Jonathan Todd reviews “The British General Election of 2010” by Dennis Kavanagh and Philip Cowley

“The characteristic virtue of Englishmen is power of sustained practical activity and their characteristic vice a reluctance to test the quality of that activity by reference to principles.”

So said R. H. Tawney. Whereas the mantra of Alicia Kennedy, Labour’s director of field operations, during this year’s general election was ‘where we work, we win’ – a eulogy to the power of sustained practical Labour activity. Now, we can test the quality of that activity by reference to a simple principle: did it secure Labour representation as effectively as it could have done?

Only now is it possible fully to answer this question. Because Dennis Kavanagh and Philip Cowley have just published the 2010 edition of what used to be known as the ‘Butler book’.

Kavanagh and Cowley have ably stepped into the big shoes of David Butler, whose foreword to the 2010 volume means he has been involved in these election studies for 65 years. Cowley’s revolts project, which, though struggling for funding, has so far just about made into this parliament, has debunked many myths about backbench behaviour. This study of the 2010 general election is equally successful at disentangling hype from reality.

The anatomy of our defeat is laid bare. But amidst these ruins lay signposts to recovery. Hard doorstep graft is part of this. In the ten seats with Labour’s highest voter ID contact rates there was an average swing to Labour of 0.6 percent.

Commercially produced voter information, such as Experian’s MOSAIC data, is also here to stay. Around 15 years ago, MOSAIC allowed parties to target at postcode level only; at the 2005 election it enabled targeting by households; in 2010 it allowed individual voters to be targeted based on their MOSAIC code. These highly disaggregated data are deployed, via direct mailings, centrally by parties.

However, these data become richer when mashed-up with voter ID, which is generated through a mix of door-knocking by local parties and centralised phone banking. And, while no party gives constituency parties input into the content of these centrally produced mailings, these mailings are likely to be more effective if integrated with content which local parties and candidates are better able to provide than national operatives.

It is anything but joined-up for local activists to be knocking on doors without any knowledge of what their party centrally has mailed through these doors. All parties put their activists in this position on a massive scale, as the campaign was what one senior Liberal Democrat campaigner called “the direct mail election – more paper delivered to more houses than any campaign in British history”, and much more finely targeted.

Maximising the impact of direct mail in future elections may require improved co-ordination between local campaigns and national-local campaigns (i.e. the direct mailing and phone banking organised centrally). The more voter ID is picked up on the doorstep, the better targeted these mailings and communications with local content tend to have more impact than those without.

This local content should reinforce the rewards of ‘relational politics’; the gains attached to the candidate having regular voter contact and a reputation as a local champion. That it is generally easier for incumbents to develop such reputations and that the Conservatives gained many new incumbents in 2010 creates a challenge that Labour needs quickly to confront.

Part of the response should be about Labour making a virtuous circle of the paradoxical square that has seen local campaigning become more centralised, through the development of national-local campaigns, as the importance of local campaigning has increased. This shouldn’t mean an end to direct mailings and phone banks co-ordinated centrally, but it should mean much more dynamic, real-time interaction between these activities and local activism.

Such a way of working constitutes an immense organisational hurdle that no party has yet surmounted. But there must be tremendous rewards for the first party that is able, for example, to let local activists know what mailings have been sent centrally to the doors they are knocking on and even to allow these local activists some say on the content of these mailings.

The post-bureaucratic state has its advocates. But this might be the stuff of a post-bureaucratic party. Perhaps, however, a nimble, interactive and adaptive bureaucracy, rather than the absence of one, better describes what is required. Much as Labour should be the advocate of an intelligent state, rather than either a big or small one.

This party bureaucracy should be adaptive to what is and isn’t happening nationally, as well as within each constituency. The televised leadership debates, to pick up on the campaign’s most prominent national events, famously seemed, in the final reckoning, to have changed nothing. The result was consistent with polling prior to the debates.

However, they greatly tested the adaptive capacities of party bureaucracies. Cleggmania, for example, disrupted planned Liberal Democrat direct mailings, which were intended to raise the party’s profile. It was no good introducing our Barack Obama, as I distinctly remember him being described, when the country knew who he was and now expected something meatier than an introduction.

The Obama comparisons came most freely from Liberal Democrats, of course. Some became particularly silly drunks having imbibed Cleggmania. Completely unwinnable seats pushed for visits from “Obama”; fuelled by the belief that these seats had become winnable. This “hubris”, as one senior Liberal Democrat described it, undermined the party’s ability to allocate activists, who became reluctant to leave their home constituencies in the usually misguided view that they were winnable, to seats where they would actually have had most effect.

Social media, like the leadership debates, was a dog that didn’t bark or, at least, didn’t bark with quite the volume or the style that its evangelists had prophesised. And nor was it the Sun wot won it; though David Cameron, the authors conclude: “has cause to be grateful for Rupert Murdoch’s support”.

This is a conclusion upon which Ed Miliband may reflect, like much else in an edition that lives up to the best traditions of the ‘Butler books’. Improving the adaptability of the Labour machine is certainly an urgent task  for Andy Burnham, his newly appointed general election co-ordinator.

Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist and a consultant at Europe Economics.

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One Response to “Jonathan Todd reviews “The British General Election of 2010” by Dennis Kavanagh and Philip Cowley”

  1. More influence for CLPs is definitely needed. They’re going to know what messages are resonating on the ground and what aren’t.

    From central office, on the other hand, it’s hard to get that same picture. In Cambridge we had great trouble trying to get literature from central office attacking the Lib Dems that wasn’t doing it from the social right. Somebody clearly hadn’t figured out that we need to fight the Lib Dems in university towns as well as northern mill-towns, and that the bien-pensant middle classes can’t be won over by a tough on immigration policy.

    As far as this literature goes, some equivalent of Mosaic for constituencies might be useful. Rather than talking about winning back the south, for example, we need to look at our target as a) winning back large south-western ports b) winning back seaside towns in general c) winning back Thames Valley and Herts commuter towns d) winning back Kent super-marginals e) winning back East Anglian market towns and f) winning back the Guardian-reading middle class seats.

    Then target your literature to that and let local parties choose which leaflets they want delivered to voters in which wards.

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