“Which way do you want to go, left or right?” This was a question posed to me as we reached a street to leaflet in the Thanet ward of Cliftonville. We all face this stark choice at the next General election. But reflecting back on my experience campaigning for Labour’s Will Scobie in the seat of South Thanet, that question on everyone there is much starker.
For the last year, the mainstream media (and most politicians) have presumed that this seat would be a walkover for the UKIP leader Nigel Farage. South Thanet, they said, was precisely the sort of down to heel place where the so-called “left behind” voters would immediately line up behind the purple army and catapult Farage into Westminster. But it hasn’t been that simple.
Something altogether much more interesting has been happening under the headlines about Farage, local people both in the party and not, have built and run a very local and very personal campaign, and it’s starting to pay off. In a Com-Res poll released in March revealed that the seat had become a three-way marginal, with Labour gaining at the expense of the Conservatives Craig Makinley (himself a former member of UKIP).
That a seat which was written off a year ago is now a three-horse race, is in no small part down to the dedication and drive of local Labour candidate Will Scobie. After the loss of the South Thanet Westminster seat to the Conservatives in 2010, the local Labour Party had to be effectively rebuilt from the ground up, and amidst the arrival on the scene of UKIP of Thanet council in 2013.
At just 25, Scobie is tireless local campaigner, fighting on local issues, emphasizing his local roots and understanding of the concerns of local people. This sits in contrast to Farage, who has to fight a national election as party leader across the country and campaign when he can in the seat. UKIP have also been putting a lot of activists from around the country into the seat, with mixed results (one activist tells me of an incident of a group of UKIP activists where stuck at a café through lack of knowledge of the area).
While I was admittedly something of a DFL (Down From London) type at a weekend event taking in a lot of activists from around the country, many of the local activists hadn’t been with the party for long. They had just wanted to something, anything, the fight the increasingly polarizing rhetoric that they feel UKIP is poisoning the town with.
With only a few weeks to go, there is still a great risk that the seat could fall. However the campaign mounted by Scobie, should serve as an example of how Labour should fight a concerted local campaign against UKIP. As Scobie said as campaigning wound up: “So often, elections get pulled into whether this person’s up or this person’s down…and actually politics isn’t about that. Politics is about having conversations with people and listening.”