A tale of two candidates: Chuka Umunna and Damian Collins on the campaign trail

As the general election nears, individual candidates' comms efforts are gathering pace. David Singleton looks at the grassroots approach of two rising stars

Chuka Umunna
Chuka Umunna

Trust in politicians may be at an all-time low, but one would not think it from witnessing Chuka Umunna's lively campaign to become an MP.

On a rainy Saturday, with the date for the general election yet to be announced, the Labour candidate for Streatham has assembled a strikingly diverse 30-strong band of enthusiastic supporters to pound the streets of south London on his behalf.

'One thing people always comment on when they come and campaign with us is the sheer mix of people we have,' he tells PRWeek. 'That's what I love about what we have going on here. We have a really nice mix of the old hands, who have been involved for several years, and a brand new bunch of activists - many of whom are campaigning in a general election for the first time.'

New life

As Parliament attempts to win back public trust in the wake of the expenses crisis, Umunna is one of a handful of dynamic candidates set to breathe new life back into the creaking political system.

Seen as a rising star on the practical left of the Labour Party, Umunna's bold political credentials even appear to have brought some disillusioned supporters back into the fold.

One campaign helper, Joe Laker, 23, says: 'I've worked with the Liberal Democrats in the past, but really that was because I disagreed with the direction New Labour had taken and I felt like I had nowhere else to go. For me, Chuka and other candidates like him represent a new chapter in the Labour Party's history and I want to help write that chapter.'

The energy around Umunna's campaign suggests that there may be life left in party politics after all. The wannabe MP's Streatham constituency covers around 45,000 households. As well as speaking personally to as many people as possible, he targets every household with campaign literature at least once a month.

Media relations form part of this comms mix and Umunna says he enjoys a good relationship with his local paper, the Streatham Guardian, while occasional national media appearances also seem to go down well with constituents.

But Umunna is determined do more than run a traditional campaign. He declares: 'I want to take the best parts of traditional campaigning and marry them up with modern community organising methods.'

To this end, the streetwise candidate uses Twitter to keep people posted on his movements - as well as to announce his 'track for the weekend'. In addition, Umunna puts huge effort into organising local get-togethers such as last month's Celebrating Streatham event, featuring stalls from community groups and a talent contest judged by local success stories such as hip-hop star Speech Debelle.

'For me, that's not electioneering, that's community organising,' he enthuses.

Rising reputation

Seventy miles south east of Streatham, Conservative Party candidate Damian Collins is also cementing his reputation as a rising political star with an impressive local campaign in the Folkestone and Hythe constituency.

Like Umunna, the wannabe Tory MP has also been able to attract a far more diverse band of campaign helpers than one would expect in the current political climate. A glance at the 20 or so supporters working the streets on his behalf on a typical Saturday suggests that almost every decade of adult life is represented in the campaign.

Representative mix

Collins backs up this observation: 'It's a real mix. We have people of all ages represented in the campaign and they have different roles to play.'

The safe Tory constituency has a similar number of households to the Labour stronghold of Streatham, but the distance between some of the homes means there might be Tory activists spread across the constituency. For this reason, Collins is unable to put a precise figure on the number of leaflets he delivers in a month, but claims it is 'thousands' and 'it will go in waves across the whole constituency'.

Asked whether - as reported - Conservative candidates have to run leaflets past the party HQ, he insists that is not accurate: 'There's not someone in a central office with a red pen vetoing leaflets. What the party has said is that if you are using facts in your articles, or you are asserting policy positions the party is taking, make sure that you have checked them against the material the party has given you.'

Like Umunna, he makes an effort to maintain healthy relations with the local media - including key online news publications run by bloggers.

Collins is actively using social media such as Facebook and Twitter - alongside leaflets and the local press - to promote his local meetings. He is also heading non-partisan projects, such as a campaign aimed at restoring the Road of Remembrance to Folkestone Harbour used by hundreds of thousands of soldiers in World War One.

Combating apathy

With high levels of apathy at the past two general elections and the public still fuming over expenses, politics certainly needs something to boost turnout at the general election. Collins and Umunna are two candidates who may have what it takes to reconnect with the public.

Based on his campaign, Collins says: 'I believe people are actively engaged in politics and will be actively engaged in this election.'

Umunna is similarly optimistic: 'I don't buy this nonsense about people being apathetic about politics.

' They are not apathetic about politics. In my experience, they're apathetic about party politics. That means we've got to massively change the way we engage and communicate.'

 

CHUKA UMUNNA

- Who is he?

31-year-old employment lawyer. A leading light on Labour's pragmatic left and held up by some as future Labour leader.

- Constituency profile

Streatham has a Labour majority of 6,726. Current MP is Keith Hill.

- Doorstep offer

Only candidate to have been born and brought up locally.

- Comms recipe

Take a bold political position that fires up supporters. Add in healthy media relations and a dose of community organising.

- What they say

'A Barack Obama for Britain' - Martin Bright, New Statesman.

 

DAMIAN COLLINS

- Who is he?

36-year-old former ad exec. Now works at Lexington Communications. Regarded as ministerial material.

- Constituency profile

Folkestone and Hythe has a Tory majority of 13,161. Current MP is Michael Howard.

- Doorstep offer

Man with a plan for jobs and regeneration.

- Comms recipe

Mix up young and old on the campaign trail. Use local press, bloggers and social media to promote meetings and campaigns.

- What they say

Collins has Featured in The Observer/Courvoisier 'Future 500' list, as one of 50 people to watch out for in public life.

Would you like to post a comment?

Please Sign in or register.

News by email...