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How to win a marginal: Campaign tips from the front line

Agnes Chambre

15 min read

With just one month to go until the General Election, The House magazine speaks to five former winners of marginal seats to get their campaign tips 

In 2015, the Conservative candidate for Gower Byron Davies won his seat by just 27 votes. He was not the only MP to make it over the line by a handful of votes: Amanda Solloway won by 41, Chris Matheson by a mere 93 and Gavin Barwell came away with a majority of just 165.

This time round, candidates in marginal seats have just weeks to prepare for polling day. So, what would be the advice of former candidates who have over-turned majorities or brought marginal seats back from the brink? The House magazine spoke to five candidates standing at this election, four of whom are incumbent MPs and one who is hoping to win back her seat after defeat last time around. 

Conservative MP Gavin Barwell, who literally wrote the book on How To Win A Marginal Seat, says the key to every campaign is to make sure you have ‘the right message’, while his Tory colleague Tania Mathias puts her success in 2015 down to ‘old fashioned face to face’ contact with voters. Labour’s Melanie Onn – who took on Great Grimsby when it had a majority of just 700 and turned into almost 5,000 – emphasises the importance of running a local campaign, as does former Liberal Democrat MP Tessa Munt, who has been knocking on doors trying to convince the people of Wells to re-elect for her since she lost in 2015.

Conservative Ben Howlett tells candidates to ‘throw their all’ into the campaign. But after a tight race last time, the Bath MP jokes that he would now advise us to put a “bet on him” returning after June 8th.

The common piece of advice from all these parliamentary candidates? Listen and talk to people and stay positive – but do not be complacent.


Gavin Barwell
Conservative candidate for Croydon Central

There is a world of difference between fighting a marginal seat compared to a safe seat.

There are some seats where you know before an election who is going to win. While candidates in those seats do a very diligent job of getting around, they are not under nearly the same amount of pressure as those fighting a marginal. Psychologically and physically, the experience of fighting a marginal seat is quite draining.

The intensity of the campaigns are far higher in marginal seats compared to where they would be one party is confident of victory. Obviously a lot more literature is going to be distributed, a lot more door knocking, you generally get lots more hustings meetings, turn out can often be higher because people are aware that their vote may make the difference, and you may get more voter contact as well. 

This is my third time fighting a marginal seat. The first time round, I was the favourite but I wasn’t sure. In 2015, my opponent was the favourite. Polls showed me behind; it wasn’t until the last few weeks of the campaign that we began to think that we might just be edging ahead. As it turned out, we were just ahead.

The important thing if you’re in that situation is not to focus too much on ‘how am I doing’ but just use all of your time to maximise your ability to get your message out to your constituents and focus on positive things you can do to improve the result. If you spend all your time worrying and reading polls, that’s not a productive use of your time. Maximise the time you’re talking to voters, talking about the issues and the reasons you want people to vote for you. If you’re doing that, you’re maximising your chances of winning.

Psychologically, think of it in terms of a running race – if you’re behind but you’re catching up, arguably that’s an easier position than if you’re in the lead but you can feel someone watching you. Sometimes in campaigns, it’s the direction of travel that’s important.

The fundamental issue in every campaign is whether you’ve got the right message, whether the product you’re trying to sell resonates to people. If your message is a flawed one, you’re going to struggle. I saw a tweet from Tom Watson yesterday where he was quoted as saying ‘don’t worry about who the best Prime Minister is, vote Labour’, which didn’t seem to me to be the most compelling message.

In the situation we’re in now, I don’t think I should be providing tips. I’ve obviously written a book in the past but at the moment, I’m focussed on my campaign and it’s not my job to be a commentator. It’s my job to make sure Croydon Central remains Conservative.


Tessa Munt
Liberal Democrat candidate for Wells

To understand your patch, you have to get out on the doorstep and listen to people. You really need to understand what it is that makes different places tick and that takes a lot of time and quite a lot of walking. I spent eight years knocking on doors and in that time I spoke to over 49,000 people. I spent four of those years doing that full time, six days a week from 4.30am to 9pm. It’s a different way of campaigning.

That in the long run is what makes elections work for individual candidates. Understanding your electorate and, having thought about that, once you’ve got the power, using it for the benefit of other people.

