Just over a year ago I wrote a piece for Lib Dem Expand, all about winning a tremendous council election victory in deepest Labour Rotherham.
Since then I have of course learnt that in politics you also have to do an awful lot of losing. Two national parliamentary by-elections. Five council by-elections here in South Yorkshire. And of course watching at close range as Nick Clegg’s Sheffield Hallam seat slipped away from us in last June’s General Election. For someone in South Yorkshire who really, really hates to lose you might feel like I have joined the wrong party…
Because in May I won a seat on Barnsley Council, in my home ward of Penistone West.We got 46% of the vote, from a standing start, with a 778 vote majority. I am now the only Lib Dem on Barnsley Council, and the first for 8 years.
So how did I get here?
First of all, we actually stood a candidate. In fact we stood candidates in 14 out of 21 wards across Barnsley borough. Not the full slate we had hoped for, but considerably better than the zero candidates we stood in 2016.
We had a small but committed teamwho are focussed, passionate and who also really love to win, led by the man I trust most to write winning campaigns – my incredible agent and campaign manager Mike Shaw.
We had a story. This is my home, where I am raising my family, and I understand how people here think and feel. We weren’t shy in revealing personal details about who I am and where and how I live and made a real emotional connection with people.
And we had a message. Barnsley is Labour facing and heavily Leave voting – relying on the national anti-Brexit message wasn’t going to be enough. Instead we had to work on engaging the community on the local issues that matter to them– something our local parties need to be equipped to do up and down the country, and easier to do as an embedded member of the community. We have an excellent track record in local government and that is so valuable to us in local elections.
I have always been supportive of Lib Dem Expand’s 650 seat strategy. But at the moment we have a national message that is not enough to win in many seats. We can win – but we need to do it ward by ward. And to do that we need to build our own local messages for our communities.
People in South Yorkshire are tired of lazy local politics. Tired of a Labour party who takes them for granted and a Conservative party that provides zero opposition. All our voters want an enthusiastic, hard-working, passionate local councillor who understands and can represent their voices in the Town Hall – whether they agree on certain areas of policy or not. We need to be talking to them about local issues to persuade them of that.
So how do we win in those areas that seem so hard? Choose your ward, and your candidate carefully. There needs to be a message, a story and a match. Talk to your community, ask questions and listen. And respect the fact they might not feel so passionately as the Lib Dems on issues of Europe …
Hannah Kitching is a Councillor for Penistone West in Barnsley. She joined the Liberal Democrats in June 2016 in the aftermath of the EU referendum result. In early 2017 she was Campaign Manager for the remarkable Brinsworth and Catcliffe by-election won by fellow newbie Adam Carter.