AV may be dead, but our obsession with marginals needs to go too

by Ben Cobley

So the AV referendum is come and gone. Life has quickly gone back to normal without many of us giving the whole blasted charade much more thought.

That is in many ways a blessing, for while plenty of energy was injected into the campaigns, they quickly reverted to the sort of down-and-dirty tribal mud-slinging that we already get more than enough of in party politics. Once the campaign went down this route, the coalition of Tories and Labour tribalists on the No campaign was always going to triumph.

For Labour, there is now a temptation for us to shrug our shoulders, be thankful that we did not have a disastrous split, and continue as we were.

However that would be a mistake; there are lessons to be learned. The debate on AV gave us an opportunity to think deeply about the way we do our politics both within the Labour party and in the country as a whole– and for some of us it cast a light on the present way of doing things that was far from flattering.

The lessons to be learned also tie in with those issues arising from disastrous Scottish election results and the disappointingly piecemeal gains in southern England, which remains a desert for Labour. They are about how we do our politics –particularly the way that we willingly turn our backs of whole swathes of the nation in a quest for short-term advantage in a few marginal seats.

The 2010 General Election may have given cause for plenty of backslapping by Labour’s electoral strategists, with Labour securing 40% of the House of Commons on 29% of the vote. But our strategies from now on should surely focus a little less on “getting out the vote” and a little more on attempting  to convince people that we might be worth voting for.

For me, thinking about AV and electoral reform made me realise properly, for the first time, how much the voting system dictates how we go about our democratic politics – especially in relation to marginal constituencies or marginal wards.

Basically, under the current first past the post (FPTP) system, if you are a normal non-member and live in a safe Labour seat or an area where we have no chance of winning, the chances are you will be barely aware a local Labour party exists until an election comes along – and maybe not even then. Out of neglect, complacency and strategic direction of resources to other places, local parties in these areas are often weak, unmotivated and starved of funds.

Be in no doubt that this is partly a function of the system, for FPTP there is no short-term reward for parties to invest resources in non-marginal seats. The system effectively sets the whole campaigning dynamic, forcing strategists to focus on a relatively small number of target seats while effectively ignoring the rest – and ignoring all the people within them.

We are now reaping the harvest of this approach, for when political parties do not engage with voters, those same voters are distanced from the political process and from the essence of democracy itself. The lack of engagement and involvement by people in local politics is also to the detriment of local parties, allowing relatively small and self-selecting groups to hold sway and opening up all sorts of possibilities for abuse of power while deterring outsiders.

The declines in membership that result from failure to value members and voters outside marginals present additional challenges when it comes to campaigning and raising money. These are mitigated by FPTP, because focusing on selected marginal constituencies means you can fight an election with relatively few activists.

The voting system and a lack of resources make such tactics irresistible, yet they are ultimately damaging to the cause of democracy, to the party, and to the aim of getting people involved in politics generally. How can we expect to attract new members when we decline to give people any attention locally unless they live in one of the few areas that are genuinely contested at election time?

Seen in this light it seems clear that the system is a major part of a more general democratic malaise we have, both as a country and as a party. The more we fight tactically under the system as it is, the more we ignore the rest of the country. And the more we ignore the bulk of the voters, the less support and less legitimacy we have in the long term.

The principal attraction of AV for me was that it would have given more power to voters who do not live in currently marginal constituencies – because there would be more marginals.  At a time when we are looking to reinvigorate the party through the refounding Labour process and policy consultations, the customary practices act like a handbrake. Especially, the pressing need to gain new members and new life stands squarely in conflict to our prevailing ethos, focused as it is on little more than data collection, focused on marginal wards and constituencies.

Democracy in this country is stuck in a sullen state of slow decay. We need to bring more people into the process rather than exclude them because we take their votes for granted or decide they are irrelevant on the basis of a bunch of data. The voters out there deserve more respect than that, and we should not be surprised when they turn away from us after such contemptuous treatment.

