Dear Ed, remember that party members are not normal

by Tom Harris

Dear Ed,

2011 will be a tough year for you and for our party.

Remember when we last spoke, you asked me what I thought we needed to do in order to win the next election? Having given the subject some thought since then, I think I can now flesh out my original, admittedly unsatisfying, response of  “win more seats than the Tories”.

Before being able to answer your question, however, it seems sensible to ask why we lost the last election. A recent YouGov poll of ordinary voters concluded that the three main reasons were Labour’s record on immigration, the damage the recession did to our economic credibility, and the personal unpopularity of your predecessor, Gordon Brown.

However, YouGov asked the same question of Labour party members, and the answers were significantly different. Neither Gordon Brown nor immigration figured prominently in their responses; instead they cited becoming out of touch with ordinary voters and failing to do enough to help its natural working-class supporters (although they agreed that the recession was an important factor).

So why the disconnect between voters and our own party members? In fact, I think it’s a disconnect that applies to all activists of any party. Let’s face it, as you and I know from personal experience, Labour party activists are a pretty strange bunch. Normal people don’t, on the whole, volunteer to sit in a cold community hall on a dark, damp Thursday evening taking part in a heated debate about the accuracy of the minutes of the last meeting.

And “normal” people would not consider an hour spent interrogating local councillors about the effectiveness of refuse collection an hour well spent. No, sitting at home in front of the telly with your family – now, that’s normal. Or watching or even playing football – that’s considered normal by most people. Shoving leaflets through people’s doors on a Saturday morning or knocking on their doors and interrupting “Corrie” to ask them how they intend to vote? Not so much.

Thank goodness they do, mind you – neither you nor I would be MPs if it weren’t for our volunteer army of activists; they’re what keeps the party machines – and democracy itself – going. But as a source of reliable strategic political advice, they’re at best a bit hit and miss.

And the problem with too many party activists is that they spend far too much time talking about politics – full stop. Not only that, but when they talk to others about politics it’s usually with other activists from the same party, so whatever opinions and prejudices they already hold are unlikely to be challenged or changed.

It’s a long-established problem which we’ve never quite come to terms with or tackled. In the 1980s we fell into the trap of imagining that the wider electorate saw things the way we, as Labour party members, did. We would think nothing of voting in favour of higher taxation, for example, because we could see that that would benefit wider society. Surely others would adopt the same selfless attitude?

Immigration? A boon to the economy. And the only people who want to restrict it are a very small number of unsophisticated bigots, surely?

Should we have persuaded Gordon Brown to step aside before the last election? Of course not. After all, the vast majority of delegates attending the general management committee of Lesser Upper East Fulchestershire agreed unanimously that the (now former) Prime Minister’s attraction to the electorate would become more obvious as polling day drew nearer…


So don’t become too reliant on polls telling you that the electorate think higher taxes are just a super idea. There’s a huge difference, not only between what people tell pollsters and what they actually believe, but also between what people see as desirable and what will persuade them to switch their votes between parties. Yes, everyone agrees that mega-multi-millionaires have it too easy and don’t pay enough tax. Which is probably true. But would those same voters be willing to change their vote as a result?

The enthusiastic activists of UK Uncut will say yes. Actually, they wouldn’t say it; they would shout it. Very loudly. Through a megaphone. In your face. And when they occupy the Stockport branch of Top Shop to protest at the owner, Philip Green’s, alleged tax avoidance shenanigans, they point to polls showing nearly 80 per cent support for their cause. This is a campaign Labour should be supporting, they say. It will win us tons of votes and put us over the top come the next election.

But, like the apologists for the violence of the recent student demonstrations, these are not your average representatives of the working class, let alone the wider electorate. To illustrate my point, let’s play a quick game of word association: if someone hear the words “Top Shop” and their immediate response is “tax avoidance” or “Philip Green” rather than “Kate Moss” then they’re probably not the ideal person from whom to take your political advice.

So, best of luck. Leader of the opposition is the toughest job in politics. You will do it well – you might even get a promotion in four years’ time – provided you avoid the trap of assuming that Labour Party members’ priorities are the same as the public’s.

Tom Harris is Labour MP for Glasgow south.

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33 Responses to “Dear Ed, remember that party members are not normal”

  1. James says:

    As per usual – on the money!

    It is a shame that Harris gave up his blog, it is a travesty for Labour he isn’t in the shadow cabinet.

  2. So, Tom, I think what you’re saying is: Labour shouldn’t decide what it believes to be in the best interests of this country, go to the people and make the case honestly for it. Instead the Party should constantly follow polls and tailor its policies to fit them exactly?

