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Paul Abbott is Chief Executive of Conservative Way Forward and an Associate Director at Portland Communications.
Jeremy Corbyn’s smorgasbord of policies may be about as appetizing to the British people as a cup of cold Socialism. But what, comrades, is the state of the Labour machine? It is worth a second look, given how ultra-marginal so many of our seats are, and how contested the coming few years will be. With Corbyn’s first conference announcements now sputtering into the newspapers, I thought it might be worth kicking the tires, peeking under the bonnet, and asking: How is the Labour engine getting on?
The short answer: badly.
The long answer: very badly indeed. Because, we can discover or be reliably informed at least seven reasons that Conservatives should feel cautiously confident, as we look ahead to the City Hall / Assembly / Local / Police & Crime Commissioner elections next year.
1) The Labour brain drain. If the media briefings and the job adverts on W4MP are to be believed, there has been a catastrophic loss from Labour HQ of senior people. This means a decline in experience, poorer institutional memory, and the wastage of any funds spent on training.
Indeed, lessons that may have been learned at exorbitant and bitter cost by Labour HQ during the 2015 campaign will now have to be expensively relearned, by new staff, during future elections. (Hint: ditch the stone tablets.)
Even basic facts, like where the old files are stored or how much to pay to suppliers, can be quickly lost down the memory hole if there is a substantial churn in staff. Compare this with the substantive stability that we have in the senior ranks in the Conservative Party, and this feels like good news.
2) Lack of donations. If you thought Ed Miliband had a PhD in alienating British business, just wait for Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. It is difficult to imagine any twosome more sincere in their desire to confiscate private property, or to attack enterprise, than these two Labour MPs. They are true believers, no doubt. I do not question their sincerity.
But the law of unintended consequences will surely mean that voluntary, personal and business donations to the Labour Party will continue to vanish away. Private contributions had already slowed to a trickle under Ed Miliband. However, the fundraising team in Labour HQ will soon find themselves in an arid desert. Not all the prawn cocktails in all of London’s posh nosheries will save them. What British business, facing the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn looting their safe, or regulating them into bankruptcy, will want to give money to his campaign?
This matters. Labour HQ was briefing, in a series of stage whispers through the last election, that money is irrelevant in communicating with voters. Well, it does matter, actually. Ultimately, we don’t have mass TV advertising and the internet is still young, so British politics is still heavily dependent on pushing pieces of paper through voters’ letterboxes. This costs money. More money = more voter contact = more voters hearing your message. Full stop.
3) Loss of constituency organisers. The lack of money in Labour HQ is also forcing a crippling short-termism into their planning. Having hired a series of young constituency organisers ahead of 2015, I gather that Labour have since allowed the majority of these budding young agents to disappear into the ether.
Gone! Just like that, a generation melts away: most of them never to return. A Parliamentary source on the Labour side tells me that this alone is one of their most weakening habits. The trouble is that Labour cannot afford to do anything else. Corbyn’s no-compromise rhetoric may bag him some floating Green voters, but it is unlikely to raise serious cash.
4) Division in the ranks, with energy wasted on internal purges. We have already seen a rumbling of not-so-veiled deselection threats to Labour MPs, in the newspapers. The warring factions of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown look positively harmonious now, compared to the civil war that is gurgling away in the angrier pits and gutters of the Labour Party.
It is rumoured that shortly after Corbyn’s victory parade, his lieutenants assembled a series of tables for him – setting out which Labour MPs had nominated Liz Kendall versus where their local party had voted differently – and therefore who was vulnerable for the Order of the Boot.
This matters, because political capital is finite. All of the effort wasted on intestinal warfare – by definition – is not spent on building up the Labour machine. Quite the opposite. Team Corbyn seem to be determined to defenestrate Labour MPs who talk about trying to win Conservative votes. For us, this is all to the good.
5) The massive influx of £3 inexperienced members / trade union activists is a logistical nightmare for Labour, as well as an opportunity. The upside for them seems obvious. More foot soldiers = more capacity to fight.
But, there are downsides too. These new recruits may explicitly oppose the local Labour MP, or they may lack any zest for campaigning. The basic mechanisms of pavement politics – doorknocking, mailmerging, volunteer recruitment – are like every other door-to-door trade: long, tiring, and unglamourous. Getting drunk on the repetitive chants at a Stop The War rally in Trafalgar Square might be one thing. But, organising a canvas on a rainy housing estate, on a cold Tuesday evening, is quite another.
It reminds you of the old campaign joke from leftwing journalists. Namely: “the trade union bus is just around the corner”. It is actually phenomenally difficult, and costly, to take a ragged cacophony of enthusiastic volunteers and train them into a gleaming, machine-like phalanx of organisers. Whether Labour can do it with their £3 gang remains to be seen. But I am doubtful.
6) The cult of the marmite personality. Throughout the election, there was a vast swathe of the British public for whom Miliband was their biggest obstacle to voting Labour. These were people who might have voted Labour in the past, but the thought of Ed Miliband now made them squeamish. Despite this blindingly obvious fact – all the public polling said it – Labour HQ continued to push millions of pieces of paper though millions of letterboxes with giant photos of Ed Miliband on them. And in marginal seats, no voter was allowed to escape!
Labour HQ continued to allow Miliband to make solo, introspective speeches to the TV cameras – talking about his own wonkish thesis on PR (“if you want the politician from central casting, it’s not me… there is more to politics than the photo-op”). They continued to push digital content that zeroed in on Ed Miliband the personality, at the expense of everything else. The internal obsession in Labour HQ with publicising their leader – as opposed to building up their wider team – compelled them to make Miliband more and more the focus. Even though he was a vote-loser.
This is what we might usefully call the “cult of the marmite personality”, which takes hold in a campaign when nobody is prepared to confront reality. Labour HQ appeared to believe that Miliband’s woeful ratings on leadership and competence could be solved simply by “more Miliband” – presumably because it was easier to give him this advice. But as a strategy this was like pouring a bucket of water on a drowning man. It made a bad situation worse.
Internal loyalty to Miliband forced a series of atrocious campaign choices, and I believe that Corbyn will be Miliband on stilts. His supporters are even fiercer in their left-wingery, and his mandate is that much stronger. So, when (again) it becomes clear that Britain will not elect a left-wing academic to fix our economy, the new Corbynistas in Labour HQ will surely double down and repeat their old excuse: “Don’t panic! The public just need to get to know him better…”
7) Hollowed out in whole swathes of Britain. Finally, the consequence of all the points above is a long-term wastage of Labour’s local muscle. Campaign discipline is soon forgotten, when there is no longer an energetic MP or candidate around which to organise. The monotony of blanket Ed Miliband leaflets being mass-delivered to marginal seats – which we saw throughout 2015 – is a symptom of Labour’s atrophy as a real local force across the South East, South West, East of England, and parts of the Midlands.
Look at the seats that Labour used to hold, only a few Parliaments ago: seats such as Romford, Braintree, Welwyn Hatfield, Newark, Peterborough, Harlow, Rochester, Crewe, and so on. These are mostly now strong Conservative seats, with strong Conservative MPs and Associations. Incumbency and inertia are powerful forces, and they are stacked against Corbyn.
There are grounds for caution, still. Not least that Labour only need to win a handful of seats from us and do a deal with the SNP, and Corbyn will be Prime Minister for five years. But, equally, his polices are frighteningly extreme, and his machine is misfiring. We have a chance to keep Labour in opposition for a decade or more.