The UK general election of 7 May 2015 was momentous.
Richard Wilson and Guildford CLP Chair Lynda MacDermott
Even back in November 2013 it was clear that this would be a big one. About 18 months ago, I was selected to be the Labour Party candidate to contest the seat of Guildford.
I grew up a few miles away from the birthplace of Keir Hardie, one of the founders of the Labour Party, so it was a special honour for me to represent his party in Surrey, the county which has been my home for 15 years. I was selected by the party members in Guildford in a “one member one vote” ballot.
I decided to stand for Parliament because I wanted to contribute the most I could. People deserve a credible Labour candidate to vote for wherever they live. I chose to put myself forward for selection in Guildford because I live about 5 miles away, the local party has a (deserved) reputation for being welcoming, and there are numerous national issues which touch the constituency and should be debated in an election.
This was the first time I had attempted to be selected as a Prospective Parliamentary Candidate (PPC) and looking back with the benefit of hindsight I am sure I did the right thing. My preconceptions about what it would be like were mostly wrong, however. I had been involved in many previous council elections and I helped out in other constituencies like Eastleigh and Reading East. Also, I did lots of Labour Party training webinars, asked advice and read what I could find on being a candidate. I still wasn’t prepared.
I wasted a huge amount of my time and energy trying to achieve small campaign objectives which proved impossible. We also made massive progress on other objectives with relatively little effort. If I had known then what I know now I could have focused on the achievable. I think this is my only regret.
It is difficult being a PPC while working full time but my employer was quite good about it. This is just a feature of our system of democracy. People say they want MPs who have done other jobs but, in reality, insiders will always have an advantage. I gave up most of my free time but that is what I signed up for so I’m not complaining about that.
The highlights of the local campaign were: my petition to reverse the Tory county councillors’ pay hike, the individually addressed election leaflets I designed which 73,000 voters received in the post, the 11 public hustings events, owning the Guildford farmers market, helping Tesco employees on their “Freedom from Fear” day, marching with striking teachers on the High Street, standing alongside midwives and other NHS workers on the picket line outside the Royal Surrey, speaking at the council to stop the Lib Dems closing down the much-loved Boileroom music and arts venue, making a speech at the Labour Party annual conference, social media wars with Tories, door-knocking, leafleting and, above all, bringing great new active campaigners into the Labour Party.
The culmination of all that saw a massive increase in our vote, up by 132%. Our share of the vote rose by 7 percentage points to 12.1%. No one thought we could finish ahead of Ukip but we were well clear of them. We are now within striking distance of the Lib Dems. The last time Labour beat them in Guildford was 1979 and it looks like this will happen again soon.
My elation at the result of the campaign in Guildford is tempered, of course, by the very disappointing national results. We didn’t make the gains we expected in marginal seats and we lost nearly all of our seats in Scotland. I have read plenty of analyses of what we did wrong and I nod my head in agreement while reading all of them.
Personally, I still feel too close to the election to analyse it objectively. One thing does leap out at me: targeting didn’t work. I expected that Labour would outperform decisively in key seats. We didn’t. This is important not just because we didn’t gain these seats but also because of the opportunity cost. By focusing on key seats we sacrificed the opportunity to build up our support in safe Tory and even safe Labour seats. We narrowed our appeal instead of broadening it.
There is nothing wrong with our values, on the contrary. I don’t even think there was anything important wrong with our policies in the manifesto. It was our national campaign that was, with hindsight, fatally flawed. It was like an exam where we failed not because we didn’t swot enough but because we didn’t answer the right questions – the ones the public was asking. The first thing to remember when doing an exam is: read the question!
I haven’t decided which candidates to vote for in the leader and deputy leader elections. I will listen to what they have to say about broadening our appeal and achieving a mandate to govern the entire country.
Sincere thanks to all of the 6,534 people who voted for me in Guildford. I’m so grateful to all of the Labour volunteers who made the local campaign possible. There are too many to name them all but the chair of Guildford Labour Party, Lynda MacDermott, deserves special recognition for leading the “ground war” from the front. I feel that the Guildford Labour Party is in a strong position to lead the fight for all the people of Guildford who are suffering under the Tory government.
For me, the campaign goes on. People in Surrey need an effective opposition to stand up for them against the Tories more than ever. Every council tax payer in Surrey is being failed by Surrey County Council. The council election is in 2017 but the full council is tomorrow and I’ll be in the public gallery again.
Surrey might be the height of Tory-dom on earth but I believe that there will be a Labour MP here in my lifetime. I will strive to make that happen and I will always be proud of my part in the momentous election of 2015.
“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.” – JFK