We need to talk about South Shields

7th May, 2013 5:26 pm

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%.

Why?

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%.

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  • Phil Perspective

    It’s what happens when party leadership doesn’t give a damn about it’s voters.

  • Interesting article Mark. I would imagine quite a lot of the 2010 Lib Dem vote shifted to Labour also, so perhaps more like mid 40’s had the Lib Dems been more of a force..

  • To think this guy nearly led the Labour Party. Lucky escape.

    • I know, to have a leader who was the choice of the individual members and the MPs would have been a dreadful outcome.

      • Oh, get over it, do. He’s gone and he won’t be back.

      • By the look of it, it probably would yes.

        Edit: What people always forget about David was that he was just as ‘awkward’ as Ed. That would have caused similar problems to Ed. He was more tarnished by his previous record, making it hard for him to articulate any sort of change during the leadership campaign (and change was absolutely necessary, and still is, in opposition). He was the continuity candidate when continuity was the wrong thing to do. One of the only things he had going for him was his higher public profile, but that is only a temporary effect. When people think ‘Miliband’ they think Ed now, not David.

        • Actually if you’d heard an interesting programme on Radio 4 about speeches that were never delivered you’d have heard some of David Miliband’s had he been elected leader. It spelt out some home truths and would have us in a much better position that we are now.

          • In your opinion. Not mine. Warmed-up Blairism…no thanks

          • ColinAdkins

            Really I have some speeches which were not delivered which told David some home truths.

      • Brumanuensis

        If the election had been run on a OMOV basis, Ed would still have won.

        • jaime taurosangastre candelas

          Yes, very odd. In a narrow contest, the Labour Party effectively “outsource” the selection of their Leader to several million trades unionists, none of whom have an obligation to be Labour members. They might be tories, they might be SWP. Given that there are several million trades unionists, 250,000? Labour members, and about 300 MPs OMOV is always going to win that “numbers” battle, is it not?

          Particularly when the largest union deliberately ignores internal Labour rules on impartiality, and sends to their members the voting forms in an envelope with a picture of their favoured “stooge” printed upon it, and in response to reasonable questions from Labour activists about this practice, basically turns around and says “we pay the bills, so shut up”.

          • Brumanuensis

            “In a narrow contest, the Labour Party effectively “outsource” the selection of their Leader to several million trades unionists, none of whom have an obligation to be Labour members”.

            We just can’t win can we? If we open up the ballot to people who might not necessarily be Party members, we get this sort of attack and if we restrict it to MPs, we get accused of being aloof and too remote from the electorate.

          • jaime taurosangastre candelas

            No other Party (that I know of) outsources the voting for their next Leader. Most do it with a combination of elected representatives and of members, and don’t attract criticism.

            Why Labour have this somewhat senseless and mostly sentimental attachment to the unions is beyond me. Most normal people don’t support union activism, and the unions don’t support the Labour leadership, and the Labour leadership don’t support the union barons. Why the Labour Party then asks the unions to choose their next Leader is like asking a turkey to explain why it voted for Christmas.

          • Brumanuensis

            You may be convinced unions don’t matter; I doubt the several hundred Bangledeshi workers who were recently crushed to death share your scepticism.

            (Yes, that was undoubtedly a cheap shot, but Labour’s attachment to the trade unions is not just sentimental. They’re an integral part of a future society run according to social democratic principles. Why do you think median wages have stagnated across the developed world in recent decades? One factor, among many, is the decline of the trades union movement, which used to be a major check on the concentration of profits and wealth at the top).

            In any case, health and safety is not a dead issue – so to speak – in the UK ( http://www.tuc.org.uk/workplace/tuc-21909-f0.cfm ).

          • jaime taurosangastre candelas

            I am unable to respond to the detail of your words without appearing uncaring of a very real tragedy. If I merely say that I think that I don’t think that unionisation of that factory was the main problem, will you accept that?

            Have median wages stagnated? Possibly, but the cause is likely to be more to do with the cost of labour being reduced by the cost of transportation of goods and services, rather than a decline in the power of organised labour. That is the same as the global expansion of the pool of labour able to deliver goods and services. Some of that is to do with the cost of physical shipping falling per kilo of goods, some with global connectivity.

            So, to take 2 examples: making commodity clothes, and offering commodity services. If you (a clothing magnate) can make T-shirts for 50p each in Bangladesh, or £5 in the UK, where are you going to locate your factory, given orders for 100,000 T shirts? Or, if you sell customer services and a call centre, is it better to employ your 1,000 people in India where each call might cost you £0.25, or in Edinburgh where it might cost you £1 a call?

            The “value” is defined by the consumer, and T-shirts and call centre services are merely commodities. As a consumer, I do not much care whether my T shirt or query about my gas bill is sorted out in Bangladesh or South Africa or Venezuela or Cambridge, because it is only a T shirt or an inconsequential conversation. There is no “value add”.

            Take the Skype voice over IP service, which is free. I can speak to my mother (and do, 5 or so times a week), and I get a very clear line and if she wants to see her grandchildren, she can using the web cam. Total cost to me? Hardly calculable, since we need an internet connection anyway for email, so it is all included in the £12 monthly we pay BT. Infinitely preferable than paying telephone call charges from the UK to Chile. So, an example of how the cost of a service falls to negligible due to technology.

            Unions do not come into it.

          • Brumanuensis

            “I am unable to respond to the detail of your words without appearing uncaring of a very real tragedy. If I merely say that I think that I don’t think that unionisation of that factory was the main problem, will you accept that?”

            I can accept that’s your view, but I don’t agree with it. I think it’s very telling that workers at the factory had expressed concerns, shortly before the accident, about cracks in the walls, but were ordered back to work by their overseer. I think if they’d been backed up by a trade union, the employer would have been less high-handed. It’s harder to intimidate people who are organised.

            “Have median wages stagnated? Possibly, but the cause is likely to be more to do with the cost of labour being reduced by the cost of transportation of goods and services, rather than a decline in the power of organised labour…So, to take 2 examples: making commodity clothes, and offering commodity services. If you (a clothing magnate) can make T-shirts for 50p each in Bangladesh, or £5 in the UK, where are you going to locate your factory, given orders for 100,000 T shirts? Or, if you sell customer services and a call centre, is it better to employ your 1,000 people in India where each call might cost you £0.25, or in Edinburgh where it might cost you £1 a call, but yet the “value” as defined by the consumer in Cambridgeshire is exactly the same?”

            I’m not averse to technological explanations for growing inequality, but it’s hard to reconcile off-shoring with the growth of the ‘hour-glass’ economy. It’s middle-income jobs that are disappearing, whilst the number of high-income and low-income jobs grows. You can see this in the US job creation figures, where the majority of jobs created since the end of the recession have been low-skilled, low-paying ones, whilst mid-level jobs have evaporated ( http://www.salon.com/2011/09/13/the_hourglass_economy/ ). There is an argument that the main factor behind the decline of trade unions is the rise of the service sector, with more fragmented workplaces and patterns of working. I’m open to that too, although I also believe that political choices have accelerated this decline.

            Your remark about Skype rather hits on the growing risk of what Keynes called ‘technological unemployment’. Having recently read Martin Ford’s “The Lights in the Tunnel”, I’m starting to become more concerned about the prospects for growth, inequality and employment, if our technological trends continue. The real risk is that the Luddite ‘fallacy’ may come true and high structural unemployment may develop as low and middle-income jobs are automated. Software used by a Californian law firm, for instance, has replaced the work of research assistants and some solicitors. McDonalds is automating its service lines. But that is another debate. It reminds me of a favourite anecdote of mine though, concerning Henry Ford II and UAW head Walter Reuther, in the mid-1950s. Touring an automated facility, Ford joked to Reuther:

            “Walter, how are you going to get those robots to pay your union dues?”

            To which Reuther replied:

            “Henry, how are you going to get them to buy your cars?”

          • jaime taurosangastre candelas

            Walter Reuther seems a big constrained in his thinking. The Henry Ford was probably not thinking of 5,000 workers with disposable income, but the cheaper cost of the robot production opening up a new market of 500 million around the world who could now afford the cheaper prices of the robot-made cars.

            Possibly the biggest lesson for the future for the children is “do not perform a trade that can be more reliably done by a robot, because you will end up being replaced by a robot”. And so they need to study hard and develop skills of the brain.

          • ColinAdkins

            Jaime so are you against the Members (MPs, MEPs, AMs etc) vote being worth many times that of ordinary members. Now trade union members are balloted on an individual basis the only block vote left is that of the Members. One One Vote of Eqyal Value please.

          • Richard Gadsden

            The Democrats and the Republicans do, you know.

          • rekrab

            Talking about voting, it’s about time double day shift and night shift workers got the chance to vote by text on a mobile, it could be diligently stewarded, like have you voted yet!!!!!!!

          • jaime taurosangastre candelas

            Well, that is up to your Party, if you think it is valuable. Pay the money, some telecommunications or IT company will make it happen.

