Standing for parliament in Windsor was never going to be a shoe-in for a Labour candidate. The constituency has had a Tory member of parliament since 1874 and only a smattering of Whigs and Liberals crept in before that.
Early MPs include some colourful names such as Julius Caesar 1598-1611, Sir Christopher Wren 1713-1722 and too many Lords and Viscounts to mention. The social demography of the area is now largely professional and managerial. In 2010 it was the constituency with the third highest Tory vote in the country and some of the most expensive real estate.
When selected as the parliamentary candidate in 2014 the plan was to raise confidence in Labour policies and place Labour as the main opposition locally. In recent years the Liberal Democrats had regularly received more than 20 per cent of the general election vote and Ukip had done well in the European and local elections. My view was that Labour’s progress was possible, but so was our local political extinction.
For me there was no question that the National Health Service had to be the central pillar of my campaign. I had seen the destruction of staff confidence at first hand as early as 2011 in my role as a NHS commissioner.
First I ran public petitions, then in August 2014 I took a train to Newcastle to join the Jarrow to Westminster march. For 300 miles I walked with non-party political people, a selection of union members, Labour members, anarchists, Christians, and a smattering of Liberal Democratss and Greens. The whole point of walking that distance, and sleeping on church hall floors on the way, was to make the country aware of the privatisation of the NHS. The national media took some interest but it was on social media that we really had an impact.
Meanwhile back in Windsor there was little activity from key opponents so on my return I was able to start the local campaign in earnest. Local papers printed my letters and I focused on linking key Labour policies to local events and challenging the actions of the Tory MP and the council. For years I had been told by other members that local papers would not print Labour letters, so I was both really pleased and surprised as I notched up each ‘mini blog’ in papers viewed by people in both Windsor and Maidenhead constituencies.
Over time, the letters spurred other people to either write and agree, or write and complain. Local Tory councillors wrote to complain about me and some letter writers actually asked the editor to stop printing my opinions, suggesting that the page was little more than the ‘Fiona Dent column.’ Luckily for me, one of the Editors of the four local papers refused to be pressured in that way, he stuck up for free speech and continued to ‘print and be damned!’
The Ukip campaign was both active and well funded. They had a small car resprayed with wallpaper-style Ukip insignia all over it and they also paid for a bus with a giant Ukip poster to be parked on the roundabout bang in front of Windsor Castle and the Long Walk. The bus would have been visible from the castle so I wonder what HRH thought of that! Ukip trolled me on Twitter, heckled at hustings and generally were intent on making an impact in Windsor.
The Liberal Democrats took their traditional approach of lots of hand delivered newsletters, sadly with untrue criticism of me but I do not think it helped them much. I had expected more from the Greens but they relied largely on their national profile in this constituency.
In the last weeks of the campaign the Financial Times and the Guardian ran the story of how United States Republicans were coming to Windsor to help out the Tory MP, is it possible that he was worried about losing votes to a Labour woman?
Labour freepost was superb; my first wave arrived long before any of the other candidates and it directed people to my website and social media, all of which I had been building for some time. Volunteers came out in their dozens, people who I had never met before but have since become friends. We leafleted and doorknocked in locations all over the constituency.
The end result was bittersweet; our team sat transfixed in front of the bar television, through the blood bath of the night while Windsor residents made history. For the first time ever they voted a Labour candidate into second place in the general election! Ukip were a distant third, the Liberal Democrats fourth and the Greens fifth.
If I have learned anything in the past year, it is that a few good people can buck the trend if they work together and there is no such thing as a ‘no go area’ for Labour. Bring on 2020!
Fiona Dent was the parliamentary candidate for Windsor
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