In the 2010 general election Conservative Gavin Barwell won the constituency of Croydon Central by 2,969 votes over Labour. How to win a marginal seat: my year fighting for my political life is the story of how he held on in 2015 by just 165 votes. Or rather, as the subtitle reveals, mostly the story of the final year.
Being a conscientious MP of any party in a non-safe seat can become all consuming. As Barwell says with only a slight exaggeration, “The real divide among MPs isn’t between Conservative and Labour, but between those with safe seats and those whose jobs are on the line at each election”. It is so much like two different professions, having to worry relentless about your personal vote or being able to ignore it, that I am almost tempted to suggest the media should add “(marginal seat)” or “(job for life unless buys duck house)” after the name of MPs in reports.
As for what tactic Barwell found worked best at building up his personal vote, “The thing that worked best … was my decision to give guided tours of the Palace of Westminster to groups of my constituents. These tours allowed over 2,000 of my constituents to meet me and get a sense of my passion for the job I do. Although there was nothing party-political about them, I believe they did more to change how people voted than anything else I did … Anyone who came on a tour got to spend up to two and a half hours with me – enough to get a fair idea of what I’m like as a person. To those people, I was no longer ‘the Conservative Party candidate’: they knew the person behind the name on the ballot paper and that was often enough to change their voting intention”.
Although Gavin Barwell’s politics come through clearly in the book, his description of how to fight a marginal seat – including canny use of email, heavy canvassing and a meld of local and national issues – are a winning combination familiar across parties.
Along the way he throws an interesting light on George Osborne’s working of the Tory party ahead of a post-Cameron leadership election: “Speak to any Conservative MP who was defending a marginal seat at the last election and they will tell you the same thing: there was no member of the government who did more to help those of us who were on the frontline”.
Overall the book is a great introduction to what MPs seeking re-election in marginal seats really get up to, the less glamorous reality behind the West Wing fiction.
If you like this, you might also be interested in 101 Ways To Win An Election.
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Note: a review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher.