High winds on the long road north
Labour’s fight to win over the “forgotten and ignored” is still only just beginning.
In the London Labour Party’s new offices by the Thames at Lambeth Bridge, a swarm of phonebankers are urging people hundreds of miles away to polling stations, half an hour before the close of polls. The mood is tense. Those who answer the call go out in gale-force winds. Storm Doris has been one more wild card in a lengthy season of savage unpredictability.
By 0250 both results are in. In Stoke, Labour sees off a Ukip threat (billed as a potential “wipeout”) and in a Brexit stronghold, secured more votes than Remain managed. But further north in Copeland, the Labour vote collapses after decades of erosion, handing a coup de grace to Tory Trudy Harrison, who appears also to benefit from former Ukip votes.
The result does not beget one-line explanations, and the last weeks have held a piercingly clear mirror to Britain’s biggest political movement.
Just before Christmas Labour MP Jamie Reed resigned to take up a job at the Sellafield nuclear power plant, and weeks later former shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt left Stoke to become director of London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. In a bitter winter marked by Trump protests, an ongoing civil war over Brexit and an NHS beds crisis, worried Labour strategists had two by-elections on their hands, in two seats where Labour has shed votes for decades.
The opposition in Copeland was a fairly mild-mannered and unknown Tory, whilst in the Potteries, Ukip’s new leader was widely-known at the outset and more widely known after allegedly lying about his house, his degree and his presence at one of the most heartbreaking civil disasters in modern English history.
Labour HQ settled on a short blitz strategy, giving themselves just a few weeks to manage what was already being dubbed a fork in the road for British social democracy.
In his study of personalised political communication in the US, Rasmus Nielsen writes that an effective field operation can shift election outcomes by 3–6%, assuming a fifth of electors are reached. Last Sunday in Stoke, campaign officials claim every door in the constituency was knocked.
Labour’s troop-rallying abilities are known; it’s said to be a Labour operation in London that inspired the Conservatives’ RoadTrip canvassing-and-curry initiative (later mired in controversy.) But the scale of mobilisation this month shows the potential of Labour’s new mass membership, and should give pause to those who claim pro-Corbyn campaign network Momentum is a liability to Labour.
“We had 150 turn up last weekend in Stoke alone”, says a Momentum organiser who led the development of a carpool network following concerns that battle buses would cut deep into campaign expenditure, “and had 25 cars registered for Stoke on the first weekend”. The carpools opened up campaigning to those who couldn’t afford train fares, and created networks where experienced campaigners could mentor newcomers — networks that were expanded at regular socials.
The digital operation supporting the ground effort has also progressed. Organisers who screened Ken Loach’s welfare polemic ‘I, Daniel Blake’ were ‘amazed’ to see their events “packed with people from local estates, and non-voters.” Meanwhile John McDonnell’s Stoke campaign video was praised for delivering ‘punchy, decent lines’ with ‘high production values’ by right-wing blog Guido Fawkes. Behind the scenes, the phone canvassing app that helped get Jeremy Corbyn elected Labour leader twice was repurposed to get supporters on streets.
Momentum wants to go further. There’s talk of developing “an activist training app, giving info about campaigns and links to briefings, and training on how running a board works”, along with other material to demystify campaigning. The carpool initiative could be extended to an AirBnB style spare-beds-for-campaigners scheme. Ideas are everywhere, resources are not. The ‘organising academies’ promised by Corbyn’s leadership campaign could, if created, provide additional direction to such ideas. Campaigning needs to be “radically opened up”, says one Corbyn ally.
Labour’s digital development is on the march, but politics is slow to adapt. The use of census data to target political messaging was around during the build-up to the Second World War, but since then our capacity to hold vast reserves of data has outmatched our ability to use it effectively. Recalcitrance is always present too — in the 1920s, the Tories trialled cinema vans that screened political attack ads in town squares. Labour high command lacked money to do the same, and also lacked will — it patronised working people, argued strategists.
But Labour’s innovative field campaign this time around was stellar — its generals would do well to keep pace with its ground troops.