    Instead of trying to influence the British people, Labour should follow them. Instead of wondering why so many people (particularly those who should naturally support Labour) would rather “sit at home in front of the telly” and think about Kate Moss than show any enthusiasm for politics, we should encourage them to do so and perpetuate this cycle of disengagement and apathy.

    Just because you long ago gave up on the idea that politics can change people’s lives, you think Labour should also and you sneer at those who protest against injustice. What exactly are you doing to make the world a better place? Do you believe it could be a better place? Is a win for Team Labour at any cost more important than making the world a better place?

    What you call “public opinion”, as measured by polls is little more than a snapshot of the agenda set by newspapers owned, by and large, by incredbily wealthy businessmen. It should be a no brainer that the interests of these wealthy businessmen probably won’t tally with the genuine opinions of oridinary folk.

    But if people read in the newspapers every day that progressive taxation – for example – will burden them and their families and they don’t hear anyone, say, the Labour Party, articulating the reasons why progressive taxation would benefit them and the vast majority of British people, then of course polls will find people opposed to progressive taxation.

    Suggesting that Labour should monitor polls and follow them blindly reduces politics to little more than marketing. Has it ever crossed your mind that this fundamentally cynical and dishonest approach to politics is the reason why turnout is falling, why Labour has lost so much support particularly from its base and why, ultimately, the Tory Party is in power?

  3. Real Labour says:

    Tom Harris you are a disgrace to labour, the only reason you’re not in UKIP is because you want the Scots to vote for you.

  4. There may be some truth here bit it is shrouded in glibness. Should a party always ditch a leader who has become unpopular in the country? Of course not. Leaders sometimes have to be unpopular. We cannot merely “focus group” everything and try to ape the hive mind. We need to bring forward imaginative solutions to the problems people are facing. We won’t do that by being insular, I agree, but equally we won’t do it by being populist.

  5. mary says:

    Just joined the party so I assume last month I was a ‘member of the public’ whose opinion was valid and this month ‘a member’ whose opinions are out of touch. Odd. I’m pretty much the same person except now I have a little red card. Do I now have to leave the party pronto in order to ensure I avoid demotion of my point of view?

    Perfectly willing however to be both a labour party member and a voting member of the public as I hadn’t heard that the two were mutually eclusive states of being.

  6. More reasonable than is normal for Tom Harris, but still missing the point slightly.

    For a start, most Labour Party members are like ordinary voters – they don’t do any activism at all. Many more just do the occasional leaflet round at election times.

    Second, activists will have talked to voters. I know I did, and there definitely was a feeling of disconnection between our core vote – in southern areas at least, I can’t speak for Tom’s path – and the Labour Party. I suspect this shows up less amongst voters because a) the most disaffected didn’t vote and b) the disaffection tended to amplify other concerns – especially immigration and the economy. I’ll agree it was amplified because Labour Party members were even more ignored than our working class base – when we weren’t being sneered at instead – but you didn’t have to knock on many doors to find somebody who voted Labour up to 2001 and now wasn’t voting or voting Tory because they felt the government wasn’t doing anything for them.

    And I’d add that the notion that activists only talk to activists is quite obviously wrong. Labour Party activism involves talking to non-members – activism relies upon contacting other people! If you don’t remember that, then I’d suppose you need to go home and improve your constituency’s contact rate.

    Yes, Labour members are less hostile to immigration than working class voters. And yes, some of us liked Brown better than the electorate at large – although you’re living in denial if you think there was anything like unanimous support for him from the grassroots.

    But it’s a big logical leap from there to the assumption that we’re a bunch of ivory tower types with no connection to the population at large. Next time you intend to pontificate absurdly on a similar note, can I suggest deleting the post and going out and doing some canvassing instead? You’d save a voter from having some strange Labour Party activist knocking on their door, after all…

  7. donpaskini says:

    So your advice is to pay attention to opinion polls rather than Labour activists, but not to pay attention to opinion polls because people might not tell pollsters what they really believe and anyway even if we do the things which people say they want, then it might not change how they vote.

    Amazing, really, that Ed Miliband didn’t give you a job with insights like that.

  8. Chris says:

    Spot on!

  9. Liberanos says:

    So clearly correct in every respect, and not even particularly revelatory. Just obvious common sense, the dissemination of which Tom achieved with such success on his blog.

    I disagree with Tom in one respect. I fear that Ed simply does not have the look, feel or sound of a Prime Minister. And I’m fairly sure he’ll never be one.

  10. Darrell says:

    Actually, its not Tom Harris that is ‘bang on the money’…it’s News from Nowhere…

  11. Willie says:

    Tom is for once right – but had he stated that the popes a catholic or a bear sh*ts in the woods he would still have been right and just as inciteful . Definite nomination for an award for stating the bleeding obvious which has been stated so many times before often in a more original and amusing manner. Gave up the blog because hed perhaps ran out of anything new or interesting to say ?

