Friday 6 May 2022

Barnet Council Election Analysis - Why the Barnet Tories won in Mill Hill

Having been up all night at the count at a monumental night in Barnet Politics, where Labour achieved a landslide, I thought I'd just sum up my thoughts on what happened in two blogs. In the first, I will look at Mill Hill. Unlike many other wards in Barnet, the Conservatives managed to hold the ward fairly comfortably. 

Firstly, congratulations to Val Duschinsky, Laithe Jajeh and Elliot Simberg, the victorious Conservative candidates. On a personal level, they've been decent and friendly. Some of their leaflets were a bit dodgy, but that's politics and no one should take it personally. I will work with them for what is best in Mill Hill. They are decent people. No one goes into local politics for the wrong reasons, unless they are bonkers and they are not.

Secondly, I'd like to congratulate my niece Pascale Fanning-Tichborne, who polled almost twice what what I polled in Mill Hill. That was an amazing performance. She is a wonderful person and I really hope Labour put her up in a winnable seat next time. She would make a brilliant councillor.

I'd like to thank my fellow candidates Donna and Richard. They have both had truly awful years to this point. In the circumstances, their support has been incredible. When Richard was unable to help me canvassing, he got his twin brother Con to visit from Ireland to help me, that really is going and above the call of duty. I'd also like to thank our small Mill Hill Team, especially Jeremy Davies, and the team who helped deliver leaflets. They are amazing. It is never nice losing, but it is important that people are given a democratic choice. You have to respect the voters, it was not to be. You may wonder why? Here are the reasons.

 Let's look at the results from last night. 

Local Government Election results for Mill Hill

As someone who has spent the last couple of months, knocking on doors, there is a lot more to this than meets the eye. Having spoken to hundreds of people, it was clear to me that there were three key factors.

1. There would be a massive drop in the Conservative vote.
2. The Labour vote was quite robust.
3. A majority of people wanted to see the Conservatives out

I put out a text on Wednesday based on our canvassing, which I spent a couple of hours number crunching. Here is what I thought would happen

As you can see, I was pretty spot on with the Green Party and the WEP. For Labour and the Conservatives, their result was around what I predicted as their top end performance.

The only thing I got absolutely wrong was the Lib Dem vote! So was I delusional? Why did I get it so wrong? This is something I can answer very easily. After the 2019 General Election, the Barnet Lib Dems decided on a strategy to push on in Barnet. Mill Hill ward had polled the best, by a long shot, of all the Barnet wards. We got over 1,200 vote. I have always believed and still do, that only the Lib Dems can unseat the Tories in Mill Hill. I believed that a proper Lib Dem campaign in Mill Hill, concentrating resources from across the Borough on Mill Hill and a couple of other target wards, would see us over the line. However, this meant starting the campaign in the summer of 2021 and doing a full canvass of the whole ward, to work out where to concentrate on. In the 1990's the Lib Dems did just this and went from third in 1990 to first in 1994. The 1,200 odd votes was a solid platform for this.

However, when the Lib Dems nearly took Finchley and Golders Green in the 2019 general election, the party decided that winning a seat in Parliament was a priority. All resources in Barnet would be put into Finchley wards. Mill Hill would be left to its own devices. Myself, Richard and Donna agreed to stand, but it was made clear to us that we were on our own and could do as much or as little work as we wanted to.  As my business has been decimated by Covid, getting this back on its feet was my priority. Whereas previously I'd had staff to cover me when I stood and could spend six months knocking on doors, this was simply not an option. As for Richard and Donna, they had their own challenges. We talked about what sort of campaign we'd run. We decided that we'd start in January, with a mission to keep the Mill Hill Tories honest. We'd put a series of leaflets out concerning local issues and do some targeted canvassing, to see whether it was worth trying to get more resources and have a go. 

When we agreed this strategy, Boris was doing OK in the polls and Mill Hill looked unwinnable. Much as I was prepared to throw my heart and soul into a campaign, I was not if there was no prospect of winning. As 2021 moved into 2022, Dominic Cummings started to dissect Boris. The Partygate scandal emerged and the political wind started to blow against Boris. It seems odd to think that this time last year, Boris was perceived as doing an OK job and was boasting that the UK was leading the world with our vaccine programme and by and large the public seemed to agree. That was the backdrop to our plans.