Ben Cobley is a journalist and writer, based in South London

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13 Responses to “AV may be dead, but our obsession with marginals needs to go too”

  1. Louise says:

    Interesting article. With the defeat of AV, if Labour want to develop a presence in all seats, regardless of the potential outcome, then the primary aim of all current activities has to be increased membership, or increased engagement of current members. It is understandable why certain seats are targetted. Without a huge increase in activists, what do you suggest in order to avoid diluting the campaign effort in all areas?

  2. Amber Star says:

    Labour has surely neglected our Union base for the past 13 years. 6.5million potential voters who rarely received a word of approval or encouragement from New Labour.

    The Tories were laughing their asses off at New labour’s willingness to neglect or even bash their own constituents in the hope of a pat on the back from the Sun & the Daily Mail that might help Labour in a southern marginal.

    New Labour’s punch & judy show with the Unions made ordinary Labour & Union members cringe with embarassment.

  3. william says:

    Nobody wins the most seats in the Commons, under any voting system, without a message that strikes home in southern England.29 percent of the vote was like going back to 1983.The decline in membership and large party donors is a reflection of what came post Blair.Want to win?Try electing a Blair type leader.

  4. Dave Smedley says:

    Are you off your rocker? It is that sort of sentiment that meant we did not win the necessary number of seats in 1992. In 2010 where we did target properly we stopped a Tory majority.

  5. Amber Star says:

    Want to win?Try electing a Blair type leader.
    That’s what the Tories did….. & they have a creaking coalition. Typical conservative Conservatives, never try anything that hasn’t already been done to death.

    The country has moved on & so has Labour, I’m glad to say. Choices have already been made & there’ll be many more hard choices to come… but cowering beneath a ‘Tony Blair’ duvet is no longer an option.

  6. Ben Cobley says:

    Louise – good points. We certainly do need focused targeting of areas at election time – to not do so would be absurd. However I think we need a really big focus on trying to build up areas where we are not strong, especially between elections like now – and yes, that principally means trying to get new members in to reinvigorate local parties and inject a bit of local spirit and drive. They need to be given the clearance to operate locally though rather than be told to go off somewhere else all the time to campaign for people they don’t know in an area they don’t know – this practice inevitably leaches off those people with local commitment, leaving only Labour tribalists.

    Around London where I live we have effectively given up whole swathes of suburbia to the Lib Dems and Tories and just let them get on with it. There is also the issue of the countryside, where we are unlikely to win Westminster seats and where our lack of presence gives cause to question if we deserve to call ourselves a national democratic party. People need to have a Labour alternative that speaks for them and that gives them time of day.

    One of the ideas I didn’t have space for here was a Labour Country pressure group within Labour, perhaps with a seat on the NEC, pressing the priorities of Labour voters in the country. We make a lot of provision for minorities and women as groups, but we willfully ignore the thoughts and interests of people who might want to contribute to our politics purely on the basis that they live outside the cities or northern heartlands.

    Amber Star – I think the unions need to go through the same sort of re-evaluation that we are doing. Unfortunately they are virtually irrelevant now for so many people both within them and outside (especially in the private sector). That needs to change; better unions will benefit their members and the Labour Party, and vice versa.

    william – Tony Blair and his actions (especially on Iraq of course) are so contentious in the Labour Party and the broader liberal-left that we are best off moving on from talking about him – however much of a disservice that does to the man and what was achieved under the governments he led. But yes, we certainly need a leader that can speak to people in southern England. Hopefully Mr Ed can do that over time.

  7. Rob Marchant says:

    Ben, I think you make some excellent points but here’s where I differ. I think it’s important to recognise the difference between the party’s paid-for staff/resources and its members.

    Re the paid-for staff/resources: the Key Seats strategy (or whatever new name it has now) is a direct result of FPTP. But it is principally an *election* strategy, i.e. it’s mostly focused on giving help to crank up the votes in (especially general) elections. For me there is no other common-sense approach but Key Seats under FPTP. Variations of it have served us very well over recent years, and I think it would be folly to stop it, simply because if you have scarce resources you have to target them to maximum effect.

