Book review: How To Win A Marginal Seat, by Croydon Central MP Gavin Barwell

By - Wednesday 30th March, 2016

All politicos can learn from what went down in the Cronx, says Tom Black

Image by Biteback Publishing, used with permission.

How To Win A Marginal Seat is Conservative MP Gavin Barwell‘s first book. It’s also one that he didn’t plan to publish, if we believe the foreword. Initially planned as a record for his children to read one day, the book is a simple (though not simplistic) journey through the Croydon Central campaign at the last general election, with a short autobiography of Barwell himself at the start to provide some context. It isn’t Fear And Loathing In New Addington, but then, Barwell isn’t Hunter S. Thompson (as disappointing as that is for some of his constituents).

Warm and unpretentiously written, some sections are a bit too short and, as is the case with many very-soon-after-the-event memoirs, read a bit more like shortform journalism than a ‘proper book’. But there are meaty sections too, notably the chapter on ‘rapid rebuttal’ and the detailed breakdown of how canvassing works.

While it does serve as a decent potted history of recent political events in Croydon, it’s important to remember the book wasn’t written exclusively for a Croydon audience. As lively as our borough’s intellectual scene is, this was probably a smart business decision. To appeal to readers unfortunate enough not to live in the Cronx, Barwell pitches Croydon Central – fairly accurately – as a highly representative swing seat. It is indeed one of the most marginal seats in the country, it’s very ethnically and socially diverse, and there are lessons for all politicos in Barwell’s knife-edge victory last year.

For aspiring ruthless campaigners, there’s an unapologetic and methodical breakdown of how Barwell used different leaflets for different voters. For example, photographic endorsements from BME people were sent to ethnic minorities, while UKIP-leaning voters received literature that claimed that a Conservative vote was the only way to ensure an EU referendum. This sort of thing is common practice for politicians in all parties (the once-mighty Liberal Democrat ‘local campaigning machine’ was built on it), but whatever you think of it ethically, Barwell and his team did it exceptionally well.

There was a puzzling groundswell of support for the SNP and Plaid Cymru support in Croydon Central

For geeks, there’s some fun tidbits, including fun detail on how Barwell’s team ‘cheated’ the Conservative Central Headquarters (CCHQ) canvassing software to better suit the political situation in Croydon. One amusing outcome is that Conservative internal voter intention data suggests a surprising groundswell of SNP and Plaid Cymru support in the London borough of Croydon. Barwell also makes much of how his campaign didn’t get any funding from CCHQ but more than made up the shortfall via private donations.

But there’s some welcome insider detail for Croydonian readers, too, including some personal insights into some of our borough’s politicos. Councillor Phil Thomas likes to help out the local Republican Party whenever he holidays in the US (one wonders if he’ll be stumping for Trump this summer). Tim Pollard is a bit of a tech and design whiz. Jason Cummings gets through pub lunches like Pac-Man.

It’s a book about Gavin Barwell, by Gavin Barwell. That should tell you who comes out well from most of the anecdotes, and who doesn’t. While some things are matters of record or exact figures, many others are subjective and hard to reach consensus on. To give one example, the Citizen‘s head-to-head debate in May 2015 is referenced towards the end of the book, and Barwell characterises the room as ‘the only hustings where both parties had a fair few activists in the audience’. The room was indeed absolutely packed, with standing room only and audience members spilling out into the rest of the building.

If you expected an impartial account, you probably missed the bright blue cover

However, while my own party allegiances are another matter of public record, speaking as the chair of the event I would confidently say that attendance was slanted 70/30 in favour of the Conservatives (many of whom arrived substantially early, thanks to an email from Barwell’s campaign that mistakenly gave the start-time as 7pm, not 7:30pm), and while Barwell faced a lot of heckles himself, his Labour opponent Sarah Jones had a much tougher time: it was during her closing statement that I finally lost my temper after one man used the exact words: ‘shut up, you’re talking rubbish’. Barwell, meanwhile, paints a picture of an evening where there was some ‘fairly aggressive barracking from both sides’. It’s not an unforgivable ‘lie’, but it’s a version of events that is unsurprising from a naturally biased observer, and others are doubtless in a position to offer a similar ‘that’s not how I remember it’ version of events as I am able to for the debate.

