Why Labour can’t afford to neglect the heartlands. And why there’s no such thing as a “safe” seat…

28th January, 2013 7:05 am

“We gave you a big kick in the backside and we’re waiting to see how you respond to it”

– Former Labour voter to a Labour Councillor, Bradford West

The Bradford West by-election was a shock to the system for the whole Labour Party, but perhaps especially for the leadership and the national party. It was a by-election called early (rather than waiting for local election day) in order to bag a comfortable win in a “safe” Labour seat.

How wrong that all was.

At the time we covered the Bradford West by-election (and the subsequent fallout) in painstaking detail, looking at some of the reasons that the campaign had failed. I also asked if there could be another Bradford West. Today that question deserves to be asked again, thanks to a thorough and vital report from Lewis Baston for Democratic Audit, called “The Bradford Earthquake”.

In it Baston covers many of the issues that we discussed at the time, but a few in particular are worthy of further discussion:

Does the central party know what is happening on the ground? That might seem like a cruel and unfair question to ask, but it’s a legitimate one considering the national party clearly had no idea what was going on in the local Labour Party in parts of Bradford (where Baston reports no GC seems to have taken place in the year before the by-election and clan-based rivalries predominated). Accusations have also been made by Bradford residents of corruption and neglect by the local Labour Party, both to Baston and others who have sought to learn the lessons of Bradford West. Either the national party knew and did nothing, or didn’t know. Either is unacceptable.

There’s no such thing as a block vote or a safe seat – Labour thought Bradford was a “safe” seat and would be an easy win – especially with the support of voting blocks in the constituency who were perceived to be loyal to Labour. Hardly anyone went into the Bradford West count expecting anything but a routine Labour win. How wrong the conventional wisdom was. Voters were taken for granted and they took their opportunity to hurt the major parties. Labour cannot rely on the idea that former Labour voters “have nowhere else to go” which often predominates in the party. Local people in Bradford told Baston of a feeling that they had not left Labour but Labour had left them – a sentiment that is echoed in many “safe” Labour seats. If such a sentiment takes hold, it leaves the seat wide open for a charismatic populist from either the hard left or the far right hoovering up Labour votes (if they are seen as a credible alternative).

We need to talk about selections – There was a clear feeling in the local area (and as far as many Bradford Labour members were concerned) that the Bradford West selection was a “stitch up”. Not in the sense that the party machine favoured a particular candidate as such, but certainly that most votes were already locked down for Imran Hussain (the winning candidate) before the selection meeting even started. Essentially the selection, Baston suggests, lacked the support or confidence of either the local party or the community. Labour Party selections aren’t transparent at the best of times (as I have documented on countless occasions) but by-election selections are far, far worse. They should look more like ordinary party selections (albeit with a shorter timetable) and be completely transparent to both members and the public to ensure confidence in the process. At present, no such confidence exists.

In fairness to the party, changes have been announced since the Bradford West debacle (which is now 10 long months ago) that will help mitigate against future Bradford West-esque results. Picking candidates early allows them to establish credibility in the community and hiring organisers means the party campaigns effectively and doesn’t take votes for granted. The community organising model being pushed by Arnie Graf promises to produce much broader party campaigns that exclude fewer and appeal to the less overtly party political.

Yet there is still much to learn from Bradford West. Arguing that this one particular seat was an anomaly is a cop out (for starters, Bethnal Green and Bow was meant to be an anomaly too. Two anomalies is the beginning of a pattern).

Allowing moribund local parties to fester (and worse, neglecting local communities) is playing with electoral dynamite. The Labour Party cannot merely assume that the electorate will stay with us through hell, high water and coalition governments. Moribund local parties feed into a sense that Labour doesn’t care, and in many (often Northern and urban) seats such a failure could lead to other significant swings away from Labour to credible, alternative populists.

Baston’s report should be essential reading for anyone in the party who wants to understand why a disengaged electorate can turn their backs on disengaged parties who they feel have overlooked their needs. It should be on the desks of General Secretary Iain McNicol, Campaign chief Tom Watson and Ed Miliband today. Whatever changes are being made internally, the party can’t afford any more shocks like Bradford West again – either politically, organisationally or morally. We can never again afford to neglect voters and communities in our heartlands like Labour did in Bradford.

Or we’ll have many more Bradford Wests on our hands.

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  • Redshift1

    Truth is that to change this we’d need a hell of a lot more paid organisers. The only way I can see of funding that is for MPs to cough up say 10k of their salary each (extra organiser per two parliamentary seats with a contribution of a couple of k per year from local parties).

