"Willing to work relentlessly to beat the Tories": Labour's activist-driven win in Stroud

"It proves that we if we can get people on the ground, we can beat the air war."

On Thursday night, as I awaited the outcome of one of the most divisive election campaigns in my lifetime, I knew there would be some surprises ahead. There always are. Most of us are still recovering from the exit polls in 2015.

However, one unexpected surprise was that my home town of Stroud would return a Labour MP to parliament.

It’s not exactly unprecedented. Labour’s David Drew, the MP from 1997 to 2010, and Neil Carmichael, who represented the town until last week, have been locked in a bitter fight over the seat since Carmichael launched a campaign to take it back for the Tories in the late 1990s.

They have now faced each other in five elections, and as veteran Stroud journalists Ben Falconer and Vicky Temple point out, if you total up all their votes since 2001, they come out just 89 votes apart.

However, Carmichael was odds-on to hold the seat, which consists of a large mill town and several smaller urban settlements surrounded by the famous Five Valleys of sprawling, traditionally Tory-voting Cotswold countryside.

Having declared his retirement from frontline politics after defeat in 2015 Drew had not planned to run again, but duty, and the constituency he has served as a teacher, councillor, MP and football club chair, called.

A contemporary of Jeremy Corbyn who was well-known by the whips as a persistent rebel during the Blair years, Drew ran from his natural place on the party’s left, and as a remain-voting Eurosceptic.

Like many of his old friends on his wing of the party, Drew believes the EU is too corporate, but he refused to vote for Brexit last year because of the way the campaign to leave was framed.

Carmichael, a politician who as education committee chair was not afraid to speak his mind against his own government, and one of the most staunchly pro-EU Tories in the last parliament, looked pretty safe in a constituency where 55 per cent voted to remain.

But in the end, although the two men won more than 29,000 votes each, beating their previous records, Drew secured almost 700 more votes than his opponent.

***

I’ve been thinking about Stroud a lot since the results came through on Thursday night. It was my home for 22 years, and I remember Drew as this omnipresent force in the town for most of my childhood and early adult life.

He spoke at my school, he always stopped to talk to my family in the High Street, and then, when I became a local newspaper journalist, we met and spoke regularly, usually to talk about badgers or incinerators. But enough about my hobbies.

I have been thinking about why Stroud, a town of independent shops and organic cafes, the home of the first meat and dairy-free football club and a district presided-over by a progressive alliance-run council went Labour this time, and whether it’s a sign of bigger things to come for the party.

I’m sure name recognition had something to do with it.

Since he lost the seat in 2010, Drew has never been far from the public eye. He became a district councillor, and chaired Forest Green Rovers football club (yes, that one).

When he was selected again, despite having initially said he was “not keen” on running, it was acknowledged that his popular support locally meant he was best-placed to win the seat for Labour, and the local party rallied around him.

However, the consensus on the ground is that it was not just his personal appeal, but the campaign that the party faithful and scores of new supporters built around it, that won the seat for Drew.

***

Stroudies have always had a flair for political activism. Whether they’re marching against threats to NHS services in the area, protesting about school funding or taking direct action against the government’s badger cull, the people of Stroud do not take things they don’t like lying down.

When the election was announced, I expected a spirited campaign in the town. I knew the experienced local party would fight hard. But what I saw on social media and during visits as the campaign went on, and what I have heard about in the wake of Labour’s shock win, was nothing short of a revolution.

Calls for help on the doorstep flooded social media. Activists set up a ‘Stroud Labourhood Watch’ Facebook group which linked volunteers with campaigning opportunities. The Constituency Labour Party, whose membership has more than trebled since 2015, was overwhelmed with offers of help.

Many of the new volunteers had never delivered a political leaflet, let alone knocked on doors, and in a lot of cases, this new-found support for Labour was galvanised by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.

For these campaigners, the idea of campaigning for the party in their home town is now second-nature.

One of those who heard Corbyn’s call was Daisy, a friend of mine from school. She tells me she was “totally inspired by Corbyn and the manifesto”.