    However, where you are quite right is that at a local level we need to treat all our seats more as if they were marginals. It’s about what we do during the REST of the five-year cycle, when, frankly, most local parties don’t get any central financial or manpower help anyway, they are locally funded. So this part is not so much to do with the Party centrally, although they could help encourage the right approach. It’s about us – the volunteers. If we sit on our laurels because we are in either a safe or a no-hoper seat, the local party becomes moribund. It’s basically about whether we get off our arses or not, rather than whether we get centrally-allocated resources because, apart from at major elections, we wouldn’t anyway. The intrinsic problem is that it’s difficult to motivate people in these non-Key seats, where they can’t see any electoral payback coming through from their work.

    Hope that makes sense. Anyway good, thought-provoking piece.

  8. Edward Carlsson Browne says:

    Rob – there’s some truth in what you say, but when we have a tradition of inactivity in non-key seats, activism doesn’t happen. This is especially true in no-hoper areas where people join the Labour Party primarily to show support, because they don’t even consider that they could help out in other ways.

    Paid for staff do need to concentrate on winnable areas, but in non-general election years we should be getting them to try to jumpstart other areas. It doesn’t need a lot of effort – just an organiser attending a GC and trying to organise a canvassing session (or if they’re unwilling to do that, a speaker meeting open to the public). Organisers will already put in a bit of effort on hopeless seats in council by-elections; I think it’s reasonable to ask them to spend less time than that to see if we could do something with our limited resources in our weaker areas.

    This is also something county parties and stronger CLPs bordering on weaker CLPs should be getting involved in. A good example here is South Cambs CLP, where I know the Cambridgeshire Labour Chair spent a lot of effort trying to field a full slate and managed to run a couple of effective campaigns this May. The input from Cambridge was much more limited, but it was there and as a result we had activists from South Cambs helping out in the local elections, which definitely made it easier for us to get our vote out.

    I don’t think this is a key task – we won’t be winning most of these areas, merely getting 15% rather than 5% – but it shouldn’t take a huge investment of time and effort. But with the constituency map liable to be radically redrawn, it makes sense to have as many areas where we have some presence, no matter how limited, as we possibly can.

    Put another way, volunteers can look after themselves, but we need to turn more of our members into volunteers, rather than subscription-payers.

    Finally, I’d also suggest that we pay attention to the importance of personal votes. If you look at where the Lib Dems managed to build themselves up, both at a parliamentary and (especially) local level, it relied not just upon lots of local work, but local work with the same candidate. This is incredibly important in more rural areas, where that can be about 50% of the electorate. If you look at where we had one or two seats on district councils prior to this year, the holds weren’t necessarily great territory, but the candidate normally had a personal vote. Again, if you look at South Cambridgeshire, our only councillor there is in Bassingbourn, a village outside Royston. It’s not natural Labour territory and we came last out of 5 candidates there in 2010, but we hold one of the seats because we’ve had an incumbent since the 1990s.

    That won’t work everywhere, but if we want to act like a national party, we need not just to get candidates in these wards, but if at all possible to get the same candidates time and again.

  9. Louise says:

    So are we to conclude, that Labour activism must become even more local, with increased focus on ward activities? At this stage, where elections are not due to taken place in the foreseeable future, there is scope to develop future councillors, and a Labour momentum in non-marginal seats. I think we should be choosing strong council candidates at an early stage and letting them lead a campaign in their ward. Further to this, I think, now that we have the space between elections Labour needs to think of ways to invigorate the apathetic and disillusioned voters.

    RobMerchant – I like your post- any suggestions as how to motivate people?

  10. Amber Star says:

    Lots of Labour MSPs thought they had safe seats. Despite the statement: Labour’s fight-back will begin in Scotland, the campaign here was underfunded, under-resourced & little was done to involve activists in the strategy, manifesto, or even the local campaign literature.

    That didn’t work out well for us. Hopefully, we’ve learned our lesson & Labour in Scotland won’t ever be complacent in future.