    Local parties outside London don’t have the money to employ off their own backs, except for a few months in the run-up to elections. That doesn’t deal with any entrenched problems in CLPs on a campaign level or otherwise.

  • Chilbaldi

    ” Picking candidates early allows them to establish credibility in the community and hiring organisers means the party campaigns effectively and doesn’t take votes for granted.”

    This doesn’t really apply to Bradford West though does it?

    a. it was a by-election, so the candidate had to be chosen at short notice

    b. for a supposedly ‘safe’ seat like Bradford West, when the local party can choose the next candidate is down to the sitting Labour MP and when he/she chooses to stand down. They might do this 3 years before an election, they might do it a week before the short campaign (if party HQ wants to parachute someone into the seat).

    • Redshift1

      Organisers would help though. If we built a robust campaigning organisation in every CLP, then we’d be less in panic-mode when a by-election gets called. Thing is, our organisers are too thinly spread and the only realistic source of extra finance in the short-medium term is levying MPs more.

  • aracataca

    Isn’t Mark constructing paper tigers here? Is anybody actually saying that we should neglect our heartlands?
    If an ethos of ‘neglecting our heartlands’ has evolved within the party it is because the central party in the New Labour years and before came to realise that if we don’t win seats like Hastings or Harlow then we don’t win general elections. The party has to somehow reconcile these two tricky projects, (which we kind of did in the New Labour years), namely on the one hand revitalising our heartlands and on the other working to the point of exhaustion seats like Stevenage in order to win power.

  • I’m a Bradford West voter and I voted for Galloway. I’m surprised it wasn’t more than a 10k majority.

    Stop sending us rubbish and put up some proper candidates. Just because you can usually count on us to go red at elections does not mean you can ignore us the rest of the time.

    Have you been to Bradford? No. We’re really struggling and we expect the Labour Party to help us, not turn a blind eye.

    I note with dismay that Bradford West is not being targeted by Labour in their 106 document. Why? Nobody who can beat Gorgeous George or no-one brave enough or, it seems increasingly to us, is there no point in Labour fighting a bloody battle as Galloway’ll do a runner in an election or two’s time and then you can have the seat back? Apathy, ignorance or fear?

    The Labour government presided over decline in Bradford; now,in opposition, it sits idly by.

    Show us you mean business and Bradford will turf Gorgeous George out at a moment’s notice, but send the same dross and you’ll get what you deserve – another spanking – because, as much as I think Galloway’s not meeting his potential and, at times, is damaging to the city, I’d rather have somebody than nobody, and Labour’s sending us do-nothing nobodies.

    • AlanGiles

      Certainly I think Labour needs to stop taking it’s core vote for granted, and that means real policies and real opposition, not meekly suggesting modifications to current Coalition policies. It also needs more than keep repeating the “one nation” claptrap, which they cannot deliver anyway (nobody ever has), and it cannot just wait for Crudas to come out with his final report, at the same time as keeping underperforming shadow cabinet members.

      It appears to many people Labour automatically think they will win the election by default as the Coalition is so crass, but they need to prove they have the energy, enthusiasm and sincerity to learn from past mistakes. Keeping people like Liam Byrne as shadow DWP spokesman tends to contradict that. “Business as usual” I expect, for all Miliband’s fine words.

      • Chilbaldi

        Quite Alan. I am shocked at the complacency in the party ahead of the next election – epitomised by the attitude of Polly Toynbee etc.

        • NT86

          I’d personally not listen to ridiculous tribalists like Polly Toynbee.

          • Chilbaldi

            I don’t think Toynbee is tribal so much as foolish. Someone took a magnet to her political compass some time ago.

          • Her evolution from SDP to Labour lefty is unusual.

          • Not really, I’d say I am more left wing now than I was then. I had some sympathies with the SDP because of the Europe issue though I never joined

    • Redshift1

      Why not join and help us change it?

      • If joining could change it I wouldn’t have resigned – members are treated with contempt by Labour’s elite.

        • Well, it isnt going to change with that attitude, is it? So what is your solution? Vote for someone else and let the Tories in?

          The answer is to get in and change things – thats why we want to elect politicians who share our values – to change things, because selling copies of “Socialist Worker” outside the station is never going to work

          • Please don’t pull that stunt and associate me with the docile paper sellers of undemocratic Marxist/Leninist/Trotskyist sects – the antics of these sects, with their stitch-ups, top-down chains of command and the resultant self-perpetuating elites, very closely resembles the management processes of Labour – which I oppose.

            “let the Tories in”? Not me mate, it’s Labour’s own disregard for ordinary people and its members that lets the Tories, and others, in – hence Bradford West.

