'Grassroots' is not a four letter word
So who are all these people in Crewe and Nantwich? No one was predicting so many of them would go and do what they did on Thursday.
I refer, of course, to the 12, 679 people who went out and voted for Labour's Tamsin Dunwoody. Do these people not read the newspapers? Do they not watch the telly? Did they not understand how awful the Labour campaign was and how wretched this so-called excuse for a government is? Do they not realise that everyone is sick of New Labour and Gordon Brown?!!!?
Of course, this is a much smaller number of people than the hoards who did realise all of these things, and went and voted Tory. Predictions of a Tory win on a low turnout were wrong only in that the turnout was only slightly lower than at the last General Election. And it was a desperately awful result for Labour as everyone is saying.
But I'm interested in these 12, 679 Labour voters. It's not hard to work out the multitude of reasons why people voted Tory (every unhappy voter is unhappy in a different way and about different things, something which the pamphleteers who are trying to suggest that if only Labour adopts the ideas in their latest pamphlet then all would be well don't seem to understand). But why did people vote Labour yesterday?
There may have been a few who were outraged that the Tories didn't want to give the Poles ID cards or that they were soft on yobs. There would have been some more who thought the Tory was a 'Hooray Henry' (as one man put it), and out of touch with most people. A lot of people will have remembered Gwynneth Dunwoody, or been helped by her when they needed someone who was on their side, and many of these people will have supported her daughter.
But what's interesting from the (small number) of people I talked to, conversations with other canvassers and the vox pops in the media was that most of the people who were sticking with Labour said things which weren't mentioned at all in our campaign literature. Parents mentioned the extra money and help that they'd got to help them look after their kids. Other people talked about having a job (compared to being on the dole when the Tories were in charge). People talked about the health service and their good experiences with it. To my considerable amusement, I overheard one man say to James Purnell, 'Of course I'm voting Labour, I've always been a socialist'.
And they talked about the Tories - how they didn't like 'em when they were in charge, how they'd noticed the difference and how they didn't think they'd really changed. As one woman put it, "The Tories were making all these promises so we looked it up on the internet if they had to do what they were saying. They don't so we're sticking with Labour. Schools and childcare are important to us. Labour have done good things on that here."
When the overall campaign message is that our candidate is 'one of us' and the other one isn't, it is better to campaign on the issues that our supporters actually care about, and reinforce the things which they think are good about Labour, rather than trying to 'outflank' the Tories from the right on immigration and crime. This did, after all, work in this constituency in 2005, 2001, 1997, 1992, 1987 and 1983. One of the worst things about being a Labour supporter at the moment is that the leadership appear to have no confidence whatsoever in taking on the Tories from the left on any issue whatsoever when it comes to election time.
It would have been good if we'd have given more prominence in our campaign communications to listening to and featuring the opinions of our supporters, giving them the space to explain to their friends and neighbours why they were voting Labour. There was one leaflet which I delivered which was mostly taken up with an extract from an article in the Times about how David Cameron was like a harpoonist or something. This was never likely to be very persuasive.
In elections, people often end up doing what they imagine that other people like them are doing. The newspapers and telly, and opposition parties, were telling people that in this case everyone else was switching away from Labour and that they should do the same. To combat this, we had outsiders, many of whom had never been to Crewe before the by-election, deciding on how Labour would communicate the message that its candidate was rooted in the local community. In both the short and long term, there would have been good arguments for using fewer quotes from the media, and more quotes from local people.
For many of the people at the top of the Labour Party, talking about the 'grassroots' conjures up images of people who go to meetings to slag off the government and pass resolutions. But the real grassroots and foundation of the Labour Party are the ordinary people who stick with Labour through thick and thin, want Labour to stay in government and want to play their part in making sure this happens. Every Labour supporter who I spoke to on the doorstep had better and more persuasive reasons for voting Labour than I've heard from the Prime Minister or any other member of the Cabinet. There's a lesson there that needs to be learned sooner rather than later.