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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Dennis-Harburg

Winning Doncaster Central

There's no such thing as a safe seat. And there's no room for complacency if we want to not just hold Doncaster Central at the next general election, but win Westminster. I will say again and again, the road to Westminster runs through no one seat but through them all. And we need a strategy that mobilises and empowers us as local activists, using our resource smartly, to protect our marginal seats, and grow back our vote in the areas we can win back at the next election.

There's also no such thing as a no-hope seat. We have Labour voters across the country and they deserve the chance to vote for a competent local Labour representative. To borrow Harriet Harman's phrasing, these are not paper candidates, they're pioneer candidates who should work with local activists championing local Labour successes and growing a strong Labour story so over 2 - 3 election cycles we are able to pose a real challenge to the incumbent party.

I know this approach works. Because it's what I've applied in North Herts since 2015 when I first ran (and finished second) in a so-called Tory safe ward, for a place on a Tory safe-council. In sports, you're only a loser if you fail to learn the lessons from your defeats. The first thing I did in 2015 was sit down, analyse the voting patterns, the national issues which influence voters in district council elections, and look across the district at what we could do to build and win not just my ward, but in other communities across the district.

It was a very nerdy, politics student, five year plan. But it worked. In 2016 I won my seat, dethroning the Chair of the Council. I found local community activists and worked with them, introducing them to residents as ward coordinators, getting out there on ward walks, showing people Labour has a presence, and actually delivering on community priorities like saving a local playground from closure.

We built our North Herts Labour story from the ground up. And we showed people what Labour delivers, even when in opposition. If this is what we can do for you when not in power, imagine what we can do if you vote for us. That was the key message, ably underwritten by powerhouses of local government in our area, Judi Billing, Ian Albert, Gary Grindal, and Martin Stears-Handscomb.

In 2019 we took control of the council, leading a joint administration with the Liberal Democrats. The December General Election that year might have been a low point for the party nationally, but our local election result stood out for the achievement it was. We had built our positive story, we had delivered it, and it was heard. And the local Tories were a mess, rocked by scandal and unpopularity which prompted protest voting. In one case the Leader of the Council lost her seat drawing straws. We were also fortunate to have unprecedented levels of resource that year, meaning we could canvass all of our target and defensive wards. For us, 2019 was the perfect election where everything lined up.

They don't come round that often.

2021 was a battle and fought entirely in the short campaign. I will never do this again. It was terrifying. We were underprepared, our social media was not up to standard, and we had some particularly nasty Tory negative campaigning to deal with. To say we scraped through probably does disservice to our results and the efforts we put in. And fails to recognise that the reason the campaign was so tough was the uncertainty about timing caused by covid, and then the rules and ethics of the campaign.

We lost our leader in 2021, and colleagues elected me as Group, and Council, Leader. Just as in 2015, the first thing I did once the dust settled was disect our election results and plan for 2022. There was no mistake in my mind, we were in a fight to hold control as the Lib Dems and Tories had both made small gains, while our numbers were stagnant.

Our membership was still remobilising post covid, so we could not rely on the same level of engagement as we'd had in 2019. Tough choices had to be made. If we canvassed every ward every weekend we would have competing sessions, splitting our resource and potentially risking the election outcome in our most vulnerable areas. We would also struggle to target the wards we needed to make gains in to stave of the threat from the Lib Dems, and diminish the Conservatives further.

I worked with our election agents to identify, based on the data over a number of years and analysis of how the national picture impacts our vote in North Herts, where our key defend and most winnable target seats were. From there, we ensured each had a dedicated canvass session which did not clash with any other activity every weekend. Councillors also ran regular ward walks and virtual street meetings across the district, ensuring people knew we were still working for them even if we didn't knock on their doors in the run up to the election. We made use of Dialogue to phone canvass from January. And consistently achieved the second highest contact rate in the Eastern Region despite being reliant on a core group of 10 - 15 activists. There was no precious behaviour about crossing CLP lines - everyone played their part because they knew what was at stake if we didn't work as one Labour North Herts team.

Underpinning our activity was a regular bespoke newsletter which we delivered to all of the wards we were defending, plus the two wards we hoped to make gains in. All councillors were responsible for their social media and given guidance on content production, scheduling, and how to utilise the community groups. The aim was to make sure our positive Labour story was heard by as many people as possible.

The strategy worked. We held our most risky defensive seat in Letchworth South East by 8 votes. And we gained both Baldock Town and Royston Palace for the first time since the mid 1990's. This was the best result. And without the smart targeting of our resources we wouldn't have achieved it - we fully canvassed Baldock Town for the first time during the campaign, and those conversations proved to be critical on polling day.

And now we're looking to 2024 when the district moves to new boundaries and all out elections. To focus solely on 2023 would be a mistake - the election next year is simply a milestone on the way to the future.

How is my experience relevant to Doncaster Central?

2019 was not a good year. Our majority was sliced down to 2,278 - a 17.9% negative swing away from us. Doncaster Central is a marginal seat. And we are in a straight fight against the Tories, and turnout. We know many of the reasons voters switched to the Tories, or simply stayed at home, at the last election. And we've got to put the effort in now to restore the faith of our people in politics, and in the Labour Party's ability to deliver for Doncaster.

We have a strong Labour story to tell, with DMBC and Ros Jones delivering for us daily, despite the government's clear levelling down of local government and repeated failure to deliver for The North. Rosie has been our best advocate in Westminster. These stories, every small win, deserve to be championed and shouted from the roof tops. All too often we are success shy. That creates a void in the narrative which our opponents will fill, and not to our advantage.

We need to own our story in Doncaster now, before this selection process is over. Our councillors, our mayor, and our MPs (we are one Doncaster, and should work with Ed, and challenge the Tories in Don Valley) are our generals and need to continue being vocal about what Labour delivers for Doncaster on social media, on the doorstep, and in print.

After the selection is completed, my first task will be to run a listening campaign across the areas where we know our vote has fallen and where we need to grow it back, so we can begin a targeted fight back, focusing on the policies, agendas and narratives which resonate most. Communities don't come in one size, so why would we take a one size fits all approach to a parliamentary campaign in a city as diverse as ours?

We need to use our resource smartly, and work with neighbouring CLPs, sending resource to the places it can be most effective. And not being afraid to ask for help from them - Rachel Hopkins in Luton and colleagues from Central Beds gave North Herts great support on key campaigning days this year and without them we might not have covered the ground we did.

I know how to fight against Tory squeeze. I've won elections despite negative, personal, Tory attack literature. I'm a strategic thinker, and my plans deliver. That's why I know I have what it takes to win Doncaster Central as our next parliamentary candidate. And even if I'm not successful, I promise to support whoever is and bring all of my experience winning in adversity to the table so that we keep our city red.

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