The main Westminster parties are loudly declaring war on each other today, on parliament’s first day back following the Christmas recess.
With four months to go until the general election, the parties are emphasising how they will frame the debate – we’ve known for a while that the Tories are going on the economy, and Labour wants the NHS to be the main battleground.
However, we will also hear about Labour’s strategy to win votes today, in a rally Ed Miliband is holding in Manchester. It includes the goal to hold four million conversations with voters on the doorstep: a record number for the party, and almost double what it achieved in the last election. The Labour leader will tell activists:
I am going to be leading those conversations in village halls, community centres, workplaces right across the country, starting this very week and every week from now until the election. I want you to be doing the same. This year will be making our case, explaining our vision, house by house, street by street, town by town.
Our campaign is setting the goal of holding four million conversations with people in just four months about how we change our country. That is almost twice the number we’ve ever done before. It is more than any British political party has ever done before. And in every single one of those conversations, we will remind people of what is at stake, not speaking over people’s heads with expensive poster campaigns, but talking directly with them on their doorstep.
What’s behind this tactic?
Getting out of Westminster
The electorate appears to be more volatile than ever before, what with Ukip and other smaller parties tempting support away from the major parties. Part of Ukip’s success has been its rejection of and distance from the Westminster establishment, giving voters a supposed alternative to an old elite out of touch with most people’s concerns.
Therefore the geography of both Miliband’s rally today, and urge to fight the election street by street, makes sense, as it signals an attempt by Labour to take its campaign beyond the precincts of the Westminster bubble.
It is telling that Miliband has decided to launch his election campaign this year in Salford, whereas the Tories’ efforts today will be based in Westminster, with a press conference held by five Conservative cabinet ministers slamming Labour’s “unfunded” spending commitments.
Restarting the conversation
One Labour MP reveals to me that a number of MPs representing safe Labour seats, particularly in the north of England and Scotland, have become “lazy” and says it’s “little wonder” voters are turning to other parties. Doorstepping and fervent canvasing in what are known as Labour’s “heartlands” has become in some cases less zealous, as there is less of the urgency required in more marginal seats to get out the vote.
However, as an increasing number of Labour’s safe seats and what looked like easy targets are becoming more precarious, it is vital for the MPs and candidates to re-establish a personal, door-to-door relationship with voters who haven’t had a visit from a Labour politician in a long time.
This strategy will also help the party win over those who have either never voted or have stopped turning out. A shadow frontbencher reveals to me that the “biggest problem” in their constituency is with those who have stopped voting, and calls for more engagement with this section of the electorate from the Labour leadership.
Getting Ed out more
In a way, Miliband’s intention for his activists and supporters to fight the election as a ground war extends to the way he now needs to approach voters. Seismic wobbles in his leadership at the end of last year revealed his most pressing challenge is to get out and about more and somehow show that he is not an out-of-touch middle-class intellectual who doesn’t understand the concerns of ordinary voters.
Indeed, he was urged by the New Statesman’s editor Jason Cowley to get out more and have conversations with people. And at a major speech to reassert his leadership last year, Miliband promised to do just that, admitting that his mistake had been to stay holed up in Westminster too long:
A lesson I learnt most in the last four and a half years or so is about going out more and engaging more. Spend less time in Westminster and more time out in the country. You learn more. It makes you a better politician and engages more directly with people. So that’s what I’m going to spend the next six months doing.