Knock on Tory Doors: the Lessons from Hitchin & Harpenden

I got a positive result in Hitchin & Harpenden. I increased Labour’s vote by 4,020 (7.1%) and moved Labour from 3rd to 2nd place. It was the largest number of votes for Labour since 2001 and one of the best results for Labour in an “unwinnable seat” in the country. 20.6% of the vote in one of the bluest parts of Tory Hertfordshire is not to be sniffed at.

But my satisfaction with my own result was totally consumed with grief at the national picture. Dozens of our members had been working in neighbouring Stevenage: many of them were new to the party and/or new to campaigning. As a local party we almost certainly knocked on many more doors in Stevenage than we ever did in our own constituency – at least during the short campaign. But then the stakes were high: we wanted Ed Miliband to be Prime Minister and winning in Stevenage seemed the best way of achieving that.

The scale of the campaign operation in Stevenage was something I’d never seen before – and it was the third key seat General Election campaign I had worked in. It was inconceivable to me that a campaign on this scale could possibly be unsuccessful – let alone go backwards. During the short campaign they were making 2,000 then 3,000, 3,500, 4,000, 5,000 contacts a week. The site of 5,517 contacts on the board during the final full week of the campaign terrified the wits out of me. Stevenage CLP was routinely making one of the highest number of contacts in the country. If contact rates alone won elections, Labour should have won Stevenage by a landslide.

Seeing the Tories not only hold Stevenage but increase their majority smashed to pieces everything I had ever assumed about the “ground war”.  How could we have performed so badly when we had worked so hard?

I guess the first observation is that Voter ID only helps you win elections if there are enough Labour voters to identify. Stevenage had armies of Undecideds – and by undecided, I mean, they didn’t know whether they wanted David Cameron or Ed Miliband as Prime Ministers: what canvassing geeks know as the DDUs. I understood that we were working on the DLYs, the DDYs, the DSYs and the rare DTYs (ie. Labour-leaning Undecideds) but the DDUs seemed to outnumber them all. And, of course we weren’t knocking on Tory doors at all as they were removed from the canvass sheets when identified. I guess my point is: were we doing enough to increase the pool of Labour promises?

Over in Hitchin & Harpenden, of necessity I talked to lots of voters who weren’t Labour supporters. I was struck by the lack of tribal voting: many people in the constituency had moved out from inner London and you don’t become a Tory overnight the moment you move to Hertfordshire. What happens is, you never hear from your local Labour party for years on end and then your Tory councillor turns up and he seems quite nice. Before you know it, you are voting Tory because they are the people who represent your concerns in your local community.

This observation was borne out by my email inbox. The avalanche or emails I received on left leaning causes from what I thought were True Blue communities was overwhelming.

On two separate occasions, people told me that their village was full of Labour voters: London types who’d moved out of London for the “Good Life”. Tom and Barbara not Jerry and Margo. Yet, even delivering leaflets in these villages would require major advances in our campaign.

And I was also struck by the feedback I received from my performance at the hustings. Messages from people who said they wouldn’t normally vote Labour but I impressed them so they would vote for me. So a credible Labour voice can make a difference – even in the bluest of blue communities.

And by credible, I don’t just mean confident: I mean being willing to engage with people’s issues on their terms. The farmers who can’t get their kids into the local village school because they live too far away, the parents desperate for a new secondary school which has been delayed due to an effective anti-development campaign, the football club that is under threat from losing its ground to a new supermarket. All of these problems are caused by the failures of capitalism and Labour can – and should have effective solutions to them.

In some of our Labour communities, some Labour voters would walk across broken glass before they’d vote Tory. Some – but not all – Tory voters think the same way about voting Labour. Many simply want a credible voice who will understand their concerns and has solutions to address them. This isn’t even about political ideology: after all, there is widespread support in the Home Counties for railways nationalization. But Labour could do worse than to send its campaign teams out to knock on Tory doors. We might even surprise ourselves with the responses we receive.