Just after 10pm on Thursday December 12th is a moment I will never forget. As I entered the count at Frodsham leisure centre, Weaver Vale, a local BBC reporter bluntly asked me: “You have seen the exit poll for Weaver Vale giving you a 99% chance of losing – how optimistic do you feel?”
I put on a brave face and told him I was 1% optimistic that I was going to win this. And I became Mr 1% – I won and survived, just about. But the victory was bittersweet. I was relieved and exhausted, pleased for the many volunteers, trade unionists and supporters who had pounded the streets in the rain, frost, sleet and dark nights. And pleased I didn’t have to make my staff redundant just before Christmas.
But I was deflated by the sheer size of the defeat nationally, our worst election result since 1935. Deflated by the fact that we have five more years of a chaotic Tory government, ideologically wedded to austerity, dismantling the NHS, promoting small state, a low-wage and low-skill economy, and a cruel welfare regime.
I was also deeply disheartened by our performance in the North. I’m a Manchester lad. We moved to Yorkshire when I was young, and I joined Labour at 17 after witnessing the devastation wrought on local mining families by the policies of Margaret Thatcher. To see the North turning to the Tories, despite the financial and social havoc that their party has wrought on the people there, was very hard to take.
But now I and the 202 other Labour MPs who survived this drubbing must quickly dust ourselves down, listen to our constituents – not just the supporters – learn, and act. I feel a lot of responsibility has been placed on my shoulders, and I will live up to the challenge to rebuild a Labour Party that is not only bold in its ambitions for our country but a credible party of government.
In just over five weeks, many volunteers and I had thousands of conversations on the doorstep and over the phone across my marginal constituency of Weaver Vale. And while we tried to make this a ‘change election’ for our public services and the country, the overriding concern on the doorstep was Brexit.
In the 2016 referendum, my constituency was pretty much split down the middle. 50.5% backed Leave, and this vote was concentrated in the core Labour areas of Runcorn and Northwich – as well as the farming community in the rural villages – while the more affluent areas voted Remain.
The emotional and simple message of “get Brexit done” resonated. But I lost more support to the Lib Dems than I did to the Brexit Party – although Nigel Farage’s party attracted a sizeable protest vote from former Labour supporters who just couldn’t stomach voting Tory.
The turnout was high at 71%. But a good 1% of Labour voters decided to stay at home, which brings me to the other overriding message on the doorstep: the lack of trust in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.
The demonisation of Labour leaders is nothing new. I have been a member of the party for over 30 years and the largely right-wing press has made this their signature move for years. In some ways, it’s flattering. The Latin phrase for it is ‘ad hominem’. But in my neck of the woods we call it ‘tackling the person and not the ball’.
From Michael Foot and his Donkey jacket – in reality a Harrods jacket, which can be seen in the People’s History Museum in Manchester – to ‘windbag’ Neil Kinnock, ‘demon-eyes’ Tony Blair and ‘aloof and cold’ Gordon Brown. Not to mention Ed Miliband’s bacon sandwich eating skills. But a real job of work has been done on Jeremy Corbyn.
Doorstep after doorstep, other activists and I heard this. People told us they felt that he was a security threat, an IRA sympathiser – the list of accusations was endless. That being said, there were real and genuine concerns among many about the leadership and the party’s current position, and it would be wrong to ignore that.
It felt as if we managed to cling on in Weaver Vale despite the national campaign rather than because of it. We had our own local message of “investment, not cuts”. And we went on my two-and-a-half-year track record of putting constituents first with more than 9,000 constituency cases taken action on. And our get-out-the-vote operation kicked in early, and we kept going back to our promises and undecideds to firm up the vote.
Writing as a former Labour organiser, the party nationally clearly was not election ready. Vital software had a multitude of bugs, the print package just didn’t deliver for many, and the message was all over the place. Eventually we went with “it’s time for real change” – a very bad omen when you consider that a similar slogan was used in 1992.
The targeting strategy was overly ambitious to say the least. An overreaction to a very defensive strategy in 2017. I’m a great believer in following the data, and being flexible. We all saw the pictures of hundreds of activists in seats that were very aspirational, while former heartland seats had a dozen volunteers – if they were lucky.
And the manifesto, with all its additions, became a confusing shopping list of Christmas giveaways. It included some great policies but the electorate just didn’t trust that it could be delivered.
Now to the future, where the Brexit shambles is well and truly owned by this majority Tory Boris Johnson government. The slogan of the ‘oven-ready deal’ and ‘get Brexit done’ will come back to bite them as trade negations drag on.
We now embark on a leadership contest that must be concluded before council, mayor, police and crime commissioner elections to give our Labour people a fighting chance. It is important that we choose wisely, not going back to a centrist past but instead opting for a leader that has a bold democratic socialist vision, able to unite the party and be a credible option for the British public. We must rebuild our campaign capacity in the regions, invest in our local government unit and HQ. Together the Labour family can win, and people will come home to Labour.