How to win a by-election

Posted On: 
7th February 2017

As activists from all the major parties descend on Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent, four previous by-election winners tell Agnes Chambre the secret of their success

Paul Nuttall campaigning this week. Douglas Carswell advises Nuttall to "make the election about Stoke, not about UKIP"

Rosena Allin-Khan
Labour MP for Tooting

Remember who you’re standing for, fight tirelessly for them – and stay off Twitter

My by-election was all very quick and rather unexpected. The whole selection process started and finished within six days and then I had less than five weeks to have an entire constituency get to know me. It was busy, it was fraught, energetic, exciting, but difficult.

I honestly didn’t expect to win. It was a marginal seat as it was and I was worried that people wouldn’t have a chance to get to know me. My team were optimistic because they felt that I was a candidate that had the energy to get out and about. But I’d never had a job in politics before. I was a trauma and emergency doctor in London with a number of years overseas doing humanitarian aid work and I’d only become a local Labour councillor in May of 2014.

My advice would be to remember and focus on exactly why you’re running. I ran because I really believed in standing up for the area that I was born and raised in. I was now raising my own family and I knew I wanted to fight tirelessly day in, day out for what was right for the people I loved in the area I loved.

One good bit of advice that I found myself following, which helped me no end, was to ignore social media. I came to that conclusion a short while into it. At night I would look at my phone and see notifications, and I found that it did affect how I would feel in the morning. I started my day feeling down about comments that had been made overnight and my team just said ‘you shouldn’t even have Twitter on your phone, take it off, pay no heed to it’, and once I did that it was absolutely brilliant.

Another thing I’d say is physical fitness is really important. To be honest with you, for five weeks, I didn’t sleep one bit.

I was revising and studying for every hustings and every interview, I was so determined to give it my best shot that I didn’t want to fall foul at any level, so I was coming home at 10 or 11 o’clock at night after canvassing and hitting the books, as it were, getting up to speed on everything that was important. I thought ‘I’ve only got one shot at this’, I didn’t want to regret that I didn’t study that bit harder, that I didn’t knock on that extra door.

Some people laugh because I would literally sprint from door to door to door. I had my trainers on for canvassing and every door that was open, I would jump in and say ‘this vote might be the clincher’.

What was really, really hard was having a young family. I had a one year old baby and a three year old, and that put a lot of pressure on my husband. But in taking the decision to go for it, we sat down at length as a couple and I said ‘what do you think?’ He said ‘well if you don’t go for it, this may be the thing that you regret when you’re really old, and you never want to live with regret’.

There was a real special moment on election day. First thing in the morning, a paramedic jumped out of her ambulance and just came over to me and said “can I hug you? I just wanted to say thank you for all that you’re doing standing up for NHS staff”. That was really special and stood out and I’ll never ever forget that.

But my actual election day was awful. I won the by-election on the day that Jo Cox was murdered. I came into Parliament on the Monday after her death.

Everyone was really nice to me but everyone was so sad, myself included. I battled a lot with my feelings about being in the House to begin with because there were so many similarities between Jo and I. We were both humanitarian aid workers, both had two young children, she was only a few years older than me, we had similar personalities, or so I’m told. I just had to remember I was here to replace Sadiq Khan, not Jo Cox. But obviously the way it all happened on the day was so tragic and caused me to question everything I was doing.

And then when I got sworn in it was straight after the Brexit vote, so I had a very strange entry in Parliament.

But ultimately, I have a seat at the finest table in the world. It was a quick and crazy journey to get there but I wouldn’t change the fact that I’m there and able to represent my community every single day.


Douglas Carswell
UKIP MP for Clacton

Make the election about the constituency – not about your party

I was basically running as an independent. I had made an agreement with Ukip beforehand that I would control my literature and my messaging. I wanted to own my local space and totally focus on local issues, and I was able to do that.

When you’re running normally for a big corporate party you sort of have to wear the party messages and the party brand and you have to pretend the recite the party lines. I felt liberated from that, I could say what I wanted to say.

During the campaign and after the campaign, some people in my new party said: ‘Why aren’t you being tribal?’ But I think that’s probably why I won, because I wasn’t tribal.

I had got to a stage where I thought ‘I am uncomfortable with being a Conservative MP.’ I felt like I’d been in a prison cell next to the Tory party whip’s office and I’d broken free and in a sense I didn’t really care anymore whether I won or not. During the campaign, you go from thinking you’re going to win by a landslide to you’re going to lose by a landslide, but because I was having fun, even when things went wrong, it didn’t really matter that much.

I didn’t initially expect to win. I was incredibly nervous. I announced the by-election and then I went back to Clacton. I parked my car and was quite apprehensive, but as I walked down the street, a van stopped. The guy got out of his car to come over and shake my hand, and I thought at least one person agrees. And then the bus stopped, and everyone – including the driver – got off the bus to shake my hand and I thought ‘wow, so far so good’.

My advice to Paul would be to own the local space. People know that a single individual can’t change the world, but they want to know you can make a difference locally. So try and get more GPs, try and sort out special needs because the system is not working, try and get involved in things where you can make a difference, that’s what they expect. If you’re trying to do your best locally, it’s only then that people will listen to all that other stuff that you’ve got to say about Britain’s relationships with the world.

I think Paul might just do it, he’s a fantastic candidate, he’s very, very focused on local issues and I think we might just pull it off.

Ultimately, voters are really good judges of character, so be true to yourself, be Paul, don’t be ‘Mr Ukip’. Don’t try and answer the party lines, answer what you think needs to be done.

