How to turn a Tory heartland red

Cllr Keith Dibble has been fighting the good fight on Rushmoor Council since 1984, often with only a handful of Labour colleagues on a council controlled by the Conservatives for all but 5 of the last 40 years.  Things are starting to change, however, following a strong set of local elections which saw Labour gain 5 seats from the Conservatives bringing their total to 14, the largest the Labour group has ever been, and just 9 behind the Conservatives.

The Lib Dems, who have traditionally been the main opposition party to the Conservatives in Rushmoor, are languishing behind on 2 Councillors, having never recovered from the Cameron-Clegg years, and another strong year for Labour next year would see them in prime position to lead an administration for the first time.

We sat down with Keith to understand more about what Labour did differently this year and how they managed to solidify themselves as the main opposition party preparing for administration next year:


What did Labour do differently this year compared with previous years?

We selected early.  We had our candidates in place by September, and that really helped us to spread the campaign out across the year.  Nothing felt rushed with the candidates in place early, there was no last-minute panic for social media graphics, no chasing them for quotes or endorsements for our leaflets, and it allowed us to get their names out in the community, so when people went to vote they knew exactly who they were voting for.

The personal connection between candidates and the residents they hope to represent is possibly the most important thing in a local election.  Selecting early meant the candidates were free to get out and about and speak to people right from day one.

We also made the decision to only target houses we knew might support us from very early on in the campaign, especially in seats we already held.  This ensured that we weren’t wasting time speaking to people who don’t usually vote or are never likely to switch to Labour.  With turnout averaging 30% for the majority of wards in Rushmoor, targeting known voters using marked register data freed up time to focus on the wards where our data wasn’t as strong.

We also wanted to change our mentality for this year, fighting the elections with the mindset of taking the Council from the Conservatives, even though we knew it was numerically impossible to do in one jump as the council elects in thirds.  Portraying ourselves as a serious challenge to the Conservatives was central to the campaign and formed the basis for much of our success.  We needed to ensure that we had policies that would work and chimed with the voters.  This mindset has put us in a great position for next year too, with a realistic ambition to take control of the Council next May.


What were the big local issues this year, and how did Labour’s policies to tackle them differ from the Conservatives?

Town Centre regeneration was the most pressing issue facing the Council during this year’s election campaign.  All parties agree on the need for large-scale regeneration in both Aldershot and Farnborough, but there were some fundamental differences between Labour’s vision and the Conservatives’.  Labour’s vision relied on keeping ground floor retail units, while the upper floors of town centre buildings should be converted to much-needed affordable housing.  This ensures the Borough meet its growing housing needs while also maintaining retail and community units below.  We campaigned on a policy of using the Council-owned housing provider to buy up town centre properties to convert into a mixture student accommodation, social housing and affordable housing, all of which are needed and allows the Council to meet its needs without building on greenbelt land.

Our primary lines of attack against the Conservative administration centred around potholes and community safety.  Potholes are a common theme across many areas of the UK, especially more rural and suburban areas like Rushmoor, and they can be an effective line of attack for opposition parties to use.

For community safety, we criticised the lack of visible police around the town centres.  The Conservative Hampshire Police and Crime Commissioner had claimed that the county had recruited 600 additional police officers, but they remain largely invisible around the town centres.  Labour were pushing for visible community policing so that residents felt safer, as well as knowing somebody was on hand at all times.

We were determined to fight a positive campaign throughout the year, pushing Labour’s policies and showing what we had to offer rather than simply attacking the Conservatives at every turn.  It’s important that voters know what Labour stand for and how we can improve Rushmoor, even if the numbers weren’t there for us to take control of the Council this year.


How often did national issues come up on the doorstep, and do you think most people voted Labour because of the national polls compared with local issues?

I’d say it was about 50/50.  There’s a lot of anger out there about what the Westminster government are doing, but at the same time you should never underestimate the importance of local issues such as potholes and streetlights, especially in Council elections.

Our campaign was focused entirely on local issues, with no national issues making it on to our leaflets.  We wanted residents to know that their Labour candidates were embedded in their local communities and knew the issues that are important to them.  Our literature was largely split between wards we were defending and wards we were targeting, with those we were defending featuring the ‘local wins’ that our Councillors have been campaigning on over the past year, while those we were hoping to gain from the Conservatives emphasising the Labour candidates’ commitment to being a strong local voice on the Council.

Rushmoor has a large Gurkha population, mostly living in Wellington ward.  Our candidate for the ward was a Gurkha veteran and he was keen to campaign on improving the standard of housing for veterans and highlight the issues of housing and Gurkha pensions nationally.  This issue is close to many residents’ hearts in Wellington ward, and Labour’s successful campaign there was down to building a strong personal connection between our candidate and members of the community who wanted to see both local and national change on the issue of Gurkha’s rights.


How did you use social media to broaden your audience and get your message out there?

The use of social media was one of the key things that we improved on this year compared with previous years.  This was partly down to selecting early, as we had much more time to plan out a social media campaign and create candidate profiles.  Our social media strategy was based primarily around getting the candidates’ names out there and building a recognisable brand so that when residents go to vote they know exactly who they are voting for.


What difference will having 14 members in the group make in terms of effectiveness on the Council, but also for campaigning going forward?

It will make all the difference.  I’ve been on Rushmoor when we’ve just a handful of Labour Councillors, and the benefits of having a larger group are massive.  Not only are we a more effective force on the Council, but additional members of the group also make election campaigning and financing much easier.

Every new Councillor is more money in the bank from the levy Councillors pay from their allowances to the Group, which we use to finance election material in wards we already hold.  This year we split the costs of leaflets between Councillors’ subs for wards we were defending, and money fundraised by the CLPs and LCF for wards we were targeting, and growing our group by more than a third this year means lots more money to spend on election materials in the coming year.

More Councillors also means more boots on the ground.  Just as I acknowledged earlier the benefits of selecting early in order to have candidates available to deliver leaflets and lead sessions throughout the year, having Councillors in every target ward gives us the foundations for an effective year-round ground campaign.