Cllr Russell Perrin is the Leader of Harlow District Council.
Terry Wogan once quipped, by way of an introduction, “Who knows what hellish future lies ahead? Actually I do, I’ve seen the rehearsals.” As the latest bout of Eurovision fever dies away, I am prone to draw similar comparisons between the UK’s inevitable ‘nil poi’ performances over the decade and our own 10 year long run of off-key local election performances here in sunny Harlow. Just like previous hardworking and seemingly talented UK entrants, we failed to chime with the most demanding of spectators, the electorate.
Having sat through many a rehearsal we would await the result on election night with false cheer, blistered feet, and aching backs, knowing all too well the hellish future that lay ahead, another inexplicable Labour victory.
Apart from four years between 2008 and 2012, Harlow has largely been red since its creation in 1973. Then two years ago, after a decade in the wilderness, we swept the board winning 10 out of the 11 available seats, finally showing Labour the red card. And this year we gained a further two seats from Labour, bucking the national trend.
So how did we go from being Engelbert Humperdinck to Sam Ryder? I think the easiest way to describe the change in our electoral fortunes is in four steps:
Change in mindset
The mentality of a doomed sailor cast adrift at sea loomed large. Hold on. Be strong. Just cling to the wreckage. It will all be over soon. We entered most local’s admitting defeat before the contest had begun, fighting only four ‘target’ seats, largely ignoring the remaining seven. People would say “if we can hold on to our target seats it will be a good result.” Remaining in opposition with a seven-seat Labour majority is a good result?
I know why people said it; lack of resources and manpower. But as Einstein once remarked “The definition of insanity is to continue to do the same thing over and over again and expect a different result.” We therefore ditched the target seat approach, fine for national elections, and fought every seat as if our lives depended on it – no seat was unwinnable.
Appealing to Hearts not Minds
Churchill was right when he said “campaign in poetry, govern in prose’. We had forgotten to sing the words, content only to read them out in a dull monotone. Our policies, while read in isolation were rational and appealed to the head; they did not hang together as a clear inspiring narrative that energised people to overthrow the status quo. We weren’t listening to the beat either, that beat was civic pride.
Harlow’s decline in several areas vexed many residents. Our town centre was run down, our roads and estates tired, our green environment dishevelled and gone to seed. I met countless civic-minded people who have experienced ‘Putinesk’ threats and levels of resistance from the Council when trying to do the right thing.
One man who cleared dumped rubbish from the field at the back of his house and trimmed the brambles that sprawled over his garden fence received an enforcement letter from the council telling him he had ‘encroached on and was interfering with Council land’. What a charming thank you note from a failing council. And he wasn’t alone; so many have had similar defeating encounters. The computer wasn’t just saying no, it was out of control and firing live rounds – we needed to pull the plug and fast.
But how to defeat Skynet? The answer came when a friend and I sat nursing a cup of tea in my allotment around the glowing embers of a fire discussing the problem. The solution: let the people sing instead! So we set about creating this short film. And boy did the people sing, over 40,000 tuned in to watch.
Using a Pile Driver
To quote the great war time leader again “If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time – a tremendous whack.” All too aware that many people do not engage with social media or online news and with no local printed paper, we wrote our own paper followed by multiple leaflet rounds and numerous personalised letters. Over 5-months we delivered almost 500,000 pieces of literature to 39,000 homes. We canvassed all our core vote and around 50 per cent of our unknown recurrent voters. We didn’t just use a pile driver – we engaged The Mighty Octo Kong!
Make it Local, Make it Visible, and Deliver
So how did we repeat the success of 2021 this year, despite the screeching white noise of the national tune? We made sure that we delivered on our previous election pledges. People were tired of Council Tax going up every year for 10 years, only to pay for the same shambles and waste, so we gave them the money back. We delivered the largest Council Tax cut of any authority in the UK and we explained to people how we did it. We focussed on improving the local environment because it was the most visual way we could exemplify demonstrable change – people see the overgrown weeds outside their home when they step out for work, they don’t see your prudent use of council reserves when they return every day.
Finally, we repeated all four steps with a slight change in pitch. In 2021 the election was one of change, in 2022 we made it one of choice. The choice: you can vote us out and the same national tune will play, while letting the bunch who ran our great town down for 10 years back in – or you can stick with us and continue on the exciting journey of renewal you started a year ago. The people of Harlow chose wisely and are now singing with us (for now) on the path to glory, douze poi!