Philip Glanville argues that local campaigning is the route to electoral success for Labour.
Following Labour’s losses in Crewe and Glasgow East, barely a day goes by someone or other being accused of plotting. Get any group of activists or wonks together and you’ll hear various ideas to get us out of this mire. Looking back at the successes and failures of the last year, it’s easy to pick out the â€˜toffs’ campaign and problems at the top. But what about the deeper, more unsettling questions at the heart of the Labour party’s current problems?
Campaigning in Crewe, I was struck by the lack of long-term organisation. The late, great Gwyneth Dunwoody was a formidable parliamentarian and much-respected MP, but the local party in Crewe seemed moribund at best. Sadly, it was clear that canvassing and campaigning had not taken place for a generation. No historic data, no personal relationships, no record of local campaigning.
In estate after estate, there was no sense that Labour had been talking to local people. We hadn’t fostered a sense that the party was on their side – campaigning for better schools, safer streets and new homes. Ten pence tax and Gordon Brown did not create these problems, they merely exacerbated them.
Oppositions do well in by-elections not only because governments are unpopular mid-term, but because they often take place in the soft underbelly of the thought-to-be-safe seat. Faced with an unfavourable national climate and an ill-judged campaign, there was little we could have done to stave off defeat. Crewe and Glasgow are better after eleven years of Labour Government. Yet, for years it seems nobody has talked to local people about what we are doing and why.
Our supporters don’t need Facebook, they want us to talk face to face: in their local pub, at the church fete, at a residents’ meeting or on the doorstep. It may be old-fashioned or unsexy, but it works. You can’t just turn up every four years (or, even worse, mid-term) and expect people to vote for you.
Clearly being in power is vital. We should never lose sight of that aim or hold the deluded view that we need to be in opposition to renew. Yet being in government can hold the party. Leaders inevitably start to listen to civil servants over party members and citizens. We get caught up in the idea that a good policy and a slick soundbite is all it takes to succeed.
The underreported lesson of the May elections was how local parties up and down the country bucked the losing trend: from Oxford to Hastings, from Haringey to Slough, we held and gained seats from the Lib Dems and the Tories. The common theme? Strong local messages and a strong local campaign.
Party structures are often highlighted as a reason people are turned off by party politics: having sat through many GCs and branch meetings, I agree that it’s not for everyone and shouldn’t be the only form of involvement. Yet it is an important building block from which to sustain a campaigning party. Throwing it overboard to somehow broaden our reach could be as damaging as seeing structures as the be all and end all.
Where I would advocate serious change, however, is from the top down, with MPs, peers, MEPs, AMs, MSPs and councillors.
There are many, many Labour MPs who work all year round, quietly building the party’s presence in their community. Yet, there are many others who haven’t knocked on a door in years – who are happier on TV or in the newspapers criticising the government. We will always have, and need, critical voices. We don’t want an army of nodding dogs in parliament as fodder for the whips. But all Labour MPs have obligations to the party and one of these must be to campaign for its ongoing success.
Contrast this with the local leadership shown by councillors in Hackney, Oxford, and Lambeth and MPs such as Siobhan McDonagh, Jim Knight and Martin Salter; they know that campaigning is at the heart of being a Labour representative. That means MPs doing regular campaigning on top of their representational role. The best MPs are already excellent campaigners, but the NEC and party whips should be less concerned with votes in parliament as a measure of loyalty and more worried about how many voters they have spoken to. If MPs aren’t up for leading from the front they should be out – deselected. As simple as that.
True renewal will only come when we become closer to the people. Let’s take a good look at the Britain we have been a part of creating, look at what works and what doesn’t. Let’s return politics to the people by talking to them about their priorities.
Philip Glanville is Labour councillor for Hoxton.
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