On 5 May 2016 there will be 10 different elections in the United Kingdom: London Mayor, Bristol Mayor, Salford Mayor, Liverpool Mayor, Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, Northern Irish Assembly, Greater London Authority, Police and Crime Commissioner, and local elections across the whole country.
Labour will field candidates in nine of them, giving Corbyn’s critics nine separate means to gauge his success as leader. It will also mean the Labour Party’s resources stretched thin, only a year after a general election.
On 20 January, the Electoral Commission released party expenditure figures for last year’s general election campaigns. It shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that the Tories spent significantly more than Labour: over £3,500,000 more. That’s just under the Liberal Democrats’ total expenditure and more than the Green Party and SNP’s spending combined.
It seems safe to assume that in the various elections this year, like last year, the Tories will have and spend more money than Labour. What the Conservatives don’t have, however, is the Labour Party’s membership.
In less than a year, Labour Party membership has nearly doubled, hitting almost 400,000 nationally, with over half of these members having joined since the general election defeat last May. Furthermore, that figure doesn’t include the affiliated and registered supporters, which would take the number to somewhere between 500,000 and 600,000.
In contrast, Conservative membership is estimated to be around 150,000. That’s less than half of Labour’s; excluding affiliated and registered supporters, which would make the Tory figure somewhere between a third and a quarter of Labour’s.
But all these numbers may not matter, unless they translate to people showing up at local party meetings and helping with the campaigns.
My local ward, Bournville, is always a close race between Labour and the Conservatives. In 2015, the Tories won with 40 per cent of the vote to Labour’s 36 per cent: a closer race than the year before, in which the Tories won the seat with 43per cent to Labour’s 32 per cent. The gap appears to be narrowing and the local party feel optimistic that this year Labour will win the council seat back. In order to achieve this, Labour need volunteers working hard to mitigate the likelihood that the Tories will outspend them.
At the last local party branch meeting, 18 people turned up. The majority were highly experienced campaigners with deep roots in the constituency, certain of how best to direct their energies into winning the seat. One person was even a former special adviser to Gordon Brown. In short, the quality of those in attendance was not lacking, but I did feel that the quantity of people there was low. 18 people could seem high, low or arbitrary, depending on your experience of local politics, but as in stands there are now 400 Labour Party members in my ward, perhaps around double as many as there were a year ago. This means that over 20 times as many people could have turned up.
Throughout the country, the Tories lack activists on the ground, instead relying on paying for tactics like the letters sent to people in Barrow and Furness, where thousands are employed to build the Vanguard class Trident submarines, to scare them into thinking Ed Miliband would have let the SNP force Labour into scrapping the nuclear deterrent.
These scare tactics work. They saw the Barrow and Furness constituency swing from a Labour safe seat to a more marginal seat for Labour in 2015. However, there is something I feel voters are more swayed by than a party slinging mud: someone coming to their home and listening to their concerns.
This was a huge factor in the Oldham West and Royton by-election, which Labour won in a landslide victory. Many voters reported that they were impressed by Labour Party activists’ commitment to speak to them, despite the bad weather, and the coachloads of around 150 volunteers from cities across England meant that every house could be canvassed.
It sounds obvious, but it needs to be stated: if you want to refute smears made against you or your party, you’re far more effective doing so in person than in print or online.
Back in Bournville, those 18 volunteers will struggle to visit every home in the large ward, but if another small fraction of those 400 members were to volunteer their time, the party could knock on every door with time to revisit those vital swing voters. In fact, if a slightly bigger fraction of all the Labour Party members in the ward showed up, then the campaign could speak to every resident, check in on core and swing voters, and even try to sway the soft Conservative vote, taking the fight to the Tories’ doorstep.
If people want Labour to do well under Corbyn, then this is something that needs to be replicated in every ward across the country, from urban safe seats to more rural wards in the south, where Momentum branches have sprung up, to give Labour the biggest possible national vote, win back swing seats and isolate new targets seats for the future.
Luke Akehurst recently argued on LabourList that Labour’s performance in this year’s local elections, rather than any of the other elections I listed, will be the best comparison between Miliband and Corbyn’s leadership. To an extent, I have to agree: the other contests have more factors and variables that preceded Corbyn’s becoming leader.
This is why Corbyn backers, above all others, have to ask themselves how much they are willing to support him. Their votes made him leader, but their party membership fees will only pay for so much.
Corbyn became leader largely thanks to a grassroots movement, and if they want Corbyn to remain in his current position four months from now, they need to mobilise. There is a need for Momentum to facilitate its members getting involved in their local branches, but this can also happen individually or as part of other groups. The path they take matters as little as what parties they voted for in previous elections. The best way to show support for Labour and its leader now is going out with long-standing members to voters’ homes and hearing their thoughts and concerns.
The Tories will win a lot of votes with leaflets, videos and billboards, but the politics of talking at the electorate will never be as effective as going to a voter’s home and listening to them.