Since I lost, I’ve carried on knocking on doors. I started again on the 8th July after I had shut down my office. I didn’t expect to win in 2015, but I hoped that we’d do relatively well, which considering the wipe out across the country I think we did. But of course, it was disappointing. I was prepared for it, until my wonderful team said “ah, you’re going to have to fire us tomorrow” and that was just so distressing because they had worked so, so hard.

Why wasn’t I successful in 2015? I think the main reason was that people thought they had to vote for a president. People thought they had to vote for David Cameron or Ed Miliband would get in. It was a presidential attack style from the Tories which told people they were voting for David Cameron, of course they weren’t just voting for David Cameron. Loads of people came up to me and said ‘I didn’t see David Cameron’s name on the ballot’.

We underestimate how much people don’t understand. The amount of people who said to me afterwards, ‘oh my goodness, I didn’t realise I was going to lose you as my MP’ and it’s hard to realise that even though they are sitting there looking at your name on the ballot paper, they don’t understand the mechanics of the first past the post system in a seat like this. I can see it starting all over again. People think they have to vote for Theresa May to give her a mandate to do whatever she wants to do.

We’ll just have to see what happens but really it’s down to good campaigning. I’m steeped in this part of Somerset, it’s an amazing place. I’ve been offered to stand in other seats but I’m not going anywhere. This is where I belong. It’s where my children grew up, it’s where my father lived, it’s a wonderful place to be. I think it’s probably the case that people are more likely to get elected if they are steeped in the history rather than parachuted in. It probably doesn’t matter so much in the cities but in the rural areas, you’re done for. If you don’t fully understand the way of life and don’t understand the issues or the individuals then you get caught out eventually.

I’m hopeful about June 8th. I’m a real glass half full person. I’m optimistic because there are a lot of people who care very deeply about making sure they can get hold of their MP and they might vote differently this time. They’ve seen something very different over the last two years and my sense is that they might choose differently.


Tania Mathias
Conservative candidate for Twickenham

I don’t think there’s any magic to winning a seat. At the end of the day, there isn’t a perfect way to do campaigning because if there was, my god, everyone would be following that formula. But the formula, as far as I can tell, is about the old fashioned face to face. 

I think my local party association didn’t expect to win in 2015. I said at selection meetings: ‘I’m going to campaign to win’. You don’t run a marathon expecting it to be a half marathon. But I knew it would be a surprise if I won because I was still working in the NHS. I was coming back from clinics and relying on helpers to give me canvass sheets and to go straight out. I took proper time off just a couple of weeks before the election.

I hadn’t told my medical colleagues I was standing. Hospitals are very busy and very intense and I didn’t want politics to interfere with my work. When I stood as a local councillor, I told this chap who I thought I got on very well with and he had a big problem with that and I thought ‘never again’. I told the hospital two weeks before and they said ‘what if you win’? I said ‘don’t worry I’ll be back’. They said ‘how will we know if you win?’ I said ‘believe me, if I get in, you will know’. I didn’t contact them that weekend but the texts came through and they knew.

In this election, it’s not about being optimistic or pessimistic, it’s trying to make sure that everybody has the information, that as many people as possible have met me and about showing people what I’ve done in the last two years.

I have noticed some literature already saying I’m for Brexit. That’s not quite true. Yes, I voted Remain, but I did vote to trigger Article 50 to respect the national vote, and I always said I would do that. A lot of people here are going through the different stages of grieving on Brexit.  I’ve gone through those stages; I’ve just gone through them more quickly. 

People are moving out of grieving into acceptance but other people are still angry. Some people are in denial. I’ve had to move on, and that’s what I’m trying to say to people. I get it, I really get it. I know what you’re going through. Often on the doorstep people just say, ok that’s what you did, and now what are you doing?


Melanie Onn
Labour candidate for Great Grimsby

In 2015, I had an unusual set of circumstances. Obviously my seat has been Labour for a long time but it’s always had peaks and troughs – Austin Mitchell [Labour MP for Great Grimsby, 1977-2015] once won it in a by-election by 100 votes and in 2010 it was won by 700 votes.

