Book review: How To Win A Marginal Seat
Gavin Barwell is the Conservative MP for Croydon Central. In 2010 he was elected with a majority of 3,000 and in 2015 with a majority of 165 votes making his seat one of the most marginal in the country. He decided after the election he wanted to write an account of five years campaigning for his three boys, to give them an understanding of what he had been doing, and why he was often away from home or distracted.
I suspect it was also therapeutic and he then thought of publishing it as a guide to other Conservative candidates in marginal seats.
Iain Dale at Biteback were prepared to publish it in the series which includes How to Be an MP, How to Be a Parliamentary Researcher etc.
How to Win a Marginal Seat could have been a book for political anoraks full of do’s and don’ts and blinding glimpses of the obvious that can be found in management leadership books. But it isn’t because the author writes well, it is from a personal perspective, and it shows his campaign highs and lows.
That is not to say that Gavin Barwell isn’t in many respects a political anorak. He has always been fascinated by politics and debating and after reading physics at university (now there is a rarity) gained experience as a local councillor in Croydon, where he was born and lived, then at CCHQ in research and campaigning and working with the young George Osborne as well as Lynton Crosby and Michael Ashcroft. All very valuable experience.
After he was selected for Croydon Central, a less than safe Conservative seat, he deployed his personality, political beliefs as a Liberal Conservative, his local connections and his campaigning skills. After 2010 he was appointed to the Conservative Whips Office where he had influence but was denied the opportunity to speak by the nature of the job.
He soon realised that Croydon Central was in effect a highly marginal seat as the demography was moving against the Conservatives. But it was not regarded as a target seat for resources by CCHQ, and he only received help a few months before the election.
Barwell developed a strategy after 2010 that meant he had to gain more votes than in 2010 to counter Labour gaining votes from all parties, but especially the Liberal Democrats. He explains in the book the importance of canvassing and targeting individual voters with specific messages. Blanket literature was largely a waste of time.
Also, he recognised that the 2015 election would be transitional with online communications and over many months he obtained the email addresses of 10,000 voters, about a quarter of the electorate. But emails had to be personal and timely and not Party propaganda.
Above all Barwell recognised that he had to work long hours and to meet as many voters as possible and have a continuous high profile with people associating him as their MP. Somewhat easier for a London MP close to Parliament – think of the logistics for a candidate fighting a marginal seat in Devon or Lancashire?
Gavin Barwell explains just how exhausting it was and the need to keep up the morale of dedicated teams of supporters in the face of polls which showed Labour would take the seat. He fought a clean campaign over the whole Parliament but was quick to use rebuttal against smears or inaccuracies from his opponents.
In the short campaign once Parliament had been dissolved he increased the tempo and looked for photo opportunities with visits from Boris Johnson and George Osborne.
After five years of intense campaigning and projecting himself as a good local MP Gavin Barwell saw his 2010 majority of 3,000 reduce to 165. But several other sitting conservative MPs in London lost their seats. All constituencies are different, even when geographically close. Labour fought an intense campaign but their candidate was only in place for year and much of their canvassing was broad brush. Reading this very personal account one concludes that without all the targeted campaigning, publicity and positive work done by Gavin Barwell, Labour might have taken the seat with a majority of 2-3,000.
As Gavin Barwell argues, candidates in so called safe seats don’t have the continuous hourly pressure day in and day out which makes them put their constituents at the heart of everything they do as an MP.
How to Win a Marginal Seat is an excellent bluffer’s guide for sitting MPs and candidates and CCHQ should make a bulk purchase. I fear that other Parties will also learn lessons form Gavin Barwell’s experience. Croydon Central is lucky to have him as their MP and as a senior Whip faced with the daily challenge of getting Government business through the House.