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Remembering The Battle Of The Asda Checkouts


4:00 pm - March 13th 2010

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This is a guest post by Tim Fenton

Crewe and Nantwich is only one of almost 650 constituencies on the political map of the UK. But the by-election there in May 2008 holds important lessons for the upcoming General Election.

Following the death of Gwyneth Dunwoody, Labour were between the proverbial rock and hard place: whether they called a snap by-election, or played a longer game, the Government’s unpopularity put them at a disadvantage. Moreover, they needed to select a candidate, and quickly.

Both Tory and Lib Dem already had candidates in place. Edward Timpson was, apparently, not well regarded by Tory HQ, but the crucial and sensible decision was made by Eric Pickles, chosen to manage the campaign, to stand by him. The Lib Dems, seemingly in a moment of panic, ditched their man in favour of Elizabeth Shenton, who then had start over with local activists. This gave the Tories a head start.

Pickles then managed expectations well, the press were fed stories of a “rock solid working class seat”, which could be easily disproved by a trip out to Nantwich – solidly Tory – or to outlying villages, and those new housing developments full of potential swing voters. But during the campaign, most of the assembled hackery saw little more than the area between Crewe station and the town centre, and so bought into the Tories’ well crafted myth.

Surprisingly, the media did little analysis on past elections, which would have disproved the myth of the working class stronghold. The last time a majority Tory Government was returned – in 1992 – Dunwoody’s majority was under 2,700. There had been only one instance of a five figure majority, that in 1997: then, the Tories had been caught in a perfect storm, unpopular nationally and disliked locally after the rail sell-offs caused delays in new train orders and the Works had to lay off staff.

Labour selected Dunwoody’s daughter Tamsin to fight the seat. Was this a good or bad thing? My take is that it had no bearing on the outcome. I reckon she was the best candidate, but Timpson’s shortcomings – he’s not a natural talker and doesn’t do charisma – were managed by Pickles guiding and coaching him, making sure he got his talking points over. It would be different in a General Election campaign, where the luxury of a personal minder would be missing, but that would be to miss the point. The matter at hand was winning the by-election.

The Tories were allowed to make the running from the start, and their focus was incessantly negative, and personal towards the PM. They stuck to this tack and their discipline held firm. Labour’s attempts to show Tamsin Dunwoody in a positive light made little impact. Elsewhere, Elizabeth Shenton was having difficulty making herself heard, despite Vince Cable being ever present.

The saturation media coverage, and the dispatch of every well known politician to Crewe and Nantwich, also had little additional impact: on one Saturday in mid-campaign, Simon Hughes turned up to assist Ms Shenton, while earlier, Jack Straw had brought his soap box to Crewe town centre, and took questions from all comers, but they need not have bothered. The same could be said of the “love bombing” of often bewildered shoppers in Asda, who for a moment were considered important enough to have even “Dave” Cameron pack their shopping. The parties’ efforts cancelled each other out.

Was the “Tory Toff” line wrong? Maybe, given that Timpson, although part of the shoe repair dynasty, is not a man of ostentatious wealth. But Labour make Cameron visibly uncomfortable whenever he is the target of such attacks, so the idea that this contest going the way of the Tories would stop them is groundless.

One controversy was generated by a Labour campaign leaflet, which Pickles called out as “racist”. I saw the offending flyer – the contentious part was the policy of ID cards for foreign nationals – and sent it on its way. Was it racist? I think not. Clumsy maybe, and more likely a policy cut and paste job. But racist it had been called, and once more the Tory discipline held: all those from the party venturing an opinion on the matter toed the line. Pickles is supposedly known for his “anti racism”, but on this occasion it seemed more a case of “accusing the opposition of racism at a time likely to cause them maximum damage, and keeping up the attack in order to prevent them effectively rebutting the accusation”. Given his role in the upcoming General Election campaign, look for that one to be wheeled out again.