Make it about Stoke; don’t make it about the party. Again and again, people would ask me questions like, ‘What would it mean for Ukip if you won?’ But don’t go near that, it’s not about Ukip, it’s not about what people in Westminster think, it’s not about political earthquakes.

When I won and came back into Westminster, I felt like I was back on familiar turf but without the inconvenience of having to toe the party line.

Tories were really nice to me, although the whips viciously and savagely punished me by putting me in a broom cupboard. It was literally a tiny-windowless office to get their revenge, hoping that that would encourage me to rejoin the Tories. It was pretty hideous but it was a small price to pay for getting a referendum.

But generally people are far nicer to me now than they ever were when I was in the Conservative party. I much prefer being in a party of one and long may it last!

Actually, I don’t want it to last – I want Paul to join me, but you know what I mean.  


Sarah Olney
Liberal Democrat MP for Richmond Park

Don’t be a cardboard cut-out – make sure voters can see the real person behind the candidate

Running in a by-election was one of the best experiences of my life. I am very new to politics, I’ve never been involved in a parliamentary campaign of any kind, I’ve never been a candidate in any election before, so I had no idea what to expect. It was quite a high profile campaign, right from the beginning I was right in the media spotlight. For somebody who had not had any kind of profile of any sort before it was a massive learning curve.

 My advice to Copeland and Stoke candidates would be to just go for it. Give it your all over the next few weeks. Go everywhere. Talk to as many constituents as you can. Do everything you can. Put your all into it. Be positive, be optimistic. But also don’t take it personally when people are beastly to you – because they will be.

Mine was a high profile by-election, there was a lot of central office input and for me, what I found was that they tended to treat me like a cardboard cut-out. I was the candidate, I got moved from place to place and sometimes they stopped treating me like a human being, which was a bit frustrating.

It was like, ‘Sarah needs to do this, Sarah needs to do that, Sarah needs to do the other.’ I did call them up on it many times but they were just like ‘yeah, yeah, yeah.’ It wasn’t terrible but it was just one or two times where they did things and I’d be like “What? What am I doing?” And they’d say ‘you don’t need to know’.

I think just make sure that you’re a real person, and in particular make sure you don’t run the kind of campaign where you’re going to find it difficult to say hello to people in the Post Office when it’s all over.

This is your neighbourhood, you’re going to have to live there. It’s very easy for people to come in from the outside and say ‘I know, let’s write leaflets slagging off x, y, and z.’ You need to have the balls to say ‘No, you’re not going to do that because those are my neighbours you’re talking about and that’s my community.’

On election day itself, my children really wanted to come with me to the polling station. They were so excited, so we all went down as a family and voted and then I took my children to school.

Later on, I got my hair done...if I was going to be on the telly, I thought I’d get my hair done! And then the last hour, I was running around in the dark and the freezing cold saying ‘have you voted yet, you’ve got 10 minutes before the polling station closes’. And then at 10pm I had dinner with my husband, tried to keep calm and then I went to the count.

I can tell you precisely the moment I realised I’d won. My campaign manager all the way through had been quite pessimistic. He could see a route to victory but he was always dampening down expectations.

Andrew Neil was interviewing the reporter who was at the count and I could see the reporter had my campaign manager behind him and he had the biggest smile on his face. This would have been about 12.30am and it was the only time I’d seen him smile throughout the whole campaign. That was the first moment it started to dawn on me. About an hour later we got a call from the count saying that we’d won and I was like “oh…oh my!”

I started here two days later. I had to ring work the following day and say ‘Hi, it’s Sarah’. And they said: “Hello, we’ve seen you on the telly. You’re not coming back, are you?” “No!” Before I left for four weeks, I said “I’ll be back on the 5th December; I’ll pick this up then.” And all the time I thought I would be going back, I didn’t think I’d win.

On the first day, they told me to come to Parliament at 10:30am on the following Monday. So I came in and put in all my bags into the scanner and all of this, and the security guard said: “What’s the purpose of your visit, madam?” And I was like “Um, well, I’m the new MP.”


Robert Courts
Conservative MP for Witney

Meet as many local voters as you can and choose your policies based on the things that matter to them

Only now four months ago, I was just a young father dealing with a young child – my son had just been born – and working full time as a barrister and a local councillor.

So going from that world to full time campaigning for Westminster was extraordinary. Especially when you have the full attention of the media, with the prime minister and the former prime minister with you.

I have the honour to represent Witney, where the former prime minister represented, so campaign moments with David Cameron and Theresa May were particular stand outs. There was one day when Theresa May visited and we did a session with her and with David, there’s a very famous photo of us you will have seen in the press.

It is a matter of adjusting. You don’t behave any differently, you campaign the way you always would anyway, it’s just that it’s slightly unusual because you have a lot of cameras which you don’t have in normal life. But you have to campaign in the way you always would and always should.

My advice is to meet as many voters as you can and choose your policies based on the things that matter to them, so you’re campaigning for local priorities.

But above all, get out there, meet people and explain to them why you want to represent the area that you do.

Don’t take it for granted or assume that you have it in the bag. There’s absolutely no such thing as a foregone conclusion. There are no safe seats, in any election, and any candidate who starts taking the view that there is is the one that loses.

My focus throughout was campaigning on the five point plan that I had, on local points, and on making sure that we got out and met as many people as we could and used our very enthusiastic volunteers.

On the day itself, I went home, I saw my family, I got changed. Then I waited, I went and visited a friend’s house and waited to be called down to the count. Everyone’s nervous before a count but then we found out we won it!