Activism is not enough. We need a clear sense of direction

April 28, 2009 11:36 am

By Andrew Lomas / @andrewlomasCanvassing

To date this year I have been involved in two council by-elections, both of which came about as the result of the untimely deaths of sitting Labour councillors. Both involved great Labour candidates who were local to and passionate about the area and both had past experience of being councillors. Yet despite these superficial similarities, the two by-elections had completely different outcomes.

In Headington Hill and Northway (part of Oxford East) Labour held the seat, increasing their majority by over 100 votes, depriving the Tories of a chance of getting a councillor on the City Council and leaving the Lib Dems languishing in third place (particularly embarrassing since they have the ward’s other seat on the council, winning as recently as 2006).

In Totteridge (a ward in Wycombe, where I’m PPC) on the other hand, Labour slumped from first to third as the Lib Dems simultaneously leap-frogged the Tories in the other direction to take victory.

So, what was so massively different during the course of both campaigns that meant doing so well in Oxford and so poorly in Wycombe?

The first thing to point out is that Oxford East has a Labour MP. This is a fantastic focal point for campaigns because it means regular scheduled voter ID sessions that as a result generates more accurate and up-to-date voter information and gives the party a higher profile locally. In contrast, Wycombe has a sitting Conservative MP and only 3 (now 2) Labour District Councillors.

Secondly, MP or no MP, it comes down to the number of boots you can out on the ground. Introducing yourself as someone from the Oxford Labour Party to members from other parts of the country sometimes leaves you being treated as an alchemist. ‘How do you keep winning elections?’ they inquire, leaning in as if about to be imparted with the wisdom of turning lead into gold. ‘Well, we just speak to people’ comes the reply, to which an expectant ‘And?’ always gets deflated by the response ‘Well, err, that’s it really…’

The problem is though that despite the Oxford model being highly successful it’s also highly labour intensive (pardon the pun) because it doesn’t involve just speaking to lots of people, but speaking to them all regularly. In Headington Hill and Northway, I heard someone estimate that around 60-70 different activists had been involved, with voter ID sessions 6 days a week. I led a couple of the sessions and can give testament to the scale of involvement. However, for large swathes of the country, this level of intensity is simply not feasible. Many party members have just got better things to do with their time. In Wycombe, we were lucky that we had a good party structure; we even managed to use 12-15 people in the course of the campaign, but the problem was that this was limited to 2-3 voter ID sessions a week as this is all the membership could manage.

Thirdly, in Oxford, neither of the opposition candidates were particularly strong whereas the Wycombe Lib Dems put their parliamentary candidate forward, someone who had been vocal and collecting signatures in opposition to the closure of a local swimming pool. Yes, I hear you say; predictable single-issue Lib Dem local campaigning. Predictable it may be: it can also be bloody effective.

Taking a cursory glance at the first two points tells the story that it’s perhaps greater voter contact rates that wins elections. Which as analysis works up until a point. You see, the problem is that there’s a limit to how much high contact rates will achieve on their own (if indeed you even have the activist base to support high intensity campaigning). In 2008 I stood for Oxford City Council and achieved in my ward something like the second or third highest contact rate in Oxford East despite being selected about 3 months later than most of the other candidates and despite regularly canvassing either on my own or with only one other person. Yet, in spite of this I lost (OK, only 4 votes, but the margin makes no difference in the final analysis) to a Lib Dem who made the local swimming pool a campaign issue (and no, the irony of this is not lost on me: it seems that even learning from history leaves me repeating it).

And this is where my third point above comes in. The thing is, it’s perhaps stating the obvious, but issues are important even in local politics. If there are local issues then we shouldn’t be afraid to campaign on them, yet far too often we cede ground to the Lib Dems on this; rest assured, by the time you’ve trod in some dog-mess it’ll already have made it into a Lib Dem leaflet. Taking up local issues isn’t something we should leave to the Lib Dems, because we’re just as rooted in our communities as them. More importantly, it can raise the party’s local profile in ways that takes much less time than knocking on doors.

It’s perhaps difficult to draw all of this together into a coherent sentiment about campaigning, but I suppose the lesson is this. Yes, get out there and talk to voters, but be realistic; Oxford has great successes but it also has a fantastic University Labour Club that campaigns on a regular basis as well as a lot of other activists who are lucky enough to be able to dedicate a significant portion of their time to campaigning. This is not the case in other parts of the country where work/family life rightly takes the lead, or where there is no real abundance of helpful students.

In these parts of the country where we can’t put large numbers of boots on the ground we need to think long and hard about why our membership isn’t turning out to campaign for us. Beyond this, we can’t just rely on existing networks: we need to recruit new people to the party and actually give them reason to come out campaigning regularly. The current fantasy on the centre left of borrowing from Obama’s campaign is exactly that. A fantasy. British and American politics are different beasts, and we need to make participating in the structures of our party more interesting and more importantly, worthwhile, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel.

This is where national issues come in; if we want our members to get out on a regular basis, we need to convince them, and more importantly the broader electorate, that we have ideas for a fourth term that actually spell out how society would change for the better under a Labour government. The apparent abandonment of any attempt to abolish child poverty by 2020 in last week’s budget doesn’t seem like the best start. In which case the final message is this: in the long run voter ID may be essential, but it’s an add-on. It’s certainly no substitute for a sense of direction.

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