The Tories then completed their mission by keeping up the campaigning until polling day. Labour did not. On the last Saturday, I spoke with a Labour supporter who assured me that they would return to get out the vote, but later that same day, a conversation with the campaign HQ on Nantwich Road left me with the impression they had given up. So it was: the evening of polling day was a quiet one in what I call “Redbrick Crewe”, the area that returns Labour and Lib Dem councillors. Labour had already admitted defeat: the Tory majority therefore flattered Timpson.

What will happen at the General Election? Well, unless the Tories score a substantial swing, Timpson will be unseated. David Williams, his next Labour opponent, has the presence and the patter: he is a natural politician. Edward Timpson will have served his purpose.

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Reader comments


I love this.

“Was the ‘Tory Toff’ line wrong?”

Answer: Well, not really, because they *are* toffs.

“Was the leaflet racist?”

Answer: Um, well, personally I don’t think so; it was “clumsy”.

Overview: “The Tories were allowed to make the running from the start, and their focus was incessantly negative, and personal towards the PM. They stuck to this tack and their discipline held firm. Labour’s attempts to show Tamsin Dunwoody in a positive light made little impact.

Damn those “incessantly negative” Tories! Damn the lack of impact of Labour’s “positive” campaigning!

Really, this is beyond parody.

The main reason Labour lost the C&N bye-election was that Brown had just pushed through the 10p tax.

People were really pissed off about it. “Tory toffs” was a side issue, and yes it annoyed some people, but regressive Labour policies had much more to do with it.

Perversely, people then voted for the Tories (or didn’t vote at all). But that’s just a brute fact about the weird voting patterns of British voters on average.

@2: There was the attempt to “rectify” the inequality resulting from the removal of the 10p tax band, but from memory it had little effect. The Government were sufficiently unpopular that Crewe and Nantwich was at the time vulnerable enough to be lost in a by-election.

@1: You could always read the post, and are indeed beyond parody.

Well, this is mostly a more balanced account than the hysterical narrative that Labour lost because some leaflets called the Tory candidate a toff. But I don’t think it necessarily follows that we will win the seat back next time – I hope we do, we certainly won’t have 10p to contend with and the polls will be narrower than they were at the time of the by-election. But the seat was a Tory seat before Dunwoody stood and taken as a whole it’s not natural Labour territory.

@4, Crewe and Nantwich was a new constituency for the 1983 General Election, and Gwyneth Dunwoody won it, though with a majority of just 290. Before that, Crewe had been Labour all the way back to 1945 (Scholefield Allen was Dunwoody’s predecessor, representing the seat from 1945 to 1974).

Nantwich, which was a new seat in 1955, returned a Tory MP, and much of that constituency is now part of Eddisbury, which also routinely returns a Tory MP.

There have been further boundary changes to Crewe and Nantwich, which will take effect for the 2010 General Election.

All the parties looked a bit foolish in that bye-election because of their “campaigning”. In this case it hurt the Labour Party most: having spent ten years thumbing its nose at its natural constituences, it wasn’t possible to win them back by pointing out that some Tories are toffs.

The last time a majority Tory Government was returned – in 1992 – Dunwoody’s majority was under 2,700. There had been only one instance of a five figure majority, that in 1997

So, you should expect to lose seats with a majority of 7,000? Hello PM Cameron.

The saturation media coverage, and the dispatch of every well known politician to Crewe and Nantwich, also had little additional impact:..The parties’ efforts cancelled each other out.

A quick look at the evidence suggests that this isn’t true. An 18% swing to the Tories? Their first by-election win in 30 years? Turning a 7,000 Labour majority into an 8,000 Tory majority? That rather suggests that Labour ran a shockingly poor campaign, and the Tories ran a good one.

The Tories were allowed to make the running from the start, and their focus was incessantly negative, and personal towards the PM. They stuck to this tack and their discipline held firm. Labour’s attempts to show Tamsin Dunwoody in a positive light made little impact.

The only Labour campaign tactic that made any impact was the Tory toff one. Not only the sublimely fatuous one of having two Labour public schoolboys wander around in top hats (ffs. Lamest political stunt ever), but also driving the ghastly Tamsin Dunwoody’s leaflets which said ‘She’s one of us, he’s one of them’. Now, quite a lot of political campaigns are based on implying this. Very few just flat out say it. I’d say they were the worst leaflets ever, but sadly the ones handed out in Norwich that said ‘vote Labour or the fox gets it’ win that accolade.

