10 lessons for Labour from the PCC elections

19th November, 2012 11:09 am

I wrote about my initial thoughts on the Humberside PCC election for the Huffington Post – but I thought it would be good to share ten important lessons about the campaign which may help in our approach to the European elections in 2014 and the General Election in 2015.

1. Mixed messages don’t help
The biggest winner on Thursday didn’t need second preferences. It was apathy and ignorance, which won more than 80% of the vote across the country. Labour reflected this sentiment by saying the elections weren’t needed and we could have spent the cost on saving 3,000 police posts. Whilst it was right to say this early on in the year, it wasn’t a great get out the vote message. Time and again we heard from solid Labour voters that they weren’t convinced by the role and didn’t want to condone a Tory policy. Personally I think we should have fought more on cuts to frontline policing police privatisation and the defence of Labour’s ‘tough on crime tough on the causes of crime’ record – we cut crime by more than 40%. However, the party was probably right not to turn it into referendum on all public sector cuts – a low turnout would have let the Tories say Labour had lost it. Tricky one.

2. Corby is just one seat in parliament
All PCC campaign teams knew how important Corby was to the leadership. None of us moaned – it was a bell weather seat. But it is just one parliamentary seat representing 70,000 people. The PCC elections effected 37 million people and it’s important to have Labour commissioners in areas with large amounts of marginal parliamentary seats. They’re a good building block for success in 2015 and will allow Labour to claim success in tackling crime in those areas.

3. People like independents
Twelve of the 41 seats went to independents and Humberside came very close to having one in former Chief Superintendent Paul Davison. He missed out by only 634 votes from knocking out the eventual Tory winner in the first round. I’d estimate he also spent less than £10,000 (including his saved £5,000 deposit). I’d say a third of the electorate who voted, didn’t want politicians. So who did Paul do so well? Well….

4. TV debates work
Paul Davison was an unknown in the election until the TV debate. Sampling of postal ballots showed he was barely getting 10% across the region. That was until he appeared with all the other candidates in a debate on local BBC television. A chat with a Tory rival confirmed this. He’d looked at ballot boxes in the same area – one received the Leeds Look North show, the other the Hull Look North programme that aired the debate. The former saw no visible increase for Davison, the latter saw a massive improvement. The lesson is if you perform well in TV debates and you keep hammering an appealing message of keeping politics out of policing, you will do well. Speaking of postal ballots….

5. Postal Ballots rule!
Nearly a third of the total vote for the Humberside PCC elections came from postal ballots. It helps to get a lot of votes in the bank and protects candidates from any possible mistakes in the final week. For example, Labour and UKIP did very well in getting a sizeable percentage of their core vote in. In low turnouts at the ballot box, this really helps. The TV debate didn’t really help UKIP’s Godfrey Bloom and as a result a lot of his vote drained away on polling day. I believe UKIP were turning into the real challenger and stood a very good chance of winning as they had the best amount of second preferences. Which means all parties need to…

6. Deal with UKIP
In Humberside (actually East Yorkshire and Northern Lincolnshire to be precise) UKIP are now the third party in terms of popular support with 16% of the vote and 21,484 votes – nearly twice as many as the Lib Dems. In fact in North East Lincolnshire – Grimsby and Cleethorpes – they came second in the PCC election. That’s because they take votes from Tory and traditional C2DE1 Labour voters. All parties need to develop strategies in dealing with UKIP. That means shining the light of transparency on their policies and their conduct. If One Nation Labour is to succeed, it must analyse why a lot of our vote in our solid areas are voting for them and tackle it fast.

7. Leaflet or die
Unlike parliamentary and European elections, candidates received no freepost. And the PCC areas were massive – ten times the size of parliamentary seats. In Humberside, there were 688,000 potential voters. Everything from printing leaflets to delivery had to be done through donations and volunteers as Labour PCCs received little or no central funding. (Though candidates did receive fantastic support from the regional offices – Yorkshire and Humber’s regional organiser Tom Wrigglesworth was exceptional). Some candidates had to find at least £25,000 to put out 250,000 leaflets – barely covering a third of all electors. It will be interesting to see how much the Tories spent. Time and again people would tell us on phone banks that because they hadn’t received a leaflet, they felt the candidate didn’t care. If we’d received freepost I’m convinced overall turnout would have crept up from 19.5% in Humberside to more than 30%.

8.Better links with the unions
Whilst Unison sent out emails and gave us a poster van, I still think all unions missed a trick from not linking up its anti-police privatisation stance with Labour. They could have run a national campaign on the issue that would have set the agenda for this election and added a good 5% to each Labour candidate’s share of the vote.

9. Going Negative works
The Tory, Lib Dem and UKIP candidates all campaigned relentlessly on a Stop Prescott ticket. None offered viable policies. And John was also the only PCC candidate to be hammered in the press by The Sun and Dominic Lawson in the Independent and Daily Mail. This was revenge for John’s support for Leveson and his crusade against phone hacking. So in this tight Tory marginal – the Conservatives had more than 24,000 vote notional majority which we overhauled to a Labour majority of 3,847 on first preferences with an 8.1% swing – negative campaigning certainly had an impact.

10. SV doesn’t help Labour
We always knew John was a marmite candidate. You loved him or hated him. But in spite of pulling over a lot of traditional Tory votes, especially in the Conservative dominated East Riding, under the supplementary vote system, candidates need to appeal to an even wider audience. They need to be more vanilla and uncontroversial. As I said we won on first past the post, but just lost by 2,231 votes on SV. And only 15% of second preferences effected the final result. That’s why I supported No2AV and AV was comprehensively defeated in the referendum. If only we had a fraction of the Government money they spent on that campaign!

