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26 October 2015

Labour must organise on the ground to start beating the Tories at Westminster

Victories in the bubble won't shake the Tories unless we organise, warns James Elliott. 

By James Elliott James Elliott

“Oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them”, as the saying goes. You could be forgiven for thinking that George Osborne’s Tax Credit cut – a plan to pinch an average of £1,350 a year from three million families – is driven by a desire to prove that statement correct.

Labour’s research has found that 71 Tory MPs are in seats where the number of people claiming tax credits is higher than the Tory majority, while David Davis is concerned that the measure could be “our poll tax.” 

Unfortunately, there are a couple of problems with Labour’s research and glee over a “government in chaos”. While there may be many voters who are hit by cuts in these seats, increased poverty is no initial indication support might switch to Labour. Cornwall is the poorest region in England, yet all six MPs are Tories, while Iain Duncan’s Smith’s seat, Chingford and Wood Green, has the fifth highest proportion of low-paid workers in Britain, with half earning below the living wage. Moreover, those who are hit may already be Labour voters. Unsurprising then that the tax credit cut hasn’t harmed the Tories in the polls, even slightly.

For Labour to block Tory policies like these (which they have an opportunity to do again today), they must reject the idea “governments lose elections” themselves, and understand that Westminster votes are not communicated to the marginals on their own. After all, a viciously right-wing Tory-led government were re-elected with a majority in May, and four million people, many of them working-class, voted for a party to their right. Without a mass movement from 2010-15 energising people against austerity, many who could be convinced otherwise simply stuck with what they saw on the news.

Labour must take the national lead on a series of issues as and when they arise in Parliament, from tax credit cuts, to the Trade Union Bill, to expected rises in tuition fees and the abolition of the student maintenance grant.

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Jeremy Corbyn  has to exploit a thin Tory majority by getting backbenchers to do what they didn’t in the Tax Credit debate on Tuesday – and rebel. Zac Goldsmith has a mayoral election to win, David Davis seems up for rebelling on anything these days, while even crusty right-wingers like Philip Davies have rebelled on tuition fees. 

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Local campaigns must be run in concurrence with parliamentary votes, encouraging people to mobilise in their constituencies to inform people about the votes and try to swing the result by getting sitting Tory MPs to rebel. Local meetings, rallies, petitions and marches can be used to popularise the issue across a constituency and reach into non-voting areas, provided a local and national media strategy is joined up. This requires a lot of activists and a lot of campaigning – but isn’t that precisely what earned Jeremy Corbyn his victory this summer? His campaign’s new organisation, Momentum, could be decisive here.

The central party has already started this with its petition on the Trade Union Bill and has given out campaign packs at Conference on Tax Credits, but the crucial work on the ground must be done so Tory defeats begin to happen, and a national narrative of a divided ruling party is combined with local mobilisations against a sitting Tory MP. 

Campaigning in many CLPs has become synonymous with canvassing, to the detriment of any wider political mobilisations. Canvassing is, of course, vital. You identify who your supporters are and then on polling day, you get them to a polling station. If you have a constituency where you can turn out more Labour voters than Tories, then great. In my university constituency, Oxford East, a great canvassing operation has meant that Andrew Smith increased his majority in 2010 and 2015 – but only because of a large, active membership.

Widening out the party’s base, growing the membership towards half a million, and bringing new activists in through these localised, single-issue campaigns, will not harm canvassing, as many Labour veterans fear – in fact it could revitalise it. 

If the 2015 General Election was in many people’s eyes a re-run of 1992’s shock victory for the Tories (complete with abysmal polling), then Labour must make this Parliament resemble that under John Major. Only by mobilising against Tory MPs at the base with creative, visible and effective campaigns, combined with leadership from the top, does Labour have any chance of stopping policies like Tax Credits. It may also be our only chance of seeing power again.