If Miliband wants to win “the big argument” he’ll need to enthuse electorate and activists alike

5th January, 2015 8:38 am

Miliband devolution Leeds

This morning Ed Miliband will speak at a rally in Manchester on what he says is “day one of our general election campaign”. Whilst technically he’s right (it’s the first day back at work in 2015 for many Labour staffers and activists), things have been on a steady election footing for some time now. There doesn’t feel like the sudden big bang of election campaigns we’ve seen before. Instead the fixed-term Parliament has turned the whole campaign into the political version of a slow cook – a consistent, drawn-out, low heat.

But today Miliband wants to refocus and amplify Labour’s message, and in particular he wants to talk about what he calls “the big argument” or “the big question” – who does the country work for? Is it the well-connected and the well-off? Those who have benefitted from cuts to the top rate of tax and spiralling property prices? Or is it the vast majority of the British people, for whom getting by and getting a home to call their own has become an greater struggle in recent years?

The Labour leader will talk – as he has done increasingly in recent months – about the NHS. It’s often seen as the party’s comfort blanket, but Miliband clearly believes that it can reap dividends for the Labour Party (as long as the party can avoid looking defensive, as Marcus Roberts and I warned last week). And of course the economy – and the deficit – will play a part in Miliband’s speech too. Talking about Labour’s implementation of cuts will stick in the craw for many Labour supporters – but on a day when the Tories are going to make (false) claims about Labour’s spending commitments, there’s not really much alternative.

Perhaps the most striking part of Miliband’s speech today though is his announcement that Labour will have four million doorstep conversations over the next four months as it attempts to win the general election on the ground. Whilst (again as Marcus Roberts and I warned last week) Labour must recognise that door-knocking isn’t a panacea and that “air cover” must still be provided for the party’s activists, it’s positive to see Labour figures acknowledging the importance of members and activists in this fight.

Yet as I wrote on Saturday, that the Labour leadership’ plans to run a campaign based around members begs some pretty serious questions:

“why did the leadership turn it’s back on Arnie Graf and the organising model he was using to increase capacity in key seats (and build trust with the electorate at the same time)? Why did the party not replace the Executive Director for members when he moved on? And does the party really believe that it currently has a plan for government that will enthuse activists enough to give up whole weeks of their time to campaign in key seats ahead of May? Is what we’re offering so far going to get activists leaping out of bed with excitement?”

It’s hard not to imagine what might have been possible for Labour in this campaign had the community organising model been properly embraced. For starters, the membership mobilisation (and recruitment) that’s inherent in this model would mean we’d have more members (and more engaged members) knocking on doors in these final months. Instead the focus has been on voter id targets in key seats – as an ex-organiser I appreciate this can be effective, but it’s even more effective if you have the volunteers to engage with those millions of potential voters on election day – rather than conversations that seek to engage or persuade. And as much as I’d like to see Arnie Graf return to the UK in the coming weeks, he’d only be able to do a limited amount now – the campaign will have to work with the volunteers that we have, rather than those we might have had.

That said, four million contacts made in four months (almost double the number made in 2010) is still an impressive target, and a testament to what one senior Labour figure described to me as “the best field operation that we’ve ever had”. That’s a testament to the near 100 organisers in key seats (and other organising staff across the country) who were hired early on at the behest of the party’s General Secretary Iain McNicol. (Just don’t call them “community organisers”, because that’s not really what their jobs are -we’re talking canvassing, election-winning organisers in the 2010 mould here, on the whole).

Miliband will say in his speech today that Labour will offer hope in the months ahead. That’s the right way to frame this election, but it’ll need Labour to genuinely offer a hopeful and positive vision for a better Britain, rather than just talking about hope. The people Labour needs to support us in May will want to see a Britain that they can buy into and which works for them. And Labour activists – who it seems will be asked to haul the party over the line in May – will want to see that vision of a better Britain too, but they’ll also want to see properly resourced local campaigns, local autonomy in terms of campaigning as well as politics and policies that genuinely enthuse them enough to bound onto the doorsteps with enthusiasm.

