The Stories that Back Up Labour Together – from Nathan Oswin

The Labour Together report is an incredibly comprehensive look at the 2019 election from Labours perspective, but also looks further back on trends with the ominous warning being that there is no guarantee these trends will turn around of any natural accord. It’s the stark reality that complacency could take us from a grievous strike to a death blow for our party.

The report and accompanying webinar and workshops this past Monday were informed by 11,000 survey respondents from across the movement and in depth interviews with 30 candidates.

Just before Labour Together had announced their report, Minerva Campaigns, where I’m a director and founder, had started collating stories from the election and some of those stories really help put some flesh on the bones that the review talks about.

I’ve picked out a few of those from marginal seats or Labour held seats we lost and included them below.

“My view is that since 2010 we have placed far too much emphasis on the importance of door-to-door campaigning whilst neglecting the fact that you can’t win with poor messaging, policy and communications. We had an excellent ground operation with high voter ID rates and exceptional attendance of hundreds of activists on the day. I concede we’ll have got out some additional voters on the day but I remain to be convinced as to whether conversations with activists swayed a material number of swing voters.”

A large portion of the Labour Together report deals with the lack of any framing around the onslaught of daily policy decisions which was so heavy it would even take policies that were received well and replace them with policies that weren’t with air time. I’m not sure I can even remember the strapline the Party used in 2019 as I sit here typing just 6 months later, how was this ever going to compete with the Tories “get Brexit done” slogan – short, snappy, instructive, determined and resolute sounding.

“Our many and various policies in the manifesto and also outside of the manifesto at conference or trailed in the media created lots of confusion and often hostility. There are many examples but I’ll give you a few here. The proposed abolition of private schools alienated many potential swing voters in my constituency who were probably remain supporters, often BAME”

Perhaps the biggest challenge the party has immediately, the breakdown of traditional labour voters into groupings who feel less affinity with the party and how to bind those groups together. What issues and policy positions can link guardian reading academic types in nice outskirts of cities, former pit-workers across the coal-fields, BAME communities in inner cities, students on a campus, young people who haven’t gone to university and feel abandoned by the system?

During the webinar on Monday this challenge was reinforced by conversations around “class” rather than specific demographic features or mosaic coding, as if the idea of working, middle and upper class boxes fitted into our modern world and that’s before you even focus on occupation as the way to pigeon hole people. How can class function properly as a definition when officers in Local Government, traditionally middle class, are likely to earn less than brickies, sparkies or chippies, all traditionally working class roles. 

Until Labour remembers that the new kings and queens of party affinity factors are age and educational attainment it will continue to struggle to create audience pools to target appropriately with messaging. Until this stage is reached we couldn’t even realistically road test messaging as it would be being compared to the wrong demographic factors.

“Getting hold of campaign materials was frustrating. We ordered out-cards and we reassured they would arrive. In the end they turned up a couple of days before the election. What a waste of time, money and trees!”

“The Phone banking service simply didn’t work. With our most active members being in their seventies, evening doorknocking was not even attempted. With no phone system, we could only work in the day-time.”

“Poor organisation of print from Labour Connects. Print from Labour Connects of GOTV and leaflets was over a week late.”

“the support with two direct mail leaflets through Labour Connects was very useful although the impact was diluted by the delay in the delivery dates within a few days of each other at the end of the campaign. I had been told by Regional Office to make sure that the first DM leaflet was ready for the campaign start, so it was a big let down when it didn’t then go out”

a problem with the algorithm that meant households new to the register since the last GE didn’t show on any recommended report.”

“We had constant issues with Contact Creator”

What came through more than anything else in the stories we heard across the marginal seats was how hampered candidates, organisers and activists felt by the parties systems – only once was any system positively mentioned. An urgent priority for the party as a structure must be to resolve this, if we are to continue to have the same strategic prioritisation for doorknocking it is imperative that the systems exist to support that activity or, at the very least, there is a directory or organisations and groups that CLPs and candidates can go to for support with this.

“One Community Organiser insisted on running an event in the constituency prior to the election, which the MP’s office had already done, then proceeded to ask us for the contacts for the same group that attended the last event”

“At the beginning of the campaign, two different CO’s came to our campaign launch promising to give us support throughout the campaign. We didn’t see them again. We did see them (plus other regional staff) working full time in another constituency, a constituency we didn’t hold, that ended up with a lower share of the vote than they did in 2017”

“We were asked to pull campaigners from a doorknocking session to stand behind a senior Labour figure at a factory in the middle of the day, and consistently got mixed up dates, times and candidates in communications regarding Shadow Cabinet visits”

“Not one party hosted event took place in Scotland outside of Glasgow for the entire GE campaign”

“Our candidate was looking for someone “with graphic design skills” this could have been done anytime in the near 24 months prior or skills could have been identified and gaps filled with training”

“some occasions, more so when out with our candidate, there seemed to be some Damascus like conversions where people who had been canvassed in May as Brexit Party or Tory were now definite Labour and other aspects of optimistic interpretations of feedback from the doors”

“Members in London, East, and South East regions were being directed and drawn to unwinnable seats (Finchley and Golders Green, Uxbridge and South Ruislip) as a vanity project when we did not have the activists in Labour held seats. Momentum as an organisation were more helpful than the central party in the final few weeks of the campaign however this was too late”

“There was *no* support from the national party in any form. No financial assistance for a key battleground seat, no useful campaign materials, no directing of resources of any kind, especially volunteers. Members in our own patch were directed to completely unwinnable seats the party had decided to target based on pure fantasy. My only interaction with the national party was a protracted drama after they lost my Freepost completely in the computer system and I had to do it again from scratch. The ‘Recommended Doorstep ID’ rounds were completely bizarre and not at all targeted, meaning we had to create our own”

Easily the biggest theme across these marginal seats was the scenes of chaos that were happening across the country. Volunteers shipped off the areas we had no chance of winning because the target list was never reviewed, interactions with organisers that added pressures and took away scarce resource – there is a real sense of anger and frustration from candidates who had given up two years of their lives, spent thousands of pounds of their own money to help local communities and felt completely and utterly abandoned by the structure itself for the most part.

One of the largest conclusions for the Labour Together report is that we need to have community organising playing a central and lead role in the party moving forward but there were some scathing comments about how this model of organising has been put into practice in the feedback we received, though the report itself mentions how often the role was misunderstood by regional teams though many felt that organisers making speeches, meeting community leaders themselves rather than passing the relationships onto candidates and being involved in CLP politics was inappropriate. In addition the organising unit having its own line management structure whilst being based in the regions as organisers clearly did not work. If Community Organising is to be a mainstay of the party in the future we need to do better at defining what it is, who is responsible for is and where the line is between activist and officer.

There’s so much more to be said about the report, how much better the Tories are at us with digital technology, there sense of social media being about data collection rather than another channel to simply push out a message, there centralised grasp on comms, there structure and responsibilities attached to individuals. The more you read on this the more you sense a professional organisation came up against an amateur one with predictable results.

Then there’s the branding, Labour is a damaged brand and a new leader doesn’t simply change the brand of the party itself, there’s the Tories managing to represent change and being an anti-establishment party despite being in Government for nearly a decade.

All without mentioning Jeremy Corbyn, Brexit or Anti-Semitism.

If you want to feed into our stories about the General Election please drop me a line, in confidence, at njoswin@gmail.com or visit our website at www.minervacampaigns.com and fill in the contact form.

For now however I’ll leave you with a quote from the Labour Together report and one more line from the stories we’ve collected though there is still far more to be said about the recommended steps.

“A lot of the issues with our ground campaign relate to old fashioned, highly bureaucratic, siloed and hierarchical organisation that has not been brought up to date and methods of campaigning and communication that do not fit modern reality.” – The Labour Together report

“It was the worst election campaign I’ve ever been involved in in terms of the lack of direction or support of any kind from the national party” – Minerva Campaigns, Stories from the General Election 2019

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