A big Labour win, or even a solid majority, will show once again that the ground game is wildly overrated in modern politics

by Atul Hatwal

Heresy! Burn the unbeliever! Is someone really blaspheming against the hallowed environs of the #Labourdoorstep?

Yes dear reader, I am and if you too want to be damned by the high priests of political organising, read on.

Door-knocking, phone-banking and leafletting are the performative rituals of politics as a religion rather than practical activities that make much difference to the election result.

They provide a communal focus for activists. They give the candidate something to do (normally far too much, both in terms of time and financial commitment) and generate a faux flow of data during those frenetic few weeks of a campaign, cloaking local endeavours with the appearance of quantitative rigour.

But in truth, most of it is futile, certainly in terms of the overall election result.

How have I discerned this untold wisdom? By dint of remembering the 2019 election, the 2017 election, the 2015 election, the 2010 election and… well, you get the point.

Here are a few examples.  There are many more.

In 2015, Labour was wiped out in Scotland. The SNP was in the ascendant but they did not have an activist operation on anything like the scale to actively work and secure 56 out of 59 seats, constituency by constituency. But somehow, without a full ground operation, they still succeeded.

David Cameron’s Tories did similar to the Lib Dems in the south, once again, without any sign of a comprehensive ground game that extended across all of their target seats.

In 2019, the Tories smashed Labour across the Red Wall. These were not seats with huge, bustling Tory activist formations which had been assiduously working each constituency for years. Once again, in most of these seats there was no substantive Tory ground game, yet still, even without lots of social media posts about the #RedWall doorstep, the Tories managed to reduce Labour to its worst result since the 1930s.

And now in 2024, when finally it looks like Labour will administer, rather than receive, the walloping, we see some very familiar signs.

Taking the visits of shadow cabinet members as a proxy for where Labour is concentrating its resources, the constituency with the highest Tory majority that has had at least two visits seems to be Southend East and Rochford. It would be wonderful to win the constituency but it is number 154 on Labour’s hit list. If that was the outer limit of Labour’s gains, it would mean the Tories likely securing well over 200 seats and a Labour majority of 62 which, while amazing in terms of the turnaround since 2019, would feel underwhelming after the polls of the past few months. The immediate discussion after the election would be of Labour under-performance and Tory resilience.

If the polling is anything like correct then Labour should have a much bigger majority. One which will have been achieved by victories in seats without any shadow cabinet visits, any central party support or any large-scale canvassing.

And here is the kicker: if the polls are right and there is a sizeable Labour majority (similar to Boris Johnson’s 80 seat 2019 win or more, let alone the wild numbers in some of the MRPs), all of those seats on Labour’s key seat list, where activists are currently slogging away, would have been won without lifting a finger of effort. It’s not that organisation on the ground does nothing, but its impact is marginal, infinitesimal, compared to what happens when voters move en masse.

A proper ground game in a seat is an intensive and long term operation. Speaking to a grizzled local campaign veteran of many elections and hundreds of thousands of doors knocked over the past three decades, their view was that it takes 2 years to do a full constituency canvass with teams out most days in the week and multiple teams and sessions at the weekend. At best the impact can be upto a 2-3% boost to the vote.

The numbers of seats that can muster so many bodies for canvassing on a consistent basis for two years is low, lower still if these are seats that have been lost in recent elections and local activists have become discouraged.

Add in the sheer scale of change in the polls over the past two years, which would have necessitated multiple restarts to a full canvass along with the increasing pointlessness of phone-banking given how few people answer unknown numbers and we can see just how desperately unfit for purpose the model of doorstep campaigning is.

There is an argument that some ground effort, no matter how imperfect, is better than none and there will be seats, where the race is exceptionally tight, that legions of canvassers can make a difference in identifying and turning out the Labour vote. But based on the polls, the places where a 2-3% boost could actually make the difference, seats with Tory majorities that looked unassailable until a few months ago, will not have had the work or support since 2019 to realise the 2-3% gain.

This is the issue so often with how parties target canvassing resources, decisions have to be made years before the election on where effort will be committed only for polls to move and resources to be end up being concentrated in all the wrong places.

If all of those hardy souls, currently pounding the streets, making calls and delivering leaflets in seats that are very likely to be won anyway had committed their prodigious energy to raising money, crowdfunding, fun-running, sponsored this or that, and then donated the proceeds to the party to be spent on more social media ads and local billboards, that would likely make more of a difference to the election result.

There, I’ve said it. I now await my political excommunication with serene acceptance.

Atul Hatwal is editor of Labour Uncut

25/06: Note: A passage from the original article, on campaigners being moved out of key seats in 1997, 2 weeks ahead of polling day, has been removed. This is because Alan Barnard, who ran the key seats campaign in 1997 has been touch to say that there was no decision to move campaigners in this manner. I, and several friends, were most certainly sent to seats outside of the list at the end of the campaign but the paragraph has been deleted to reflect his position that this was not an explicit campaign choice – Atul Hatwal

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