How Labour suffers from “let’s ignore everyone except the Tories” syndrome

18th February, 2014 9:24 am

The most positive aspect of an altogether very pleasing by-election result in Wythenshawe and Sale East was the way in which Labour dealt with the UKIP threat.

This was a by-election UKIP had been waiting for. After coming second in South Shields and Rotherham they really wanted another mainly white working class, northern Labour seat to fight. The idea was to prove that their anti-politics message could as easily win over angry voters in Labour heartlands as in the parts of the Tory South where they had already made a breakthrough. They threw the kitchen sink at it in terms of resources, deliberately targeted their message at traditionally Labour voters, and viciously attacked Labour.

Labour learned the lessons of other contests though and fought back hard with specifically anti-UKIP messaging. This ensured that whilst UKIP mobilised an anti-Labour tactical vote, it didn’t make inroads into the Labour vote itself. The appointment of Toby Perkins MP as the political lead on the campaign was an important one as he knows how to combat these kinds of non-Tory threats to Labour in our core areas, having won back Chesterfield from the Lib Dems.

Labour hasn’t always been so good at reacting to non-Tory threats. Historically in by-elections we have had a very mixed record. Sometimes, as in the campaigns Tom Watson ran in Birmingham Hodge Hill and Hartlepool, we have been sensible and attacked the emerging non-Tory threat to us hard, and held the seat. Other times, such as in Bradford West with Respect, we have tried to ignore the threat and wish it away, and got soundly beaten for our complacency. On polling day in Bradford, we were issued with Get Out the Vote leaflets that completely ignored the obvious threat from Galloway (his posters and campaign buses were everywhere) and instead attempted, absurdly, to say to the electorate that it was a two-horse race with the Tories. Going back further, Brent East is another example of a by-election lost because we did not directly take on the emerging threat from the Lib Dems.


The “let’s ignore everyone except the Tories” syndrome is also evident in General Elections. At every contest since 1992 MPs and activists have pleaded with HQ to attack the Lib Dems as well as the Tories. And every time they have been ignored. The national party has decided, either through lack of imagination or through a cynical preparedness to lend votes to the Lib Dems (to help their contests against the Tories even at the expense of losing a smaller number of Labour seats to them and depressing our national vote share), not to lay a finger on them. The Lib Dems duly thanked us for our forbearance and acquiescence in tactical voting by forming a coalition with the Tories.

There is a sad pattern that it has usually been left to grassroots activists to develop effective campaigning messaging and responses to deal with non-Tory threats, whether that’s the Lib Dems, the Greens, UKIP, the BNP, Respect, the SNP or Plaid Cymru. Quite often that work has been initiated by John Spellar MP, who has personally set up email networks including “Liberal Demolition” and equivalents for the Greens and UKIP which have monitored the worst excesses of these parties and circulated best practice in terms of leaflets and other material attacking them. It’s ridiculous that an individual MP has had to do this when it should be a function of the party nationally. Similarly seminars at party conference about how to take on the Greens have been organised not by the Labour Party itself but by Progress, with funding from council Labour Groups in areas with a Green challenge.

Now that we have proven in Wythenshawe that Labour can see off UKIP, it is vital that the materials and messaging from the by-election are made available to every CLP, that anti-UKIP template leaflets and direct mail are circulated, and that every CLP is taught how to use the demographic data on the Contact.Creator computer system to identify which types of voters this messaging needs to be targeted at. This need to be done now, because we are only weeks away from European Elections, which are UKIP’s best opportunity of a major breakthrough.

We need to have a national anti-UKIP message supported by targeted materials on the ground to ensure that any UKIP surge is at the expense of the Tories not Labour.

In an era of multi-party politics it is just no good us pretending it is still the 1950s and that voters face a binary choice between Labour and the Tories. We are still churning out leaflets that don’t even mention the Lib Dems being in the coalition, when that is the single transformative fact that has given us the votes that constitute our poll lead.

We need to be able to fight on every front to maximise our vote, giving people positive reasons to vote Labour but also targeted messages giving voters who are susceptible to the appeal of any of the other parties reasons not to vote for them. Wythenshawe showed we can do that in one seat – now we need to do it in 632 seats.