          • rekrab

            Say depending on the size of a hospital there could be any thing from 200 to 400 doctors on 24/7 hours, there must be a few thousand hospitals across the country and possibly upto 250,000 doctors,I wonder how many just don’t get the chance to vote due to work loads? maybe an on-line vote would be a positive move for some.

          • Oh really. Levy paying members gets to vote. Some may well be SWP or even Tories like you suggest, but then what is stopping them from joining the Labour Party anyway (we had this discussion on another thread)?

        • $6215628

          Those trade union members who voted for him, weren’t members of the Labour Party

      • ColinAdkins

        Gary, The electoral college and the voting system was known to all candidates for leadership. No point crying foul after the fact you merely sound like a bad loser. Colin

  • Charlie_Mansell

    The contact rate in London is pretty good with all Labour held seats over that 20% minimum and all bar two over 30%. There are also quite a few over 50% which is not bad bearing in mind the average voter turnover in London. I think we should write a minimum contact rate into the candidates contract. Any Labour MP who does have over 30% after 4 years of this Parliament should not be allowed to apply for re-selection. Perhaps you could speak to a few NEC members about this?

  • That axe must be well and truly sharp by now. To largely dump the failure of the CLP on the MP is a low blow. It should guarantee continued funding for the site though!

    • Its a difficult one.

      I live in a very safe seat. Very safe indeed. I would be surprised if we even have that much in the way of ID.

      There is a reluctance from local parties for local MP’s to become too involved in the running of the local party – our neighbouring MP in a more marginal seat is very hands on but some really don’t like that at all.

      But having an ageing and often invisible MP does absolutely nothing to boost a local party – clearly, neither does having a high-flying career MP!

      Stephen Twigg, who is not on my wing of the party, is a superb local MP who maintains an excellent relationship with his local party and has done a lot to organise it, taking all with him. We could learn a lot from his work in West Derby

    • Nonsense. In any constituency with a Labour MP, it’s the MP who leads the local party. The CLP chair may oversee the meetings, but it’s the MP who wields the most authority and who should be leading on all campaigning activity.

      If there was no voter ID done in South Shields (or even if it was done but nobody recorded it on the system), that means the MP didn’t do any campaigning there. Even if the rest of the CLP were legendarily idle, even if none of them ever came out to campaign, the local MP should still be able to rack up a couple of hundred contacts a year without approaching breaking a sweat. There is no excuse for zero.

      • Chilbaldi

        couple of hundred a year? In all seriousness in my local ward, never mind constituency, we do a couple of hundred in a weekend!

        • Mine too. But let’s be generous. It’s a Labour fortress, it doesn’t need a 70% contact rate. I’d settle for some evidence any members had knocked on a door ever before the by-election started.

  • terryec

    During my life I am 65 I have lived in south Liverpool for 35 years and in Knowsley prior to that both Labour strongholds, I cannot remember a MP in either road never mind my doorstep, get lots of mail prior to an election, I did once get a conservative councillor call though.

  • I’m from South Shiields, during the run up to the byelection I never had any representation from any party knock on my door. I was leafleted relentlessly by UKIP but didn’t get the much awaited knock on the door from Farage and co. Such a pity because I was really looking forward to giving them some home truths. This wouldn’t have been hard as I have a degree in Govt & Public Policy. I have lived in the town all my life and have been asked to get involved with the local Labour party many times as my mother has been a loyal activist and campaigner for over 30 years. Though I’ve always voted Labour the councillors I know do very little apart from attending meetings to get their allowances. The 12 year tenure of D.Milliband in the town did nothing to encourage local voters. Most people saw him as a career politician without any real substance, plus the fact that he was only seen when a photo oppportunity came round. So it’s reallly not surprising that the people of Shields decided to vote for ukip, some may have been protest votes, but I feel that a lot of the voters were taken in by the obvious alllure of supposedly working class values spouted by UKIP. You and I know that UKIP are not a party for the poor, one look at their income tax policy should be enough to alert voters of their intentions.However, not all voters have the political sense to see through the spin. If Labour are ever going to get the support they’ve always enjoyed in this town, they may have to stop taking allegiance for granted.

  • kay

    Thank-you for pointing this out the Labour party as a whole from the top down need to be better at contact.

    In the Rhondda I live in a two member ward I hear nothing from my two councillors in fact I didn’t know I had two until I looked for contact details for the one I knew about.

    My mother has lived in the area since the late 90’s in that time Chris Bryant has knocked on her door just once and nobody from the local Labour party has at all, but we did have some nice leaflets at election time.

    The only reason the Labour party do so well here is down to the loyalty that the people of the Rhondda have for the party and sadly they don’t deserve it.

  • Chilbaldi

    Unbelievable contact rate. I can’t get my head round how it is possible to have voter ID for only 100 people. Surely the local councillors would have canvassed their wards? Surely the local CLP / regional party has a campaigns chair?

    For the usual labour left characters saying this is all down to Miliband – yes he must share some of the blame. But this suggests real structural problems in the local Labour Party, replicated elsewhere in the country.

    • Nobody’s saying it’s entirely down to Miliband. It’s a cultural problem. New Labour put too much emphasis on marginals and not enough on maintaining support in the core areas. How else did Blair win a modest majority in 2005 with an appallingly low share of the vote?

  • This doesn’t surprise me in the least.
    I also wonder whether the ‘unnecessary by-election effect’ might have had some influence. Voters definitely don’t like being called to the polls other than for deaths or similar. A well paid billet in the States wouldn’t count.

    I actually thought this would be the result, but at least there seems to have been a recognition that we need more rooted local candidates like Emma and no more spaddy Londoners looking for their safe seat up north. Given how keen so many of them are on winning over the south, they ought to be getting selected for the southern seats where we did very badly despite the demographics!

  • Glasgow East was another example of this problem. In the last few voting hours of the by-election Labour canvassers were allegedly going out knocking doors at random because they didn’t have a clue on where their likely support was

  • Brumanuensis

    My concern is that that 20% figure is going to languish and no-one will do anything further until late 2014 / early 2015, when the GE campaign will be getting started. Some sort of pledge is needed to commit candidates to keeping the contact rate up.

  • In 2008 locals Labour lost 6 council wards to Independents/Local groups….the 0.2% figure suggest they didn’t do anything even after it.

  • I have to say my main concern about South Shields was our candidate standing on a central manifesto pledge to create more jobs in the constituency, when she laid out no plan for how she would achieve that promise, nor had she ever created a job in her career to give confidence that she at least had the required expertise to deliver it.

    I’m sure she’ll be a good MP, but it was the kind of politics that inspires the ‘politicians are all the same’ reaction from the electorate. Promising the earth without offering any plan for how the promise would be kept.

    • rekrab

      Ah, good point.People tend to remember if a promise is given.
      Key policy position…….Determine the amount of jobs that can be created, announce the policy but keep the detail to the delivery of the next labour government.We shall create 1 million jobs in our first year…..I like that!!!!!!!!!

    • Brumanuensis

      “nor had she ever created a job in her career to give confidence that she at least had the required expertise to deliver it”.

      This is a silly comment. Are former business-people the only ones qualified to talk about increasing employment? By that logic, only medical professionals are allowed to talk about the NHS and military personnel about defence spending. As an MP, she’s reflecting national policy on the need to reduce unemployment, not making a literal specific pledge to her constituency, that she and she alone will reduce joblessness in South Shields.

      • Actually she said “I’ll work tirelessly to bring jobs to South Shields”.

        Which sounds like a literal and specific pledge to her constituency to me. But am not getting into a fight about it. I just believe it’s the easiest thing in the world to describe our problems. Solving them requires actual expertise and knowledge.

        • Brumanuensis

          But I don’t think she literally meant to pledge that she specifically was going to bring jobs to South Shields, off her own bat. Obviously she’s going to lobby for her constituency if Labour get into government, but that’s not quite the same thing. I still think you’re being a bit unfair on her.

    • I wouldn’t necessarily blame her. By-elections are a total cringe for all parties because they have to be on message the entire time.

      • I’m not really. I genuinely wish her well. But I do think we have a problem of supporting those with the ability to empathise with problems, and ignoring those with the knowledge to actually do something about them. But as I say, I wish her well.

        • She is a social worker and I would have thought those skills and knowledge would be important. Can’t think if anything worse than a House full of private sector businessmen. Quite enough in the current government. In any case the private sector will not provide in these areas and we will need to return to public and state ledinvestment

  • Peter Maguire

    I think it’s crucial to maintain a high voter ID contact rate, especially in marginal wards/constituencies. In our constituency it’s around 70% yet in the 2 neighbouring constituencies you would be unlikely to find any wards with a contact rate above 10%, One of which is a very safe Labour seat and the other a Lib Dem/Tory marginal.

  • PeterBarnard

    It’s not only South Shields that should be a subject of discussion – there must be dozens of CLPs up and down the country where the membership knows as much about Voter ID, as they know about Einstein’s various theories.

