Labour shows how it plans to win the ground war

The party reveals that it has recruited over 100 full-time organisers in key target seats, more than at any time in the 1997 election campaign.

One of the criticisms made of Labour over the summer was that the party was not battle-ready. While the Tories poached Barack Obama's former campaign manager Jim Messina to work alongside Lynton Crosby on election strategy, Miliband's MPs fretted as the party delayed naming a successor to Tom Watson as campaign co-ordinator.

Now, having appointed Douglas Alexander as chair of general election strategy, and Spencer Livermore, Gordon Brown's former director of strategy, as general election campaign director in the recent reshuffle, Labour is seeking to show that it is on a "war footing". 

At an all-staff conference tomorrow, Alexander and Livermore will deliver a joint presentation on "election strategy and structures" and will explain "how the party will now be organised around a structure of seven taskforces in an election war room." This will include a "strengthened Attack and Rebuttal Unit and a Digital Taskforce".  The conference will be opened by general secretary Iain McNicol followed by a Miliband speech and Q&A.

Judging by the early extracts released by Labour, Miliband will emphasise the message that he delivered at today's PMQs: that the Tories' U-turn on payday lending marked "an intellectual collapse of their position". Here's the key passage:  

Two months ago, David Cameron and George Osborne were warning that a Labour Party that wanted to fix broken markets and build an economy which works for working people was flirting with communism and being inspired by Das Kapital.

This week, George Osborne has finally followed our lead on pay day lending and declared, with a straight face, that he now believes markets must be made to work for people, even while he and David Cameron still refuse to take on the big six energy companies.

So be in no doubt: we are winning the battle of ideas, the Tories have no answers. They will always stand up for the privileged few.

But while seeking to show how it's making the intellectual running, Labour will also point to its plans to win the ground war. The party has revealed today that it has already recruited over 100 full-time organisers in key target seats, more than the number achieved at the height of the 1997 election campaign. 

Optimistic Labourites and pessimistic Tories have long cited the party's superior ground game as one reason why it is likely to win in 2015. One shadow cabinet minister recently told me that Labour's strength in this area helped it to win "a 1992-style share of seats on a 1983-style share of the vote" at the last election. The party currently has 187,537 members, significantly more than the Tories' 134,000, a stat which prompted political and campaign communications head Michael Dugher to remark recently: "Labour still has its historic competitive advantage – people. Tory party membership is dying on its arse and no one is joining the Liberal Democrats."

Conscious of this gap, Grant Shapps has written to every Tory MP asking them to increase the average number of Conservative members per constituency from 0.5% of Tory voters to 3% (something that would increase the party's total membership to 800,000). But barring a dramatic transformation, Labour can be confident that it will retain its ground advantage right up to May 2015. 

Ed Miliband speaks at the Labour conference in Brighton earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue