Monthly Archives: September 2010

Beating the Sidekick Tories, sorry, Lib Dems

Here is an article I wrote for the conference special (October 2010) issue of Total Politics. The brief was to provide practical advice to a Labour candidate campaigning against a Lib Dem incumbent.

Before May 2010, the Liberal Democrats were viewed by many Labour and Conservative activists with distaste and derision. Labour and Tories could unite in agreement that Lib Dems were not principled or serious and often downright dishonest.

From a Labour activist’s perspective, Lib Dems are more than ever these things. I suspect many Tories lie awake at night hoping for a chance to win an outright majority and kick Clegg, Cable et al out of the Whitehall bed.

With Lib Dem hands on the levers of government, it’s possible to show what a vote for them really means. It will be a struggle for Lib Dem politicians, blooded by government, to maintain the image of well-meaning community insurgents. Every pothole is now theirs to fix, not just point at.

But challenging a Lib Dem incumbent is tough. They have local profile, good name recognition, media contacts and the resources of town hall or Parliament. They live in constant campaign mode, living the ‘working all year round, not just at election time’ mantra of many a Lib Dem Focus.

Establishing yourself early as a serious, active contender is vital. As soon as you are selected as a Labour candidate, you must start campaigning. And you must not stop. Your opponent certainly won’t. A good candidate devotes weekends and most weekday evenings to campaigning, and forgets about holidays of more than a fortnight.

An early start is a good opportunity to test out voters’ attitudes to your Lib Dem opponent, distil the issues that might sway their vote towards you, and build your own local profile by attending public meetings, the school gate and the church fete. It is also a chance, crucially, to define your opponent in contrast to you.

Analyse and define your opponent in the context of the ConDem coalition. Whether they support it or not, they will be standing on a local or national manifesto that is defined in some way by the actions of the ConDem government. Work out how ConDem public sector cuts will affect local hospitals, schools and policing. How jobs lost will impact on voters. Lead local – and vocal – campaigns against unfair cuts.

Take on the mantle the Lib Dems love to wear: be the candidate with the positive local offer, the hard-working local champion, on the side of local residents. But be more than local – people rarely vote out an incumbent unless someone seeming better comes along. Be that better candidate, show you also have a positive vision for the ward, the constituency or the country, and energy to deliver.

At the same time, set the agenda in your favour. Let’s suppose the major issue for near-future elections will be government cuts. Challenge your opponent on their support for the ConDem coalition and their support for cuts. If police numbers are cut locally, force your opponent to defend that. If they are in favour, go for them. If they hesitate or wobble, go for them. If they go off-message, go for them. Depending on their stance, you can define them as either uncaring, irresponsible, incompetent, slippery or weak. They will hate it.

The Lib Dems have never been in such an awkward position before. Seize the advantage. Campaign on trust and betrayal. Did people vote Lib Dem for a Tory government? Do they feel betrayed by the Lib Dems? Do they feel let down? ‘Lib Dem let downs’ could be a major theme for your campaign literature. The more you rattle Lib Dems, the less effective their campaigning becomes.

Build your support over time, allowing word of mouth to help you. A common mistake is thinking that the short campaign is when most voters make up their minds. Actually it’s important to get your message across long before, and keep restating it.

Don’t be afraid of repeating messages again and again in every leaflet, direct mail, petition or on the doorstep. In political communication it’s only when voters start reciting your message on the doorstep that it’s starting to get through.

Set yourself contact targets. Conversational quality in canvassing is important, but there’s no point if you are only speaking to five voters a week.

Pace yourself with a different doorstep technique for different phases of a campaign. A year out you will have the opportunity to listen to concerns or get petitions signed. Six weeks out, you need speed.

Because Lib Dems say different things on different doorsteps, they work most effectively as lone operatives. Labour campaigners work best as a team. Grow a campaign team of members, family and friends and make sure you thank them after every session.

Study your canvass data. Is it reliable? Is it up to date? If not, it needs to be. Approach known Lib Dem voters and listen to their concerns. Find common cause through issues large and small. Keep gently reminding them that a vote for the Lib Dems has now been scientifically proven to be a vote for the Tories.

Using the marked register, target people who vote but are previously uncontacted. A local survey with a question about voting intentions, delivered to every home can be a great way of finding friendly voters. When you find people who aren’t registered to vote, get them registered. Engage with those who don’t vote to encourage them to vote Labour. Explain how a postal vote makes voting easier.

Make yourself as contactable as possible. A regularly updated blog giving your contact details is a must. Not only is it a place to express your views, it shows the amount of work you do, building incrementally with each update. Use Facebook and Twitter to build online networks, but don’t think they will win it for you.

In the end, the only way to beat a Lib Dem opponent is by mounting a strongly organised ground campaign, defining yourself as the better candidate, setting an agenda that favours your messages and policy positions, canvassing like mad and getting out your vote on the day.

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10 reasons why I support David Miliband for Labour Leader

First off, if you have a vote in the Labour leadership election, you have two days left to cast it (one day if you are a trade union member or member of an affiliated socialist society) and you should vote for whoever you want. I’ve spoken to a range of people over the past few months who are voting for all the other candidates and I respect their choices.

I don’t think I’ve spoken to anyone who hasn’t thought deeply about who to support. I’ve sometimes been saddened to hear of others who have behaved in an uncomradely way towards people who are backing other candidates. This is not a playground game, this is a Labour Party election.

Whoever wins will seek to lead a party unified against the parties we oppose. Whoever wins deserves support across the party to achieve that and win the next election. So let’s have less of the ‘my candidate’s better than yours and you are insane to think otherwise’ and more of the ‘Labour united will be better for the country than the Con-Dem coalition’.

Anyway, in no particular order, my reasons for supporting David Miliband are:

1. Having worked at No 10 at the same time as David (1997-2001, ie the first term) I have observed him close up. I got to know him and I trust him to make the right decisions. He is a team player, a consulter and a gifted political thinker.

2. After any election defeat, there is always a tendency for any party to retreat to a comfort zone, a place to lick wounds. That’s natural, but it’s not going to win elections. The Tories did that after 1997, veering to the right and making themselves unelectable for well over a decade. We live in a centrist country – the votes that win an election are found in the centre ground of politics. David is a politician of the centre left, a progressive. Labour needs to steer to the centre, not away from it. If we don’t win elections, we can’t help the people who need us most.

3. Our most successful Labour prime ministers have pushed reform with vision and vigour. David has the vision and vigour to push reform from the centre ground and is solidly in tune with the aspirations of voters – think, as one example, of the fantastic facilities for learning that have happened as a result of Labour’s Building Schools for the Future programme, a David Miliband brainchild.

4. He has extensive experience in government – both as a senior adviser and as a senior Cabinet minister. He has operated with confidence as a senior figure. Sometimes departments of state are stricken with inertia when problems arise – David has not been afraid to be challenging for the right reasons – think of the stance he took as Foreign Secretary against Israel, traditionally immune to diplomatic criticism, over the forging of British passports for the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh of Hamas.

5. He’s an expert on creating policy that works, appeals and delivers. Look closely at much of Labour’s most progressive legislation from 1997 onwards and you can find the initials DM carved in its architecture.

6. He is rooted in real life – very human, funny without being unkind, awesomely bright without condescension. He’s open, engaging, honest and optimistic. I believe he will bring those qualities to leadership, listening to party members and making decisions based on that listening. Crucially, he can communicate his qualities to the electorate.

7. He’s Labour through and through, and will take apart the Tories for the charlatans they are. He can also attract Lib Dem voters to vote Labour.

8. He’s serious and credible as a future prime minister. He has walked the world stage and earned the respect of international politicians. He understands, with his Movement for Change, that politics has to be restored as a cause for good if Labour activists are community activists.

9. He appeals. In this leadership election, where only Labour supporters can vote, the easy thing would be to appeal to Labour hearts, not minds. Polls of the wider electorate show David can appeal far more widely to the hearts and minds of voters, Labour and otherwise.

10. He’s utterly passionate about Labour politics, keenly aware of Labour’s history and the values that have been handed down to us over the years. But he’s aware too that it’s not the laurels we rest on that win elections, it’s the challenge we make to the electorate to show we can win in the future that really counts.

And finally, here is a quick movie I made when David came to meet South London members.

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On coming 93rd without trying

It’s a very strange sensation, coming 93rd in the Total Politics poll of the 100 favourite Labour blogs. It means I’m fractionally more popular than Austin Mitchell, who came 99th. I am unsure how to deal with this level of celebrity.

What feels most strange is I really don’t deserve to be in the list – though of course I’m grateful to whoever voted for me. I’ll try to blog more regularly to justify the touching optimism of their votes. But, truth to tell, the Total Politics poll wasn’t on my radar, and nor was this very occasional blog.

My glittering 93rd place was effortless. Literally effortless. I did absolutely nothing to win any votes, and seeing myself propelled to the coveted 93rd spot came as a bit of a shock. I had one of those almost-falling-off-chair moments. It felt a bit like winning a school prize for not doing any homework.

I’m reminded of the time I was in a team representing my (comprehensive) school in a public speaking competition. We finished second, defeated by our hated rivals, a grammar school. Finishing second – silver medal, general glow of achievement, better luck next time – it doesn’t sound that bad I suppose. But there were only two teams taking part. Young man, they were better spoken, said one of the judges. We woz robbed.

But life goes on. I have, I must admit, had a very off and on attitude to blogging, to the extent that my blog posts in the past year have been about as frequent as panda sex. In the autumn of last year I rediscovered a love of messing around with a video camera. Armed with the editing software on my computer, I’ve turned out some YouTube videos I’m more proud of than anything I’ve written in a blog. So maybe that explains why I haven’t been doing words – I prefer making movies.

But as there are clearly innumerable numbers of people out there with an eager interest in what I have to say as 93rd most popular Labour blogger, I’ll try to overcome my blog-block and write a bit more.

Meanwhile here’s a video I made of Streatham Labour’s hard-fought campaign this year that saw Chuka Umunna elected as our MP, and some Labour councillors of some merit (one is 93rd most popular Labour blogger believe it or not) re-elected.

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