Nick Palmer on how to mobilise the army of the unaffiliated

This is a really good time to be recruiting new members – indeed, people seem to be recruiting themselves. In Broxtowe alone, we’ve had a couple of dozen newcomers who signed up entirely spontaneously after the election. People who left us a while back are putting Iraq behind them, dismayed by the change of government and seeing us as the only anti-Tory game in town.

That’s great – a core of party activists is absolutely essential. But we also need a strategy for involving people who don’t, for whatever reason, want to join. Being a member of a political party is unfashionable, seen by many as rather like joining the Jehovah’s Witnesses: it doesn’t make you a bad person, but many people think it’s not very cool. We can deplore that but we need to recognise it. And it’s not just us – Tory membership has been falling, even in the year up to the election that they expected to win.

I was MP for Broxtowe from 1997 until three weeks ago. Broxtowe, a mixture of towns and villages west of Nottingham, is traditional Tory territory and the demographics are changing against us, with more and more prosperous commuter housing. In 1992, the last close-run General Election, they won it by a 14% (10,000 votes) margin. This year, they won it by just 0.7% (389 votes), with a swing since 2005 of 2.6%, one of the lowest in England. We lost, but seemingly we’ve still been doing something right.

What was different was the lengths that we went to to attract an army of unaffiliated voters to help.

Step 1 was to frame the battle as local. Contrary to standard advice, we gave my opponent lots of publicity, identifying her as the challenger, reporting her controversial views, challenging her to debates. The election, as we framed it, wasn’t about Cameron vs Brown but Broxtowe Tories vs Broxtowe Labour, and even about her vs me.

Step 2 was to point out that we were underdogs. She was getting megabucks from outside the constituency, she was going to shower people with glossy leaflets, the Tories would have lots of billboards, either they’ll send you 10 expensive letters or they’ve written you off. All true, and it blunted the Tory campaign, since every billboard and leaflet reminded people of our message: they’re trying to buy your vote.

Step 3 was to ask people to do something about it. I’d built up an email list with 10% of the constituency subscribed: I invited them to volunteer to deliver one leaflet and contribute some money via PayPal on the website. Over 100 new people volunteered, none of them party members (we’d already been to the membership well so often that we knew every member willing to deliver), and £1500 of funds rolled in.

We put out a letter to everyone in the constituency saying the same thing. Another 250 people volunteered and another £6500 of contributions came in (plus £3000 from unions and an animal welfare campaign). So by election month, we’d got plenty of new money and had around 400 people ready to deliver leaflets and persuade friends. Moreover, most of these were new enthusiasts, much keener to help than some of the exhausted party members being asked to turn out for the 97th time (note, though, that party members were much more willing to canvass – that’s a step too far for non-partisan volunteers).

Step 4 was to provide a landing stage for people who wanted to support us but didn’t necessarily want to identify themselves with Labour.  So we encouraged non-party supporters to set up informal groups: “Independents for Palmer”, “LibDems for Palmer”, even “Conservatives for Palmer”. It’s an American idea (Republicans for Obama and all that), but it’s not necessarily a bad one: the point is to emphasize that people can support the Labour candidate without agreeing with everything we say. The Independents for Palmer had their own (green) posters, and with scores of them in windows supplementing the red Labour posters, it reinforced the concept of a broad coalition.

Now, there are snags to this.

First, we still lost. On an average swing we’d have lost by 6000.   In the end we lost by 389.  So the approach can get a few thousand votes but it doesn’t make miracles.

Second, it’s important not to neglect political education. We’re now staying in regular touch to persuade the personal supporters to support Labour regularly. I’ve been a Labour party member for 40 years and I’ve no interest in creating some sort of personality cult: the purpose of all this is to open people up and get them willing to cross the party boundary. It’s a prelude to a wider commitment, because once people have voted for a Labour candidate they’re interested in argument why they should make a habit of it. Some will join, many won’t, but they’ll help us win back those marginals.

That’s the real world of British politics today.