            Why support a party that is home to MPs like Blunkett, currently on a rolling£49,500 Murdoch contract and campaigning against press regulation. Or David Miliband who, as an MP, can earn £25,000 a day on the international circuit, for talking at a meeting?

            Support Labour? Sorry mate, I can’t afford an MP. What I need is a democratic, accountable and transparent political party that’s prepared to represent the interests of ordinary people.

          • Redshift1

            You do have a very understandable position here but ultimately what is going to be more likely – starting a party from scratch, with no connection to the trade union movement, coop movement, etc OR working for change within the Labour Party.

            A group of 3 people can change the nature of most Labour Party branches. A group of 5-10 can change the nature of most CLPs. I actually think if you put your mind to it you could completely alter the party in your local area, making it more open and democratic, which would have a knock-on to what parliamentary candidate is selected, who ends up as councillors, etc.

            The Rotherham selection was awful. Clearly something went wrong in Bradford West too. By-elections are more susceptible to stitch-ups though. I think others (except where a Labour MP is restanding – incredibly hard to deselect) are actually fairly open to party members to influence if they organise.

  • reformist lickspittle

    It is an excellent report, and one has no desire to appear complacent.

    But the bottom line is – Bradford West was a freak (as subsequent by-elections have, indeed, demonstrated) It could only have been done by one man – and even that person can only do it in a handful of seats (maybe just the two he has now won)

    Has anything been done since to try and sort the BW CLP out??

  • kb32904

    Labour could do a fair bit to help themselves. I emailed thought the official party website but didn’t get a reply for 7 weeks !! Not even an auto-responder acknowledgment ! What kind of message does that send out ? Certainly not one that suggests the party are interested in the thoughts of the public that’s for sure.

    Labour need to become much more vocal in their efforts to gain the votes of the many that are unsure what the message is. I see on the party website the story about the ‘toddler tax’ yet Stephen Twigg is nowhere to be seen !

    Lets hear our MPs shouting out about Labour policies and then maybe the CLPs and the public would have more confidence.

    • Gabrielle

      I emailed the official party website but didn’t get a reply for 7 weeks !! Not even an auto-responder acknowledgment ! What kind of message does that send out ? Certainly not one that suggests the party are interested in the thoughts of the public that’s for sure.

      Perhaps that was when Luke Bozier was still running it – before he defected to the Tories and went off into the sunset with Louise Mensch (and then got into a lot of trouble).

      Seriously, the party really need to get their act together if it’s still as bad as that. Agree with your other points as well.

  • labourmatters

    We do have safe seats but arguing against complacency is still wise. Of more concern to me is that the 106 additional target seats for 2015 do not seem to have been audited for their ability to fight and win a dog fight. The same can be said for some of the ultra-marginals which we could easily lose while concentrating on the 106. The debate about targeting (good or bad) is long since dead, I hope.

  • MarkHoulbrook

    I find myself agreeing with Mark Ferguson on this. It is rather poignant that this article is now raised. It would be an appropriate time for Eagle, Cruddas amd Watson to take serious note and consider the consequences of ignorance. Doncaster which of course is a Labour heartland has a English Democrat Mayor. Alarm bells should have been ringing 4 years ago in Yorkshire. Bradford is a symptom of whats wrong with Labour.

    Refounding Labour isn’t working. One nation Labour is just orwellian double speak for NEW LABOUR. It just isn’t cutting through to the party. It is not cutting through to the mainstream.

    If you ask the majority of Labour members, voters and supporters their view on involvement in the policy review process. They look at you blank. Probably because grassroots are not being involved. Probably because the political elite are not interested in anything that is not in the interests of themselves. “Your Britain” is just another avenue of people doing very little from their armchairs and running Labour through virtual reality. Remember virtual reality Mr Cruddas.
    The people elect. The people have the ideas. Its the people from which ideas be formed. Not more of the same Labour contributors. Involving Labour Party members is very important but you will not win an election by the party talking to itself. You have to talk to the people. The truth is most CLPs dont want to talk to anybody outside the small circle of the MPs office

    The shadow cabinet are further away and more distant from the mainstream than it was under new Labour. And that is distant, CLPs are controlled top down from the MPs office. That is a serious issue for democratic involvement in the party.

    The selections procedure is a joke. They are simply social engineering the party into the party of positive discrimination whose candidates have no relationship with they community they wish to represent.

    If the party wishes to preach Equality, professionalism and the works to society it must practice the same internally. It must come into line with the legislation it subjects and invents on society. Selections procedures must be transparent, open to scrutiny, provide good assessment feedback. The candidate must be right for the community it serves. Primaries are the key. Every parish councillor, local government councillor, Member of Parliament and Mayoral candidates must be up for re-election every five years and not just given the nod from ward branches for the same candidates year after year, term after term.

