“You need to get your act together, from top to bottom!” a life-long Labour voter told me on his doorstep in Glasgow this week. I was out canvassing in a series of local government by-elections in Scotland, caused by sitting SNP councillors, who didn’t expect to win, becoming MPs.
I assured this loyal Labour supporter that we were about to “get our act together” – at the top, with a strong new leadership team here in Scotland next week and, hopefully, in the UK as a whole on September 12th. But at the bottom?
This voter lives in a constituency that until May 7 was solidly Labour. As we went door to door, street to street, it was soon clear to me we had almost no data. When I raised this gently with the excellent young volunteer running our team, he nodded and said that until 2012 our contact rate in this constituency had been zero. Zero! Just for comparison, the contact rate in my own constituency, Exeter, is 75 per cent.
How was this ever allowed to happen? How is it possible not to have had a single conversation with a voter at their door or on the phone, ever? Such conversations are the foundation of democratic politics. It doesn’t matter how many times an area has voted Labour, we can never take anyone for granted. There isn’t a single inch of the United Kingdom that Labour is entitled to. We have to earn it.
There are some people in our movement who are sniffy about door to door canvassing. They advocate replacing it with “community campaigning”. But community campaigning is what any good MP, councillor or Labour activist already does and always has. It might suffice in a safe London seat with a Labour majority of 20,000 and a membership of 2,000, but it won’t in those scores of marginal seats we need to win back. We would not have trebled the Labour majority in Exeter this year and turned what used to be a safe Tory seat into a solid Labour one without having the second highest contact rate in the country. But canvassing should not just be a crude data harvesting exercise. It has to be part of an ongoing, quality relationship with the voters. And not just with those who always vote Labour. Of course there will be variations in contact rates where you have a high transitory population and, for tactical reasons, between target seats and the rest, but there is no excuse for any constituency with a Labour MP or Labour councillors to have a contact rate below 50 per cent. It’s time CLP contact rates were published.
To build a campaigning culture we must also build membership. I was shocked to discover when we received the membership lists for my deputy leadership campaign that, in spite of having had more than 40 Labour MPs here in Scotland before May 7th, the membership numbers far from reflected that widespread support. The central party needs to empower Scottish members to develop their party and rebuild it as they see fit. The road back to power in Scotland is going to be tough and long and it isn’t for Westminster to dictate to Scottish Labour. As deputy leader, I’ll provide the support, not rigidity to how the Scottish Party functions.
When I was first elected in 1997, I never imagined I would share a state of political isolation with a parliamentary colleague from Scotland. But, just as I am now a small red dot in a sea of blue in South West England, Edinburgh South’s Ian Murray is our sole Labour MP in a sea of nationalist yellow in Scotland. I know what it’s like to be an isolated Labour voice. I know how to campaign and win in hostile territory. Anyone can sit in think tanks dishing out why they think Labour lost, but nothing compares to actually getting out and listening to voters, as well as members. On this, my third visit to Scotland of the campaign, I’ve been in Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Stirling, campaigning for candidates like Eileen Dinning, Kevin O’Donnell and Marion Donaldson in their by-elections. They are Scottish Labour’s future. We should be supporting them and listening to them.
Let me be clear, we didn’t lose the general election because of our campaigning, organisation or activism. We lost because we suffered from massive deficits on economic trust and leadership. But in seats where we bucked the trend, we did so, by good organisation and campaigning. And in too many places where we’ve taken our supporters for granted, our membership and activism has become hollowed out. As deputy leader I will work tirelessly to ensure we have a campaigning culture from top to bottom in our Party, campaigning everywhere from Exeter to Elgin. I will never ask or expect a party member to do something I am not prepared to do myself.
With the right leadership, the right political strategy and the right organisation we can recover and rebuild here in Scotland and elsewhere in the UK and win the election in 2020.