Do Nielsen’s stats on field operations stand up on damp English lanes? Can even a charismatic campaigner push someone to a polling station? Canvassers acknowledged the work was gruelling at times.
One older man took came down in a stairlift to answer a knock from Huda, a young Labour canvasser from London. He was still waiting for the council to provide much-needed care. Convinced that Corbyn would be “ousted by politicians in suits”, he was considering voting Ukip just to prove Labour should stop “taking people for granted.”
Yet human contact did make a difference. In Copeland people told campaigners they hadn’t been canvassed in a decade. “It’s not always easy to tell, but a lot of them came across as genuinely convinced”, said one organiser.
On the phones at HQ, canvasser Rachel spoke to a man in Stoke who was critical of the local council for cutting services, felt the candidate wasn’t ‘real Labour’ and was thinking about voting Ukip, alongside a woman in Copeland who liked Corbyn but had been told he’d shut Sellafield. Both gave her the time of day.
William, another canvasser, reports an undecided voter with a small child, standing in shorts in the sleet to have a ten-minute conversation. “He started off on Brexit but I was able to move on to migrants being stigmatised and NHS funding. He was willing to listen.”
When doorknocking, the person is the medium. One might expect a less enthusiastic response to someone driven in from elsewhere. But that seems not to have made too great an impact. Even disengaged people do respond to ideas more than is assumed by politicos. It’s been unsettling to watch commentators assume Paul Nuttall was the death knell for Labour in the North simply because of his accent. Identity matters to people, but issues matter too.
The issues in Copeland and Stoke dovetailed. Copeland contains some of England’s poorest wards. Stoke is the 16th most-deprived locality in Britain, with reports of children eating from bins in Fenton.
Grace Blakeley, author of a recent report on transport inequality, argues there’s both a moral and economic case for rebalancing. “The people of Stoke and Copeland deserve their fair share of investment. Whether it’s the strong vote for Brexit in the North, astonishingly low turnout in Stoke or the rejection of the Labour candidate in Copeland, people are voicing their dissatisfaction with a political system that tells them they aren’t worth investing in.”
Stoke’s coal mines, world-renowned ceramics and Shelton steel helped build Britain. That tradition could be modernised, for example through developing applied uses for polymers, ceramics, and composites. Green energy companies already based in Stoke could be expanded, and strategic transport investment could cultivate Stoke’s place at the heart of supply chains, near cities and airports.
Copeland, meanwhile, has one unelectrified railway line connecting it to the world. Heavy industry and agriculture built the stretch of coastline nestled between a choppy Irish Sea and the Lake District’s dramatic fells. From the mountains one can make out the Sellafield nuclear plant that keeps a section of the workforce in stable employment. The Tories were out to prove that Corbyn’s scepticism about nuclear power meant that he would axe the plant (as if it wasn’t 1980s Tories that decimated energy production without retraining workers, and as if Corbyn hadn’t publicly committed to the new Moorside development).
Stoke and Copeland would benefit from Labour’s economic offer — a national investment programme to rebuild ailing regional economies, share wealth and political power across Britain and generate decent, secure jobs alongside tackling extreme poverty (which is now costing £78bn a year. So much for austerity saving money.) But the message is not carrying enough.
Labour therefore focussed on the NHS — a comfort zone, but also a critical pressure point. It publicised Ukip’s views on the NHS in Stoke, and the threat of the Tories downgrading Copeland’s hospital. An activist briefing for canvassers reflected this in five talking points — in order, two on the hospital, two on nuclear jobs, and one on investment-led growth.
Under current plans, a mother who experiences complications during childbirth will be taken by ambulance to Carlisle on a single-lane road used frequently by tractors. Even the Tory MP who felt it was ‘disgusting’ for Labour to quote midwives on leaflets raising the potential risk to babies did not try to claim that the midwives were fabricated.
Brexit was the other big national issue, which Stoke and Copeland both backed. “They saw UKIP leaflets saying that ‘Labour want to keep you in the EU’ and that was easy to argue against”, said a Labour canvasser, “because of the Article 50 whip.” Corbyn’s whip has upset Remain supporters — but it is hoped that shadow justice minister Richard Burgon’s “not the 52% or 48% but 99%” message will catch, and Labour can remain internationalist while respecting the referendum their MPs voted for.
