A View from Behind the Front Line

April 17, 2012 12:49 pm

As numerous column inches are currently given to the ongoing electoral battle in London and other key councils across the country, there are also thousands of Labour activists busy campaigning in constituencies (like my own of Harrogate & Knaresborough) not designated “key seats”, and where our Party is not traditionally strong. Are we wrong to be doing this, or does it actually add a valuable extra layer to our Party’s work?

I believe that such campaigning is useful in a number of ways. Ed Miliband has rightly said that there must be no no-go areas for our Party.

Of course, it is vital that activists concentrate their efforts where they are most productive and like many others, I often help in other ‘key seat’ constituencies. However, I have seen many constituencies where members are unwilling or unable to campaign outside their own patch. This may be due to a lack of confidence in knocking on doors in an unfamiliar area, being without transport to and from the nearest key seat or numerous other reasons.

But these activists can still be used. There is, of course, phone canvassing to be done. But the work of these activists in their own locality should not be dismissed either.

In our constituency, we have no councillors, a largely inactive membership beyond a small core and finished a distant third at the general election. Last year, we mounted a local election campaign across the constituency for the first time since the early Blair years and this has led to an increase in activism, especially among a group of new, young and enthusiastic members.

The campaigning we are now embarking on – and that we are establishing as a year round activity – aims to build this increasing local membership further. It will also counter the charge that there’s no point in voting Labour because if we thought we could win then we would make more effort. In time, I hope that we can once again elect Labour councillors in Harrogate and Knaresborough, but must be on guard against those voices tempted to give up because we were unsuccessful after just one proper campaign.

This strategy is grounded in my experiences as a Parliamentary candidate in another seat where Labour is third, Eastleigh in 2005. There we were defending our last few council seats – successfully after a very active campaign. Just as importantly, in discussion with colleagues in nearby Labour held seats, we ran a full and vigorous campaign. This surprised the incumbent Liberal Democrats who had been consistently squeezing the relatively inactive Labour Party vote for many years. In fact, our strategy was so successful that the LibDems pulled activists out of those nearby Labour seats to shore up their vote in Eastleigh. This, in turn, caused the Tories, the nearest challengers, to follow their lead, reducing the campaigning ability of the opposition parties to unseat Labour MPs nearby.

So what’s the moral of all this? Simply this: concentrate on the key seats of course. But don’t forget the work of activists in areas that the news does not focus on, who would also welcome outside support outside election periods.

And if you are an activist in one of those areas and unable to campaign in a key seat for any reason, then don’t sit at home thinking you can’t do anything. Go and work in your area, showing people Labour has no no-go areas and making the other parties work harder for their votes. Or better still – organise some campaigning of your own.

Chris Watt is Chair of Harrogate & Knaresborough Constituency Labour Party

  • http://twitter.com/_DaveTalbot David Talbot

    Excellent.

    Great article Chris, I couldn’t agree more. I have a similar expression in my home constituency of Stratford on Avon. We haven’t had a Councillor since 2003, and are a very distant third in parliamentary elections, so the Lib Dems have become very adept at squeezing our vote.

    But we are a robust local party that has a good record of activism in areas where frankly the Labour party hasn’t bothered with in the past. This resulted in the Labour vote doubling in 2011. This year we are fielding more candidates than the Lib Dems, for the first time ever.

    Activism works. People stop voting for parties when parties no longer show an interest. If we only canvassed and campaigned in areas of  the country where we had historically done well, we’d be secluded in some very isolated pockets.

  • http://twitter.com/_DaveTalbot David Talbot

    Excellent.

    Great article Chris, I couldn’t agree more. I have a similar expression in my home constituency of Stratford on Avon. We haven’t had a Councillor since 2003, and are a very distant third in parliamentary elections, so the Lib Dems have become very adept at squeezing our vote.

    But we are a robust local party that has a good record of activism in areas where frankly the Labour party hasn’t bothered with in the past. This resulted in the Labour vote doubling in 2011. This year we are fielding more candidates than the Lib Dems, for the first time ever.

