Over the last couple of years Biteback publishing have been progressively releasing a series of political ‘How to …’ books, beginning with a new edition of Newport East MP Paul Flynn’s ‘How to be an MP.’ Titles in the range so far include:
- How to be a Minister
- How to be a Government Whip
- How to be a Spin Doctor
- How to be a Parliamentary Researcher
My eye was caught however by a new volume: How to win a marginal seat, written by the Conservative MP for Croydon Central, Gavin Barwell. For those wondering what makes a seat ‘marginal’ let me give the example that Gavin won his seat in 2015 by 165 votes – or to put it another way, if just 83 people had voted for his nearest challenger rather than him, he would have lost. A marginal seat is therefore a seat where the incumbent has such a small lead that there is a good chance that their opponent might defeat them – in contrast to a ‘safe’ seat, where a cardboard box wearing the correctly coloured rosette would win the election every time.
[As an aside, whether a seat is safe or marginal can change very dramatically. Oxford East MP Andrew Smith had a comfortable majority of 10,344 votes in 2001 which collapsed to 963 in 2005. His current majority is 15,280.]
Gavin’s book serves both as a fascinating historical record of the 2015 General Election campaign, but also in my view as the definitive handbook for how to fight a close political election. Having downloaded the sample to my Kindle, I was so impressed by Gavin’s honesty, transparency, and capacity to tell a compelling story, that I had no reservations in stumping up the £6.47 to buy the Kindle version in full, and it is well worth the investment of time and money.
Credit is due that at no point do you feel that Gavin has drowned you in excessive contextual detail, nor left any part of the story bereft of the background you need to understand his story. We pick up his story at the point at which he released he was (as the book’s subtitle puts it) ‘fighting for my political life’ – when Croydon Labour flattened the Conservatives in the 2014 local elections. Realising (as he politely puts it) he was ‘up a well known creek’ we get a fascinating insight into the strategy Gavin’s team developed to identify and motivate those Croydon residents most likely to re-elect him.
While subsequent chapters show how the strategy was rolled out on the ground, it is perhaps Chapter 3 “Designing a Paddle” that is the most helpful to readers, and especially those who exist outside of the political bubble. This paragraph in particular deserves all the airtime it can get:
Some people would vote Conservative even if we never knocked on their door or delivered leaflets to them. Some would vote Labour, UKIP, Liberal Democrat or Green no matter how hard we tried to persuade them otherwise. Some wouldn’t vote at all. We needed to concentrate our efforts on the people who were likely to vote, had yet to make up their minds how they were going to do so and might be persuaded to vote for me. They were the people who would determine whether I won or lost.
This is where Gavin’s warts and all revelation of his political campaign comes into its own. From conversations with friends who are interested in politics at the level of being good citizens, but rather sensibly have stayed away from the stress of actually being in politics, a common observation is that they never hear from politicians, except during elections. Gavin’s book goes some considerable way towards showing just how costly it is in time, effort, manpower and money to reach even a small section of the electorate, after which a significant percentage are still never going to change their mind about you.
A pertinent example is spelled out in Chapter 22, which focuses on their polling day operations. Labour put out 500 activists in Croydon Central on polling day, 200 more than Gavin Barwell’s campaign team. There is a distinct element of Michael Lewis’s baseball focused book Moneyball in the decision by Gavin and his team to focus their efforts where it would make the greatest difference. Where you have fewer resources, you have to invest them more intelligently if you hope to win. My own hope is that this frank revelation of campaigning realities might lead to more people helping out campaign teams, and also a greater sympathy for political candidates – Gavin was gracious enough to recognise that his Labour opponent Sarah Jones had the not inconsiderable obstacle of trying to defeat him while still holding down a full time job.
The book therefore is of great use to two very different readerships. The first is to the wider readership who normally consume politics via the ‘air war’ of media exchanges, whether printed, television, or online. How to win a marginal seat will give you the feel and smell of a tough political fight, and give you a much better understanding of why campaign decisions take the decisions that they do. You will not necessarily agree with everything that is said – but even if that is the case, I hope that the book would serve as an impetus for you to get involved yourself and to begin bringing the change you desire into our way of doing politics.
Secondly, I have absolutely no hesitation in saying that this book is now required reading for any person desiring to run for elected office, or to run a successful politician campaign. How to win a marginal seat is a play-by-play guide to winning a tough fight against the odds, and to maximise the resources at your hands.The lessons that you can draw from the narrative go beyond just one read, and include both immediate easy wins that can be implemented immediately, and longer cultural changes that will take longer to see the benefit of, but will repay a handsome dividend for your efforts.
The book lacks only in one regard, which is no fault of the author’s. Throughout the book Gavin Barwell acknowledges several of the advantages set before him: his incumbency advantage (especially in terms of issue familiarity); a strong team of local councillors; a strong Conservative association; and the fact that as the sitting MP residents both knew who he was, and also would be more likely to listen to him. There remains a gap in the market for people like myself, who need to come from behind to unseat an entrenched local candidate (for those wondering, I’d need a 20% swing to win Littlemore in the 2018 City Council elections!). It will be interesting to see if Biteback have plans for such a book, perhaps based on MPs such as Marcus Fysh in Yeovil who managed to take a long-held Liberal Democrat seat with a 16% swing; or Tania Mathias who unseated Vince Cable in Twickenham with a 11.8% swing; or indeed Byron Davies, who took a seat in Wales that had been held by Labour for 105 years! If they are anywhere near the outstanding quality of How to win a marginal seat, they will very quickly also become required reading for those in politics.
How to win a Marginal Seat was released in March 2016. You can buy it on Amazon for £12.99 in print, or £6.47 on Kindle: