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22 April 2016

400 years after Shakespeare’s death, can Labour ever win in Stratford?

If Middle England exists, then the town of William Shakespeare has a good claim to represent it. 

By David Barker

Stratford-upon-Avon is best known for being where William Shakespeare was born and died 400 years ago tomorrow. If “Middle England” exists, then few places can better represent it than this market town in the West Midlands. It isn’t a large town, but nor is it isolated. It receives almost 5 million visitors a year, largely thanks to the tourism industry built on its connection with Shakespeare.

Along its high streets in the town centre, it’s hard to walk past more than a couple of shops without seeing “Shakespeare” or something from his body of work clumsily used as the business’ name. But there’s more to the town than its connection with arguably the greatest writer of our language.

Stratford’s town and district councils are mostly comprised of Tories and Liberal Democrats. It has returned a Conservative MP at every general election. In short, it’s not the kind of place Labour are expected to do well in – they’ve polled third place at each general election since 1974. In many of its local elections, the only parties to field candidates are the Tories and Liberal Democrats. However, in 2015 Labour gained its first councillor in Stratford-upon-Avon for 41 years, Jason Fojtik.

Jason was born and raised in the town and speaks with a standard Stratford accent: neutral, almost southern sounding, but with a melodic drawl like someone from Birmingham or the Black Country.

He says he joined Labour when he was young, back before the New Labour project, but he was always a passive member, and his subscription expired around the time he started a family. In 2010, when Labour lost a general election, Jason re-joined: angry at what was happening, and ready to take a more active role.

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The Liberal Democrats’ collapse as a major national party is usually attributed to their going into coalition with the Conservatives. For many who voted for them in 2010, it was inconceivable that they would work with the Tories as one government. In Stratford, Jason describes that as a common political reality over the past few decades.

Even now, the Tories and Liberal Democrats dominate elections to Stratford’s town and district councils. Generally speaking, Jason sees Stratford town as more liberal and the Stratford district, which encompasses both the town and the rural areas around Stratford, as more conservative.

In 2015 the Liberal Democrats fell from second to fourth place in the constituency vote. This is the reality we face: a terminal Liberal Democrat Party, which means less natural opposition to the Tories in certain heartlands. Even with a new leader, the Liberal Democrats have continued to fall in the polls, so the question is, if they aren’t a viable alternative to the Conservatives in these seats, who is?

Unsurprisingly, Jason thinks only Labour can provide both strong opposition and a likelihood of being elected. But, again, he’s the first Labour councillor in Stratford for 41 years. For greater perspective, this means even during the mid to late nineties, in the midst of a nationwide Blair infatuation, Labour didn’t win in Stratford. This victory happened on the same day Miliband’s Labour lost so badly that the leader resigned immediately.

Jason’s victory was in part, he concedes, thanks to redrawn boundaries that created a winnable seat, but held back by the lack of any historic Labour support in the area.

He also benefitted from the Stratford Labour branch becoming significantly more active shortly before the 2010 election, when two members moved up from London, bringing with them campaigning experience and expertise. Not long after coming back to Labour, Jason says he was, “pounced on”, as an enthusiastic potential candidate.

Those members from London understood as well as Jason does that a candidate without any roots in the ward might win, but the benefits of fielding a local candidate are so big they border on essential.

Part of the reason for this is found in how town campaigning differs from the same process in a city: canvassing door to door with a candidate, who is unlikely to know virtually anyone personally on the street. Visiting voters in cities at home is essential: they won’t meet the candidate otherwise.

Conversely, if Jason wants to talk to his electors, all he has to do is leave his house; his connection to his community is so deep that voters tend to know who he is and will bring issues to him without him having to go to their homes to ask. But most other candidates will have this kind of connection to the community too.

Being a local doesn’t so much give Jason an advantage as it levels the playing field. In 2015, Labour benefited from a complacent Conservative Party, who fielded a candidate from Henley-in-Arden, a small town near Stratford. The Tories came second, partially due to not campaigning, but also in part because the Liberal Democrats split their vote.

The Liberal Democrats filled their campaign literature with messages sayingLabour had never won therefore any vote for Labour would have been wasted. History proved the Liberal Democrats wrong, but you can’t blame them for trying; with no other alternative to the Tories, a lot of voters default to the Liberal Democrats. If another viable party emerges, those supporters may abandon the party, like so many have nationally.

Cause for hope

Labour Party membership has doubled in Stratford, as it has nationally. The membership boost in Stratford came in two waves: after last year’s general election loss and after Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership victory. However, for whatever reasons, these new members aren’t showing up to help campaign, yet.

It’s in the more middle class areas in Stratford, rather than the working class communities, where Jason is finding more Labour members are showing up. In Jason’s experience, it’s assumed that working class people, like him, are guaranteed Labour voters, but the challenge for him has been getting them to go to the poling station, let alone vote for Labour. Like anywhere else in the country, Stratford Labour has to identify who might vote, firstly, and then try to gain their votes.

To achieve all of this, Jason canvasses, but not every week; his local party hasn’t finessed the process yet, and there aren’t many people volunteering to join him. In my ward, in Birmingham, the local party goes out weekly throughout the year, and then more often when an election is near. This feedback from the grassroots is used for campaign literature; it’s what lets the candidate know which issues will win votes. Without it, my local party would be lost, but in Stratford, where neighbours tend to know each other, these conversations happen without as much effort. He gives a few examples of practical, physical achievements that came about as a result of voters reporting issues to him: road repairs and finding funding for children’s play parks. These are the kinds of things that voters will remember when he fights for re-election in three years.

He and Stratford Labour will still face the same problem: that other parties usually field local candidates with ties to the area as strong as Jason’s. If he wants to keep his seat, let alone swell Labour support enough to win a few more seats, he needs local party members to help him meet and listen to voters every week.         

What Jason wants from the national party surprises me. Rather than resources or for cabinet members to visit, he just wants Labour to listen to its grassroots; for everyone’s voices to be heard; for factions to dissipate and for the party to stop talking about issues, like Trident, which don’t come up on the doorstep in his ward, or mine.

Voters don’t like divided parties. Labour’s public split worries local councillors for that reason, although the Tory warfare over European Union membership has recently dwarfed any perception of Labour division. However, like with Trident, the EU doesn’t come up when canvassing in Stratford. The same issues arise in Stratford as in every other ward in the country: refuse collection, schools, NHS cuts, cars, and crime.           

Before meeting Jason Fojtik, my grandmother told me she thought his namesake had come over during World War II, along with many other Czech and Polish immigrants. She knew this because Jason’s late father and my uncle were friends. Everyone in the town having no more than two degrees of separation between each other is something else Jason and I laugh about. But despite his family having lived in the town for generations, his surname, to some, marks him out as an ‘other’.

The recent wave of migration from Eastern Europe was handled well, in Jason’s opinion, and cultural anxiety in Stratford is low. As Stratford is reliant on tourism, residents are used to foreigners. Nonetheless, there are tensions, which manifest in fears about housing: there is a lack of affordable homes and migrants are blamed for this, something not unique to this town.

The root of this problem is partially due to Stratford’s council selling all remaining social housing 20 years ago, when the Liberal Democrats were in control, without building more homes to replace them. As a result, Jason is fighting for more council housing to be built, and, while other councillors are also pushing for more affordable housing, they don’t want it to be council owned.

This campaign is one Jason says goes down particularly well on the doorstep, but he’s quick to say that not building more housing was a major failure of the last Labour government. He isn’t opposed to the right to buy; he just thinks councils need to build a house for every one the sell. “Council housing works”, Jason says confidently, “If the council builds housing and rents it out, it’s a win-win”. At this point I imagine that the succinct simplicity of his message is probably why it resonates so well with voters.

I’ve written about this before, but I keep finding that nothing helps to win over voters like going to their house, whether you’re in a city or a small town. Jason tells me about knocking on someone’s door last year: the man who answered said he hates Labour, but he’ll vote for Jason because he was the only candidate to visit him at home. I’ve heard versions of this anecdote from every Labour candidate and canvasser I’ve ever met.

Jason previously stood in 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014 (twice). It took six elections and a boundary change, but in those five years of door knocking he built up a profile. In the first few elections, Jason’s inexperience meant he tried to campaign through Facebook, and little else, but, having won a seat, he now agrees that the best way to win votes is, “by getting out and talking to people”.

We discuss how the Tories simply spend far more money than Labour do, even when they keep within the legal limits. But, again, Jason says money isn’t the issue for him: he, like every other councillor I’ve met, says the one thing he needs more of is people. He needs members to join him in speaking to their neighbours.

In towns like Stratford, this could be dismissed as fighting for scraps in the Tories’ heartlands, but Labour cannot hope to win the vital swing seats needed in a General Election, without pitching to the Middle England voters that Tories and Liberal Democrats take for granted.

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