Labour has been taking lessons from Obama's "ground game" campaign. Photo: Getty
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Hedge fund managers vs grassroots campaigners: who will dictate the result in 2015?

If Labour’s campaign proves substandard in ten months, the reasons will lie far deeper than hedge fund managers bankrolling the Conservatives. 

“There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money and I can’t remember what the second one is.” So said Mark Hanna, the American political strategist credited with creating the modern campaign, in 1898.

Labour will be hoping that Hanna is wrong. A senior Labour source told the Times last week, “The Tories will probably outspend us two or three to one from January 2015 onwards.” The Conservatives are expected to spend £19.5m, the limit of what parties are allowed to spend in the year preceding an election; Labour’s spending is likely to be nearer £8m.

The largesse of Tory supporters has led to Labour figures fearing defeat at the hands of Conservative donors. And they are right to be anxious: the spending could turn marginal seats blue.

Both the Conservatives and Labour have invested in high-profile recruits from the Obama campaign – Jim Messina for the Conservatives; David Axelrod and Matthew McGregor for Labour – as if they are trying to convince themselves that the British election will resemble that in America. It is a seductive thought, but also a delusional one: over $1bn was spent on both presidential campaigns in 2012.

If the parties know that matching such funds is an impossibility, they have sought to learn from Obama’s advantage in campaign organisation – “ground game” in politico speak. In The Gamble, the political scientists John Sides and Lynn Vavreck find that Obama gained three-tenths of a point in counties where he had a field office, and six-tenths of a point in counties where Obama had two or more field offices. In total, they estimate that Obama gained 248,000 votes over Romney from the superiority of his field operation. An equivalent advantage in Britain would amount to 50,000 votes in marginal seats: an election-winning prize. No wonder the fixation with the Obama campaign is so great.

The volunteer-driven aspect of Obama’s campaign is particularly attractive to Labour. This owes not to idealism but to desperation: given its perilous finances, Labour has no alternative but to rely on volunteers.

At least Labour can point to a significant advantage in party membership. As of last year, it had 187,000 members to the Conservative party’s 134,000. Rather than the fool’s gold of attempting to match the Tories ad-for-ad, Labour has trained over 100 community organisers, who will be entrusted with readying the volunteer army for battle, focusing on micro issues like payday lenders in areas where these are most prolific. Bottom-up, indeed; but how it squares with paying Axelrod a hefty six-figure sum is less clear.

Labour may like to depict the election as a struggle between their volunteer army and a Tory campaigning machine with more money than sense. But the Conservatives are not eschewing mundane campaigning. The Tory Party Chairman Grant Shapps secured a swing of three times the national average when he held his seat in 2010. Newark was flooded with young activists – many eager to quench a late-night thirst – during last month’s by-election, giving a glimpse of the Tories’ Team 2015 campaign. But sheer numbers on the ground seem to count in Labour’s favour: according to Lord Ashcroft’s polling, Labour has recorded swings above the national average in the most marginal seats.

So perhaps Mark Hanna was only half-right. If the first thing that matters in politics is money, the second is the quantity and quality of those campaigning. If Labour’s campaign proves substandard in ten months, the reasons will lie far deeper than hedge fund managers bankrolling the Conservatives. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.