In summary, if you picked this up this expecting a totally impartial account of local politics over the last few years, you probably missed the bright blue cover and the fact that the sitting Tory MP wrote it. With that caveat in mind, How To Win A Marginal Seat is a very readable book, at times entertaining and at others surprisingly warm. There’s not much here for people who don’t give a monkey’s about what politicians get up to, but chances are that if you’ve read even this much of this review you’re not one of those people.

Barwell’s formidable electoral machine may be left powerless in the face of demographic change

A review of a sitting MP’s book would not be complete without a reflection on the current political situation. Leaving aside the chaos enveloping Westminster and Barwell’s no doubt currently sleepless nights in his role as a Conservative whip, he’s probably planning to spend some of his royalties on a few copies of How To Survive A Boundary Review. Croydon’s three seats will be mangled in ways that cannot currently be predicted, and may leave Barwell’s formidable machine powerless in the face of a fundamental demographic change: he reminds us in the book that, based on how the council wards in his seat voted, the seat is currently Labour.

He may be lucky, and find his seat redrawn to include more ‘leafy’ Croydon South wards at the expense of more diverse Labour-leaning ones. He may not, and the race to hold his seat in 2020 may be over before it begins. But that, as Barwell admits in this very book, is politics.

It may sometimes read like an extended blogpost, but this book achieves what it sets out to do. If the premise appeals to you, it’s worth your time.

Tom Black

Tom Black

Tom is the Citizen's General Manager, and spent his whole life in Croydon until moving to Balham in 2017. He also writes plays that are occasionally performed and books that are occasionally enjoyed. He's been a Labour Party member since 2007, and in his spare time runs an online publishing house for alternate history books, Sea Lion Press. He is fluent in Danish, but speaks no useful languages. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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  • Robert Ward

    Thanks Tom. I also enjoyed the book and its account of the campaign, parts of which I saw at first hand, although not the Citizen hustings to which you refer.

    What the head count was of the people in the room I have no idea. But that arithmetic misses the point. Listening to the podcast, what came out for me, with admittedly a not un-biased ear, is the difference in the quality of the candidates. The point Gavin makes is the positive impact that performance had on the morale of Gavin’s team, something which I did see.

    A Croydon Central poll had shown Labour ahead and I well recall Steve Reed and the Labour Agent walking passed a group of Tory canvassers, of which I was one. The Agent shouted “haven’t you lot given up yet?”. In that situation the morale of the team is important and the leadership and campaigning skill of Gavin and his top team made the difference to keep the show on the road. That said, I think there were elements of the campaign that Labour did well.

    In the end, boundary changes may change the challenge but all you can do is play the hand you are dealt the best you can. I am confident that Gavin and his team will do that in 2020,

  • Bowlofcherries

    Well, all I can say is that I sincerely wish that Gavin Barwell hadn’t kept his marginal seat and I sincerely hope he loses it as soon as possible. My heart sank like a stone when I heard he’d got in again, as I have often wondered if the injustice exists that would inspire Mr Barwell into taking action. There have been occasions since he was elected when I’ve had no alternative but to approach him for help in his capacity as my MP and the response has invariably been perfunctory, unhelpful and lacking in empathy and energy. I’ve no particular political allegiance, but the one thing I will say about Geraint Davies is that he was always willing to read my letters properly and take time out of his schedule to render genuine help, rather than just pay lip service to his role. Whatever his expenditure may have been, I feel that he sincerely wished the best for his constituents, was willing to engage with them and do more than the absolute bare minimum. Perhaps, Mr Barwell should consider writing another book: ‘How not to treat your constituents: My year spent fighting for my political life rather than fighting for the electorate’.