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Richard House (RH): I think we all have a lot to learn about community organising and activism from the successful Sack Esther McVey Campaign that you spearheaded in the 2015 general election campaign. Can you tell us what you think were the decisive factors in your campaign’s success?
Alec McFadden (AM): The 2015 campaign to unseat McVey was fought on a number of fronts. First — and I’m speaking frankly here — there was the hatred local people felt towards her, particularly those with disabilities who had either lost their disability benefits or who’d had them reduced when McVey was the disability minister.
Next, there was the local TUC in Wirral, which organised against benefit sanctions.
Third, there was a brilliant publicity campaign, partly fed by McVey’s own outrageous statements made both inside and outside Parliament. McVey was completely divorced from real people’s experience on the ground.
We launched the campaign at the Open Golf tournament in July 2014 in Hoylake, with banners, stickers, many activists and last but by no means least — a 10-foot inflatable rat.
I negotiated with the Merseyside Police to have our campaign spot opposite the golf club entrance, which was also, as it happens, in close proximity to the local Conservative Club.
Next, our campaign was excellently organised, fed by great campaigning ideas and imagination.
Of course we also did the usual bread-and-butter things, like leafleting in the local community, including a special eve-of-poll “Sack McVey” leaflet.
We also had the crucial support of John McDonnell and a brilliant Labour election candidate, Margaret Greenwood. And sunny weather on polling day helped too.
For the record, after two recounts our excellent candidate overturned the Tory majority of 2,500, winning by over 400, much against the national swing. So we clearly had an effect and a decisive one, as it proved.
There’s lots more I could say — enough for a book, actually — but that’s the essence of it.
RH: In retrospect, was there anything about this campaign you’d like to have changed — any mistakes made or anything you might have done that you didn’t think of at the time?
AM: My only real regret is that we’d have liked to have made a full record of the campaign and the victory at the time. I tend to be someone who makes things happen rather than spend time documenting the results, like many activists, I think. In this campaign, despite winning and sacking McVey, Labour lost the general election, Ed Miliband resigned, and I was then immediately involved in helping Jeremy to get elected.
RH: Can you now tell us about the new campaign to unseat McVey as DWP minister? How is it looking so far, in terms of support, ideas, and fundraising? And do tell us also about the historical background to McVey’s Tatton constituency returning an independent MP back in the 1990s.
AM: The background to the Tatton (Cheshire) seat is that, in the 1997 general election, prominent BBC journalist Martin Bell stood as an independent candidate, with Tatton then one of Britain’s safest Tory seats.
Sitting MP Neil Hamilton (now of Ukip) was engulfed in sleaze allegations and the Labour and Lib Dem parties stood down to give Bell a clear run. He was duly elected with a majority of over 11,000 votes, overturning a 22,000 Tory majority, the first successful independent MP since 1951.
So when it comes to unseating MPs in seats where votes are weighed rather than counted, Tatton certainly has encouraging form.
The new campaign is called Sack Esther McVey Again, and it has developed very quickly, in less than a month, in terms of a strong and experienced national steering committee — a team of wide-ranging experts working as a collective that includes trade unionists, Labour councillors and DPAC activists, with social media activity developing well and a new bank account that’s now open for campaign donations.
I’m taking the campaign into Tatton itself on February 19, where I’ll be addressing their CLP meeting about the campaign. We also have a new campaign song coming out on February 5, the very day when McVey will face parliamentary questions as DWP minister.
It’s interesting that the Tories are now back-pedalling on their disability legislation’s discrimination against people with mental health or learning difficulties, with a massive review just announced.
Could our high-profile campaign have had at least some marginal effect on this? And/or is there now an attempt to sell a softer, more cuddly McVey?
Finally, we are currently looking for a new independent candidate to challenge McVey at the next election and prominent NHS supporter Professor Stephen Hawking has been mentioned by many. Watch this space.
RH: A final question. Do you think that the Sack McVey campaigns to date might prove to offer a kind of “campaigning template” for unseating Tories all over the country? Perhaps with Momentum’s campaigning involvement?
AM: I do think there’s a model to be followed here, which is centred around community involvement, with trade union funding, support from left Labour nationally and by doing everything possible not to split left-wing and anti-Tory votes.
A note of caution, however. In the week of the 2015 general election, Wirral MBC Election Department informed me that the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK Assessment Team had decided to monitor the West Wirral election and campaign and they requested to meet me.
We duly met and I answered their questions. They looked at our election campaign materials, including leaflets and stickers, and they then visited the voting stations on polling day and attended the count and two recounts.
I point this out because it seems clear they were trying to find some technicality to stop McVey losing and of course they failed to find anything.
But we mustn’t underestimate the lengths to which the Establishment will go to protect their own and try to save them from electoral humiliation.
The new campaign is of course a continuation of the trade union and communities response to the attacks on the welfare benefits system by the Tory government.
In 2015, we succeeded in sacking McVey, and showed the power of the organised community backed by trade unionists.
Tory Prime Minister Theresa May has shown both total arrogance and foolishness in bringing McVey back and to an even higher position than previously in the government.
So our aim is not only to Sack Esther McVey Again and bring down the nasty Tory government but also to create alternative welfare and disability policies for an incoming Labour government.
Alec McFadden is convener of the Sack Esther McVey Again campaign, the press officer of Salford TUC and Salford Unison branch officer. Richard House is a Corbynista activist in Stroud, Gloucestershire.
Donations towards the campaign would be gratefully received. The bank account name is Sack Esther McVey — Again, account no 20353180, sort code 60-83-01. See also goo.gl/kzMcmX for a crowd-funding donation option.
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