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  • Doug Smith

    “We need to have a national anti-UKIP message”

    This is the challenge.

    Until Labour is able to offer a positive alternative the dependency on localised electoral wheedling (see Kane’s sordid campaign in Wythenshawe) will remain as the only option.

    • treborc1

      You have to smile Progress moaning about UKIP, maybe they are worried it’s one to many Tory parties.

  • Jon Stanley

    I have no read article that more convinces me of how rotten the Labour party has become. Please wake up to the fact that in a democracy, especially for a party that so espouses equality and chastises privilege, you have ABSOLUTELY NO RIGHT to be in office. You do not own a single vote or voting family, not a single seat. Your derision of the right to represent the people treats it as a zero sum game where you win by denigrating your opponent rather than facing up the fact that your policies and culture repulse ever more voters. This is the mindset of an empire in decline. Instead of using your union member’s money to print anti UKIP leaflets (which will offend many union members who DO vote UKIP) wake up to the fact your policies continue to impoverish the poorest in the our country by suppressing wages to the bare minimum, increasing bills with energy taxes and by putting public services in the leg irons of PFI debt and tendering out what is left to corporates….and yes you did plenty of this and no you are not remotely sorry. Attacking your opponents while offering the electorate nothing but a black hole where policy should be is childish, vulgar and extremely offputting. Keep it up comrades, we in UKIP love this approach you;re taking.

    • treborc1

      Did you see the program on TV last night on labour NHS, if any hospital treated more patients then they should or more patients then they did the following year, they had a fine. A doctor stated the idea is to treat less patients so cutting the cost allowing for Bonus payments, if you treated more so costing the NHS more you were fined.

      Labour party and the Progress party for you.

      • Doug Smith

        This highlights the disgraceful aspect of the Kane/Toby Perkins campaign in Wythenshawe.

        Labour made a big issue of supporting Wythenshawe Hospital. But of course, New Labour marketised the NHS and Progress lobbied Gordon Brown, when he was PM, for more privatisation of the NHS.

        These people are prepared to say whatever they think will help them take possession of ministerial limousines, no matter how dishonest.

        Utterly disgraceful.

        • treborc1

          Sadly I bet you will have sod all about this on any of the Progress forums because they are now hoping to dupe people into thinking New labour is dead.

      • JoeDM

        This is the sort of thing that led to thousands of ‘unnecessary deaths’ under the Labour NHS at Mid Staffs (and how many more thousands elsewhere?).

    • littlescrimmage

      As a Labour campaigner in a city where there is lots of support for the Green Party, I agree with the vast majority of what you’re saying. People who generally choose a ‘fourth party’ instead of us generally have had enough of being treated as election units to be pulled and pushed around by self-annointed electoral experts from the major parties.

      They’re right to be annoyed – and ‘attack’ leaflets are generally a lazy substitute for community activity. I can tell you where I campaign we don’t do it like that (mainly because the way you do your politics is as important as the politics itself).

      The bad news for UKIP is that , come an election, it will be you that is regarded as the attack party that comes along at the last minute to harvest votes.

      • Socialismo

        You’re on the ball.

    • Graemeyh

      I see the `kippers are out in force. If you hold such obviously anti Labour views, why come to a Labour party grass roots website? What do you expect to read – articles praising ukip?

      Good article, btw, Luke….Labour need to expose Ukip for what they are – vile.

    • Geedon Bruce

      So there’s UKIP for you: no facts, no knowledge, no history, no insight. Thanks for the reminder of your party’s intrinsic characteristics.

  • Socialismo

    There are two types of Kipper:
    1) People who are xenophobic halcyon chasing anarcho-Capitalists.
    2) People with little wealth or personal capital who are not or do not feel represented by anyone.

    There is a lot of scope to attract members of the second group — as long as people are well informed enough to understand the real sources of problems. And best of all a message, without the bigotry, which attracts those people would be likely to attract many other disenfranchised and disengaged people as well.

    The former group, however… will always be fundamentally opposed to our vision of the world.

    • Doug Smith

      “as long as people are well informed enough to understand the real sources of problems.”

