Somerset and Frome: Reflections from the recent by-elections

Green World spoke to Martin Dimery, Green Party candidate for Somerset and Frome (East Mendip Green Party), on his takeaways and reflections from his campaign for the July by-elections.

Martin Dimery Somerset and Frome
Martin Dimery Somerset and Frome
Green World

Green World - Despite not winning, you succeeded in increasing the Greens' overall vote share. What do you see as the reason behind this increase?

Martin Dimery - The party profile in the Frome area has grown considerably in the last eight years, from getting three members elected to the district council in 2015 and increasing that to 10 in 2019. Last year we won four of the six seats available to the town in the new unitary Somerset Council. Also, some of our candidates were active and well-known in the local community before they stood for election. When I first stood for the County Council in 2017, for example, I had lived in the town for many years, having worked as a teacher and then in two high-profile jobs as director of the annual Frome Festival, and concert manager in the town's Cheese and Grain hall. This played a part in my getting elected – initially by a tiny margin. That majority increased by 30 per cent the second time I stood because locals were able to vote Green with more confidence. Shane Collins, who has won three successive council elections in Frome, also happens to be the co-ordinator of the Green Gathering festival and is well known in the community. A local profile makes a great difference.

Having established ourselves as councillors – we also proved good at it. We worked hard to represent our constituents who had been let down by some poor candidates from other parties in the past. Green Party policies are respected by many. We don't need to remind people too vigorously about climate change. It has more to do with how that impacts the local community and what we can do to help resolve broader issues like traffic management, planning, Adult Services, schools and so on. So, when asked to stand in the Parliamentary by-election, I had a good track record locally. The Green Party policy of being able to democratically elect our candidates within each local branch enables us to ensure a strong local connection. So – building up from grassroots does pay off.

What strategies or campaign details stood out as particularly useful?

The difficulty in our campaign was that while we were likely to do reasonably well in the largest town of Frome, the town still represents no more than a third of a huge, otherwise rural, constituency. The question was, do we try to canvas the whole area (about 45 miles from east to west) or do we focus on getting out our Frome vote? In the end, we delivered two leaflets (including the Royal Mail one) to all households in the constituency and a third reminder to Frome addresses only. We didn't canvas a great deal due to the sheer logistics except in some of the more urban areas. We did release a lot of material on social media. This by-election had a huge amount of national media coverage and Molly Scott Cato and Jenny Jones were great in re-tweeting our posts along with the usual party outlets. Clearly, social media is a cheap and easy way of getting messages across and we were lucky to have experts willing to produce professional standard posts voluntarily. We also advertised in the local papers which not all parties did. I suspect this was because we knew our local press deadlines better than the other campaigns. Personal appearances were demanding but necessary, so attending the hustings events (including a televised one) was essential. We were given as much air time as the other main parties, whereas minor parties were sometimes limited or excluded. We had a lot of help delivering leaflets from Green members from other parts of the region and raised enough money through crowd-funding to maintain a reasonable print output, including posters. It was noted by Politics Home that our posters were far more in evidence than all other parties except for the Lib Dems, who had mobilised a UK-wide team.

What do you think the result of this by-election tells us about the upcoming general election – whenever it happens?

I think this election was rather different. There was an understanding between the Lib Dems and Labour over these three by-elections on 20 July. Labour did not campaign heavily in Somerton and Frome and this resulted in a poor fifth place. The Lib Dems, however, finished fifth and sixth elsewhere but threw everything at Somerton and Frome. They rented office space and imported their central PR team into Frome. They released possibly 18 leaflets or more (we lost count) and had party workers from all over the UK canvassing. Despite this, there was a huge amount of public anger at their campaign which constantly attacked the Green Party as ‘a wasted vote’. There was genuine disapproval of their massive paper trail, and at some of their underhand tactics, notably distributing a ‘false flag’ letter from a former Green voter masquerading as a semi-official Green Party letter and concealing the obligatory Lib Dem ident in almost microscopic denotation. 

In a General Election, the Lib Dems will not have the resources to saturate each constituency as they do in by-elections, but they will certainly target individual seats. We will begin more on level terms in a general election.

How does the Green Party intend on using this momentum to further engage with the electorate and potentially secure a win in the future?

It is very important to note that, although this result was above Green Party expectations, we lost at least 40 per cent of our vote to the Lib Dems compared to our achievements in the same area at last year's council elections. The urge just to get the Tory out was overwhelming, and many people openly confessed to having voted tactically, rather than for us. For all the Lib Dem publicity, I don't actually think it made a lot of difference. Many decided from the outset they would not ‘split the vote"’. In fact, the Liberal Democrats campaign was generally poor, putting many off. A well-shared Guardian podcast on the first day of the campaign saw their candidate struggle to answer basic questions and she didn't fare all that well at hustings, giving pre-scripted answers throughout. My own performances were generally received well. Liberal canvassers imported from outside the constituency were caught out on the doorstep, unable to answer questions on local policy. All of this led me to conclude afterwards that the quality of the campaign was not the decisive factor. No matter how unimpressed voters were, they had determined to vote tactically from the outset and we were probably only campaigning to persuade a small number of undecided voters. We need to sow the idea that we are the best tactical vote in some areas before the General Election is called. 

In the General Election, I'm sure the Green Party will look closely at the new boundary changes. We have a genuine opportunity in Frome to win, as the town will become the core of a new constituency. This incorporates the eastern part of Somerset where most of our local successes have come from. It also joins us with our near neighbours across the council border in Bath and North East Somerset. Although this area is currently Rees-Mogg's patch, towns like Radstock are former coal mining areas and local elections prove that this is not traditional Tory territory. There is every chance of a four-horse race, as long as our Green voters do not waver for fear of an unlikely Conservative win. 

In conclusion: My result in the by-election was not a triumph but it did prove that we are competitive and, given reasonable resources, can do well. We know from the Unite to Remain campaign of 2019, that standing down for another party does not work. The public will vote tactically if they want to and certainly not all Green voters will happily vote Lib Dem or Labour anyway. If our candidates can come third or second, the public and the media will take us seriously in the future. We must not just target a few high-profile seats, but look to build support in all areas. This can be done with determined local teams and without the need for massive budgets. Finally, each local party should not be afraid to campaign to its own strengths and use local issues to gain support in national elections.