In January, we met up and started to discuss what we were going to do. Donna is a very talented graphic designer and produces excellent quality leaflet designs. These make a huge difference. We decided to run a hyper local campaign, focussing on things that matter to people in Mill Hill. We did a targeted small canvass of a couple of roads in February. The results were astounding. What we'd previously marked in 2018 as hard Tories were actually saying they'd vote Lib Dem. It became clear that no one who voted Labour was likely to switch to Lib Dem. In Mill Hill, they seemed to like what Keir Starmer was doing. A few said that they'd consider tactically voting to get rid of Boris, but only if they were convinced that the Lib Dems could win. I'd say that maybe one in four of those Labour supporters, said they'd vote Lib Dem if there was a realistic chance of us winning. 

We crunched some numbers. our sums indicated that the Tories would get 1,700-1,800 votes. If we could add 500 to our total, we'd get over the line. When we realised this, we realised that if we worked our socks off, the seat was in play. The only question was how we get that number over the line.

At this point our campaign was hit by a couple of what transpired to be fatal problems. My fellow candidates had sudden and unexpected genuine crises. This put them totally our of the picture for a month or so. Then Richard was hit by Covid. Having planned to get four leaflets delivered across the ward, we got one. We were completely unable to do the canvassing we wanted to do until well into April. As we were not a target seat, we had no assistance to meet the shortfall in what we were doing.

We did manage to put together a small team of local activists and start knocking on doors and delivering target leaflets. We identified several key issues. The licence application for Mill Hill Park, the huge rave at Copthall fields, the lack of a plan in Barnet to deal with potholes. With no support from the parties resources, we had to pay for and print these leaflets ourselves. This is not a criticism of the Lib Dems in Barnet. A small party with limited resources, has to use what resources it has as wisely as it can. 

When we knocked on doors, talked to residents and laid out our campaign themes, they were highly receptive. So much so that the local Conservatives started to put out panic press releases and leaflets. How ever there were three main problems.

1. We only knocked on 20% of the doors, due to the problems mentioned above.
2. On the streets we knocked only about one in four people were actually in, meaning we actually engaged about 5% of local people at their homes.
3. The Lib Dems printing press, which was really the only way we could afford to get leaflets done economically, was at full capacity, we left it too late, so we had to print small run leaflets at home. We simply couldn't afford to get enough paper out (a local printer quoted £125 for 500 leaflets). We only managed to get 1 full run leaflet and one large run target leaflet. 

A successful Lib Dem campaign, would involve a full canvass of the ward to identify supporters up to six months before the election, followed by targeted canvasses and leaflets to identified supporters. We'd probably have to speak to 30-40% of voters and then make sure they got our message. 

What we got with the people we engaged and properly canvassed, the response was very positive. Feeding this into our database and extrapolating the numbers, we had the numbers. But when you've only actually spoken to 5-10% of voters, rather than 30-40% you need, you are basically guessing. The sample for the other parties was spot on because we'd done a large enough sample, but for the Lib Dems it was wildly wrong, because to win in Mill Hill, we have to talk to people and sell ourselves. In 2018, we'd managed this far more successfully. We'd got to speak to around 25% of people and we knew if  we could get that up to 40%, we'd be in play. 

What made us over confident this time was the way when we knocked on doors, so many people, especially former Tories, disgusted by Boris said "We are fed up with him and we will most likely vote for you". In truth, they simply stayed at home. They wanted to punish Boris and they did it by watching Match of the Day and not voting, not by voting Lib Dem.

One thing is clear is that there is a bedrock of Conservative support that will be very hard to shift. In four years time, they will have a whole list of things they will throw at Labour to persuade voters. My one hope is that their councillors don't like being in opposition and decide to throw in the towel and spark a by election. If that happens, I think the Lib Dems may well shock a few people (and not by coming last!). I guarantee that the whole party will be out for it!

My view of Mill Hill ward has not changed one iota. I believe it is winnable for the Lib Dems, but only with a full on campaign, supported by the local party, with a long campaign, proper canvassing and chasing up of voters and a series of leaflets. If Labour could win in Mill Hill, they would have this time, but unlike other seats, their vote didn't move from 2018. I doubt very much that Labour will bother targeting Mill Hill in 2026. Will I stand? I don't know. I've done it three times. In truth, I love campaigning and canvassing. I enjoy meeting people. I caught up with many old friends knocking on doors. I managed to sort out a couple of problems for residents on the way. This is my home, why would I not want the best for it.

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