Labour needs to make profound changes to win in 2015

The votes have been counted and the results are in. We finished two points ahead of the Tories in the local elections and just one point ahead of the Tories in the European elections. That’s absolutely not good enough a year out from general election day.

Sure, Labour has had some gains in some key marginals, we’ve won the most council seats, most of the council vote and gained the most councillors in the local elections. And sure, the Tories are in third place for the first time in a national election for the Euros. But they’d have snapped your hand off for third place and a whisker behind Labour as polls opened. They’ll see Thursday’s results as a deficit they can overturn. And they’d be right. Without London, Labour could well have been 2nd in the local elections and third in the European elections.

That’s the situation the party is currently in outside of the capital.

It’s an epic understatement to say that today a Labour majority in 2015 looks far from certain today. Senior Labour figures may be on TV today claiming that this was a good result, but merely saying this was good doesn’t make it good. It wasn’t good. It was far from good enough.

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Without doing things differently, Labour won’t win next year. It’s painful to to see us in such a state. So what must Labour learn in the year ahead to have a fighting chance of victory in 2015?

Here’s five points for starters:

London is now a red island: Although there are areas of the country with key marginals outside London where Labour performed well (Amber Valley, Peterborough, Lincoln, Hastings and Crawley to name just a few), most of Labour’s most spectacular results have come in the capital. The difference between winning Hammersmith and Fulham and losing the popular vote in Rotherham is stark.

Think about that – on Thursday, Labour was a more viable electoral prospect in Hammersmith and Fulham than Rotherham.

Mostly that’s about the demographics of London, which is becoming a red island in a blue southern sea – or perhaps even a different country of sorts. But the campaigns led by Sadiq Khan that Labour have run in London (where Labour has more members than elsewhere) have still been successful, albeit with a few helping hands from UKIP. In the European elections, the London result – when finally announced – was what took Labour into second place. Labour needs to get its collective head outside of London more often, and talk to the rest of the country more clearly. At the moment it’s too easy to cast us as a metropolitan party only – and if you look at the other cities we did well in, that looks about right.

Understand what makes people vote UKIP: This means, in part, understanding concerns about Europe and immigration – because that’s basically the entirety of UKIP’s policy platform. But the rise of UKIP – and the disenchantment many working class voters feel towards Labour and politics in general – started well before the rise of UKIP. That UKIP vote is made up of ex-Tory voters sure, and a smattering of Lib Dems too. But it’s also made up of former Labour voters who feel the party has abandoned them, left them behind or stopped listening to them. It’s made up of people who had given up voting because they thought it didn’t matter, only to be persuaded by Farage that voting UKIP was a great way to disrupt the status quo and kick politicians in the ballots.

This disillusionment is real, powerful, palpable and entrenched. There have been times when I assumed – wrongly – that UKIP was a mostly an issue for the Tories. Now I see UKIP reflecting some the anger and unhappiness many people I know – people who aren’t just disappointed with Labour but actively dislike us. No longer can we weigh the votes in our heartlands. If we continue let people feel they’re taken for granted, we can only watch them slip through our fingers – and lose them for good.

Be positive: The way to win over those who believe that all politicians are the same is not to run a negative campaign attacking politicians. In the eyes of too many members of the public, the difference between Cameron, Clegg or Miliband is a matter of degrees. If you spend your time relentlessly talking about the broken promises of David Cameron and Nick Clegg, don’t be surprised if – because they consider you to be little different – the public don’t believe your promises either.

And that’s before we talk about how we frame campaigns. Labour HQ have claimed on a number of occassions that Labour is running a positive campaign, usually on the basis that Miliband led on positive policy announcements. Action on rents, access to GPs and the minimum wage were good, positive policies – but they never felt like the centrepiece of Labour’s campaign. In fact, it often felt like they drifted from view soon after Miliband announced them. When these policies could be part of an offer to an electorate who thinks we don’t care about their concerns, that seemed baffling.

Labour’s best chance of winning next year is to talk about what a better Britain – a Labour Britain – would look like. It’s still too hard to describe to people what that would be like, and all too easy to dwell on what it wouldn’t be like. If this was a dry run for 2015 as some close to the campaign have told me, it was tone deaf. We can’t afford to miss the mark when speaking to the electorate again. If we aren’t positive then we aren’t showing our best face to the world and we don’t give ourselves a proper opportunity to win people’s respect, attention and then – in time – votes.

Door knocking is important – but it doesn’t win seats on its own – Labour HQ is justifiably proud of the number of contacts made and doors knocked on in this election campaign. 2.4 million contacts were made – more than twice as many as in 2009 – which represents a huge volume of volunteer and staff hours dedicated to speaking to the electorate. But this election surely tells us that you can’t win by ground war alone -and that we need to knock on even more doors still in the next year.

Labour has done an immense amount of work in local communities, and yet we haven’t got the result that work deserved nationwide.

When you’re on the doorstep you need to have an understanding of what you’re asking people to support, and a passion for that message to make it believable to the sceptical voter. That’s not just about having clear messages for the doorstep that members believe in – it’s also about campaigns that are rooted in the communities they seek to represent and focus on their concerns.

With that in mind, it might be time to ask where Arnie Graf and his community organising work have been? Graf was rumoured to be making an appearance before election day, but that never materialised. We need to see him and his work back in Britain ASAP.

Listening to the polls that matter: There’s a saying in politics that there’s only one poll that matters – when people go to vote. We can often forget that in the era of daily tracker polls and weekly phone polls that shape the way we think about politicians and parties. Yet it’s important that the Labour Party remembers that how people vote in actual elections is more important and more powerful than how they vote in any opinion poll.

Over the weekend there’ve been many in the party excitedly pointing to the Ashcroft poll – which is undoubtedly a good poll – as evidence of Labour winning in 2015. Yet Ashcroft shows us winning in Thurrock, Basildon and Great Yarmouth – which is not the reality of the way people voted in a real election on Thursday. We’re obviously doing better in the marginals than elsewhere – but that can’t be a crutch in the weeks ahead. There need to be a real reckoning as to how Labour did so poorly, and how we can turn this around in the next 11 months – and that means listening to millions of votes, not tens of thousands of responses to an opinion poll.

It’s not too late to make these changes and send Ed Miliband through the door of 10 Downing Street next May. But carrying on regardless isn’t an option anymore. If we carry on regardless we’ll lose next year. And neither the Labour Party nor the British people can afford that happening.

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