How my campaign won the inaugural West Yorkshire mayoral election

The campaign I set out to run when I decided to stand last year was a distant memory come September. No door-knocking, rallies or physical phonebanks. But even through the seismic shift in the country, the starting point was the same as ever. What are we for? Who are we trying to win over? Why should voters trust me and Labour over everyone else? What’s the message?

I set out to deliver a positive, upbeat and optimistic vision for West Yorkshire, with policies rooted in the day to day lives and hopes of people across the region. A vision that – while holding the government to account for their cronyism and incompetence – was clear about what we were for, not just what we were against. But cut-through was hard.

Politics is not at the forefront of people’s minds at the best of times. At the height of lockdown, the mayoral election wasn’t always on the tips of people’s tongues (though frankly, having appeared on Coronation Street and Emmerdale didn’t hurt – it’s something unique I brought as a candidate).

The logistics weren’t any easier. Some of my campaign team still haven’t met in person and building an entirely digital volunteer community was like nothing we’d tried before. It brought new opportunities as well as challenges. We activated people who may never have volunteered in the ‘real’ world, eliminating barriers to participating for some. That sense of ‘team’ was harder to forge. I certainly missed the post-canvassing G&T but the odd online pub quiz, TeamTB tee-shirt or virtual cuppa helped. We didn’t have the benefit of being seen ‘out and about’ or dropping in a ‘sorry we missed you’ leaflet.

On the hundreds of Zoom phonebanks we ran (mobilised by email, social media and WhatsApp), we spoke to thousands of voters through Dialogue – some of whom were heartbreakingly grateful for the contact at a time of isolation. Digitally, we built engagement paths around survey data, developed location specific messaging and worked hand-in-hand with affiliates to reach their members. Our volunteers and party staff were truly amazing.

There are lessons to be learned to get us battle ready for the general election, because while we hope it won’t be anything like a Covid election, the need for digital skills and engagement won’t go away. In an ideal world, by the time we reach the next general election, we will be combining community organising on the ground with digital organising around the same issues online – but we need to start that process now.

While I was lucky as my fella was taking a break from directing Eastenders and could film me out and about, the tools, training and resource aren’t yet in the place for us to be the world-leading force we should be in digital campaigning. My campaign didn’t get a dedicated digital organiser until March, for example.

In my selection, we used automated SMS and peer-to-peer texting to have tens of thousands of conversations with party members. Let’s see if that works elsewhere. It took an age to add mayoral voting preference to Dialogue, so we need to be much more fleet of foot. We don’t have digital tools for our activists and councillors to use, yet our local Labour teams want to be able to securely survey voters and build local email lists. We need top-notch social listening converted into to social action. We need to develop digital leaders in all of our local parties and communities.

While I’m extremely grateful that we could afford online advertising, which picked up a surprising level of engagement, the closer to the ground our tools are the better. Fundamentally, devolution in the UK should be matched by a commitment to devolution in our party.

There is an emerging new Northern Labour, with Labour metro mayors stacked along the M1 and M62, speaking for millions of people and families and winning at the ballot box. We can and will be a powerful force in building a fairer country but also an electable Labour Party in Westminster.

A Northern Campaigning Powerhouse in our labour movement can drive campaigns and innovation, properly organising in our communities and building a real feeling among our voters that we are on their side year-round, with a genuine connection that is resilient and loyal.

The results are already there. In West Yorkshire, we did far better than the polling or bookies expected; in Manchester, we saw a phenomenal result for Andy. But it’s more than selling a message, it’s about connection.

From the people I meet on my commute to work on the bus, I know people want to see themselves reflected in the people making decisions about their futures. ‘You’re one of us’ has been said to me on more than one occasion. Sick of the spin and lies, people want someone they can trust, who gets them. to be their champion.

When Andy Burnham demanded a fair deal for the North during the pandemic, he channelled the pride we all feel in our Northern roots. He spoke to that deep-seated feeling that what was happening wasn’t fair, but this time a politician was standing in front of the TV cameras and saying it in a way people understood.

Voters responded to Andy taking that stand not just intellectually, but emotionally. They didn’t just have thoughts about it, they had feelings about it. Our people and communities want to feel that we’re on their side – and while it’s only my first week in office, I’m looking forward to doing exactly that.

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