“Perfect your organisation, educate your followers, look to the register, spread the light and the future is yours” was a Keir Hardie quotation Harold Wilson was fond of reciting when urging the Party to take what we these days call the ‘ground war’ seriously.
It was Wilson whose devastating report into the election defeats of the 50s branded Party organisation as “at the penny-farthing stage in a jet-propelled era.” In response the NEC established the Organisation Sub Committee which Wilson himself chaired to take forward many of the recommendations of his report (‘Org Sub’ still exists to this day though I don’t think a party leader has chaired it since Wilson).
Many of Wilson’s suggestions were put into practice: increasing the numbers of full-time agents in marginal seats and encouraging activists when canvassing to put greater emphasis on ‘identifying the Labour voters and creating a machine to get them to the poll.’
Not every party member felt comfortable with this heavy emphasis on churning out votes however. I couldn’t help but smile when reading Steve Fielding’s brilliant analysis of Labour in the 60s describing some party members “who thought Labour’s principle purpose was to transform the outlook of individual voters: to them, a large and energetic membership was as important as winning elections.” I wonder if they also longed for an American community organiser to offer them guidance?
Fast forward 50 years and the debate about the value of voters ID verses community organising remains a live one in the party. Of course knocking on thousands of doors, delivering thousands of leaflets and delivering thousands of targeted direct mails isn’t sufficient on its own to win a national election. A party also needs a leader who can command broad appeal, a policy offer that hits the sweet spot offering in today’s terminology ‘hope’ while remaining credible with a national message that connects.
But the “ground war” does matter so I would caution our new leadership team against completely throwing overboard the 5 million conversation strategy and trying to replace it with vague touchy-feely platitudes about community organising. To do so risks learning the wrong lessons from the 2015 election.
We didn’t lose the 2015 general election because of our efforts on the ground. An effective ground war is necessary to get us over the line in marginal seats when the ‘air war’ of national messaging and policy platform makes us competitive. Unfortunately the 2015 results shows we were a considerable distance from being competitive in the vast majority of target seats. But there are lessons to be learnt from the performance of our ground campaign.
Firstly voter ID or ‘community organising’ should never be an either/or. The best organised campaigns are those that do year round door knocking alongside running campaigns on community issues. It maybe that the top-down target of 5 million conversations forced parties to place too much emphasis on door knocking at the expense of other campaign activities but there is evidence that the CLPs with the highest contact rates in 2015 also got the best results.
For example in Ilford North, the brilliant Wes Streeting led a CLP that had the most doorstep conversations of any seat in 2015. He overturned a Tory majority of 5,404 and increased the Labour share of the vote by 9.6 per cent. Crucially Wes doesn’t just do door knocking, he runs community campaigns all year round and is visibly active in his community. It’s a similar story in Hove where Peter Kyle combined door knocking and community campaigning. Meanwhile in Enfield North it would seem the Tories feel they lost because Joan Ryan’s ground operation was superior.
Across the top ten best performing seats in terms of voter contact, the Labour vote increased by 5.1 per cent on average. And in those seats we still hold and where the Tories have long fancied their chances like Dudley North, Gedling and Edgbaston the MPs and local CLPs have for years and years now ran some of the most impressible ground operations combining door knocking and community campaigning.
Secondly the seats that took the threat of Ukip seriously and working with strategists like Ian Warren pushed Ukip back and beat them. But Ukip aren’t going away nor are the Greens, eventually the Lib Dems will begin to claw something back and we all know what happened in Scotland. Labour simply has to up its campaigning across many seats traditionally seen as ‘safe’. That should mean encouraging more doorstep activity not less.
In my own Leicester South constituency– where we secured about 60 per cent of the vote– we have started again our door knocking. At this stage of the cycle we’re not doing strict voter ID but simply asking if there any issues that I as the local MP or the local Councillor can help with. We’re also at the moment proactively asking Labour voters to sign up as supporters to take part in the Leadership contest. From January to May this year we had 16,000 conversations on the doorstep in Leicester South. Because we have that information it’s meant I’m also able to write out to thousands of Labour voters across the patch inviting them to become a supporter as well.
While the political focus on Ed Miliband’s reforms was the move to OMOV, the real value of the new system is that it allows local campaigners to genuinely build a movement where constituents who might not want to be full members but share our values can have a direct stake in the Party’s future and hopefully become active as well.
Thirdly, modern doorstep campaigning is about so much more these days than just boots on the ground. As Tory pollster Andrew Cooper tweeted after the election “Big data, micro-targeting and social media just thrashed “5 million conversations” and “community organizing.”’ The Tories ruthlessly used mosaic data and other bought in data sets to target constituencies and target the voters who live in them with precise tailored messaging. Political campaigning should never be about segmenting voters into patronising categories but smart use of big-data to support local campaigners on the ground is effective.
The Tories were doing focused targeting relentlessly from the mid-point or so of the last Parliament at the voters Labour ultimately failed to win over such as those Gloria De Piero and I identify here as living disproportionately in marginal seats. Labour’s field team at head office are more than capable of analysing big data but we simply didn’t have the finances to compete on the same scale as the Tories until the last few months of the campaign. We can’t allow that to happen again in this Parliament.
Our new leader and deputy already have a bulging in-tray waiting for them in September. They will very quickly need to start preparing for a tough set of elections in 2016. These elections will be part of the long road to 2020 where our biggest challenge is making Labour competitive again in a whole raft of seats where we lost so badly in 2015. Of course the national political scene will play a massive part in how we do in those constituencies but like their four-time election winning predecessor Harold Wilson, our new leader will need to both “perfect the organisation” as well as “spread the light.” That means working with activists at all levels, future candidates, MPs and our brilliant Labour staff to craft an appealing message with a winning ground operation that ensures the future is indeed ours.
Jon Ashworth MP is a shadow cabinet office minister and has worked on election campaigns we’ve won and lost.