On the other side of the Pennines, a South Yorkshire activist remains worried. She grew up in the lowest-paid corner of Britain, where sweatshop jobs hold the line against unemployment. She agrees respecting the referendum is necessary but insufficient.
“We have little time left of people [in the North] voting Labour because their Mam did”, she says. “We need to build up service sector unions, and raise political education. The impression people have is that we’re full of pretty ideas that we can’t achieve. We’ve already convinced these people that what we want is better, they just don’t think we can achieve it. Concrete policies with thorough explanation, that’d help.”
She adds that “the shift from union-nurtured Labour MPs to Russell Group grads is unhelpful.” A Stoke canvasser put it more bluntly. “People were fucked off with Tristram leaving and doing nothing”, she complains. “The referendum turned people out, but the general election less — people felt they only saw their MP and councillors at elections.” A Labour source on the scene in Copeland is similarly scathing, insisting that negative perceptions about Jeremy in Copeland are not supported by conversations on the doorstep. “People felt left behind”, he adds, “not by some perceived out of touch politicians but by politicians like [Jamie Reed] who abused the majority he inherited in Stoke, being more focused on his personal interests than on the interests of constituents.”
‘They’re only around at elections’ is a popular complaint. Those sceptical of a Labour social movement should remember that issue-based campaigns and social spaces are a key way to keep political culture alive between elections.
Jeremy Corbyn appears to have figured in fewer doorstep conversations than one would expect of a leader. This will concern supporters — they elected someone twice to transform Labour, and there has been insufficient transformation. “Too little, too late”, sums up many doorstep conversations. “The apathy towards Labour was palpable”, complains Huda (a Corbyn supporter) — a view backed up by the Guardian’s tour of Stoke days earlier- “the most frightening part was facing the realities of Labour’s decades of failure to connect with communities that built our party.”
Yet the relative lack of strong feeling about Corbyn will also concern opponents who wish to paint him as an albatross around Labour’s neck. Speculation is rife about a sabotage attempt on Labour’s campaigns. Lord Mandelson admitted to ‘trying to undermine Corbyn every day.’ Tony Blair, who has previously said he would prefer Labour lost under a left platform, launched a bid to fight Brexit midway through by-elections in pro-Leave seats. The timing seems too perfect to be accidental. Meanwhile sensitive polling data was allegedly kept from Corbyn’s aides, and reports circulate of intransigence from parts of the Labour apparat. Language like ‘keep shooting until he’s dead’ remains a feature of anti-Corbyn press briefings, and hardly aid ‘electability’.
While most of Labour is not engaged in scorched-earth tactics (neither the Stoke or Copeland candidates were Corbynites, indicating that the mass mobilisations Momentum is capable of are not transferring to internal selections), those who are wield heavy influence.
By sheer grit and hard work, Labour kept Stoke, but in Copeland the tide was not turned — a tight majority that has been shrinking for several elections finally shrunk beyond control. The lesson is clear. The aspiration to ‘rebuild and transform’ which led the second Corbyn leadership campaign is not yet carrying through to voters. It is paramount that the leadership are allowed a clear path to get that job done. A relentless focus on figurehead politics has replaced a serious conversation about ideas and now helped cost Labour one of the jewels in its crown.
These are people who feel the last Labour government “forgot and ignored” them and have yet to be convinced that Labour’s changed. Fearlessness, conviction and a clean break with the past are necessary for Labour’s leadership to survive both internal and external opposition — along with providing a well-greased machine for the party’s unsung heroes — field campaigners — to manage. Campaigners like filmmaker Alice, who’s just back from a week in Copeland pleading with electors.
““Don’t abandon us yet!” I begged people on the doorstep”, she says.
“And the more I see of Copeland, a place where my family are from and where I’ve been visiting since I was a child, the more I see the enormous potential here.
People are strong, the community looks after each other, huge innovation resides in small pockets, and there is money and intellectual capacity in Sellafield. All this could be harnessed towards creating a new vision for this area — it can be better.”
“It has to be.”