‘Indiscipline, Tory spending and complacency could still derail the election’

Parmjit Dhanda

Like many people I’ve been visiting marginal seats and by-elections over the past couple of years. Yes, there is great promise, but the deal is not sealed.

Mid-Bedfordshire felt great to be a part of, Wellingborough was wonderful. But in both seats and several others we’ve had disgraced Tory MPs to help us on our way.

The Tories have been their own worst enemies

Whether it’s tractor porn, partying through lockdown, abusing your staff or just being Nadine Dorries – the Tories have been their own worst enemy and are likely to choose better for the general election.

So it worries me when I hear people say that the general election is cut and dried, a foregone conclusion, a slam dunk even.

Let me remind Labour colleagues of a few reasons why we cannot afford any sense of complacency for the rest of 2024, or perhaps even in to early 2025.

The ghosts of 1992

That election in 1992 is one that most analysts recall as an opportunity lost for Labour. The country had endured thirteen years of Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher and John Major.

Recessions, mass unemployment, riots in our major cities and civil unrest as the imposition of a poll tax loomed in England (already imposed in Scotland, and never forgiven). And yet the polls tightened in the final days (as they so often do) and the Conservatives held on with a majority of 21 seats.

The Tories went in to the 2015 general election without a majority at all. They had imposed austerity and the trebling of tuition fees.

We’ve come a long way since 2019

Again, there was civil disobedience and rioting in our streets –  no great love for the Tory led government in our country – yet their share of the vote rose to 37% and they were returned with an outright majority of ten seats. The pollsters got that one spectacularly wrong.

The subsequent two general elections took Labour on a journey to existential crisis. So, in normal times the idea that we could turn the calamitous election defeat of 2019 in to victory in a single leap with a swing of 12.7% would be laughable.

It’s a tribute to Keir Starmer that we’re considering the possibility of it happening in the first place.

By-election record not as steady as it seems

Despite Labour having an excellent candidate in Uxbridge and the help of thousands of volunteers, we couldn’t win there, although accepting the fact the ULEZ was a deciding factor.

We ran a brilliant campaign in Kingswood and won. My friend and former colleague Roger Berry held this marginal seat for Labour (albeit on slightly different boundaries) from 1992 to 2010.

Yet we only won by 2,501 votes at the by-election. This is one of those seats that  usually goes  Labour when we win general elections, so this is evidence that this is going to be tougher than many people think.

So, what more can we do?

We’ve established that polls usually tighten as we get to polling day. If we have a winter election we have the added challenge of knowing that historically it has been harder to get our voters out.

We have always been in danger of being outspent by a wealthy Conservative party, and although Labour is better at raising money than it ever has been – if you’re giving, please keep giving.

Stay disciplined and united

Lord Clive Soley is a former Chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party, and shared many a wise word with me when he was an Ealing MP and I was the Labour Party Organiser in the run-up to our 1997 landslide win.

We had just attended a fractious local party meeting where members complained that the party’s manifesto was too lean and consisted of only five pledges on a card.

Lord Clive’s response was that the Labour Party should aim to “promise a little and deliver a lot”. There will be pressure again to load the manifesto with great detail, but one of the lessons of the 2019 debacle is that if you try to promise too much the public simply won’t believe that you can deliver it.

Bread and butter issues will win the day

The focus should remain on the simple and important things that affect our daily lives; like waiting times in the NHS, decent schools, safe streets, the cost-of-living crisis, jobs and the economy.

These are still the things that matter most on the doorstep and the things that vividly illustrate 14 years of a failed government.

Keir’s mission-led approach does that well, it’s not promising the earth and it’s not glitzy, but it comes across as serious and sensible.

However, there will be pressure from all sides to change this, including from the diverse communities that the Labour family wants to represent.

As we’ve seen in recent days, indiscipline can rock the ship. Candidates, many of whom will be new to the pressures of holding a united party line, may wobble whilst responding to the opinions of 70,000 voters. That’s why  the party is right to take due diligence more seriously at this election than ever before.

The Labour Party has been in opposition for 14 years. 14 years too long in my view. It’s time to vanquish the ghosts of 1992. We can do it, but members should remember, it’s not won yet.

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