Community Campaigning in Copeland

In the wake of a historic election defeat, it would be tempting for the Labour Party to seek out “quick fixes” – campaigning strategies that could deliver election victories in three and a half short weeks. The lesson from Copeland is that elections aren’t won in a short campaign: they are the product of doing politics properly over the long haul – not just over the 5 year election cycle but over the decades. It was way back in 1906 that Copeland had the first council to be represented by 100% Labour councillors – Arlecdon & Frizington District Council. The same spirit of community engagement that inspired our forefathers lives on in us today.

Regardless of the idiosyncrasies of West Cumbrian politics, the number crunchers and psephologists had done their work and ranked Copeland as a “key marginal” – largely due to boundary changes that brought a big chunk of traditionally “true blue” Lake District into the constituency. On paper, Copeland was precisely the kind of seat the Tories needed to win to secure an overall majority: a mere 6.62% swing was required. Expectations were high in local Tory ranks.  The Conservative candidate confidently proclaimed that he had a more than 50% chance of taking the seat.

It was tempting, even amongst Labour activists to put our “gut instincts” and “anecdotal evidence” to one side and stare bleakly at the figures. Several “old soldiers” seemed to have a quiet confidence about things which was easy to mistake for complacency, but those of us caught up in the national picture felt differently – and indeed when the Tories took nearby Carlisle on a 7.7% swing we thought all was lost.

When the result was declared – at 1pm on Friday 7th May – the “eyes of the nation” were on us. Apparently. But in the end, there was nothing very newsworthy to report. No “Tory Gain” in a seat that Labour had held since 1935; not even a much-anticipated recount.

Quite the opposite: a 3,833 majority for sitting MP Jamie Reed, a mere 2.1% swing to the Tories and 2,600+ more votes for Labour than 5 years ago.

Jamie Reed MP can’t be credited for all his hard work during the campaign, since he spent half of it in hospital with what would be diagnosed as type 1 diabetes, but he had already laid the groundwork for a convincing victory during his 5 years as MP. It wasn’t just his very long and very impressive list of achievements for his constituency: namely the £100 million new West Cumberland Hospital, 3 medical centres across the constituency, 30,000 dentist places, an academy school at Egremont, 3 new schools under the Building Schools for the Future programme, the University of Cumbria and most significantly, the prospect of nuclear new build on land adjacent to Sellafield, bringing with it 1,000′s of jobs.

It is the way he does politics. It is easy for people to become cynical of politicians: “they’re all in it for themselves” is the common refrain these days. In some parts of the Labour movement, there is frustration that too many of the contenders for the leadership of the party have such similar CV’s: Oxbridge, a period of employment spent as a SPAD, parachuted into safe seat in the north of England, fast-tracked to cabinet during first term in parliament. As a party activist who has knocked on more “white working class” doors than most over the past few months, I have been left wondering whether some of them have a clue what they’re talking about when they refer to a very large section of the British population.

Jamie Reed’s politics shines a light into this – not just because he has a very different CV, though “Press Officer at Sellafield” is hardly the most obvious route to sainthood – but because of the way he has gone about engaging with the proverbial “white working class” who make up the bulk of the electorate in this constituency. He is visibly involved with local communities at every level, he treats everyone as equals, talks our language and he has done as much for us away from the cameras as he has done in front of them. As a result, people do recognise that he really does care about his constituents and his constituency.

This came out clearly on the doorstep. In areas of deep deprivation he had teenagers queuing up for autographs. The concern for him when he was in hospital was palpable and genuine. It was almost as if he was regarded as a close family friend – which in many cases he was, having been born and raised in the constituency. The underlying message was more significant: “he’s one of us”.

It’s a level of community engagement that goes beyond sending out surveys, though I’m sure they have value. It’s about knowing and understanding your community so well that you don’t need to ask if Whitehaven town centre needs regenerated, Parton has flooding issues or the roads in south Copeland are a disgrace. When these issues came up on the doorstep, it was a delight to be able to tell people that he was already on the case.

But Jamie Reed’s politics doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Community engagement is a way of life here in Copeland – from Whitehaven’s International Maritime Festival which attracts 250,000 visitors to the town to the annual “Fun Day” held in the coastal village of Parton. The local Labour party succeeds politically where activists are the driving force behind this engagement.

The legendary “Egremont Today” (www.egremont-today.com) is delivered monthly by hand to 10,500 homes in central Copeland – no mean feat given that this covers some rugged Lake District terrain. Produced by the Egremont branch of the CLP – which, incidentally, once had the highest membership of any CLP branch in the UK, standing at over 800 in the late 1980’s – this newspaper gives voice to Labour politics: Jamie Reed and MEP Brian Simpson have regular columns. It also reports on local community activity and offers advertising to local businesses.

The political impact of this newspaper is obvious. Firstly, those 10,500 households can never complain that they only see activists at election times: there’s a real opportunity for relationships to develop. Secondly, in the adverse political climate of 2010, reports from the count indicate that the percentage of Labour votes in some parts of central Copeland was over 90%.

Another common feature of Copeland campaigning is the extent to which activists are known on the doorstep. I went out with one local councillor who was on first name terms with everyone we spoke to in his patch during our 3 hour canvassing session. This kind of community engagement can’t be manufactured overnight: it takes decades of hard slog as a local councillor to build up that kind of rapport with your constituents. Its political power must not be underestimated – and was obvious from the canvass returns. People will listen to the political opinions of those who have earned their respect.

It would be wrong of me to give the impression that Copeland CLP has everything right when it comes to community engagement. Where we have failed, our political opponents are quick to take advantage – most notably the BNP. While their ideology is repugnant, their campaigning techniques are a sobering reminder to us of what politics ought to be: friend talking to friend over a pint in the pub, listening to people’s concerns and reflecting them in policy. Working the social bonds that tie communities together, but most of all, earning respect through service to others. The speed with which their politics has taken hold in tight-knit communities such as Frizington – of all places – sends a message to all of us of the political power of community engagement – either as a force for evil or a force for good. It is incumbent on all good citizens to ensure that it is a force for good.

http://labourvalues.org.uk/community-campaigning-in-copeland/