5 parliamentary seats but still couldn’t get a win (this was also pre EU referendum!). We lost Merton and Wandsworth for the first time in 2016. I have seen little by way of a serious plan about winning it back.
- In 2017 those running things locally didn’t need to come up with a scapegoat. Mrs May had made such a mess of things she made it easy for them. We simply don’t see the same constant improvement which had previously been part of our campaigning DNA. So lucky escape. Justine Greening has held on and full steam ahead. But underneath all that we had real issues (Justine’s majority was the smallest it had ever been 3.3% versus 4.8% when she got elected back in 2005) and had lost the art of good campaigning.
- What we sailed into wasn’t calmer water but the worst Wandsworth Council election result in a generation. The narrative this time was of a plucky few fighting off the hard left Momentum hoards and yet we hung on by just 118 votes. The Council has a majority of just 3; winning 33 seats (down 8). Labour won 26 (up 7), while 1 seat was won by an independent, Malcolm Grimston. In 2018 more people in Wandsworth voted Labour. The odds of us wining in 2022 don’t look great. I know two members of the Council’s cabinet and neither think they will hold. In Putney the fact that we lost West Hill; a seat we had held continuously since 1974, was a mere blip. Explained away by Malcom Grimston, the former Conservative turned independent. Yet there is only one Malcom Grimston and the Labour Party won the other two seats. We lost by just 61 votes in one case. The campaign was so poor and we badly let down those three candidates.