Alex Kyriacou-Drummond reflects on his experience standing in a safe Tory seat in this year's local elections, and the lessons Labour can draw.
If you had told me when I was dropping out of Oxford University that I would go on to be a candidate for election in my local area, I would have struggled to believe you, let alone keep a straight face. Nonetheless, in the 2023 Local Elections, my local CLP asked me to stand as a paper candidate in Roydon ward for Epping Forest District Council, a Conservative safe seat with seldom hope of my successful candidacy.
Whilst, obviously, I did not win this seat, I did make an effort. The idea of a paper candidacy was foreign to me, nor did it sit right. The Tory opposition in Roydon was fleeing from their then seat to stand in my area so as to not lose their councillorship, I could not simply sit at home and allow this to happen uninterrupted, uncontested, unopposed.
So for the short election window, I put up a fight in Roydon. I knocked on doors and handed out what limited leaflets I could syphon off from the Harlow CLP, I talked to people and learnt what matter to the constituents in Roydon. I developed a plan of action for my area, tested it on the doorstep and was seeing tangible interest in it.
Then came election day. The last Labour candidate had achieved 76 votes in the area, a number which I had hoped to increase to one hundred. Yet seemingly no one wanted to go vote, I knocked on door after door of disinterested people, and panic began to settle in. A paper candidate who went beyond his brief and tried to garner some votes decreasing the Labour votes in the area? The embarrassment would have been immense, not to mention the end of any hope in politics before it even began.
Fortunately, my panic was unwarranted. The count came through and I had increased the Labour vote by 128%, the Tory majority decreased and my CLP was finally somewhat interested in Roydon.
We had everything in our favour. Nationally, the Tory name was disastrous to belong to. Locally, Tory failings in governance added to the poor name. A Tory candidate concerned with status maintenance instead of local issues. This was a rare opportunity to send shock waves through the local Conservative Party because it allowed us to create the message that they will never blindly receive votes if they become haphazard in governing locally.
Standing as a candidate taught me many lessons. It taught me that people will spoil their ballot paper to call me corrupt purely based on my party. It showed me that people will listen to you the moment you treat them with respect. It demonstrated that treating people with disdain amounts to nothing but anger and vitriolic argument rather than reasoned debate.
The most important takeaway for me was my new outlook on my area. Living in Essex, I have always been acutely aware of the Tory heartlands around me, Labour often has to work hard to convince people of their sincerity in these wards. These recent local elections have shown me that safe seats are a dangerous title, areas that are safe for any political party are really safe for none. Increasing the votes from 76 to 170 (with only around 450 votes cast each time) clearly demonstrates that parties can gain support in areas no matter their historic affiliations. People will vote for people they trust. People they can see. People they know.
Local campaigns are complicated for national parties, our brand does not always play well. But the polls are finally in our favour, yet we are stuck in the tradition of years gone by. Safe seats are only safe seats if there is no strong opposition. Each ward is different, each ward is winnable.
To stand at 19 years old is possibly a baptism of fire. My age did not save me from a few abusive emails and the party I ran with certainly gave me no instant respect in the ward I stood in. Although it did give me an attitude of hope. The abuse and hate that swirls around online did not manifest on the doorstep, more often than not people were open to discussion. Perhaps politics does have a place for young people, even more so a place for debate in place of hate.
Alex is currently undertaking a gap year before he pursues a degree in Politics at King’s College London in September. He now works in Democratic Engagement in the charity sector with the National Multifaith Youth Centre alongside involvement in local politics.
Image by Nigel Cox, CC BY-SA 2.0