Back in the south-east and Crawley is my first stop to launch Labour’s Local Election campaign. I have visited Crawley a number of times over the years when Laura Moffett was MP. Laura has gone back to nursing still sporting I presume the tattoo on her ankle with her majority in 2005 of 37. Laura was a good friend and a great MP. With her husband Colin working at Gatwick, their family represented many of the voters who came to us in 1997. We never made enough of that resource within our own ranks. Colin is standing for the Council this year in Broadfield South. Sadly the Moffetts are away on holiday, but the rest of the Crawley Team and I are out in force, campaigning in the heatwave. To kick things off, we have a photo opportunity at Tilgate Park, saved from the Tory Council’s axe by Labour and community groups working together.
Interviews with the local press are dominated by the granny tax, pastygate and jerry cans. I seize my chance to get Chris Oxlade, our 2010 PPC, to buy me a 99 before knocking on doors in Ifield. Walking around it is clear Chris is well known, not just as a radio presenter and through the charity work he supports, but as a local lad. Like so many Labour Teams in the South East with no MPs, local leadership is vital to mobilise members. Chris, Labour Group Leader Cllr Brenda Smith and others are doing just that without the advantage of having an MP or running a Council. Support on the ground from my Parliamentary colleagues provides a real morale boost, but so will a national message that resonates in the South as well as the North.
Leaving Crawley, I headed to Reigate CLP for a Q&A with Party members from Reigate and surrounding areas. Rhys Williams, who is in his 20s, has organised the event and is probably the youngest Chair they have had and the youngest candidate for Redhill East. This is a seat Labour can win and Rhys is fighting for every vote, but it is so important to have Labour candidates on every ballot paper in the South East.
It isn’t easy flying the flag for Labour in a Tory stronghold. Just as it happens in areas where we have a strong elected presence in those where we haven’t, Labour parties can become insular, discussing politics in a vacuum from their own reality in the places they live. But ensuring we play to our strengths in areas where do have support, as well as organising events for members and supporters is still important and can achieve results.
Above all have some fun, unsettle the Tories and Liberal Democrats by campaigning on community issues, expose their incompetence, and never forget the importance of social in socialism. Avoid where you can meetings where new members wonder what the hell they have walked into. My first branch meeting in 1979, was in Twickenham CLP where the item for discussion was how to deselect your Labour MP. Given that the people of Twickenham have never elected a Labour MP, the likelihood of ever needing to deselect one was pretty slim. It might have been a better idea to think about how we could elect a Labour MP in the first place.
The Q&A in Reigate covered many subjects, including an often raised issue as to why we have let the Government get away with blaming Labour for the deficit. There is frustration in Labour ranks on this issue. A long leadership contest (at the time I argued it was too long), and ironclad message discipline in coalition ranks has allowed an unfair accusation to take hold in the public’s mind. Even in his resignation letter Liam Fox managed to get in the accusation that the Labour Government was at the root of the financial crisis and deficit. It isn’t easy on the doorstep, especially in the South East, and it’s unfair because all the parties agreed with levels of public spending up until 2008. But we must win the argument of the future not the past. We have to move the debate forward on to what is happening now because of this Government’s choices and what the future would be like under Labour.
To win wards like Redhill East and seats like Crawley, we have to get our policies right and communicate them in a way that resonates with the public. But we also have to get organised. At the last election, Labour party members, and the leaflets they delivered and the doors they knocked on, made the difference between a hung Parliament and an outright Tory majority. Even in the seats we lost, they stopped the Tories building up big majorities and gave us a fighting chance of winning them back next time. Now we have to make sure we give seats like Crawley the help they need to win in 2015. Many members in the south-east are coming into London to help elect Ken Livingstone as Mayor on May 3rd, even though they have vital elections in their own area. They deserve the same support in return, especially next year when there are no elections in London.
I arrive back at Victoria Station about 2130 and buy a pasty from the West Cornwall Pasty Company which Twitter has been alive with all day following David Cameron’s memory failure. I am told they have sold over 800 and my photo on Twitter proves the Victoria Station outlet exists.
Caroline Flint MP is Labour’s Regional Champion for the south-east