I phone banked for four weeks but picked up no Labour surge. And then, on polling day, there it was

by Andy Howell

Early Thursday morning, election day. I made my way into Birmingham Labour’s phone bank with long time, fellow traveller, Bill Lees. As we approached that final push we wondered whether this might be the last time we could run a simple and conventional Get Out The Vote Operation (GOTV). Despite all of the computers and the clever pieces of software GOTV remains based on brute strength. It worked in Stoke on Trent with the backup of hundreds and thousands of volunteers. But could it still work in basic elections?

Bill and I seemed to have been locked in that phone bank for most of the previous four weeks. Bill — who was running the operation — seemed to have moved into the Birmingham office for the duration of the campaign. We survived on a poor diet of caffeine, sandwiches and very bad jokes.

For a month and more a dedicated team spoke to literally thousands of voters, initially to all and then latterly to those who had more closely identified with Labour over the last few years. It was hard going. We experienced little of the Labour ‘surge’. The last few days were positively depressing. In all honesty, we didn’t see Labour’s 40% vote coming, even as we ran wave after wave of phone knock-ups on polling day. Maybe our work did help? Maybe our work had made a difference? Maybe it didn’t? But our input into Labour’s Contact Creator seemingly hadn’t lied. The polls seemed to be right. We missed Labour’s rise completely. So, what were we missing?

Turnout was up significantly in our target seats. In some parts of Jack Dromey’s Erdington seat we were shocked at past voting records. We used Labour’s software to do some fundamental analysis. In one key area — Castle Vale — 42% of voters had not voted once in eight years. Two-thirds of voters had only voted twice across an eight year period and that voting pattern was heavily weighted to the beginning of that eight year period. It seemed these were elder voters simply getting too old to vote.

Voting turnout on ‘The Vale’ is dismally poor and yet residents came out in their droves for the EU referendum, to vote Brexit of course. Anecdotes from Party workers and polling officials suggested that in the referendum many had voted for the first time. These voters had no voting record. Phone numbers and accounts are regularly switched. From our phone banks we had no way of properly engaging with many of these voters; maybe if we had have been we would have not been caught so unaware.

So, what made the difference here? The talk for the last few days was of terrorism and being tough on terrorism. Immigration raised it’s ugly head as did concerns about the ‘magic money tree’. But none of these were the defining issue. The key issue was austerity and on the ‘Vale’ the it seems to have crystallised around the removal of free school meals and threats to basic incomes.

Jump to the North Wales coast, out to another ‘Vale’. Here local campaigners became convinced Labour would take the Vale of Clwyd from the Tories and they did (Labour’s only gain from the Tories in North Wales). The Welsh ‘Vale’ includes much second home territory but here second homes come in the form of holiday and caravan parks rather than exclusive new estates. Anyone who has taken the train along the coast through Prestatyn and Rhyl will recognise the territory. Here, school meals were also an issue but more prominent were threats to the triple lock and the abolition of the universal Winter Fuel Payment.

So, the economy prevailed once again but this time low income workers, benefit claimants and retirees stepped up. Both ‘on the Vale’ and in the coastal North Wales ‘Vale’, Brexit voting communities had taken in the Tory manifesto and the greater hardship it promised them. A few months ago one Brexit Voter in the Birmingham ‘Vale’ expressed surprise at how easy voting had been. Would that mean he would maybe try voting in a general election? He was skeptical. But like thousands of others yesterday he decided to try voting again.

And in the comfort of our phone bank — across literally hours and hours of talking with voters — we missed it all.

Much is being written about turnout and the youth vote and yes it is great news that more young people came out to vote. But this was an anti-austerity vote. Turnout was up marginally across the board but perhaps not as decisively as some think. We haven’t had detailed analysis yet but I suspect — across the range of marginal seats — the youth vote basically complimented a far greater anti austerity movement across the age ranges.

