A Tale Of Two General Election Campaigns: Colchester And Thurrock.

Mick Hall writing @ Organized Rage shares some reflections on the recent UK general election.

Tim Young.

After the general election (GE) results were announced those Labour MPs who have been disrupting the party's unity since Jeremy Corbyn became leader were forced to eat a certain amount of humble pie. They're lucky Jeremy is such a forgiving man for if the shoe was on the other foot I doubt they would have acted in such a magnanimous way towards him.

If we look back at Labour's GE campaigns - I write campaigns because within some constituencies local leaderships chose a different path to the national campaign. In my view this was a mistake as Theresa May made it clear shortly after she called a snap election  the campaign was going to be about the character of the two main party leaders. And so it proved although not in the way she had hoped.

I thought I would take a look at two constituencies which fall into the above category, Colchester and Thurrock. One firmly so, the other more loosely.

Tim Oxton, a veteran socialist and member of Colchester Labour Party (CLP) who took part in the GE campaign in that city had this to say:

In Colchester our CLP has for years been led by Tim Young, who voted against Corbyn in both his leadership campaigns. The line has been relentlessly New Labour, and by 2015 party membership had dwindled to about 250. It seems that most of these were ardent Blairites, or else they were just sticking it out and hoping for better times to come round.

On the borough council, Labour were junior partners in a governing coalition led by the Lib Dems and including three Independents. (The Tories had lost power in 2008 following a disastrous decision to close the bus station in order to build an art gallery, and they remain in opposition to this day.)

Nationally, many of us "old Labour" people were voting Lib Dem to support the sitting MP and keep the Tories out. This was successful till 2015 when many people could no longer stomach the party whose leaders had acted as running-dogs to the Tories. The Tory candidate snatched the seat.

Then something interesting started to happen. Jeremy Corbyn's two campaigns for the LP leadership brought in hundreds of new party members. I remember at a CLP meeting last summer Tim Young speaking and voting for Owen Smith against Jeremy. But then when Jeremy won again, with a similarly huge majority, quite soon there was a change of tone from our local leader. His wife Julie was by this time Mayor and Tim was fulfilling his duties as her escort.

When the snap GE was announced, there was of course no time for local party meetings to select a candidate, and Tim put his name forward, as apparently did three others, names not divulged. A special meeting of the CLP was then held, essentially Tim Young's coronation as our candidate, and Tim gave a really good rousing speech in which he declared total faith in Jeremy Corbyn as our leader, and told us to go all out to win. A massive effort was already under way at the University to encourage students to register to vote. 11000 new electors registered, though I think a lot of those were in Wivenhoe, which belongs to another constituency. Anyway, we had several thousand new electors to go for. We were not a priority constituency, we received no funds whatsoever from central office, but we raised enough money locally to pay for plenty of leaflets and posters. By the final week before polling day, Labour posters heavily outnumbered Lib Dem ones in the areas where we had been campaigning. (We hadn't the resources to campaign in the Tory areas.)

A lot of Lib Dems came over to us, most of the Greens came over to us, and we established ourselves as the principal opposition to the Tory. Sir Bob Russell will not stand again. He is already High Steward of Colchester, a purely ceremonial position, and seems happy enough (I met him on Thursday evening at an event where he was also comfortable in the presence of Tim and Julie Young).

By all accounts Thurrock Labour Party (TLP) in the years prior to Corbyn becoming party leader was in a not dissimilar situation to those Tim recalled in his local party. Until Jeremy was elected in late 2015 the party had been on a downward spiral for a host of differing reasons, some national some unique to Thurrock. Due to this by 2015 party membership had dwindled to the low hundreds.

As in Colchester, Jeremy Corbyn's two leadership campaigns brought in hundreds of new party members. Sadly, only half hearted attempts were made to draw these comrades into becoming active members. Thus come the GE we were unable to fully utilise our greatest resource, the membership. I am not pointing fingers of blame - we did what we could but it was clearly not good enough.