“As much as I like David Drew, Corbyn sent out the battle cry, and made us feel like we could be part of it. I didn't even really know about canvassing before, and was very scared to actually knock on someone's door.

“But I saw a lovely Momentum video about Corbyn doing it with his mum when he was little and thought, alright then.”

Daisy describes a “vibe of taking the initiative yourself”, and cites her mum’s decision to go from door to door in her street as an example.

“She knows we have poor turnout on our road, and saw it wasn’t covered by canvassing. She decided to go herself and ended up having hour-long cups of tea with some people.”

“I’m still buzzing from it,” she adds.

***

Drew is cheerful and upbeat about his unexpected win on the phone a few days later. Speaking from an early train from Stroud to London Paddington, he is full of praise for the activism on the ground, which he calls “a big factor” in his victory.

“It started out quite slowly, because nobody on our side really wanted an election and we weren’t geared up, but then again neither was the Tory MP,” he says.

“After about a week and a half, we suddenly started seeing lots of different people. Some were Momentum, some from other constituencies and some just came in off the street. On election day we had 12 different teams working in Stroud. I’d be lucky if I got half a team in previous elections.”

Drew also puts much of this strong showing down to Corbyn’s leadership, but says activists also felt “very strongly” about beating the Conservatives.

“I also think people felt very strongly that this is time for a change, but obviously there is also a great love for the man. I wish I had his elixir.

“But it’s an interesting phenomenon that not only are people joining the party but that they’re willing to work relentlessly on the basis that they wanted him to beat the Tories.”

***

Still reeling from his defeat, Carmichael acknowledges there was increase in activity among his political opponents, buoyed by Momentum support. However, he admits he still genuinely believed he would win.

“It was a surprise, because my vote increased fairly substantially, but David’s increased even more,” he says.

Carmichael believes he fell victim to a national swing away from the Conservatives among remain voters, despite being one of the most staunchly pro-EU Tory MPs in the last parliament.

“I do think the label we ended up with was not helpful. No matter how many times I pointed out what I did to try to keep us in the European Union, it didn’t seem to make any difference.”

He also claims his party’s manifesto “failed to come up with a positive case for a Conservative government”.

Max Wilkinson, the Liberal Democrat candidate in Stroud, won just 3.2 per cent of the vote, a far cry from the 15 per cent his party took in 2010.

He tells me he saw a lot of Labour activists around, and that the party had a big poster campaign with “big teams” out in the constituency, which were very visible on social media. There was also “loads of support for Drew at all the hustings”, he says.

Wilkinson, a former local newspaper reporter and Cheltenham Borough Councillor, also claims the Tories, believing Carmichael was safe, diverted county-wide and regional resources to Cheltenham, where Alex Chalk narrowly retained his seat in the face of a strong challenge from the town’s former Lib Dem MP Martin Horwood.

***

The battle for Stroud is over for now, and Drew has returned to Parliament this week after a seven-year hiatus.

“The first thing I noticed was the smell,” he says. “There’s no smell like it.

“But honestly, it feels like going back to school, except I’m kind of like a prefect now.”

However, despite admitting that he and Corbyn “got to know each other well” during his last spell in the Commons, Drew says he’s “not that keen” on joining the Labour leader’s top team.

“I just want to get on and represent Stroud,” he says.

Drew’s win in Stroud was a victory for community campaigning and grassroots activism. If the party can harness the energy that has built up around its base, I think it can win, and it can win big.

“The Tories threw millions at this, but it was counter-productive,” says Drew. “It proves that if we can get people on the ground, we can beat the air war.”

But what now for Neil Carmichael? The former farmer from Northumberland says he’ll try to get back into parliament again at the next election “which might come sooner rather than later”, but for the moment, he admits that for now he needs to find “some kind of gainful employment”.

As he prepares to take his seat in the Commons chamber, Drew remains characteristically matter-of-fact about his opponent.

“I like the guy, but the trouble is at the end of the day he’s a Tory, and we have got to beat them.”

Freddie Whittaker is political editor and chief reporter at education newspaper Schools Week. He tweets @FCDWhittaker.