It’s time to dominate the narrative

Guest post by Ben Lamb | Labour council candidate in Stockton | May 2021

It was a pleasure and an honour being selected as the Labour Party Cllr Candidate for the recent Bishopsgarth and Elm Tree ward by-election. I enjoyed every second.

I didn’t want to let the Labour Party down, so I soon got to work. From February right through to polling day on top of my full time job I set aside hours every single day to call as many voters in the area as possible. Come election day I’d reached 1000 households which equated to 2000 voters and a third of the entire ward.

The old rule in politics is that if over a third of voters say they’ll vote for you then you’ve got as good a chance as any. This is because a third of people will lie out of politeness (who can blame them? it’s a very private matter), a third will not go to the polling station due to unforeseen circumstances, and a third will keep their word.

So, with roughly just under half of all the voters I spoke to saying they would vote for me, irrespective of their previous voting record, I thought I had a really good chance of winning.

However the reality of the result could not have been any further from the enjoyable nature of the campaign.

I came third with just under 400 votes, 300-odd shy of the lib dems, and at least a further 300 behind the Conservatives who romped home with an incredible 1000+ votes.

I’m not angry with the Conservatives, they played an absolute blinder and went from being a party that struggled to maintain 300 votes in this ward to being the undisputed champions. They saw an opportunity, spun a narrative with an underlying logic and grabbed the opportunity with both hands.

When I reflect on what happened the telling signs were all there. For three quarters of my campaign, voters I spoke to were really impressed with my passion for the ward, my policy ideas, how hard I was prepared to work, and the progress I was already making in solving long standing issues. Non-traditional Labour voters sounded keen and vowed to read all the literature that came through their door and come to an educated decision on who would best represent their area that they care so deeply and passionately about.

However, as polling day drew ever closer alarm bells started ringing. When I rang voters back to follow up on case work they were now audibly angry and frustrated with Labour. They were annoyed we were ‘responsible for raising the council tax in Stockton to one of the highest rates in the country’, at a rate ‘even higher than the most expensive suburbs of London…directly due to projects like The Globe and Hilton Hotel’.

Now this is simply not true. Darlington (Conservative led) pay more council tax than this area, Hartlepool (independent led) pay more council tax and in fact Stockton does not even come anywhere near the top ten highest rates in the whole country. But I could not convince these voters this late on in the day. Enough residents had already been bombarded with conservative phone calls and leaflets with the sole purpose of provoking outrage.

I don’t blame voters and I will never blame voters. Stockton Council has had to increase its rates over the last few years and strip back services as a result of the crippling austerity it has endured from national Government. It has met this challenge whilst still finding the cash to fund profit making ventures. I don’t really see a difference between this and the way Ben Houchen has put large sums of tax payers’ money into the airport. An independent auditor recently praised Stockton Council for offering value for money. This is a great achievement given councils across the country have faced bankruptcy square in the face.

And this is the crucial difference. Houchen and his new breed of Teesside Tories understand the importance of media, spin, and shouting about how great they are on a daily basis. We have not been doing anything as remotely powerful on this level as consistently in a way that resonates. Whilst it has been officially decreed that Stockton Council gives value for money, people do not feel that it does, and this is what matters.

In our shoes the Tories would be gobbling up column inches of all the local and national press, putting hundreds of thousands of pounds behind daily social media videos of themselves dressed in hi-vis jackets, and waxing lyrical about how they have made Stockton great again…we have not done this in the same way and it’s crucial that we do so now.

We’ve allowed the Conservatives to spend the last few years convincing enough voters that labour are irresponsible with money, love vanity projects, increase council tax and are only interested in the poorest people over those who have worked hard all their life. It pains me to say we have not successfully countered this narrative.

We need to wake up and realise we are not dealing with Cameron’s austerity-heavy conservatives who don’t care about Teesside any more, this is an administration addicted to winning and will spend, say, and do whatever it takes to increase their national majority and take control of as many councils up here as possible.

We have allowed the Tories to construct us as villains to enough voters who are beginning to see us as a party that only ever criticises local achievement and wants to supposedly talk Teesside down at any opportunity.

Class based politics is now dead and identity politics is here to stay, people look to conservatives and see a party that speaks the same language as the working man, is committed to not being ‘woke’ (whatever that means), respects the Brexit vote, and is bringing industry back to Teesside.

We need to build a PR machine that is as equally formidable as Houchen’s that showcases all the work we are doing and reassures people as to where their money is going. Otherwise voters will not know what we are doing, how we are making impressive returns on peoples’ investments, and improving the quality of life on the Teesside for everyone. We need to be shouting about how hard we are working on a daily basis.

So, it’s not all doom and gloom, we still have two whole years left before the next round of council elections. Whilst we nationally reflect as a party and devise clear cut policies everyone can get on board with our work as Teesside Labour party members begins now.

People don’t have the time to go out and research what we have achieved and will achieve, it needs to be put in front of them. Let’s start showcasing our current and past achievements alongside our future vision for the region today.

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