  12. William says:

    To win the next election,Labour HAS to admit to the rank incompetence of the ‘no more boom and bust ‘ bluster of Gordon Brown.The electorate are not ignorant,which is why we lost 91 seats and polled less than 30 percent of the vote.Put it another way,the electorate overwhelmingly rejected the only party that had ,without anybody’s consent,increased the population by 3 million immigrants.They also rejected a party that, in government,increased national debt ,massively, with obvious consequences,in contradiction of the ‘bluster’about balance over the cycle.At present, Ed Milliband is just talking to himself and existing party members.We were nowhere in non urban England in 2010.If we cannot come up with policies that appeal to middle class England(remember TB), we will become just a debating society for comfortably off people from north London.

  13. Chris says:

    Dear Ed,

    Don’t take too much advice from some of your MPs who seem to believe the average English voter has opinions more in common with tea party activists than Labour Party activists.

  14. Ryan Thomas says:

    Lovely to know that a prominent Labour MP sees the role of party members solely as serfs to use for knocking doors come election time. Very encouraging.

  15. Phil says:

    Your argument is far less convincing if you insert a single word after “multi-millionaires” so that it becomes:
    “Yes, everyone agrees that mega-multi-millionaire BANKERS have it too easy and don’t pay enough tax. Which is probably true. But would those same voters be willing to change their vote as a result?”

    I fail to see why this minor nuance changes the substance of the argument materially, so giving you grounds to change your answer of “no”.

    And I will indeed shout from the rooftops that you are wrong. Very clearly in my opinion, reducing the taxation of banks while putting up VAT is a toxic combination for this Government.

    But then who am I to doubt the wisdom of the strategic insights coming out of that closed world that we call the Westminster village?

  16. Iain Gill says:

    sadly with the Conservatives/Liberals happily carrying on the Labour policy of handing out ICT visas like confetti for the hundreds of thousands on mainly Indian nationals to swarm in bringing their families with them, many ending up staying here for ever, bringing their racist bullying practises with them, undercutting the native workforce with their slave labour practises, nicking UK intellectual property and moving it to India on a mass scale to further undercut us, and not a dicky bird from any of the main parties

    Where is the party that understands the views of the ordinary people on stuff like this?

  17. theProle says:

    Tom Harris talks much sense. If he was became leader instead of Ed, I would imagine you would rapidly become more electable.

    He has a better idea of where the average voter stands than most Labour activists.

    I say this as someone who frankly would rather you never saw office again, so feel free to ignore him. But, if you ignore him, that way leads to the wilderness. You will only ever come back if 1) The Tories really mess up badly over something (think poll tax), and you become the “least worst option” or 2) You change policies for some that people actually want.

    Your choice guys…

  18. Robert says:

    I left Labour it was not over Immigration, immigration is here to stay people coming here will be here to stay so to say.

    I left labour because of the change in the Party to a Thatcherite position, no social housing, welfare reforms hitting the most vulnerable, and work! jobs for god sake, if you want me to work find me a bloody job, because I cannot.

    Never mind.

  19. Robert Eve says:

    Is the Labour Party still in existence?

  20. Chris says:



    1. The tories won after the poll tax.
    2. We haven’t got any policies yet.

  21. Boris Backer says:

    Great article. Very true. Though it can be applied to activists of all parties. A Tory activist tried to convince me that the reason we (the Tories) didn’t win May’s election is that we didn’t have strong enough views on Europe. As much as I tried to explain to him that the public couldn’t care less about Europe right now, he was insistent, adamant, absolutely certain that we’d have won the election if we’d committed to withdrawing from the EU. He didn’t have a clue.

    One other point. What a sad state of affairs that a popular and thoughtful MP is getting such abuse from his own side for doing nothing more than stating the bleedin’ obvious.

  22. D says:

    I actually agree with Tom.

    “Immigration? A boon to the economy. And the only people who want to restrict it are a very small number of unsophisticated bigots, surely?”

    This is actually something that is prevalent among the Left. (And I am myself “among the eft”). I thinks it stems from the belief that everyone else is as educated on certain issues as we are. Idk!

    But there often is an element of bigotry involved and sometimes I do think people need to be called out on this. Although preferably not by the PM in an accidental recording…

  23. james says:

    Having said that, Tom must surely admit that Labour party activists are more normal than MPs…

  24. Jizer says:

    Harris you’re a plonker!