When it came to the general election, I had such a big job of trying to get my name out there, especially after Austin had been there for nearly 40 years. That was a big part of the campaign because we didn’t feel that it was a swing seat marginal. It was marginal that year but I’m not sure that I would always categorize it that way.

I tried to develop a personal connection with people more than ‘I live in the constituency and send my kids to the local school’, which tends to go on every leaflet. We went into a little bit more detail so people knew a bit more about my life. It was in all my literature, we wrote letters to people, it was in my election address. I gave a detailed interview to the local paper, I probably gave away a bit more than I wanted to give away. You probably don’t’ want to bear your soul, but I wanted people to feel that it’s more than just a job.

I would have been very surprised if Labour had lost in 2015, we worked so hard and we worked for months and months and everything we talked about was how we wanted to see the town improve. It was a very hopeful campaign. Now I’m able to say, this is what I’ve done in two years and this is what I’ve done in these areas.

It’s important to make campaigns as relevant to the key issues of your constituency as possible. If your party decides it is going to run on environment but you’ve got every chemical factory and plastic factory in the whole country in your constituency, it’s not going to work for you to talk about environmental policy of all the time. It’s got to be about things that are positive that are going to work for your area.

In this campaign, I’m talking about Brexit but I think it would be very, very convenient for the prime minister if we just talked about Brexit because that’s what she wants. This is a general election, it’s not a rerun of the referendum. I’ve also got national policies on there where they reflect my local campaign but it’s my name on the ballot paper was very much about whose name is on the ballot paper.

I still feel a bit in shock about the general election. The first couple of days, everyone thought I was a bit mad because the only thing that was going through my head was this is not as bad as if they’d put the boundary changes through. I thought, this is all going to be fine. I was really up for the fight, I was being really funny and then over time I thought ‘I maybe need to calm down that confidence a bit before June 8th and there is a lot of work I’ve got to put in until then to pull everything together’. And then I was like ‘oh my god’ – I was overly optimistic in the first couple of days.

It’s just a mad scramble at the moment but I hope it’s all looking good for June 8th, we’ll soon find out. Maybe I’ll see you on the 10th or 11th June, or maybe I won’t.


Ben Howlett
Conservative candidate for Bath

Mine was quite a unique situation. I was selected in November 2013 for a seat that I thought was winnable in 2020 but not in 2015, because the Liberal Democrats had a very popular local MP. But early on in the campaign, the sitting MP retired and it became clear the swing was coming our way.

We were active at the beginning but then we became very active in the middle and almost overactive in the end. Every day there was a huge amount of literature being delivered. There was a huge amount of targeting particular voter groups, it became a military operation. I was already spending every week campaign, then it got up to every day, then I quit my job where I was running a small business and it was literally every single day, three sessions a day, knocking on every single door.

In 2015 Bath could have gone the wrong way and could have led to the country being led into a coalition under Ed Miliband. This time it’s slightly more concerning because it could be led into a coalition run by Jeremy Corbyn, so the central messaging is absolutely the same. The difference now is I’ve been an MP for two years so I’ve got incumbency. I’ve helped literally thousands of people, people know who I am and also I am in the governing party so there is a sense of responsibility put on your shoulders as opposed to when I was a candidate.

Going forward we could potentially be deciding military action overseas and deciding whether or not demographics of the country receive support, or not. These are the sort of big decisions that residents in Bath wanted to be solved in 2015, but absolutely desperately need right now to be solved.

My tip for candidates running in marginal seats would be to expect the unexpected. In 2015, we didn’t know whether we were going to win or not. No one in the polls had predicted Bath would be Tory. We are talking about a large shift which happened over a short period of time.

Throw your absolute all into it because ultimately the people who will end up benefitting, it’s not yourself as a candidate, but it’s all those people who you are able to change the lives of for the better. That’s what gets me up in the morning. It’s about getting people housed and getting people into proper healthcare and jobs and all the rest. That’s what I get up for.

I think I’ve done a very good job over the last two years in terms of delivering things to my constituents, but obviously the critical message is that, whatever we’re talking about locally, this is going to be one of the most complex negotiations of political history. My seat is one of the seats that could change hands and mean Jeremy Corbyn is let through the back door. I think we need to not be complacent and deliver in the spirit of the country.   



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