  11. Rob Marchant says:

    @Louise: on how to motivate people, it’s not easy (obviously) because they know they will not see an end result in electoral terms, if they’re in a safe Tory or safe Labour seat.

    However, some thoughts. I think twinning campaigns are good, a safe seat with a marginal. We have often had, I think, these relationships going only one way (only helping the marginal), where perhaps what we could do would be to have the marginal helping the safe seat in less crucial times and safe helping marginal in run-up to elections. But better campaigning brains than mine (e.g. Peter Watt) could advise you better here.

    A bigger concern for me is about party processes: how we actually make being involved more appealing and less excruciatingly dull. As Will Straw noted here at Uncut, we are obsessed with meetings. In order to motivate members, we also need to sort out our candidate selection processes, as I blogged a while back, which has a bizarre knack of often excluding some of the best candidates. We forget sometimes that talented people may get involved in politics because they are interested in public service, for perfectly correct reasons, and they may get disillusioned and leave if they see their path blocked.

    The party review under Peter Hain is the right idea, and we should give it the chance to report. But I am not 100% sure it will solve a lot of the problems. I’m afraid the whole party reform thing – as Tony Blair freely admits in A Journey – didn’t really move forward much after 1997, so there’s a lot to do.

  12. Chris Morris says:

    hi all

    I know I am banging on about this, but does anyone want to take a look at what happened in Wealden on May 5th ? I think we may just be a bit ahead of the game, at least out here in the desert. We went to the Crawley session featuring Harriet Harman, got told by the pros not to bother at our place but pile in where we might make a difference, thought sod that for a game of soldiers and paddled our own canoe. Anyone want the numbers I can let you have them.

    My Welsh gran lived on the basis of take care of the pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves. If we want to convince the people of this country that it is worth voting Labour let’s do it in everyone’s back yard and hang the consequences. I don’t think Plan A is going too well, do you – ours as well as theirs ?

    Rant over. For now.

    best wishes to anyone reading this.
    Chris Morris

    oh, and to nick an idea from Cato the Censor, I maybe should end all posts on whatever subject with ‘Boris delenda est’ with apologies to my Latin teacher. Let’s get behind Ken Livingstone, boot out Boris the Spider and get the odious bastard back in the House where his ambition can do some serious damage to Smug Dave. Any of you lot with me on that one ?

  13. Ben Cobley says:

    Thanks all for your responses – lots of good food for thought.

    @Louise – yes, I agree completely. Now is the time to engage with people and give them a positive vision of what we are about. For better or worse, at the moment, that must be driven by local parties.

    @ Chris Morris – I would love to get your numbers and some detail if you have the time. I don’t know if you read Sue Marsh’s piece a while back on Labour List about mounting a campaign in a Labour wasteland – I wanted to quote her in this article but didn’t have the space amidst the rant – that sort of stuff is inspiring, and hopefully not just for us Labour geeks but also the voters (we preach long-term values for the economy but not the electorate). Email = benc77a@yahoo.co.uk.

    @ Rob Marchant – good thoughts and ideas as always, though I must confess I am a little sceptical about the twinning idea. Surely it would be better if the national/regional organisations could send down people to do this sort of thing? (as long as it was done well of course, and, yes, are there the resources?).

    Whoever does it though would need to spend some proper time down in the places, meeting the whole membership and also local Labour supporters and hearing what they had to say. But I guess the response to that is: resources. We ain’t got none. Fundamentally, we need uplift through new people coming in – in my view there are plenty of them out there.

    On meetings, yes they can be very dull, but I guess the only way is up. The only long-term answer is new members, and there is perhaps something of a Catch-21 there in that you need a good local party to attract new members; dull meetings of existing GCs can put new members off like nothing else – however there is some local progress there in some areas.

    So in conclusion, I reckon we do actually need some sort of central control to at least monitor the effectiveness of local parties and perhaps where necessary trigger new internal elections when they are failing – these must be advertised in the local community though with new people invited to participate (just an idea there – but just think of what the election of a new leader did for membership).

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