  25. Chris D says:

    Very much agree with the article, but find the comment thread a bit alarming. If we wish to represent the people of this country again, then perhaps holding attitudes such as “I thinks it stems from the belief that everyone else is as educated on certain issues as we are” may prove unhelpful.

    Most concerning is the attitude shown in this, from News from Nowhere:

    “Instead of wondering why so many people (particularly those who should naturally support Labour) would rather “sit at home in front of the telly” and think about Kate Moss than show any enthusiasm for politics, we should encourage them to do so and perpetuate this cycle of disengagement and apathy.”

    Why ‘should’ people naturally support Labour? Those votes are not our right, we have to give them a reason to vote for us. Lots of people are very happy with their lifestyles, including thinking about Kate Moss, or indeed watching TV. We are asking for their vote in order to have the privilege of representing them, not hectoring them because they choose to spend their leisure time doing something different to us. Attitudes such as this will not help us achieve anything at all.

  26. Edward Carlsson Browne says:

    I disagree with Chris D entirely on this. Yes, people have the right not to vote, and yes, people may find Kate Moss more interesting than tax credits, but Labour is the party most likely to do anything to improve the lives of the disaffected and we need their votes to do well.

    We shouldn’t patronise them – that comment on immigration is a good example of something never to say to a voter – but if you want to get non-voters by default to turn out on polling day, you have to hector them. Politely and without rancor, but consistently. Otherwise very few of them will vote. That’s just how it is when your base is less likely to turn out than the bases of other parties.

  27. Johnredsocks says:

    You’re spot on, but what you say hurts :O(

  28. Chris says:

    @Tom Harris

    Yet more Blairite stick for Labour party members, having spent the past few years being apologists for Iraq, authoritarian anti-terror laws and other assorted cock-ups. We finally get a leader who wants to listen to party members, maybe even take note of few things that they say and up pops Blairite tendency telling Ed that party members are crazy commie socialists totally out of touch with normal people (who are all free marketeers longing for libertarian utopia).

    @Chris D

    Yawn, your pious attitude is ever so boooring. It was Blair that believe he could take the “core vote” for granted because “they had no where else to go”. It worked for a while but by 2010 those voters who made up the core vote decided to stay at home or vote for somebody else.

    “Why ‘should’ people naturally support Labour?”

    Because our policies should naturally support our natural supporters.

    “Those votes are not our right, we have to give them a reason to vote for us.”

    Exactly, but what policies will give a reason for low and middle income people reasons to vote for us? Re-introducing a 10p tax band? Reducing VAT? Scrapping the 50p tax band for the top 1% of earners?

    “. We are asking for their vote in order to have the privilege of representing them, not hectoring them because they choose to spend their leisure time doing something different to us.”

    It isn’t about patronising or hectoring, who suggested that? But politicians need to re-build trust in politics and get people interested in politics.

  29. john reid says:

    news from nwhere ,thats a bit unfair, Firstly telling the public whattothink in 83 and then telling them they were wrong not to vote for us after it was madness, and sometimes you can forsee the sea change as Callaghan did in 78, it wouldn’t have changed the resul, but if we saw it we could have made preperations from 78-83.

  30. Graham Day says:

    We should remember here that Harris is an MP because the “machine” dropped him into a safe seat, and that (perhaps as a result, who knows?) his own local party is utterly moribund. Of course, he obviously thinks they’re all weirdos, so he’s quite happy about that.

    I am curious though, at what point did Labour Party members – you know, the one’s who stick leaflets through doors to get the likes of Tom Harris elected – become “strange”? In 1950, when we had a million members. were we all “strange”? Now, when we have, what, 150,000, well, _obviously_ we’re strange, but at what point did the transition from “normal” to “strange” occur? I ask only for information…

    And I believe we still have an ambition to be a mass party again, how can we do that when our MPs denounce our members as “strange”?

    An earlier comment wondered why Tom Harris isn’t a member of the Labour shadow cabinet. Frankly, I’m amazed he’s even a member of a party which he clearly despises.

  31. Graham Day says:

    PS: it’s worth mentioning that the whole piece is a classic exercise in straw man building. I wondered why he’s a member of a party he despises, I also wonder why our party has MPs who are so intellectually bankrupt.

  32. Tom Harris MP says:

    “dropped him into a safe seat”? How did you work that one out?

    I had been an active member of Cathcart Labour Party – serving as branch chair, conference and GC delegate and CLP chair – for 15 years by the time I was selected.

  33. Graham Day says:

    Fair enough, maybe my memory is wrong.

    But I note that you don’t deny that your local party is moribund, nor that you think they’re not “normal”, nor that you’re not interested in a mass party, nor that your piece above is all about straw men.

    So, why is it that you’re in the Labour Party again?

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