This would not be, and was not, your traditional by-election. When political heavyweights Chuka Umunna and Sadiq Kahn both call the Conservative ‘a strong candidate’ and the Labour rival lauds him as being ‘a nice guy’ who ‘cares about people and [has] done excellent work for local charities’, alarm bells should be ringing.
Croydon North was never going to be an easy fight for the Conservatives. The late MP, Malcolm Wicks, left the 55th safest Labour seat in the country. Labour had a 69.35 per cent vote share while the second placed Conservatives had a comparatively paltry 18.96 per cent.
The choice of candidate was going to be crucial. The members of Croydon North put their faith in Andy Stranack, a local born charity worker who since birth has had cerebral palsy.
In his 20s, Andy worked for the local Council writing bids for various infrastructure projects around the borough. At the same time he started volunteering for a youth club and soon realised that his work during the day was having little impact on the quality of life for the kids he was helping in the evening.
So, radically, Andy decided to give up his job, sold his house and moved into a friend’s spare bedroom on a Croydon council estate. Years passed and Andy loved his job, getting to the root causes of poverty in that area and making a real difference. In September 2004, one of the young men Andy was mentoring was tragically stabbed to death, putting in motion an introspective journey that was to call Andy to serve in regional and national politics.
This level of detail is important. It’s in his story, his character and his policies that indicate a different kind of Conservative has emerged. On the doorstep, hardcore Labour voters were stopped in their tracks when Andy explained why he wanted their vote. The perception of the Party nationally, and the man standing in front of them was too incongruous for many to initially compute.
Andy sees himself as Conservative in the Disraeli/Gladstone sense – a social reformer with a passion for people. He’s not let his disability act as a barrier to anything in his life, and why should he? Voters recognised his fighting spirit as a powerful trait needed in a Parliamentary candidate.
But Croydon North was and still is a Labour safe-seat; the odds of even a candidate as great as Andy over-turning a 16,000 vote majority are slim. So the campaign strategy was deliberately innovative. The by-election was never going to change the Government, we said, but it was a chance for the people of the area to choose someone who deeply cared about their town and knew what needed to be done to make it better.
When the doors were knocked time and time again voters were saying ‘I want to vote for you because you’re the best candidate, but why are you a Conservative?’ The campaign literature reinforced a key theme: Forget tribal party politics, vote for the person, vote for their policies. Vote for what’s best for Croydon North.
And that’s just what they did. In a mid-term slump, with the Government making tough but necessary decisions, the national polls indicated that the Conservatives and the Coalition nationally would get a pounding with a swing towards Labour of 9.5 per cent. Despite that, Andy Stranack and his local, positive campaign, did rather well.
The swing to Labour from the Conservatives in Croydon North was 8 per cent. In the Middlesbrough by-election it was 13.5 per cent. In Rotherham the Conservatives were relegated to fifth place behind UKIP, the BNP and Respect. In Corby a few weeks before, the swing was 12.5 per cent. In Manchester Central on the same day as Corby, the swing was 12 per cent.
The Liberal Democrats in Croydon North saw their share of the vote collapse from 14 per cent to 3.5 per cent, losing their deposit in the process.
The Conservative campaign, though not winning the seat, demonstrated what could happen when a strategy of positive engagement with the electorate is combined with a local, inspirational candidate and the work of hundreds of dedicated activists pounding the streets night and day.
I’ve no doubt that Andy will go on to bigger and better things. His life experiences, his passion, and his grass-roots approach to politics are desperately needed on the national stage. People like Andy deserve to be in Parliament, and the national party is definitely taking notice. Hunting out, enticing, and supporting diverse and competent candidates is a crucial step on the path to securing a Conservative majority in 2015.
‘Line one, rule one of being a Conservative is that it’s not where you’ve come from that counts, it’s where you’re going,’ said the Prime Minister in Birmingham. Nowhere is this mantra more crucial than in the selection and the narrative of our candidates.
The right people are out there, and they’re waiting for the call.