From the Commons House Magazine
Labour Party Conference
by Paul Flynn
Eight heart stopping, stomach churning, mind-uplifting, morale pulsating months before victory or defeat strikes. Plan for both desolation of failure and exuberance of success. Either prospect will quicken the flow of creative juices. Your contribution to the result will be marginal because voters choose mainly on national perceptions of parties and their leaders. But prepare meticulously because results are often determined in the margins.
My six general election victories in a previously Tory seat are mainly attributable to national moods helped by a bad perception of Thatcher and a favourable one of Tony Blair. The party in Newport West did the rest and determined the result of the 2010 election where the swing against Labour was below the UK or Welsh average. Either of those would have unseated me.
The 2015 omens are good. Traditionally we are champions of depression - imprisoned in the neurotic endemic pessimism that is Labour’s incurable trait. But the facts disagree. The poll average for the past 24 months all promise overall victory for us. The LibDems are in a tailspin. Right wing voters have two Tory parties to divide their votes. Firm traditional Labour loyalty can be topped up with footloose voters who recognise the cavernous failure of the Tory ineptocracy. There is no new dawn of Tory popularity that an improved economy promised. Their horizon remains stubbornly mid-night black.
Politicians have not won back public trust after the hideous screaming nightmare of the expenses scandal. Grow a shell back to protect from the inevitable sneers and insults. Build on the lingering goodwill of the loyal to establish your distinctive persona. Individuality is prized over a party apparatchik image. Stress your out-of-politics hinterland. An accolade or two won in the ‘real world’ is worth years of distinction in the political pond life.
Candidates and the local parties know their patch. The party nationally does not always know best. Use their advice sparingly filtering out the bland and banal statements of the Janet and John obvious written in patronising politics-speak. Only 8% read political leaflets. That’s not the % of voters but the % of party workers delivering them. Pictures always trump words. Invest lavishly in striking flattering pictures of the candidate and the constituency. Insist on a pleasing clean design layout where generous white space highlights images and is more eloquent than a thousand words.
Attune your antennae to the constituency’s mood. An impression made in the months before the election is more influential than a blizzard of propaganda during the final campaign. Seek to build a reputation on the bread and butter local issues. Convince voters that you are linked umbilically to the constituency: your knowledge encyclopedic, sensitivity bottomless, affection maternal and enthusiasm inspiring. Big up on non-political voters’ worries. Big-down on heavy-duty political mega-issues.
On the campaign trail in 2001, I told dramatist David Hare that I did not approach voters because they all recognise me and can chat if they wish. He reported for the Telegraph: 'As we walk round, I tell Flynn that, for my sake, he must put his principles aside and approach an actual voter. The chosen victim admits reluctantly that he’s going to vote Lib Dem. ‘Good for you,’ Flynn says. ‘They’re very good people.’
Hare was baffled. Shouldn’t I have persuaded him to vote for me? My explaining the 65 major points of Labour’s economic policy would only have inflicted earache on the poor man. Instead we had a pleasing social encounter and an intelligent chat. It might deliver a vote, if not immediately, perhaps the election after next. The novelty of telling the plain truth is the best way of nurturing the seed corn. Nobody expects that from a vote-glutton. Voters flee the candidate’s harangue as they would the Vulcan nerve-pinch. A distant friendly half-smile will suffice.
In Alun Michael’s first election, The Guardian reported that ‘the agent thinks he is the candidate and candidate thinks he is the agent’. The roles must be precisely defined and boundaries respected. Tempers swiftly fray when candidates’ neuroses are tested by inevitable foul-ups. Cultivate saintly tolerance, calm and a benign love for all. Beatification will beckon.
If your seat is an unwinnable nursery one, treasure and gorge on the apprenticeship experience. The impossibility of victory creates worry free bliss. I was once dumped in a distant Tory area with no chance of winning or understanding local issues in a five-week campaign. My sole ploy to make some impression was to re-cycle and re-word the editorials in the local papers and submit them back to their editors as press releases. It never failed.
Stress need not bother those contesting seats we won in 2010. There are no pushovers but victory this time is a safe bet. Conventional advice is to dodge election Hustings as they elevate weak opponents to potential winner status. Forget that. Accept all invitations and relish meeting and winning the respect of your future constituents.
The thrilling fights are in the marginals that we lost in 2010. Think 1997. Recall the great clutch of new MPs triumphant in seats the party centrally had written off. May 2015 will be the high flood mark for floating voters looking for a safe harbour. The Tories will be sinking deeper into the flotsam of the failures of the Big Society, welfare changes, depressed wages and dozens of privatisations from prisons to passports that have created New Tory chaos.
The metamorphosis from PPC to MP is richly rewarding and fulfilling. Seize the chance!