      Why should Labour voters opt to support a party that has led the privatisation of the NHS?

      The better informed people are the less likely they are to vote Progress/Labour.

      • Socialismo

        There’s a lot that Labour needs to apologise for. Most of them are the things Progress are proudest of.

        • Doug Smith

          One may as well opt to support Marshal Petain’s Vichy government because it was ‘better’ than being governed directly by the Nazis.

          Alternatively one could support the Resistance.

          • Socialismo

            They were lucky enough to have a resistance.

            We have nothing; taking the Labour Party back is the only option.

          • Doug Smith

            What! You mean you want to sack Miliband?! Who would you have replace him?

          • Socialismo

            He’s hardly the new messiah, but he is the next Prime Minister. Anyway, I think everyone knows who’s next in line.

          • Doug Smith

            My money’s on Dan Jarvis but I don’t think he’ll ever be Prime Minister.

    • jaime taurosangastre candelas

      Surely your second described group came to UKIP from Labour, or not voting at all. So if you want them to vote Labour, you need to attract them BACK, or AT ALL.

      I do not know if the little microscopic anecdote is worth anything at all. When I shop, I use the local Coop supermarket. One of the ladies who works there signed me up for their Coop card a few years ago. She was very positive about the social aspects of Coop. Now she still works there, but is very positive about UKIP.

  • NT86

    Respect’s only current member capable of getting elected is George Galloway, the Greens’ support is concentrated in selected towns and cities and the BNP is dead.
    But the UKIP effect isn’t so much a case of their lack of MPs but how they’ve managed to set the political agenda outside of Westminster. Labour’s “truth about [insert party]” campaigning is only effective if it’s against parties like the Tories who have long been extinct in the northern post-war council estates and former industrial towns. But many natural Labour voters will be attracted UKIP in spite of such a campaign, because their party (during the New Labour years) let them down badly by doing nothing to restrict immigration as well as toadying up to the EU while crushing any dissent about it. Those voters won’t care much about UKIP’s economic policies because immigration has became such a Leviathan issue that even Labour had to apologise about it last year.

  • markmyword49

    There was a comment on one political programme regarding what was described as right wing Labour supporting working class (the ones similar to those who backed Mosley in the 30s and Powell in the 60s)being the UKIP target voters. Another commentator pointed out that Wythenshawe and Sale has a larger than average population of people employed in “public services” so the UKIP strategy wasn’t likely to work very well. From listening to the UKIP spokespeople I receive the impression that although they were a little disappointed with the result they still believed that they could hoover up a significant percentage of the Labour vote. Those seats where “traditional” heavy industry jobs have disappeared to be replaced by minimum wage and temporary employment with immigrants visibly there. Labour don’t appear to want to talk to that group either face to face or through policy commitments. We’ve heard and seen Miliband and one or two others come up with airy fairy policies that won’t really provide what that group want. Reasonably paid long term employment. Without it they will be looking to cast their votes for “none of the above” or not bothering to vote at all.

  • Charlie_Mansell

    As the chair of a CLP where the LDs and Tories have been strong, I very much welcome this set of suggestions, though I suspect it might be quicker for local activists to ‘crowdsource’ a useful website rather than wait for HQ.. It is clear the article has also stimulated some debate below. The article is definitely not about complacency as it seeks to widen the Labour message to the politically disaffected. ‘Going Negative’ in a campaign is hardly something no-one does. UKIP terms for ‘Brussels Bureaucrats’ tends to be very negative even if they now try to play more ‘cuddly’ at a local level to win over the traditional 10% plus of previously Lib dem protest voters (often a changing group of people on a journey from one party to another and nothing wrong with that I should add). Years ago I contributed text to this article and I still think it sums things up on ‘going negative’:

    • treborc1

      Being disabled I will wait to see what the labour party has for me, bet it not something I will want to hear.

  • robertcp

    I disagree. The Tories are the enemy so far as I am concerned and it does not bother me if a centre-left non-Tory beats the Labour candidate. To be honest, I would have voted Lib Dem in the Brent East by-election, although I would only vote Lib Dem now if Labour stood no chance whatsoever.


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