There are plenty of arguments in Labour right now. But the most baffling one is over whether they should be doing more Voter ID or Community Organising. Because the answer is of course both. But far, far more importantly, they should be doing both a lot, lot better.
Jonathan Ashworth wrote a fairly impassioned plea recently not to throw the baby of Voter ID out with the bathwater. And of course he’s right. Labour shouldn’t give up doorstep canvassing. It is the best and most efficient way of talking to voters. But the way they do it at the moment, it is the least efficient way of both listening to people and recording and reacting to what they care about.
Labour are incredibly proud of their ground war and activists. It is widely believed that it was their actions that kept Labour in the game in 2010 – a view I share. But the problem with this pride is that is has ossified into a fetishisation of the way canvassing is done that I believe is now part of the problem.
Most people reading an article about canvassing will have done it. This is a very niche discussion. But for those who haven’t here’s how it works – within labour at least.
On the doorstep, you generally ask three questions: Who did you vote for last time? Who will you vote for at the next election? And if you had to choose tomorrow between a Labour and Tory government which would you choose?
The idea is to find your voters and find the strength of their commitment. But, frankly, as a way of maintaining that commitment – it stinks, and as a way of engendering commitment in the first place it stinks worse.
Where is the voter in that conversation? Where is the understanding of the complex human being standing talking to us and the myriad of issues that might be weighing on their minds? Do they care more about education or defence? DO they work in the public or private sector? Do they own or rent?
The People’s Party asked only asked questions about the voter’s relationship to voting and to Labour. Questions that are entirely self-interested (I sometimes wonder if – despite the year round nature of this canvassing – the reason Labour are so often accused of only coming at election time is because this is what they primarily talk to people about).
Sure, some people are natural door-steppers. Happily able to come off the script and properly riff with the voters about Labour policies. But many aren’t – certainly not without training. Which is rarely formally given.
And if they do gather and feedback this information there is no formal way of recording it and responding to it is patchy and down to local organisation and culture. It is not a national priority.
I was disappointed to see in Jonathan’s piece the reference to Tory money. Of course it is true that the Tories have more money to spend than Labour. But that cannot and must not become an excuse for not looking at our own failures. And from what has been written in a must read post for every political activist, it wasn’t just money, but much better understanding of the voters as people that led the Tory ground war to so vastly overtake Labour’s.
Among other things that match some of the best techniques Labour already employ – matching activists to seats for example – they developed a long and complex Survey that asked voters about what their interests and ranked them. They then had a much clearer idea of what interested and motivated voters than Labour did.
Nothing should be taken away from Labour activists who give up their time and energy to go out and try to make a difference in the name of their Party. Indeed, it is for their sake that how they do so should not be mythologised but constantly questioned. They had five million of these conversations in the run up to the 2015 general election. Five million times they asked the three questions. Perhaps if they had had Two million longer, more personal and effective conversations, things might look a bit different. I don’t know. But I think it’s a question worth asking.
Labour is in a terrible state politically and organisationally. Nothing can be beyond reproach and nothing can be beyond questioning when they look at how to start the long hard road back. The more they simply do more of the same, the more they will be looking at the same result.