John Kent at the count

The Labour group on the local council had been led for many years by John Kent, an able comrade who is very knowledgeable about local government administration. Unlike Tim Young in CLP he voted for Jeremy in the second leadership elections.

When Theresa May called a snap General Election John was undoubtedly the most viable candidate available, he has lived in the borough all his life, attended local schools as his own children do today.

He's a well respected local politician with not inconsiderable achievements to his name. If he were a stick of rock it would have Thurrock running through it's middle.

Like in Colchester at the start of the campaign a meeting was held by TLP to announce his candidature. Unfortunately how the campaign would be fought was not discussed in any detail as the strategy had already been decided upon by the EC. It was made clear John would be fighting a local campaign. When challenged whether Jeremy would be on our election literature we were told he would not. During this meeting a party full timer who was helping to organise the campaign made an unhelpful and extremely negative comment about the policies of Corbyn Labour.

What this meant in reality was TLP had neutered our best campaigner, the party leader. I'm not suggesting there was any malice from those who decided on the local strategy. It's true: within some parts of the constituency Corbyn was unpopular. This was mainly amongst the over 50s who had taken at face value the MSMs lies and Tory and Ukip smears.

However this was also true at the time in many parts of the country. But by challenging them on the
doorstep many of these constituency LPs were able to turn this around. By deciding on a local campaign we all but told the Thurrock's electorate we didn't like him either. It was as if some senior members had lost confidence in their own ability to change voters minds about Jeremy.

If we learn one thing from Brexit, Trump's victory in 2016 and the 2017 UK GE result it's that politically nothing is set in stone, all is to play for.

Credit where credit is due: John Kent fought a good campaign, especially given the narrow confines of the strategy chosen. He was on the stump day and night; during the local husting he exposed the Tory candidate Jackie Doyle Price as a shallow and heartless woman who would abandon her constituents without a backward glance if it enables her to climb higher up the greasy pole.

This was best demonstrated when John with the help of a member of the audience astutely ambushed her into admitting she was all for closing Orsett hospital and selling off the land to developers. He also succeeded in making the Ukip candidate, Tim Aker, look like a hollow man.

It was at this meeting John said he was proud of the Labour manifesto, something many of us Corbyn supporters had been waiting to hear him say as it ensured all TLP members were finally on the same page.

During the campaign John went out of his way to welcome and thank the party members from Thurrock and beyond who joined his campaign. Including those from Momentum who played a massive role in Thurrock getting the Labour vote in.

In the end the Tory won by 345 votes, a result which John handled with great dignity, unlike Tim Aker the Ukip candidate who left the count in a huff before the result was officially announced.

Thurrock will continue to be a marginal seat when the date of the next GE is called.

I'm only speculating but it seems to me if the local leadership had the confidence to place Jeremy alongside John at the heart of the campaign in all probability for the first time ever a man who has lived in Thurrock all his life would now be our MP.

Given the disconnect between MP's of all parties and those they represent, that would surely have been a very good thing.

As to the future, if he wishes John Kent has more than earned the right to stand as the LP candidate for Thurrock in the next GE. I doubt a single local party member would begrudge him that and I personally hope he does stand.

Organising for the next GE has already begun and the first item on the next CLP/LCF meeting hopefully will be to invite Jeremy Corbyn to speak at a public meeting in Thurrock later this year.

I will leave it to Tim Oxton to sum up:

So there you have it. Thurrock was there for the taking, but an inept decision at the start of the campaign seems to have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. We in Colchester didn't stand a cat in hell's chance (the only Labour MP in our history was from 1945 to 1950), we got no help from national funds, but we fought a good campaign and we seriously believe we can squeeze the Lib Dem vote some more, and get a lot closer still.

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Anthony McIntyre

Former IRA prisoner, spent 18 years in Long Kesh. Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher.

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