So, it is still the economy that has it, but this time a key part an electorate has shown its determination to avoid being seen as turkey’s voting for Christmas.

But as the dust settles, what has really changed?

Brexit still remains the major issue not addressed by the main political campaigns. Brexit is still the defining political issue of a generation and yet we still have no idea where we are going or how we are going to get there. It now seems more likely that we will now see a ‘softer’ Brexit as Brexit Voters value their financial prosperity over some of Brexit’s more visceral issues. But we won’t know this for sure until we get to the next general election (which will surely be around far faster than many exhausted election workers would like).

The Tories have been battered and Labour has lost. The fragmented political map of the UK remains but is even more bewildering to comprehend than before. It makes me think that those promoting the idea of the Progressive Alliance may have been the real winners last night. This may be unpopular, but I can’t help feeling that Neale Lawson of Compass has proved to be five or ten years ahead of his time.

Labour’s leadership continues to face two key challenges, each of which may come even more sharply into focus.

The first is the Labour’s attitude to the other centre left and progressive parties of the UK. Yes, we understand there will be no alliances or formal pacts but do we have the ability to work constructively with others? Can we compromise programmes and principles to kill off the Tories or will our innate tribalism see us pushing others aide in the hope that ‘one more push’ can make it happen for Labour?

The second key challenge is internal; it is our attitude to ourselves. While Corbyn’s leadership has shown itself to consistently superb at campaigning it has not being good at either fostering a collegiate style of leadership or of putting together a team that respects the notion of the ‘broad church’.

While taking in the news last night and this morning I was most struck by the return of the internet warriors. In one corner are those convinced that with a better leader — usually Yvette Cooper — Labour would have won the election. They are deluded. In the other corner are hard core Corbynistas who are now proclaiming that they are ‘coming for the right’— they remain dangerously destructive.

Everything rests, once again, on Corbyn and McDonnell. Can they be magnanimous in their moment of success or will they go for the throat of their opponents? Will they broaden the base of their advisers or will Milne, Murray and McCluskey keep the doors firmly closed? Do they open up the Shadow Cabinet? Can they build meaningful joint programmes with other parties? Do they properly appreciate the extent to which Brexit remains the ‘wicked’ issue within the family of the centre left?

I will be looking to see whether we can properly embrace a new politics and make a meaningful change in the culture of our Party. Our new politics must stress diversity and difference. They must be based on a genuine commitment to the exploration of new ideas. By necessity the new politics must leave the macho behind and to be open to a more creative and imaginative vision of equality and interculuralism. Differences need respecting. Individual cultural starting points and history need to be properly understood. But the heart of our politics must be a commitment to more dialogue, understanding and change across our cultural boundaries.

We have made a great leap forward. Labour’s revival is both exciting and bold. But back in the day job the challenges remain the same. Grievances will still be felt as deeply felt as before. The old tribal lines may be as alive as ever. There remains a hell of work to do to create a genuinely new progressive politics.

And if we don’t tackle these challenges? What odds are there that at the next election — probably this time next year — we end up with near enough the same result?

Andy Howell is a Labour activist based in Birmingham

Tags: , , , , , ,

6 Responses to “I phone banked for four weeks but picked up no Labour surge. And then, on polling day, there it was”

  1. Ian says:

    Thank you for this insightful article.

    For those of us with distant memories of the 1970s, and all the management and manoeuvring that was parliament in those days of small or no majority, two further points arise.

    Firstly, for all the parliamentary parties internal management is going to be critical. Basic stuff like co-ordination, communication, keeping on board and managing dissent, as well as good knowledge of parliamentary procedure, sharp tactics, good judgement and fast decision making. Whatever we think of Corbyn as an election campaigner, these areas of internal management does not play to Corbyn’s strengths. Indeed he is going to find the coming months very challenging indeed.

