I was sat in my grandmother’s front room when the news broke that veteran Labour MP Sir Gerald Kaufman, the father of the house, had passed away. He had been Member of Parliament for Manchester Gorton for over 40 years, and his hard work turned Gorton into one of the safest Labour seats in the country.
Barring 2015, the Lib Dems had consistently come second here and, in 2010, we held a majority of the council seats in the constituency. We subsequently lost all those seats as a result of the coalition and had done next to nothing in the constituency for the last five years. But this didn’t stop the party by-election machine springing into action. The people of Manchester had voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU, and with Labour at an all time low in the polls, now was the time to give it our all.
At the same time, a councillor for Rusholme (which is in Gorton constituency) had decided to resign, triggering a council by-election as well. I was picked as the candidate and proceeded to campaign as much as I could. I found residents were open to voting Liberal Democrat and many lifelong Labour voters were switching to us in droves. As Jackie Pearcey, the Liberal Democrat Gorton Parliamentary candidate, put it “the Labour vote’s softer here than it was during the Iraq war, it’s as soft as hell!”
As the party had managed to win the Richmond Park by-election a few months before, many felt we could do the same in Gorton and, if we didn’t manage that, at least we could win the council seat and give Labour a scare. I was in a lucky position indeed! But, on the day postal vote forms were being sent out to voters, Theresa May decided to call a general election. Of course, this meant that the Gorton by-election was off, but the council by-election was still on. It meant we had to try and maintain the momentum and support we had picked up in the short time. It proved difficult. Most Mancunians wanted the Tories out and they weren’t about to differentiate between a local by-election and the general election. They were voting Labour and that was the end of it. We managed to come second with a 10% swing, a result we were disappointed with but weren’t surprised by, given the enthusiasm for Jeremy Corbyn and Andy Burnham, who was also standing for Greater Manchester Mayor on the same day.
I thoroughly enjoyed standing in this by-election. The experience and knowledge I gained will stay with me and I’m sure it will with the handful of dedicated people that helped out (who I’m hugely grateful to). There was still a lot we should be proud of. Despite our loss – don’t regard efforts or individual efforts as futile, everything counts.
On that note, here’s five main points I’ve learned from the election, that those hoping to develop other seats across the country can hopefully use to grow their local parties from the ground up.
1. Get out into your community and knock on doors!
It’s a cliche, but there’s really no other way to win. In just six weeks, a small group of us in Rusholme had managed to knock on every door in the ward and speak to thousands of people. You might initially think ‘I can’t just knock on a strangers door’ or ‘they don’t want to be bothered by someone on the doorstep’. You might also be deeply sceptical as to the effectiveness of canvassing. But it’s all about how you approach it.
As much as you might feel like a door to door salesperson or a Jehovahs witness, don’t look at it like that. You’re a friendly neighbour, someone who wants to help in the community, and you’re just asking if there’s any local issues that they’d like to discuss with you. This is even more effective if you’re the candidate, as people in your community will respect you for making an effort and taking time to speak to them. They’re then more likely to share their political views with you. If they mention any local issues, speak to your nearest Lib Dem MP or councillor about how best to deal with it. Always keep a log of it and get back to the residents about what you’ve done.
2. Respect the opposition
Early in the by-election campaign, I happened to knock on the door of the Labour candidate’s campaign manager. I was pleasantly surprised by how friendly she was. The Labour literature was all positive and only mentioned the good points about the Labour candidate, rather than everything bad about the Lib Dems. Whilst this isn’t necessarily typical of all Manchester’s local Labour parties (in my experience anyway!), this mutual respect meant that we could get on with the campaign without any pointless ‘mudslinging’ or negativity. This doesn’t mean you don’t highlight their shortcomings, bad policies or mistakes they’ve made in the past, just avoid personal attacks and keep it civil.
3. Control your emotions
Going from being at the centre of a parliamentary by-election campaign that was aiming to win a council seat, to knocking on postal voters doors on your own, now struggling to even come second, can leave you feeling deflated and frustrated. Whilst that particular situation is far from a common occurrence, that’s the harsh reality of local politics; the outcome depends largely on the national opinion.
It can be difficult getting across to those less interested by local politics that it has almost nothing to do with westminster, but you can only do your best to explain the facts. Don’t get sucked into long arguments that won’t change anyones views. Politely end the conversation and move on (and for crying out loud, stay off social media, especially after a drink!) These feelings can be compounded massively when you’re the candidate (the specific medical term for this is candiditis!) just remember to maintain perspective and stay positive.
4. Help out in more winnable areas
Work hard in your patch, recruit new volunteers, have fundraisers, canvass and deliver. However, always be wary that you may only live a stones throw away from a ward or constituency that is on the verge of electing a new councillor or MP. At the same time, you may be quite a few years away from winning and right now, may only hope to come second at the very best. Whilst you must do everything you can in your area and it’s important for you to grow your local party, you must volunteer in marginal seats, as an extra deliverer or canvasser could be enough to get another Lib Dem onto your local council or into Parliament. Then should you be in a position to win, many people will want to return the favour. Make sure you’re always in contact with these other local parties, listen to those who are more experienced and respect each others efforts.
5. Be inclusive
You must maintain a balance between supporting activists who want to get out and campaign every week, whilst also accommodating those who are less able or willing to campaign as heavily.
They may have something equally as valuable to bring to the table, which is what makes diversity so important. Many see the Lib Dems as having a diversity problem. It has improved, but it still has a long way to go. Many people, both in the party and beyond, completely miss the point about why we’re so concerned with diversity. It’s not about ticking a box, or having a certain number of female candidates to meet quotas. It’s because politics is about representation, and one particular group in society will never have the same perspective or understanding as another. You need a range of people that reflects the community you’re representing. Failure to do this will result in problems down the line.
Get this right in your local party whilst you’re still growing, and it’ll pay off massively.
Amaan Hashmi was the candidate for the 2017 Rusholme by-election. He’s a digital marketer and army reservist. You can find him on Twitter @AHashmi95.