    Activism works. People stop voting for parties when parties no longer show an interest. If we only canvassed and campaigned in areas of  the country where we had historically done well, we’d be secluded in some very isolated pockets.

  • Redshift

    A well balanced and nuanced article. Good stuff.

  • Colmfinito

    Great stuff. People forget that by hitting them in their heartlands you cause them to retreat and defend. Local politics can be so apolitical that it’s easy for a third party to sneak up on a badly-run council. 

  • Brumanuensis

    The point about ‘no no-go areas’ is spot-on. Labour used to have a pretty good rural vote in parts of the country, such as Norfolk – where Labour held Norfolk North for 25 years after the end of the Second World War – but this has withered away to nothing in recent decades, due in part to the recovery of the Liberals and the decline of agrarian socialism, but also thanks to the sheer absence of anyone urging people to vote Labour.

    I’m glad to hear from David Talbot that Stratford Labour is recovering. At the last general election, when I was part of the desperate fight to hold Warwick and Leamington, the views I heard about Stratford-on-Avon CLP were fairly derogatory. The point here is not that we can reasonably expect to win the seat, but local representation and strength are valuable in their own right and enable us to apply Labour values to seats that might not return Labour MPs to Parliament, but which do have time for us at a local level. The national benefits are also compelling, as we shall be seen as less geographically-limited, less factional and more capable of understanding a broader range of political and social concerns.

    The real enemy has been the dangerous rise in tactical voting. It’s all very gratifying to deny the Tories seats, but in the process we have hollowed out CLPs across the country and destoyed Labour in areas like the non-Bristolian south-west, and most of the south-east. We need to start biting the bullet and accept that in order to progress in the longer-term, we need to start squeezing the Liberals in those areas, even if it means handing over a few seats to the Tories. In the long-run, the benefits of becoming competitive in areas where we are currently absent, will outweigh the short-term pain of seeing new Tory councillors and MPs.

    Anyway, good luck to Chris Watt and the rest of the comrades up in Harrogate and Knaresborough.

    • http://twitter.com/_DaveTalbot David Talbot

      Brumanuensis,

      I’m sorry to hear that the views of neighboring CLPs wasn’t favourable towards Stratford on Avon, but like many rural, affluent safe Conservative seats we suffered terribly badly during the lean years. Our activism disappeared and we could only ever field a half dozen candidates or so at local election times – who would usual get a dreadful share of the vote (I should know, I stood enough times).

      But you are right. Activism in areas where the party isn’t necessarily perceived as strong isn’t a luxury more a necessity. As Chris rightly says above, we of course need to focus on areas where we have and can win. But we are a national party of government. We can’t just keep to the conurbations, which were the only seats we held in the West Midlands last time round.

      Warwick and Leamington Spa is winnable come 2015. Stratford on Avon will have a part to play in that (and Redditch too, as our western fringe borders Jacqui Smith’s old seat). So, it will mean local election candidates every year and, come the general election, activists to W&L.

      • Brumanuensis

        Hi David, I got the impression the put-downs were more in sorrow than anger. I think the fact that we couldn’t draw upon any more local support – due to the weakness of our CLPs, at the time, in Stratford and also Kenilworth and Southam, frustrated some people.  

        The prospects for W&L are hugely dependent upon whether the reduction in seats goes ahead. If yes, W&L is a no-hoper, because we’ll absorb a huge chunk of rural south Warwickshire that will swamp our support in south Leamington and parts of Warwick. If we keep the current boundaries, it’s a shot, but the proposals are even more disadvantageous than those that existed pre-2010 and in 2005 we only won by 266 votes. We also benefited in both instances from a genuinely popular local MP, the excellent James Plaskitt. He won’t be around to boost us in 2015, so I’m doubly sceptical.

        Redditch is more within reach, despite being further away numerically, but again the boundary changes could wreck it for us. I suspect the big targets next time wil be Nuneaton – although the boundary changes there are unhelpful – and North Warwickshire.     

  • Murray Rowlands

    A salute for your article from Surrey Chris.

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