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  • Michael Murray

    In my view it all boils down to whether we want to marginally increase our national share of the vote or whether we want to pass the winning post. You could put a dead sheep up for election in my constituency and it would win because all the Tories would vote for it. We should be acknowledging that there are plenty of seats that we are never going to win and encouraging our activists there to campaign in the nearby target seats. The key to passing the winning post has always been knocking on doors in key and target seats combined with a blanket blame attack. And let’s have another pledge card with real pledges on it that will give people hope. One of those pledges should be to scrap the right to buy council homes and build a million more council homes in the course of the next parliament.

    • barry

      Scrapping the right to buy council homes is a vote loser. And if we commit to build one million council homes, how will we pay for this? The problem isn’t specific policy. It’s that we have a message that “everything is disastrous” allied to an unrealistic aim of “taming” markets and producing a miraculous rise in living standards. A downbeat, unaspirational approach isn’t going to attract votes. Realism and reassurance is what the electorate want rather than making even more wild claims about unattainable goals.

      • Michael Murray

        The scrapping of the right to buy the state housing stock by Johnny cum lately fast buck Thatcherites would be a vote winner if we replaced it with “Rent to Buy’ in which if you rented a council home it would be yours after 25 years, I don’t call that unaspirational . Not committing to specific policies is the wrong strategy because it is by our specific socialist policies and by dumping the Blairite Tory Lite that the electorate will know that we are realistic and be reassured that we are working in their interests and not the interests of the spivs and businessmen. And why shouldn’t we say that everything is disastrous under the Tories and their Lib Dem stooges when it patently is? If we can afford the White elephant of HS2 we can certainly afford a million council homes.

        • ColinAdkins

          I can see Rent to Buy would be attractive to those fortunate enough to get a Council property but what about those who taxes will pay for it? In time they will be paying inflated rent to Rent to Buy to Rent owners knowing that they have no opportunity to be in their landlords favourable postion because Council homes have been Rent to Buy and the stock is depleted. Unless of course I have missed something.

      • MikeHomfray

        ‘Aspiration’ is always used by those who think we are about to get the once-only voters of 97 back. We are not, so lets not waste time trying. I think building council houses is a collective aspiration which will help millions of individuals. And unless markets are tamed, we can do nothing. Indeed, ‘realism and reassurance’ is exactly what the coalition have been selling. You’re in the wrong party.

        • barry

          Don’t think I’ll be handing my party card in yet Mike. It’s rather strange to be asked to leave a party when you are supporting its policy and approach. It’s not Labour Party policy to build one million council houses in the next Parliament. And as for realism and reassurance – just read any of the two Eds recent speeeches and interviews. They’re all about reassurance, policies which are carefully costed, keeping to the centre etc. You have a desire for a “phantom ” set of policies, ones that are far to the left of where we actually stand and then say that anyone who actually supports party policy isn’t a proper socialist and should leave the party. Quite takes me back to the days of Militant!

      • Dave Postles

        The electorate? Collective personal debt stands at 130% (admittedly reduced from the commanding heights of 175%). There was a binge of credit-fuelled purchases in the last quarter. Compare that with the national debt. We can afford to borrow to invest – not just in housebuilding but in infrastructure and R&D in general. We are not even anywhere near the ‘magical’ 90% of GDP of Rogoff and Reinhart. Assurance is expanding the economy through investment.

  • ButcombeMan

    Doorstep conversations are not suddenly going to give Ed Balls economic credibility.

    • Danny

      Four and a half years in number 11 Downing Street hasn’t given Osborne it either.

      • ButcombeMan

        Nope, a plague on them both.

        But the big problem for Labour economic credibility is Ed Balls.

        Labour will be on the economic defensive until he is moved on.

        • Matthew Blott

          That isn’t going to happen. Nor should it. Like it or not Balls is the most economically literate member of the shadow cabinet.

          • Ian

            If that’s true then we’re in deeper trouble than I thought.