    The second, related point is that opposition in such an environment requires more communication and co-operation between the opposition parties than is necessary under a majority government. Once again this will prevent Corbyn with a challenge, since he hasn’t demonstrated much interest in working with people of different opinions. Nevertheless it also presents an opportunity for the non-Tory parties, since new relationships and mutual understanding will develop as leading people in the opposition work together to try and outwit this unstable government.

  2. Peter Kenny says:

    You didn’t see it coming. That’s maybe because you were looking for something else – confirmation bias. The voice that says ‘I like the manifesto but I’m not sure about Corbyn’ is heard as ‘I hate Corbyn’

    I saw some of what was coming. In my constituency I was hearing positive things about our policies, mixed things sbout Corbyn but a solid Labour vote and signs of increased support. The message from our MP and her immediate team was ‘its very close, we’re worried, we’re not seeing it’

    The majority increased by about 80%!

    So, I thought we’d hold easily but probably not go up much, they thought it’d be close – hold but a reduced majority.

    I was off the mark, they were utterly askew.

    It’s important because we could have won a slew of other seats – Broxtowe, Hasting etc and be in the range of forming a government if we’d been bolder in our use of resources.

    In the next election, maybe this year, we’ll know better.

    But, what stops us knowing. We’re not listening enough. Firstly we’re not knocking on enough doors, ringing enough phones. Secondly we’re still tin eared. Mine are less so because I’m against the ‘triangulation’ type of politics but I still give more credence to ‘received wisdom’ than I should. Sinewhere I still have a thought that our MP ‘must’ know better.

    It’s strongly internalised deference, I guess.

    For the next ekection, maybe this year, we need courage, audacity – we need to take the message of social transformation deep into Tory territory. We need to unite around thst boldness which is the essence of Corbyn’s political identity.

  3. Nick Wall says:

    Well said Peter. Many of us did question what the polls were saying and it wasn’t out of political naivety. We could see that something real was happening. Young people were galvanised like never before in an election and 2 million had registered to vote in a month. Labour’s manifesto was going down very well. There was an energy, a buzz and a growing optimism about the campaign, and this drew strength from the many Corbyn rallies. There was a really effective social media campaign. And so on. Corbyn himself had a great campaign, Momentum did a lot of valuable campaigning work especially in key marginals, organisations such as 38 Degrees played their part.

    Andy, your call for a new culture is welcome. The key to this is for the PLP to work with the leadership and not against it. I fully accept though that left also need to take responsibility for listening more and seeking to collaborate more. What certainly isn’t helpful is the tone of other articles still appearing even now on Uncut, such as one by John Wall (no relation) in which he says “It’s clear that, overall, few Conservatives were attracted to Labour and, considering Corbyn’s extremely unsavoury baggage and economic incontinence, this isn’t particularly surprising.”

  4. GrahamBC says:

    Of course Corbyn’s first cabinet did reach out to the whole party Burnham, Benn etc. Those that weren’t there were those who refused to serve. Even after the coup attempt there are many who aren’t Corbyn’s natural allies involved just not ones who have ruled themselves out.

  5. Peter Kenny says:

    I don’t know what the future for this site is.

    The most recent article talk about Uncut having ‘doubts’ about Corbyn. Actually they had many very negative certainties!

    So, can it be useful? I thought the John Wall article was miserable – if that’s where you stand then it’s going to be a pointless, negative place.

    So, Atul, tell us – are you going to resign, having been so wrong, so often? Or are you going to acknowledge it and think about this place offering something useful to the cause?

    Or just pack it all in, take down the flags, fold up the tents and leave the field. You could have an annual reunion and talk again about the old days over a drink or two.

    Your people await your wisdom.

  6. Tony says:

    The final Survation poll seemed like a rogue poll. However, it was almost spot on.
    This was the third election in a row when the exit poll produced a surprising result. But past experience taught me that it was unlikely to be far out.

    A few days before polling day, the Guardian did a few interviews with some Labour candidates. I think all had feared the outcome at first but seemed confident now that the result would be rather better than they had previously thought.

Leave a Reply