Dr Nick Palmer was MP for Broxtowe 1997-2010

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6 Responses to “Nick Palmer on how to mobilise the army of the unaffiliated”

  1. Mike Killingworth says:

    Hi Nick, good to see you here.

    There is of course the point you’ve made elsewhere, that the demographics of Broxtowe turned out to be more favourable for Labour (a relatively large number of public sector professionals) than those of some other seats. An unknown is whether or not the Tory campaign locally was strong or weak. No doubt there will in due course be analyses of the “Ashcroft effect” but the current conventional wisdom seems to be that it dodn’t gain them any seats that spending the same money nationally wouldn’t’ve done. Perhaps one of the parties might spend some money to find out exactly who reads unsolicited mail!

    “Independents for X” is an interesting idea, although of course in theory it’s a game any number can play. You might even welcome it if they did. It may however be that 2005 and 2010 were particularly good elections for that ploy – people may be more willing to identify with the Party next time.

    The animal welfare point is interesting too. Maybe I’m guilty of stereotyping, but I assume that the fairly hefty sums animal welfare charities attract mainly come from the wills of childless elderly women. Whether it would be a good thing to have the equivalent of a PAC in this area I dunno, but Labour should definitely keep an eye on it. Especially if the coalition legalises hunting with hounds…

    More generally I think there needs to be – and I’m sure the Pol Sci academics are putting the numbers through their computers already – a thorough analysis of why the swings varied so much. My guess would be 10% organisation and 90% demography (sorry that leaves 0% for the candidate, doesn’t it – must be the agent in me :lol:)

  2. RK says:

    Nick, very interesting article.

    One thing in particular puzzled me during this election campaign, namely I did not have a single canvasser knocking on my door. We received a hefty number of leaflets from the 3 main parties but no door to door. Why could that be, particularly when Anna S stated that her priority was door to door canvassing? Do I live in a street that was not targetted by the main parties, or is canvassing ‘out’ and other forms of campaigning ‘in’. I’d be very interested in your (and others) views on this point.

    I heard that you made yourself available in Beeston town centre on Saturdays, which is a very good idea to a)make yourself visible and b) make yourself available for questions to a large number of people at once. I would add that your regular emails and support from bloggers/facebook groups/tweeters were good ways to keep up campaign momentum using today’s communication tools, and very effective. Real shame you missed out on so few votes. Here’s to next time!

  3. […] It was interesting to read Gisela Stuart’s account of how they tore up the top-down instruction book on how to conduct a campaign, and got on with what was locally appropriate.  It was good to learn a bit about the efforts to keep Broxtowe Labour.  […]

  4. […] on a local approach to elections seems to be one of the lessons learned by a certain part of the Labour Party. […]

  5. Cleopatra says:

    I’m the dictionary definition of the unaffiliated in your article… Never joined the party (Iraq, ID cards, 10% tax – nothing new here) but have thought about it more over last month. This year I delivered leaflets in two constituencies and yes – canvassing was a step too far (see above).

    But my experience was quite different. Glad to hear you’re being proactive Nick but I think some MPs are way behind. I wasn’t approached I did the approaching to both MPs. But I don’t seem to have been ‘captured’ anywhere. No communication since the election (or thanks that came from or appeared to come from the MP at any stage). Maybe it was because I only did six evenings/half days or because both MPs won comfortably (although one was in potential real danger) or because loyalty is taken for granted. It’s very likely I will deliver again but it’s no thanks to being made to feel valuable.

    This is down to these two MPs and the way their offices are run. But their lack of taking this opportunity has a much wider impact (voters can also move home) which probably needs to be looked at more widely

  6. Kevin Ward says:

    As a resident of Broxtowe for over 10 years, I didn’t vote for Dr Palmer mainly because he voted, in parliament, for the introduction for ID cards and for the Iraq war. If my member of parliament is not representing my views then no amount of leaflets, point-scoring or canvassing is going to make me vote for them. It’s that straightforward.

    One positive thing you can take from this though, is that we did have one of the highest turnouts in the country! 🙂

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