Lessons from 2005
I am enjoying the new satirical idea being put around by David Miliband's political enemies that he is planning to make Alan Milburn his Chancellor. I'd thought that the 'don't hire Alan Milburn if you want to win an election rule' was one that everyone knew. It's one of the things we found out in 2005, when he was briefly in charge of Labour's election campaign.
It occurs to me that if people have forgotten the Alan Milburn rule, then there might be other lessons from the last general election which have also been forgotten. So here are some of the other things that we all learned three years ago:
1. Despite starting with a majority of over 160, the only way Labour managed to avoid losing an overall majority in 2005 was by taking out loans which it could not afford to pay back. And even though we effectively bankrupted ourselves in trying to keep up with the Tories' spending, they still outspent us.
2. Some people who voted Labour really liked Tony Blair but not Gordon Brown. Others couldn't stand Tony Blair but liked Gordon Brown. We would have lost the election without the support of both of these groups of people.
3. Most of the local campaigning was done by activists who hold more left-wing views than New Labour. There was a drop in the number of these activists, primarily because of Iraq.
4. The Tories piled up votes in their safe seats, whereas Labour was better at targeting resources to the key marginal seats, because we spent more on local organisation, and the Tories spent enormous amounts on those big 'are you thinking what we're thinking?' posters.
There seems to be a kind of fantasy that if only we appoint a cabinet full of Blairites and fight the next election on a purer Blairite ticket (free from the interference of the Brownites who blocked public service reforms) that somehow we would do better. If we do try that then we will be absolutely slaughtered.
Applying the lessons of the last election instead suggests a rather different strategy of things which are necessary, if not sufficient, to do:
- Recognise that the Tories are going to be able to outspend us massively, maybe by as much as 3:1, and we need to make the best of a bad job about this. Make sure that people know that the Tories are trying to 'buy the election' and try to turn that to our advantage as far as possible. Leaflets, policies and messages should reinforce the idea that we're the scrappy underdog up against the vested interests, that our candidates are on the side of the people and theirs are funded by millionaire tax exiles.
- Have a diverse and talented leadership team which includes people who appeal to different groups of electors in the way that the team of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Robin Cook did in 2005.
- Spend every penny available on local organisers, not large billboards or other nonsense. Train them in how to get local people involved in the campaign, and make sure that candidates and MPs spend as close as possible to every waking minute of every day talking to voters.
- Introduce policies which activists and possible activists care passionately about, and which will motivate them to campaign to stop a Tory government getting rid of.
- Don't bring back Alan Milburn.