There were some rumblings within the Labour Party last week following the result of the South Shields by-election. It might seem odd that some were complaining about the party winning a seat with over 50% of the vote, but this is South Shields – the kind of seat that is at the heart of Labour’s heartland. UKIP poured money into the seat, and lack the taint of the Tories in the North East (despite being ideologically closer to the despised 1980s Thatcherites than even the current Tory front bench) – so were always likely to pick up votes. But many in the party were expecting Labour’s vote share to be back up at the 60% or even 70% mark in the seat. Yet the final tally was only just over 50%.
In a by-election, organisation and data are everything. And whilst by election day there was a decent Labour Party campaign on the ground in the constituency, it appears there was little in the way of campaigning taking place in the seat prior to the by-election. Several very reliable sources have told me that the voter contact rate (the percentage of people in the constituency for whom the party has a record of voting preference) in the constituency was as low as 0.2% – or roughly 100 people. That’s effectively zero, and enough to suggest that little or no canvassing had ever been done in the seat. One volunteer who campaigned in South Shields, but who wants to remain anonymous, told me:
“As I knocked on doors, it was depressing to hear former Labour voters saying they’d stay at home or vote for a protest party because David “did nothing for South Shields, I never saw him”. We were told that the voter contact rate had been just 0.2% before the by-election – and the 100 people this equates to had been transferred into the constituency following boundary changes.”
By election day – thanks to work on the ground by new MP Emma Lewell-Buck, party staff, local activists and the central phone bank – the contact rate in the constituency was up to a more respectable (but still quite low) 20%.
So the question must be asked – what on earth was David Miliband doing in this seat over the previous 12 years? How many doors did he knock on and how many constituents did he speak to? Which local campaigns were run and what data was collected? And this isn’t just about David Miliband – although after all of his talk of re-engaging the party, he could at least have started in his own constituency. Where was the canvassing from the local councillors in this Labour heartland? Or is there an expectation that the voters will just turn up and vote Labour without any contact from the party or their local representatives?
And it’s not just South Shields where this problem exists – although it’s perhaps the most obvious example of the gap between rhetoric and reality in many of our safe seats (I’d be interested to see the contact rate for seats held by members of the Shadow Cabinet, for example). Bradford West was lost in part due to this combination of what can only be described as lazyness mixed with presumption. It leaves many of our safest seats open to unusual – and highly damaging – results in by-elections. It’s exactly what Jim Murphy was talking about when he attacked “Lazy Labour”.
The irony though, is that Murphy was the campaign manager for the leadership campaign of one Mr David Miliband, the then MP for South Shields, with its contact rate of nearly 0%.