The park was empty. Empty that is but for one person stood on a wall.
This is not your typical scene in Newport. Yet, this was not your typical by-election campaign. The angle provided from the elevated if wobbly position was perfect to get a photograph of the Renew Party’s aeroplane flying high above the city skyline.
I’d been tipped off about the fly-past plan the day before. Earlier, I’d been sceptical about Renew’s plans to deploy digital ad-vans around the constituency, so when a plane was mentioned my eyebrows raised almost to the same altitude.
From this introduction it might be easy to presume that Renew’s venture to Newport West was heavy on electoral gimmicks, and that would not be entirely inaccurate, but there was both purpose and depth to their campaign.
Renew had just five weeks to get noticed. Even the vastly knowledgeable commentator Vaughan Roderick described Renew as “a new one on me”. Well Vaughan, you were not alone.
And that is what makes the Newport West experience of Renew so interesting – this constituency had an insight into a new party something the rest of the country is largely unaware of.
And Renew’s success in Newport West suggest that it may be this party, rather than The Independent Group/Change UK, which will provide a real centrist alternative in UK politics.
While Change UK decided not to contest Newport West at all, it was Renew’s by-election know-how that made an impression on me.
Small parties contesting by-elections are commonplace. Typically, such a campaign involves a handful of volunteers handing out flyers in the high street. They don’t know whether the people taking the leaflets are constituents or not and have no idea how to contact them again or to turn out supporters on election day.
That was what I expected of Renew. But what was to follow changed my opinion – this was a serious campaign which understood the need to canvass comprehensively and build a database of voting intentions.
I understand that a former Labour campaign manager in their team co-ordinates this aspect.
Yes, there were errors and too much campaign time was spent on arranging hustings because no one else was doing so.
However, parties who have fought thousands of elections are also prone to mistakes. Indeed, in Newport West the Lib Dems put out a leaflet with the wrong election date on it.
There were also questions about just what the party stood for. One Green Party supporter likened Renew to Fyre Festival – Renew had no policies just as Fyre Festival had no toilets.
But this attack didn’t really add up. Anyone prepared to spend a few minutes on the Renew website can see a considerable level of thought on policy. Though, more detail will be needed as we approach devolved elections.
There were also questions as to whether Renew had any real roots in Newport West or had just parachuted in to the first by-election that came along.
A friend and former Plaid Cymru candidate dubbed the party “London Renew”. In one sense he had a point. There was the unmistakable air of the metropolitan about the leading figures in the party.
And yet, I really got the impression that those same people understood the need to be more than that.
Deputy Leader James Clarke decamped to Newport for the duration of the campaign. Only on the very warmest of spring days was he seen without his recently acquired Newport County scarf.
Much of the rest of the Renew Party’s head office relocated to a house they’d rented in the city for the final ten days or so of the campaign.
Yes, we can observe the London-centricity of where they come from, but I don’t think we can criticise the commitment of a party that moves its whole operation to the location of a by-election for the campaign.
Furthermore, this was not a parachute campaign. The campaign know-how might have come along the M4, but the candidate was from Ponthir, just in the neighbouring Monmouth constituency.
One would not expect a party to have a nationwide network of associations and activists when it was established in February 2018.
Ultimately, however, the most impressive thing about Renew was that they won 879 votes, 3.7% of the total.
That may not seem like much, but just 306 votes separated 4th place from 7th which put Renew at the tail end of a group including established parties Plaid Cymru, the Lib Dems and Greens.
We should not pretend that 3.7% in a first by-election is upending the political establishment. That would be ridiculous, but in context, it is a respectable result.
It took UKIP 17 by-elections before it polled at or above this figure.
Despite Renew’s strong showing the media has in large part focused on a ‘party’ which isn’t yet a party and hasn’t fought a single election – The Independent Group or Change UK.
I admire the members of The Independent Group (TIG). These MPs have made the decision that what they stand for matters more than the duration of their parliamentary careers.
However, while Renew has decided to work from the ground up, attempting to get a credible foothold in seats such as Newport, TIG have adopted a top-down approach and seems to lack grassroots organisation.
On the 6th April, The Guardian reported that over 200 people had applied to be European Election candidates for TIG.
Yet, at this stage, there was no membership scheme, no approved candidate procedure and it was only on 11th April that those signed up to TIG’s mailing list were invited to apply.
While one accepts that the timescale was challenging, you must wonder how open to the ‘new politics’ this process can possibly be.
Two hundred people emailing saying they want to stand is one thing, but with no semblance of a meritocratic process in place there must be a risk that selections will owe more to ‘who you know’ rather than ‘what you know’.
There doesn’t seem to have been much recognition of the different political circumstances in the constituent nations of the UK, either.
Social media feeds for the different nations and regions seem to have popped up seemingly at random.
Would it really have been beyond TIG to appoint a few regional and devolved nation organisers to take the lead on their organisation?
A further issue which has found TIG wanting is their decision over a party name. Change UK was announced, but it seems that not all the digital domains required for it were secured beforehand. There have also been objections from the Change.org petitions website.
The owner of the @ChangeUK twitter feed wasted no time in putting up a ‘For Sale’ sign! The digital oversight is difficult to explain in 2019, but there is a bigger difficulty with the name.
“Time for change” has long been a powerful political slogan, but it is the language of opposition. Governments seek renewal in office, but change implies a different government.
What happens if Change UK does succeed in entering government, as they intend to do? Their name may well become something of an albatross around their collective neck.
It is of course too early to tell whether it will be Renew or Change UK that will fill the void at the centre-ground of UK politics, or indeed whether we’ll be discussing either in a year’s time.
However, due to the inexplicable departure to the political fringes of Britain’s big two parties there is fertile ground for a post-right/left political entity.
TIG has impressive MPs with a high profile, but that alone does not win elections.
Renew demonstrated in Newport West that they have serious campaign know-how and can gain a foothold. Renew has already assessed potential MEP candidates and is election-ready.
One solution might be for TIG and Renew to work together. Just a day trip down to Newport West would have demonstrated that the two parties could have complemented one another.
TIG has the media profile, Renew has the political infrastructure. Comments from Annabel Mullin, the party’s Leader, suggest that efforts to find a way to work together were pursued by Renew. Instead, TIG has decided to reinvent the wheel.
In the long run it is difficult to imagine that TIG/Change UK, Renew and Lib Dems will all be successful, and that is before we even consider potential reinventions within Labour or the Conservatives.
Some parties will fall by the wayside. I understand why Renew might be perceived as the most at risk of doing so.
But if we were to properly assess the work of Renew and TIG over the last few weeks, I don’t think that the current media narrative is fair.
Renew had a vastly more productive time and made, generally, good decisions. TIG enjoyed the limelight but made poor choices and seem less election-ready.
TIG may well have a successful European election, but will their rapidly recruited candidates be effective MEPs?
Is there a coherent message that the whole party is signed up to as to what it is for, as opposed to just unity based on what it is against?
Will TIG even be permitted to use their chosen party name?
Renew does not face these challenges. Their only big issue for the European Elections is gaining profile.
When contesting the by-election, Renew understood that they needed to make noise. In doing so, they annoyed a few, but become a talking point and registered a respectable result.
Whether they can build on that platform in European Elections which are set to be fiercely contested remains to be seen.
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