Dismantling the North Herts Blue Wall: Lessons from Baldock and RoystonMay 30th, 2022
If anywhere defines the “blue wall” it’s North Hertfordshire. Bucolic towns and villages with fast and direct trains into the Square Mile as well as to Cambridge and the Silicon Fen. This is the heart of the Home Counties and it’s a commuter’s dream. This is where the Tories should be weighing votes not losing Council seats.
Yet here on 5th May, Labour won nine out of eighteen seats up for election with the Tories losing two seats each to Labour and the Lib Dems.
Most strikingly, Labour gained Baldock Town and Royston Palace. These are “blue wall” places even by North Hertfordshire standards. Historic market towns with coffee shops and ancient pubs, good schools, and character cottages. Labour came third in Baldock as recently as 2019 coming behind the Lib Dems with a mere 321 votes – more than 600 votes behind the Tories.
What on earth happened? Well, we think it’s quite interesting and provides important lessons to the Labour Party nationally. Do Royston woman or Baldock man really provide the keys to Downing Street?Strategic Courage
It took extraordinary strategic courage for a “blue wall” Local Campaign Forum to target resources at wards that – psychologically at least – were beyond our reach. After all, the only seat we haven’t lost in the last 20 years is Hitchin Oughton. Even that progressive bastion of Hitchin Bearton was lost in 2010.
But it also took cold, calculating, political analysis. Our electoral coalition is changing – both because of who is moving here but also because of who is voting Labour. We know that we depend as much on affluent progressives living on tree lined boulevards like Wilbury Road, Letchworth as on traditional working-class voters living in social housing to win our marginal wards. And if people living on Wilbury Road can vote Labour then so can people living on Church Street, Baldock. In future generations, we might have different “safe” wards and we need to start building them now.
I used to quip that having a Baldock address on the ballot paper was worth at least 200 votes in Baldock. So, finding a candidate who had probably served a pint to half the town was certainly going to help the Labour campaign. Alistair Willoughby serves on the committee of the Independent Baldock Beer Festival Charitable Trust and has some sort of involvement in organising most of the other events in town. This made canvassing in Baldock an absolute joy since he was hugely popular and incredibly well known. When Alistair stood in 2021, Baldock saw the largest swing to Labour of any ward in Hertfordshire and in 2022, an 11% swing finished the job.
As an urban dominated party, it is easy for Labour activists to forget that for all their cultural conservatism, England’s villages and small towns are fiercely communitarian. These are places where people know their neighbours, look out for each other and work together to make community life better. Choosing a candidate who is already a community leader has a powerful impact on people’s voting intentions. Yet, these are Labour values, and these instincts should come naturally to us.
Throughout the 2022 campaign, the North Hertfordshire Labour Party was punching a long way above its weight in voter contacts, competing with key marginals across the region. Like the Jamaican bobsleigh team, we caused consternation amongst more professional outfits.
We didn’t have huge numbers of activists, but we did have iron discipline and a small number of dedicated volunteers. We had a full timetable of canvassing sessions in all key wards from the middle of January, we went out in all weathers and stayed out the full two hours to finish road groups – even if there was only three of us. Crucially, we worked as one team across the district. Huge credit must go to Hitchin activists who spent much of their time in Letchworth and Baldock. This made a real difference – particularly in Letchworth Southeast which we only won by eight votes. We also reached out to neighbouring CLPs who did not have elections this year and were grateful for support from Rachel Hopkins MP (Luton South) as well as activists from Hertford & Stortford, North East Bedfordshire and Mid-Bedfordshire who I think saw something in Baldock in their own small towns. Twinning with key seats is a long-established practice in the Labour Party and those of us in non-target CLPs need to get better at building our own relationships.
Special mention must go to the Royston Palace candidate, Chris Hinchliff who did such a brilliant job of mobilising Royston members that he did not need to call on help from the rest of North Herts at all. He managed to do two laps of the ward before moving to GOTV. If ever there was an example of winning a ward by sheer force of campaign activity, it was this.
I have heard it said many times that the road to Downing Street runs through Stevenage. But North Hertfordshire spills over into the Stevenage constituency. These are largely affluent communities like Knebworth, Codicote and Datchworth which would not normally be priorities for Labour canvassers. But if we can win in places like Baldock and Royston, we can win there too. And we must. Just like we depend on affluent voters living on the Wilbury Road to win our marginal wards, we must reach out to and find progressive voters living in those leafier communities too.
When I woke up in the small hours of Friday morning and reached for my phone, I thought I was seeing things when I saw Labour had gained Cumberland. But as I dug beneath the surface, the results became even more startling. Because we hadn’t merely won back “red wall” wards like Howgate, we had done a good job of dismantling the “blue wall” too. I can’t remember the last time Labour held both seats in the (relatively) affluent commuter town of Cockermouth. And we came close to overturning an 800-vote majority in Gosforth too. Much ink has been spilt over Workington Man and his political journey. But we forget at our peril that the Workington constituency also includes Cockermouth.
There are small towns like Baldock, Royston and Cockermouth all over our country. They have good schools and nice high streets with coffee shops and pubs. They have strong communities that pull together in good times and bad. They share Labour’s communitarian values. And with the right candidates and with enough work and self-belief, we can win them for Labour. The road to Downing Street does run through Stevenage, but that’s the A1 and it runs through Baldock too.