A grassroots lesson for Labour

How the party is leading the fight to save Cromer's crab factory.

Read my Observer article today, and you'd think that a bunch of celebrities are leading the fight to save Cromer crabs in North Norfolk. Stephen Fry, Matthew Pinsent and Alan Titchmarsh have been catapulted to the front of the campaign for doing little more than sending out a couple of tweets. The real story - cut down by my editors - is much more interesting. It's about the rejuvenation of real grassroots organisation in the Labour party, and it holds lessons for us all.

It started when Samuel Rushworth, campaigns co-ordinator for North Norfolk Labour, heard that the factory processing the iconic Cromer crabs was likely to close at a cost of some 230 jobs. The largest private sector employer in the town, this would have huge knock on effects. Youngs Seafood, which owns the factory, said there was no alternative. They had recently undergone a large merger and the proposals were backed by their venture capitalists, Lion capital. Interestingly, Rushworth said the news came the day Ed Miliband made his conference speech on market "predators", which he said seemed eerily appropriate.

Within three days Rushworth's local party had launched the "Keep it Cromer" campaign. They sent out press releases, designed leaflets and made banners. They produced a red crab logo, and put up flyers in local businesses. Their petition has already amassed some 6,000 signatures and support continues to grow. Their literature reminded residents that seven other businesses had also gone bust in the town and gave the closure a political and economic context. Rising inflation, unemployment and VAT meant that people just didn't have enough money to spend.

The first and most important advantage of such a campaign is obviously that it serves the interests of the workers and the town. Sitting in their canteen smelling faintly of disinfectant, the mood of workers I spoke to this weekend was otherwise low. Fathers at the plant were talking about how the choice between going on benefits locally or moving away from their families to find work. I can still hear the words of one guy as he stamped out his cigarette, "It's going to be a real happy new year".

But by actively campaigning in their community, North Norfolk Labour is also gaining political support. Rather than making empty statements on leaflets, they are winning votes by earning trust and walking their talk. They are also attracting new members and rejuvenating the party. Two years ago the local group had just six active members; now thirty are regularly attending meetings because something is actually happening. Dispelling the myth that areas without safe seats can't do anything, they have rattled the high profile Lib Dem MP Norman Lamb, who is having to follow their lead.

Of course there are challenges. The first is a real tension between wanting to speak for the whole community, and branding the campaign as party political. At the moment there is no Labour badge next to the Keep it Cromer logo - is that strategic? The group don't want to come across as running the campaign for simple electoral advantage, but they need to make sure that local people know it's Labour putting in the work.

The second problem is that the factory workers themselves are not taking a leading role. North Norfolk Labour leaders are local, hardworking and dedicated, but none of the factory workers I spoke to were attending their meetings. We need to reach out beyond the usual suspects, so workers don't feel that something is being done for them, but with them. The unions could also do more here.

But what's happening in Cromer shouldn't be underestimated. The local party has captured the attention of the town and the country. Whatever the challenges, that's a lot more than celebrities like Stephen Fry are doing for Cromer. The rest of Labour should take note.

Rowenna Davis is a journalist and author of Tangled up in Blue: Blue Labour and the Struggle for Labour's Soul, published by Ruskin Publishing at £8.99.

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.