          • Doug Smith

            New Labour never prioritised the cultivation of talented politicians – preferring instead to pack the Green Benches with feverishly ambitious university graduates, they are much less troublesome.

          • Dave Postles

            Indeed, the Financial Times and Harvard University obviously should have selected Osborne – in your dreams. He (Balls) is probably the most economically literate person in the House of Commons, but his political antennae have been skewed unnecessarily. Osborne is an economic dilettante.

          • Ian

            In the eyes of the rest of Britain Ed Balls was complicit in Gordon Brown’s crashing of the economy. As such he is damaged goods and hurts our chances of winning the election. How can you not see that?

          • Dave Postles

            My point, if you read carefully, is that he is the most economically literate. The austerity-light programme, IMHO, is retrograde.

          • Tom Sanders

            Dave is a Green so he doesn’t care about winning elections. Being condescending is his game.

  • PATRICKNEWMAN

    Labour needs to shoot the Tory deficit fox – their policies just do not work and their programme is a failure. Yet the Tories continue to have policies which imply more government spending AND less tax income -i.e. they are undermining their own credibility but Labour is always on the defensive.

  • David H

    The catch phrase ‘putting working people first’ doesn’t seem a good slogan to me. I thought Labour stood for equality for all? I know the phrase aims to strengthen the idea that Labour is for the many not the few: but I think it actually alienates anyone who is not in work.

    • Doug Smith

      What they should say is: “Putting people before profit.” But this would shut-off too many opportunities in the private sector for ‘business-friendly’ Progress/Labour MPs.

    • taylor

      Yes, I would prefer “putting people first” and make it more inclusive.

  • Charlie_Mansell

    For a big chunk of the electorate (unlike us activists) voting decision-making is something they come to in the final weeks and months of the campaign. Some voters even like to discern who is more likely to be the winning side before actually choosing which explains why the Sun was so successful in influencing aspirational voters and why declining circulation and the rapidly changing demographic of who are now ‘aspirational voters’ (perhaps think in migration terms) explains why that paper is less feared by politicians. Thus in order to turn the heat up from slow cook we need to increasingly emphasise not just the choice but important deadlines coming up soon (registration, postal voting etc) with lots of countdowns and ‘calendar’ and ‘clock’ imagery as well as the ‘be part of it’ elements (for volunteering) and a ‘be on the winning side’ aspect. The latter can only be demonstrated by lots of local personal endorsements and perceptions of high levels of local activity at street level which is why Labour is right to emphasise ground war in these elections. So far the best metric for measuring this might be the Ashcroft polling data of which parties have been most active locally.

  • Olly

    Activists can’t do the heavy lifting – Ed has to do it but he hasn’t done it, and there’s not time to do it now. So activists are going to have a VERY tough time on the doorsteps of Britain…

  • Markham Weavill

    I’d ask only one, rather extended, question of all party leaders – Figures show that the already wealthiest 10% of the population in 2008 are the only ones who have seen their wealth increase. The other 90% have seen falls and the poorest have suffered most. What policies are you going to put forward to reverse this trend?

    The answer will be none.

  • Riversideboy

    Mark as a former full time organiser like you can I say how much I agree with your article. Voter id as good and important as it is, is only the start to getting out our vote and is not in its self the answer. If anyone thinks that then actually they are not understanding the “full package”. The air war is vital to enthusing members to come out and do a bit and for encouraging people to the vote. Remember the pledge cards of 1996/97 and various messages that struck home in other years. Those are vital to getting people, when voter identified, to say they will vote Labour and crucial when repeated to getting a commitment to actually go out and vote. So our policies MUST be bold and well argued over and over again so that it helps the member when on the doorstep. Its not enough just to have a conversation its what that conversation is saying about the vital and real policies issues that concern the people. A clear line and argument on the economy, NHS and immigration is an absolute must and above all the Party must be radical, put clear water between us and what the Tories want and will do.
    Then organisers` and members have a real chance of turning millions of conversations into millions of votes. The process is simple if hard work the ingredient most important.
    Regards
    Mick Hills