    Now tell me Refounding Labour and One Nation Labour is working.

    Are you really listening or will we have several Bradford moments which will cement Labour into opposition for another five years. SMART!
    Good article Mark

  • uglyfatbloke

    It’s not just about neglecting heartlands, it is also about neglecting the people who would vote Labour if the issues that they care about were actually addressed….Trident, democratic reform, expenses cheats, pursuing dodgy wars, persecuting cannabis users (especially the sick and infirm), abolishing the ‘Lords’, casual corruption, nepotism and incompetence in local government.
    Just because the other parties are crap on these matters is not an excuse for Labour.

  • Charlie_Mansell

    It’s a very good report and well worth reading. As well all the points Mark makes we should also note.

    1. The collapse in the Tory vote. Some Tory voters realised they could ‘stop Labour’ and did so even if it meant going for Galloway. This is important to note in seats where Labour is challenging the Lib Dems. We should work on the assumption that over two-thirds of the Tory vote will collapse to that ‘nice Coalition Lib Dem’ in those seats.

    2. The Local Government results in Bradford, though bad were much better than the by-election, showing the importance of our Council candidates in engaging in the public. My own view is that 10% of our 5,000 Principal authority Councillors could be trained up in community organising skills and that each Labour Group should have an ‘organising team’ with a full set of skills that can act as a permanent local core to supplement what is going on in CLP’s, bearing in mind turnover of young community organisers in local areas (BTW has Movement for Change done any ;sustainability monitoring to see if organisers are still in an area, work is continuing and knowledge is being locally cascaded?)

    There are also past situations we should draw from. Lincoln in the mid 70’s, Glasgow Hillhead in the mid 80’s (ironic for those who know who the successful Labour candidate was in 1987!!) and Bethnal Green in 2010. to see how we came back from bad results. We should also explore where we don’t come back. Southwark and Bermondsey 1983 to present being the best example.

  • NT86

    Who apart from a small section of disenfranchised Muslim voters opt for Respect (must be noted that Muslims still overwhelmingly vote Labour, though a number of them switched to the Lib Dems in 2010)? Show me where they’ve done well in a white working class Labour seat or even an upper middle class Tory seat. Respect will be rejected again just as when Rushanara Ali took Bethnal Green and Bow back for Labour. Unlike Caroline Lucas for the Greens, Galloway’s shoddy record as a local MP and voting record/attendance in Parliament in shoddy. Ms Lucas on the other hand is known to work hard and seems to engage with members of all parties.

    There’s probably more of a threat coming from UKIP at this stage in Labour heartlands. So this perhaps ties in with Labour’s somewhat misguided decision to rule out a referendum for now.

    • reformist lickspittle

      Actually, the big switch of Muslim voters to the Libdems was in 2005 (post the Iraq war) Quite a few returned to Labour – against the national trend – last time.

    • But Galloway does have a high profile and he has gained something of a reputation for being an expert defender of the Palestinian people. It might seem odd but to many Muslim voters in somewhere like Bradford that is an issue

  • robertcp

    I suspect that many Labour voters are anti-Tory rather than pro-Labour. They will quite happily vote Respect, Green or Lib Dem (before 2010) if they can do so safely without letting in the Tory. We should also remember that Labour has spent much of the last 30 years alienating Labour supporters, for example, Simon Hughes won because Labour was too left-wing and George Galloway won because Labour was too right-wing.

    Safe seats are actually an inevitable result of the first past the post system. Labour is sensible to concentrate on marginal seats even if they lose one or two safe seats to other left of centre candidates.

  • AlanGiles

    If Labour want to avoid more “massive kicks up the backside”, they should make an immediate – and genuine – pledge, to purge the country of these organisations:


    We have already had the scandal of A4E and ATOS (who of course Labour were guilty of employing in the first place). Now this shower. many parts of Scotland and the North of England face especially grave unemployment problems – do they really need scum like this inflicted on them by westminster?

    Can we expect a promise today that such trash will be removed from the scene?. With Byrne “in charge” so to speak, I won’t be holding my breath….

  • I think that Marsha Singh was a very popular local MP and when he started to fall ill, the ‘clans’ began to take over. I was in the area the week before and discounted the overwhelming presence of Galloway stickers and posters – wrongly.

  • I think that Marsha Singh was a very popular local MP and when he started to fall ill, the ‘clans’ began to take over. I was in the area the week before and discounted the overwhelming presence of Galloway stickers and posters – wrongly.


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