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