Learning from defeat

They say you only really learn from your defeats. Last Friday I found out.

Seeing your candidate win on the first round of voting only to lose on transfers is bad enough. When it’s your father, it’s a lot worse.

We knew it would be tough. The Humberside Police force area was technically a Tory marginal. Add to that the fact it was being held in November, there were no local elections on the same day or freepost to send out leaflets, it became herculean.

And thanks to a voting system that the Tories had campaigned against in the AV referendum, a little known Conservative councilor called Matthew Grove won by 2,231 votes on second preferences.

I blogged at the time about the problems we faced and that gut-wrenching feeling of falling short. 

As we walked out of the declaration at Bridlington Spa, I turned to Keith Hunter, the man who ran JP close in the selection to become our Humberside PCC candidate.

I said: “Keith. In four years time, we’ll be back here. And we’ll get you elected.”

There was no doubt that Keith would make an impressive candidate. 30 years in Humberside Police, he went from beat bobby to commander with a proven track record of reducing crime.

And even after losing out to John, he still came out to campaign for the man who beat him. He never knew this, but JP had lined him up to be his Deputy Police and Crime Commissioner. They would have made a great team.

Instead, Grove won and promptly appointed his mate as his Deputy. Neither had any experience of policing and sadly it showed.

After a hopeless police force reorganisation, Humberside Police was ranked ‘inadequate’ by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate.

I kept in touch with Keith over the years, hoping one day to convince him to run for it. Since that election, he’d been an advisor on criminal justice for the Foreign Office and out in Bosnia.

So as the selection was about to open at the end of last year, I and others convinced him to go for it. He breezed through the selection as members knew he was the most experienced person for the job.

He also managed to secure a fantastic agent and campaign manager in former Brigg and Goole MP Ian Cawsey. There was also a team of people across the force area who’d campaigned in 2012 and knew where we went wrong and how we could do better.

People like Shona McIssac, George McManus, Shelagh Finlay, Paul McCartan and Victoria Mumby. Added to that, we had some very talented young people – Rich Newlove, Terence Smith to name but a few. Then there was the sterling support from our MPs; Melanie Onn, Nic Dakin, Karl Turner, Alan Johnson and Diana Johnson.

And then there was Keith himself. Thirty years in Humerside Police, from the beat to the boardroom, gave him an unrivalled level of knowledge of how the force works and how to set the strategic direction.

That’s why we developed the slogan ‘It’s time for a professional.’ His action plan was rich in the kind of detail that only a criminal justice expert could bring.

So what did we learn from that loss in 2012 to try and secure a win in 2016? I wrote some initial thoughts on what we could do back in 2012

But this election was going to be tougher because it was clear the Government had decided to hold on to as many Tory PCCs as possible by not promoting.

With Welsh, Scottish, Mayoral and local elections all on the same day, the PCC contests were the Cinderella races.

£3m was spent promoting the inaugural PCC elections in 2012. This time, that cost was £2,700.

In light of it being an even harder election, I think these are the key reasons why Keith won.

Firstly, it’s all about the candidate. John is marmite – you love him or hate him. That works for first-past-the-post elections but not when you’re looking for second preferences.

Nearly every PCC candidate – from UKIP’s Godfrey Bloom to the Lib and the Tory, all attacked JP. On their leaflets, on the airwaves and in the newspapers.

Keith, on the other hand, didn’t come across as political with a big P. Experience, knowledge and being less partisan, proved to be very appealing to the electorate.

Secondly, we did more on digital. Last time we used Twitter a lot but didn’t engage enough on Facebook. Technology and targeting has advanced since 2012.

As I discovered at a Facebook training session for fellow General Election candidates last year, we could target the news feeds of potential voters on a constituency basis.  

So I crafted a bit of content to reach them. This short film, made with Jack Slater, got more than 10,000 Facebook views in the constituency.

I used Jack again to make this film about Keith. 

We felt it was important that he was seen on the street, introducing himself, highlighting the problems and making his case.

Targeting the Humberside Police force area, it received more than 32,000 Facebook views.

Thirdly, Keith’s campaign did the basics a lot better. A better postal vote strategy, better liaison with the local Labour parties and better rebuttal.

This third point proved to be crucial when the Conservatives did one almighty ‘Hail Mary pass’ to try and knock Keith out of the contest.

A week before the election, Brigg and Goole MP Andrew Percy stood up in the House of Commons and asked Leader of the Commons Chris Grayling if PCC candidates who were former police officers should publicly release their service record.

Grayling, not surprisingly agreed, but went further to say – under parliamentary privilege – that he had heard ‘allegations about the Labour PCC candidate for Humberside.

He added: “If the stories alleged about the candidate are true, he is unfit for public office, and it is a matter of public interest that the truth should be known before election day.”

It was a cowardly act. Keith’s response was perfect – he calmly published his service record which proved he’d been nothing but a brilliant officer.

Faced with such a swift and categorical denial, Percy backtracked to say he wasn’t referring to Keith and Grayling failed to say what the unfounded allegations were.

On the doorstep, this smear actually had the reverse of the intended effect. True blue voters told Keith they were angry and it just strengthened their resolve to vote for him.

And as the polling booths opened, this story was splashed on front pages across Hull and the East Riding. It seems what goes around, comes around.

As we were getting out the vote in Hull on election day, I had people stopping their cars to talk to Keith and shake his hand. In the city of Hull alone, over 20,000 people voted for Keith – 15,000 more than Grove.

He also led in North Lincolnshire and North East Lincolnshire. Our big worry was East Riding, a solid Tory area that proved our undoing in 2012. But even here, Keith’s vote was competitive – Grove got 19,933 votes to Hunter’s 18,458.

So when the first preference figures were declared for the whole region, we knew we’d done it. Keith had a first round majority of over 21,000.

Only half of the 48,000 or so UKIP and Lib Dem second preferences came into play – and Keith got almost 60% of them.

His final majority over Grove was 24,353. In 2012, the Tory sneaked in with a 2,231 majority. We’d managed to get a swing to Labour of 11% on 2012 and a 9.3% swing on the General Election result.

Needless to say we were quite happy.

There are still concerns that need to be addressed. Our turnout, 22.84%, was higher than 2012’s 19.15%. But it’s still way too low.

That’s because many people refused to vote because they hadn’t heard from the candidates.

Like 2012, the Home Office refused to pay the Freepost for the candidates’ leaflets, in spite of a warning from the Electoral Commission that turnout  would continue to be low if they didn’t fund them.

A simple booklet featuring a page from each candidate would have helped and kept the costs down.

In conclusion, success has many fathers and failure is an orphan. Keith has many people who can righty claim to have helped secure that victory. If I’ve left names out, please forgive me.

And Keith deserves huge credit for being a great candidate, who kept his dignity and composure when his opponents started throwing mud.

But as an electoral orphan, I’ve carried that lonely guilt since 2012 that we could have done better.

So to see Keith declared the victor in the very same hall where we lost, made the win so much sweeter.

It allowed me to lay a ghost to rest.

And Matthew Grove finally got beat by a Prescott.

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