Labour had already admitted defeat: the Tory majority therefore flattered Timpson.

What? The turnout was pretty much identical to the general election – almost unheard of at by-elections.

It’s a brave attempt to gloss over one of the worst Labour by-elections ever. But it doesn’t wash. It was a perfect storm of a terrible time nationally – the 10p tax rate – a terrible candidate – the hereditary principle is not always an electoral bonus – and a terrible campaign.

David Williams, his next Labour opponent, has the presence and the patter: he is a natural politician.

I’m not sure this is as much of a compliment as it’s supposed to be.

@7, you make the mistake of assuming I am here to apologise for the Labour party, which I am not. I have no party affiliation – unlike your very obvious one to the Tories. This post is considering the lessons from the campaign.

Your comment on majorites of 7,000 is muddled. Try and explain yourself more clearly.

Also, what part of the word “additional” do you not understand? The saturation media coverage and all the extra bodies sent daily from London, as I assserted, made no *additional* impact. But if you have “evidence” to refute my specific point, please present it.

I encoutered all three major parties’ candidates during the campaign, and whatever attributes Tamsin Dunwoody posessed, she certainly was not “ghastly”. Unless you’re a partisan Tory, perhaps. I wasn’t impressed by Edward Timpson, but then, he did get in my way outside Crewe station one morning. Ms Dunwoody and her pals stood away from Nantwich Road the day they attempted to impress rail commuters. That was a sensible thing to do, but it made them less visible.

On turnout, this was down on the 2005 General Election by around 2,000 votes – despite all the hype surrounding the campaign. Perhaps a couple of thousand one way or the other qualifies as “pretty much identical” in Tory land.

Also, Timpson benefited from a fall in the Lib Dem support (down around 2,000 from the 2005 GE), which suggests there was some tactical switch – consistent with a Government that was unpopular nationally. I note that you do not contest my point that Labour gave up and failed to make an effort to get their vote out.

[The Lib Dems were last of the three main parties to select a candidate for the GE, which suggests they do not expect to better their usual third place]

Your comment on majorites of 7,000 is muddled. Try and explain yourself more clearly.

This piece, that allows for only one Labour failing – that of making little impact in their attempts to show Tamsin Dunwoody in a positive light – describes every single factor as not having made much impact. Choice of candidates? “no bearing on the outcome”. Saturation media coverage? “little additional impact”. On the ground campaigning? “The parties’ efforts cancelled each other out”.

The only thing mentioned here to explain the loss of Crewe and Nantwich was that it wasn’t really a solid Labour seat, and could thus, presumably, be expected to see an 18% swing to the Conservatives. The point I’m making, and I’ll speak slower and more clearly this time so that you can understand it, is that if Labour are explaining away 7,000 majority seats as inevitable losses then a Conservative victory at the next election is guaranteed.

On turnout, this was down on the 2005 General Election by around 2,000 votes – despite all the hype surrounding the campaign. Perhaps a couple of thousand one way or the other qualifies as “pretty much identical” in Tory land.

Fathead. By-election turnouts are frequently substantially lower than the general election levels. Couple of examples?

In Norwich North, turnout in 2005 was 61% At the by election it was 46%

In Henley, turnout in 2005 was 68%, at the by-election it was 50%.

In Crewe, in 2005 it was 60%, and in the by-election it was 58%. That’s a remarkably low downturn from a general election – less than 5% of the people that voted in 2005 stayed away in 2008.

whatever attributes Tamsin Dunwoody posessed, she certainly was not “ghastly”

Her literature certainly was. Describing your opponent as a ‘con man’ is pretty bloody low. Running your entire campaign on the fact that your Mum was MP and you are therefore ‘one of us’ unlike the top hats on the other side was, and the word is particularly apposite, ghastly.

Incidentally, anyone called Tamsin Dunwoody-Kneafsey running a campaign on ‘don’t vote for posh people’ looks a bit like a parody.


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