Voter ID and Community Politics – Labour needs both


Anyone who has spent any time on the doorstep in the last six months will be aware of two facts:

  • Identifying our supporters and reminding them to vote makes a big difference to the outcome of elections.
  • There is an increasing mood of alienation from the political process and politicians – a growth in proud abstention and “none of the above” reactions.

It is intellectually dishonest, to treat either of these facts as supporting a blinkered approach to Labour Party campaigning – to posit a choice between Voter ID and Community Politics.

Proponents of Voter ID could argue that the collapse of political engagement makes the process of identification and Get Out the Vote sufficient for victory as “natural” turnout declines. Supporters of Community Politics could argue that the larger challenge of depoliticisation and alienation means that we should drop the mobilising approach in favour of building warm, organic relationships with communities.

Both would be profoundly wrong.

Successful campaigning parties recognise that we need both mobilisation and relationship-building approaches at the heart of our work. I recently acted as agent in a local election campaign where we achieved a 30% swing against the Lib Dems. We began work months beforehand and rang and visited hundreds of electors using a voter ID script but inviting and noting comments on local issues. At the same time we delivered newsletters with a strong emphasis on listening to local people, inviting their views on local issues and priorities and reporting back to them on what their fellow citizens were saying and the policies we were developing to meet their concerns. Through the short campaign we continued to combine these two approaches, working both to identify and mobilise our supporters and potential supporters and to continue the wider dialogue. We refused to choose between two stereotyped options and the results showed that this worked.

There is nothing new in this. I learned from campaigning in Oxford in the seventies and early eighties that contact with the electors threw up casework and issues which needed to be followed up and that the more canvassing you did, the closer your knowledge of people’s concerns would be. Andrew Smith and his team have obviously developed this further in the last thirty years and their 2010 result clearly demonstrates the continued effectiveness of building a virtuous cycle of voter ID, issues campaigning and relationship building. It is that sort of fusion we need to be developing.

One of the lessons of any political campaign is that we need to make room for many types of talent. Enthusiasts for community organising often speak disparagingly of voter ID and its mechanistic scripts and praise real conversations with the voters. We are a small party and we cannot afford to shrink to an even smaller core of dedicated community activists with the time and confidence to engage in free-form relationship building. The great strength of the party’s traditional organisational model culminating in today’s voter ID and GOTV techniques is that the activities are wonderfully accessible to volunteers. Anyone, with a couple of minutes’ briefing and some encouragement, can get stuck in – and they can make a difference whether they then turn up once a week, once a month or for a short burst around election times. Many members enjoy switching off and becoming data collectors. They like to say “I’m just helping out but I’ll ask the candidate to get back to you with an answer” – and there’s no reason why they should not do this providing there is that follow-up. We cannot build a campaigning party on the basis of requiring a higher level of regular commitment from every party worker – we can’t all be community activists.

Whatever its defects, voter ID is about building and maintaining a database owned by the party as a whole. Some supporters of community politics seem to see a future in which the party withers away while particular Labour politicians develop personal relationships with community groups and acquire followings of individual supporters. I believe that we need to do this work collectively as a party. I am glad that our registered supporters scheme ended up being a party scheme not one concerned with recognising individual fan clubs – and I am proud that my branch (with just 23 members) has been signing up registered supporters at every stage of its recent campaigning and should have a hundred by the summer.

We know that ideological conflicts can damage our party. The dangers posed by the arguments between Progress and its opponents are, however, minor compared with the threat posed by doctrinaire attempts to force the party to choose between two vital and complementary organisational approaches.

It’s time to focus on synergy not false divisions.

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