  • Mark Law

    I wrote a year ago to Iain McNicol offering my services for the election campaign.
    My local CLP has little chance of unseating the incumbent Tory, so I offered to work at the HQ. For free. Still waiting for a reply.
    The Election will again be fought on ‘personalities’. Ed Mili won’t lead the Labour Party to a win. We need a bruiser, who can connect with people, which he is clearly not. He’s a back room staffer.
    John McDonnell or Andy Burnham would be better alternatives.
    I despair at our timidity (“how will you pay for that policy” etc always puts us on a back foot for some reason. Enlarging the cake is simply not understood. No-one points out if employment is growing, why are tax receipts falling?).
    The only glimmer of hope is that this may be an election to lose (if this “austerity” claptrap continues).
    To hear Rachel Reeves rushing around TV studios telling people that Labour will be tough on welfare and immigration, rather than tough on Ukip’s lies and lack of ideas just makes me weep.

    • Doug Smith

      “makes me weep.”

      I stopped weeping soon after I tore up my membership card.

      If you have time to spare for political campaigning then you’d do better to involve yourself in 38Degrees’ campaigns.

      Labour’s Progress elite doesn’t know its ar*e from its elbow.

      • CrunchieTime

        Unfortunately you are quite correct on all points.
        Ho hum…

      • Mark Law

        “better to involve yourself in 38Degrees’ campaigns”

        Sadly these (mostly paper) campaigns achieve very little.
        (Can you honestly recall the last-but-one petition and what it was about?).
        I used to think they raised awareness, but the range and importance of the various issues put forward just get lost in the weeds.
        Better to raise petitions on the “100,000 plus signatures” Govt. Website – at least these guarantee a debate in Parliament.
        But I do empathise with your disillusionment!

  • Ian

    Another article sniping at Ed from the sidelines, complete with the obligatory photo of him looking a little awkward. Come on LL, let’s get behind our man and stop this nonsense.

    • BillFrancisOConnor

      You’re obviously not a regular contributor. The entire site is riddled with trolls some of whom are explicitly racist and sniping at Ed by Ferguson is de rigeur.
      At this rate the Left will sleepwalk its way into another 5 years of Tory sh*te.

      • Tom Sanders

        A quick glance at Ian’s profile would suggest otherwise. Bill – you should try dealing in facts and do your research.

        Trolls – or just people expressing their honest opinion. Where do you draw the line? Get out more…

  • taylor

    I am not an activist – just an ordinary labour voter but I agree with these comments and for what it is worth – Ed Miliband and his cohort do not inspire me. Sorry guys. Labour have got to up their game, but if the message isn’t right, then expecting activists to take up the slack seems a little unfair.

    • Tom Sanders

      I’m afraid Ed couldn’t enthuse a Disney helper

  • Sunny Jim

    I nearly always find that those heavily involved in politics at grassroots level over-complicate the message(s) they give to potential voters.

    The leadership are even more guilty of this.

    We need a maximum of 3 popularist pledges, written in basic english, which any voter can easily grasp and say “yes, that’s a much better offer than the tories”.

    Remember the quote:

    “Think of how stupid the average person is, and realize half of them are stupider than that.”

    • Tom Sanders

      And relative to politicians?

  • treborc1

    Labour’s plan “puts working people first” – read the full text of Miliband’s speech

    Where did that bit disappear to this is Miliband’s main speech on what will happen, you know the one in which he speaks about the hard working, and nobody else .

    It was on the main page and then has it disappeared was taken down or have I lost it on my computer.

    Surely as a left leaning labour movement you cannot just remove something which is a serious issue within labour. or haver I just lost it’

    • Tom Sanders

      It’s still there Robert:

      labourlist. org/2015/01/labours-plan-puts-working-people-first-read-the-full-text-of-milibands-speech/

      Website is a bit odd though…

  • Mark Law

    Who on earth did she think she was appealing to with this?

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