Peter Mountford-Smith co-ordinated volunteers from Edinburgh who helped out in the recent by-election in Annandale. Here, he outlines the differences he found in campaigning in a rural area.
In mid-November, there was a by-election in Annandale North, part of the Dumfries and Galloway council area. Greens had done well in May, with lots of first preferences, and with Alis Ballance almost winning a seat in this four-member ward, ending just 39 votes short.
Of course a by-election is a much tougher task, with just one seat up for grabs. It’s a strong Tory area, with the Conservatives fielding three candidates in May, and with two of those being returned, along with one Labour and one SNP. But it was a chance to build the vote in an area that is winnable, and so people came from far and wide to help with the campaign – including a few of us from Edinburgh.
It was quite a bit different to what we’re used to.
For a start, there are far fewer party members to do the work. By-elections offer the larger branches like Edinburgh an opportunity to help those smaller branches, in a way that we perhaps can’t during a normal election.
It’s a different type of campaigning. We found that in this rural area (Moffat, Lockerbie and Lochmaben, and surrounding countryside) personal contacts play a bigger role, and the vote is more personal and less party-based than in bigger towns. The message was more about the candidate’s personal track record and less about party policy.
The approach to conversations is also different, and our usual canvassing approach of asking about voting intention was less appropriate to the area. We found people approachable and friendly, but not keen on revealing how they were likely to vote.
We found bigger variations between areas than we get in towns, possibly because of the difficulty of building a personal presence over such a wide area, with so few members to help. Looking at how the vote went in May shows enormous differences for the Green vote between different areas.
So we led the vote in two areas in May, but were vanishingly small in others, showing more variation than anyone else (there is more variation for the individual Tory candidates, but this is planned, as they encourage people in each area to vote for a particular person; we must look at their three candidates together to understand their actual support).
In the end, this time we came third. The vote seemed to be a classic two-party squeeze, with Tories and Labour both increasing their vote both in numbers and as a percentage of the vote cast, at the expense of other parties. It’s a naturally Tory area, and possibly the Labour vote partly reflected the recent death of the previous councillor to cause the by-election, with an understandable sympathy vote.
What did we gain? The Green vote held up better than all the others, and we moved ahead of the SNP, pushing them into fourth place. That result bodes well for the next full election, when winning one of the four seats looks eminently possible.
Because party members from elsewhere helped, Alis had more time to campaign in areas where she was less well known, and has built up some new contacts in both Lockerbie and Lochmaben, including getting a couple of new members.
We got out more leaflets then would be possible without outside help, and got some canvassing done, which the local branch hadn’t done in that way before. Both those things help to raise the profile a little, and that can only help for the future. And we made connections between branches which don’t usually have working links, with some learning on both sides about how others do it. It’s all part of a slow and necessary process of building.