Friday, 20 July 2012
Attleborough By-election; my thoughts & analysis
For months I had wanted a by-election to pop up in Breckland, something that I could really get my teeth into as the new Leader of the Labour Group, and then I got more than I bargained for when 3 came along together. The first was Attleborough Queens Ward which took place yesterday. Having stood as a paper candidate for a Queens Ward by election some years ago myself, I knew that it had a good number of Labour voters, and was winnable to some extent, but there had been no Labour activity in the area for nearly 20 years, no active branch functioning and only a handful of members. Worst of all, Labour hadn't even managed to field a candidate in the 2011 District b-election and 3 Tories were elected unopposed - something I always hate!
My first task was to find a strong, credible Labour candidate, and I was delighted when John Williams put his hat into the ring. A sports journalist by trade, party member for over 40 years, a life member of the National Union of Journalists, and a previous candidate in Attleborough. This is the sort of candidate that Breckland Labour group wants to field across the whole district. He came within a handful of votes of beating Adrian Stasiak for the other Attleborogh District seat some years ago.
I obviously wanted to focus the campaign on car parking charges, as this has been a key issue in Breckland, but Attleborough would be tricky as Attleborough was an area with probably the least resistance to car parking charges. Its high street is doing relatively well compared to many in Norfolk and Breckland and being located along a main train line there is a distinct problem with motorists leaving their cars in public car parks all day and whizzing off to work in Norwich or Cambridge etc on the train, blocking spaces that could be used by shoppers. Just having a quick look at the 1800 signatures to the online car parking charges petition shows approximately around just 20 signatures from Attleborough residents.
That said, the car parking charges campaign did resonate with the public and many people voted Labour because of the campaign. One of my favourite moments of the campaign was when I knocked on someones door and he said; "I f*cking hate Labour, but I f*ucking hate car parking charges as well, so for the first time ever, I'm going to vote for your guy". National issues was a factor as well, and I was suprised at how life long Conservative votes openly said how they never voted Labour previously, but hated the Coalition Government, and / or hated David Cameron and "would be voting Labour to teach them a lesson". The biggest winner however was clearly apathy - turnout did not even reach 17%. There is nearly 700 people registered to vote by post for Attleborough Queens Ward, and I don't think even half of them bothered, and they had ballots sent to them direct! I am sure the weather played a part, as it was a particularly wet and miserable day, particularly in the evening when I am sure that many people would have intended to vote after work. The potentially limited choice was an issue as well, as there were only two candidates - although, Breckland is pretty much a two horse race between Labour and Conservatives so people should be used to this. But there were strong campaigns on both sides, a stronger campaign for a district council seat in Breckland than I am sure many can recall.
I was delighted that the campaign motivated Attleborough members to come out and leaflet, it enticed activists from Norwich and Thetford to assist and a number of non party members as well. I think approximately 25 different people helped to varying amounts over the past few weeks and I, and John, are incredibly grateful for their support.
So, in the short term I am disappointed, as I understand it a win yesterday would have meant that I would have regained the position as Leader of the Opposition, rather than just Leader of the Labour group, which is somewhat a setback for me personally, but, in the medium / longer term this is a fantastic result for Breckland Labour and will stand us in good stead for future elections. I learnt a considerable amount personally, it was my first by election as Breckland Labour Group Leader, and my first bite of a really active campaign other than my own campaigns either for Town or District for Thetford-Saxon Ward. Labour has firmly reaffirmed itself as 'the opposition' in Breckland, and not just in a couple of seats in Thetford and Dereham- we must establish support District wide, and be a challenge in more than just the usual seats. I do now wonder whether running the Conservatives so close in an area which they regard as 'safe' (I'm sure they will say they take nothing for granted!) will it make them seriously reconsider parking charges?