In conclusion, the good news is we now have 13 Labour PCCs responsible for tacking crime in key electoral battlegrounds such as the West Midlands, West Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire.

So let’s learn from this and make sure the Euro elections and local elections in 2014 are the springboard to General Election success in 2015. It’s all about preparation, turnout and good hard work.

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  • These are all reasonable points, except for the last one: which is not inaccurate – SV did not help Labour – but which draws the wrong conclusions. Labour did poorly in general out of SV because we still have sufficiently appealed to centrist voters. For instance, polling shows that the majority of the remaining Lib Dem supporters still have very little in common in terms of values with the Tory Party despite the coalition, yet we do not seem to be able to win those voters over as a second choice.

    This is one of the reasons we took such heavy punishment in the Scottish elections last year – then voters had an alternative non-Tory choice that was not Labour and opted for it in droves. Too many people in the party wanted to pretend that was just a Scottish problem and were unwilling to examine the deeper reasons.

    Complaining that SV requires candidates to “appeal to an even wider audience” sounds quite like demanding there is no compromise with the electorate.

    More generally I think we need to face up to the fact that complaining about the Tories and urging voters to use their ballot to punish them is not going to be enough to win: it does not grow the Labour electorate significantly beyond where we were from the second the Lib Dems made their fateful decision to sign the coalition agreement.

    Again, we should learn from Scotland. Johann Lamont’s speech about the hard fiscal choices Scotland faces was seen by the SNP as a mortal self-inflicted blow on Labour. In fact it has demonstrated to the voters that Scottish Labour is serious about the future and not afraid to engage the voters in a grown up debate.

    Labour’s endless negativity about the PCCs – however justified – left the impression that we were an anti-reform party and as David says, did little to drive even strongly identifying Labour voters to the polls.

    Looking ahead: in 1999, 2004 and 2009 we fought European election campaigns where we seemed to be embarrassed to even mention Europe (in contrast to 1994) – the PCC polls show we would be making a mistake to try that again, tempting as some might feel it is given the vituperation of UKIP, the Tories and the press about Europe.

  • Lord Prescott lost because he and the party overestimated the impact his “celebrity” status would have upon the community he sought to serve. But he is not Boris Johnson and does not have a network of well-placed buddies in the media and elsewhere to boost his image and appeal.

    While his stance on Leveson might have stirred certain enmities, his record in New Labour was probably more relevant to the majority of those who failed to vote for him.

  • Colin Challen

    A word of caution – I don’t think we should carry on saying apathy was the winner. There is a solid 30 to 40 per cent of the electorate in some parts of the country who will come out and vote rain or shine in local elections. I believe many of them consciously decided to stay away. That is not apathy.

  • Redshift1

    I think the lesson is more effective voter mobilisation.

    Yes it was always going to be a low turnout election and I think your first point is particularly pertinent BUT I’d say a few other things:-

    1) Low Turnout elections in particular make postal voters all the more powerful. Not only do we need to sign up our supporters to postal votes, we absolutely need effective GOTPV operations. Hard over such large areas but it CANNOT be ignored in elections like this, Euro elections, and indeed local elections (in the latter case far easier to target of course).

    2) We have far more feet on the ground than the Tories, but nowhere near what we need. The lack of freepost was particularly relevant because none of the parties had the capacity to deliver as much literature as they wanted to. Whilst generally the lack of a freepost harmed us more than the Tories because suppressing turnout disproportionately harms the Labour vote, in areas where we were very well organised this back-fired on the Tories because we delivered leaflets, talked to people on the doorstep, etc and they didn’t – meaning even some fairly solid Tory voters switched to us. The problem is making this the case everywhere.

    3) A lot of our members, councillors, etc refused to campaign because of a catalogue of reasons. They opposed the elections themselves (I guess in a similar way to Labour voters who spoilt instead of casting their usual labour vote), the cold weather and sadly in some cases general fecklessness. In many areas, we saw a regurgitation of arguments we thought we’d laid to rest. Getting out there improves our vote and also gives us better data to target with in future, so you can’t sit back because it isn’t you who’s up for election this time.

  • One lesson and one lesson alone, do not allow over-the-hill 70year old plus politicians to run, tell ’em the obvious, ‘Your time is past, let someone else have go now’

  • I don’t think we are stressing the “Independents win” argument enough; the two overwhelming reasons we found people did not vote were that they didn’t know who to vote for – as David says, leafletting an entire Police Authority area with volunteers was next to impossible, especially in November when it’s seriously too cold for many older volunteers (and people like myself who have a disability that is exacerbated by cold weather), but the overwhelming message was that a vote for any political party was politicising the police which people objected to. We failed in Staffordshire largely because of Stoke’s traditional apathy (lowest turnout in the country of under 10% despite focussing most of our efforts on the City), but we only ended up with a Conservative because no Independent stood (despite a former senior Staffordshire officer getting elected in neighbouring West Mercia). Had he, or another Independent stood, I am utterly convinced that s/he would have been overwhelmingly successful.

    And a ringing cheer from me for David’s comments about SV; whatever the anoraks may think people want to vote by FPTP, any other system is alien to them. If we ignore that we will just keep handing power to fringe Party’s like UKIP and whatever replaces the now mortally wounded BNP, and Independents.

    As a final thought, given the lack of enthusiasm for PCCs – caused by a combination of apathy and not wanting to politicise the police – we should immediately pledge to include their abolition (along with the abhorrent Elected Mayors) in our next Manifesto.

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