    Regrettably, once some members become an elected representatives – whether at national or local level – they become Very Important People, and they forget where they came from, ie the local Labour Party.

    The only solution is de-selection of elected representatives who don’t do an adequate amount of Voter ID between elections, The responsibility for team-building to perform Voter ID must lie squarely on the shoulders of the elected representatives. For Voter ID purposes, the CLP should be there as an enabling mechanism only.

    On a four year cycle, and an average ward of (say) 4,000 electors, all it needs is about 50-60 Voter ID sessions to cover a ward = one session a month between elections.

    Sadly, this small burden appears to be too onerous for some councillors.

  • Really good comments Mark.

    Every CLP also needs to set up a Facebook page.

    • And a simple website. Amazing that some still don’t have one.

  • EoinClarke

    No David Mili’s biggest fan but a word in his defence. The number of postal votes were dramatically down because it was such a tight turnaround. Historically, this particularly seat has a very high number of postal ballots. Had they been at normal levels we’d have seen the 60-70% the author speaks of.

  • I don’t think there can be any excuses for this, regardless of whether it’s a by-election, or the number of postal votes that were used. The bottom line is that nobody in this local Labour Party thought it was within their dignity to go and talk to any of their constituents and see how things stood. Perhaps, to be fair, they had nobody trained in Contact Creator or the CLP couldn’t afford it. In which case, I’m afraid the blame falls straight back on Miliband who could perfectly well have sorted that out. There is quite obviously a failure of both leadership and organisation here. It is very easy, when elections results are historically strong, for local organisation to wither and for councillors to believe that their very existence in a local area means voters know who they are and are prepared to vote for them consistently. To end up with a 0.2% contact rate, every single councillor plus all candidates, the entire local organisation, and the MP have to buy into that. The arrogance is breathtaking.

  • There is no easy way to campaign other than hard graft which = data and support – in every ward of the country.

  • jimmy

    labour voters are fed up with labour party members and officials turning up at election times then disappearing into the mist of the moors for the next 5 years or so. Active party and trade union members need to be seen to campaign in their villages and towns be in the news get on the committe to save the tree or stop the school closure or the community funding cut back protest coming out of the mist every 5 years only gets peoples back up. if i had a pound for evbery time ive heard the phrase – “here they come the only time you see them is when they want a vote” i woudl be a very wealthy man.

  • alokalok

    The real villains here are the councilors We shouldn’t really expect cabinet members to spend all their lives in the constituency talking to people about wonky pavements and rubbish collections, but councilors are elected to deal with these kinds of issues, and should be out there on a weekly basis talking to people about them.

    The fact is that our electoral system has given Labour a monopoly in many areas of the north, which has led to jobs for life for councillors. Now if we had proportional representation all of this would be different…

  • “So the question must be asked – what on earth was David Miliband doing in this seat over the previous 12 years?”

    Perhaps Labour didn’t choose the “wrong brother” as some have suggested? Talk about lazy and indifferent.

  • I am not surprised. As the secretary of a Tenants and Residents Group in a very safe Labour Council seat although we always invite our Labour Councillors they never attend. Not voter ID as such but community contact all the same. I don’t make a point in the minutes of this but the non-party Committee members (the vast majority) are getting agitated by the failure to attend but one Councillor dismisses his critics as “Tories”. No hope really.
    On a constituency level they never obtain the marked registers so records – non existent. But Labour M.P. relatively safe so who cares!!!!!!
    Community engagement may be high on the leaderships agenda but not at a local level!

  • ColinAdkins

    Too busy making money and seeking the next stage of his career (his word not mine). What do you expect when the Party in government granted ‘opportunity’ (via being advisors SpAds and the such like) not on meritocratic grounds but on the basis of where someone was educated? Are you really surprised by an Oxbridge graduate having a sense of entitlement. The other contributory factor is that both Blair and Brown dolled out safe Labour seats as ‘franchises’. Is it any wonder they treated the constituents with apparent contempt?

  • markfergusonuk

    What’s your basis for that? Many union members are also Labour members

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  • ColinAdkins

    100 must be the Party membership. Also recall Blair saying in his memoirs that he got Miliband D the seat. Both Blair and Brown handed out safe seats to favoured sons and a few daughters like franchises.

  • Alex Wright

    Just come across this in the footnotes of Owen Jones’ “The Establishment”.

    With the benefit of hindsight after the SNP taking nearly every Scottish seat, the above seems rather prescient about presuming safe seats are safe and they’ll keep voting Labour for ever.

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