Saturday, February 27, 2016

Ed Miliband: my part in his downfall

There has been a lot written about why Ed Miliband and Labour lost the last election.  But most of it seems to be people explaining what others got wrong, or #whylosingmeansiwasrightallalong.

I think we need something a bit different to help us learn and win next time. So here, for your viewing pleasure, is my story of what I got wrong about the 2015 election.  Here's my part in Ed Miliband’s downfall.

I met Ed Miliband only once.  In the run up to the 2010 election, Ed was touring the country showing a film about climate change for reasons which must have made sense at the time.  He was planning to go to Stroud to show the film, but the local Labour MP had just been endorsed by UKIP and it was decided that Ed needed to go somewhere else.  So I helped put together a visit for Ed to show it at short notice to a group of supportive but bemused Labour activists at the Asian Cultural Centre in East Oxford.  

As it turned out, this was quite a good metaphor for his leadership – doing anything to avoid talking to potential UKIP supporters, and instead doing awkward publicity stunts.  But I digress.

When Ed came to Oxford, what he saw was something which looked like the future of election campaigning and seemed to offer him the path to power.  The local campaign was based on the idea “the more people we talk to, the more will vote for us”.  By mobilising hundreds of volunteers to talk to tens of thousands of voters, Labour was able to identify and turn out its supporters and persuade people who were not natural Labour supporters to back us.

This approach to campaigning had been tried and tested at local, European and at the General Election in places across the country between 2006 and 2010, and been shown to work.  Academic research from the US confirmed its effectiveness.  I wouldn’t claim credit for coming up with this idea, but I certainly thought it would work in the 2015 election.

A political strategy built around mobilising volunteers to speak to voters has a number of implications.  If the key to success is getting enough people to volunteer, that enables a more left wing set of policies than a policy platform aimed at centrist, swing voters.  If a political party can run a strong enough localised campaign with lots of personal contact with voters, then it is possible to bypass the national media and get to people directly rather than by building relations with Rupert Murdoch and other press barons.

I'd love to claim that the reason my brilliant idea didn't work was because of how other people implemented it.  But that just wasn’t true.  All over the country, led by a superb team of party organisers, people implemented this strategy brilliantly.  It was constantly refined, developed and achieved far more than anyone could have asked for.

On General Election day, I ran a committee room in a marginal constituency.  Just in the ward where I was involved, we had over sixty volunteers – more than the Tories had in many marginal constituencies.  In that ward, an urban, working class area, we had a 5% swing from Tory to Labour backed by the best local campaign which anyone could remember.  At 9.59pm, I didn’t know if it would be enough to win the constituency, but if replicated across the country, I was sure it would definitely be enough to see Ed into power.

We all know what happened next across the UK.  In the constituency where I was campaigning, what happened was in the wealthy rural areas, there was a big swing away from Labour and to the Tories, more than enough to cancel out our local work and then some.

So, what went wrong?  I think there are a few different things.

Some of the assumptions were wrong.  Intensive local campaigning didn’t work as a substitute for a national media strategy, a set of policies which appealed to swing voters or a leader who people could believe in.  It was wishful thinking to see this as a replacement for getting these basics right.

We didn’t get the most out of it.  At a local level, one of the most powerful things about talking to lots of people is that it generates lots of great ideas for what to prioritise and how to explain things in a way that resonates.  The ability to listen to millions of people should be a great resource for policy development, but it didn’t seem like it was used in this way.

Doing it right might be too resource intensive.  It is probably no coincidence that many of the places where Labour ran effective local campaigns are university towns.  The presence of a university means that there is a higher than average number of potential volunteers, and urban areas are easier to canvass than rural areas.  Doorstep contact is also most effective when the conversations are followed up.  For MPs, this is relatively straight forward, for prospective candidates, this can be a significant expense in time and money.

Our localised campaigning was better, but so was that of the Tories.  In 2010, the Tory local campaign was hopeless.  In 2015, we were facing incumbent MPs who had mostly spent five years building their profile and support, and who were backed by more money than Satan.

I’m sure there is more to it than that.  But at least that starts to suggest some of the things we might look to do differently in future.  It is still the case, I think, that the more people we talk to, the more will vote for us, even if it turns out there aren’t enough of those people to make Ed Miliband Prime Minister.  But inspiring volunteers to speak and listen to voters should sit alongside the other basics of a good campaign strategy rather than be a short cut to replace these.  We should experiment to find ways of doing this kind of campaigning in areas where it is harder to mobilise volunteers, and look at how to make it less resource intensive.  And there should always be a clear link between the people we listen to and the policies we develop.

If any Labour activists are reading this, I’d be fascinated to read your equivalent to help Labour to do better in future.  What did you get wrong about the last election, what can we learn from it, and what was your part in Ed Miliband’s downfall?