January 15 saw the residents of Seven Sisters ward in Haringey, North London, deliver an important victory for Labour in what was the most hotly contested council by-election that Tottenham had seen for decades.
The election took place against a difficult backdrop in the shadow of the Baby P case, which had resulted in the resignation of two cabinet members. The ward is that of new leader, Claire Kober, and the vote was positioned as a vote of confidence in her and the Labour leadership.
If press and pundits were to be believed, this election was practically a write off for Labour and an almost guaranteed Liberal Democrat victory. Even at the hustings, just three evenings before the electorate went to the polls, the Liberal candidate was confidently predicting victory.
Not only did Labour win, but the Liberal Democrats finished a dismal third despite a nasty and relentless campaign that demonstrated their ambition to break into Tottenham. They must have destroyed rainforests with the amount of literature they put out, including faux handwritten notes. With each and every flyer, their somewhat cynical attacks became evermore pernicious in tone.
So why did the voters of South Tottenham so resolutely reject these nasty politics? It was down to a great campaign which saw Labour at its best – not willing to lie down and accept defeat – united in its efforts, with the right politics and determined to win. It was a campaign that grew in energy and numbers, and culminated in a packed committee room on election day.
So what can be learnt from our success? These are not necessarily new ideas, but worth recalling:
1) Get out early and get out often. We ran canvass sessions every night, and two sessions every day on the weekend alongside leaflets. We got a steal on our opposition who waited until two weeks before poll before stepping up their canvassing. This enabled us to keep the election on our issues and refute the quite nasty and personal attacks of the Lib Dems.
2) Canvassing beats leaflets every time. It wasn’t just about identifying promises – and it wasn’t just about giving Labour a face though both were critical to the campaign. What really made the difference was picking up on issues, and listening to the real concerns of people in South Tottenham – and picking up the casework and getting it resolved.
3) Be proud to be Labour. We always believed if people were going to reject Labour they would do so. Putting the front foot forward sends the right message to the voters – that we are proud of who we are, our politics and what we have done for people.
4) Ignore the opposition and frame the question. Liberal Democrats wanted to fight this election on the failings in child protection. They offered no hope and no promise of a better future. We acknowledged the issue, but on the doorsteps what we heard was that crime, prostitution, anti-social behaviour (including dumping) were people’s real concern.
5) Don’t be afraid to attack. The Lib Dems were soft on crime and we didn’t hold back on saying so. Lynne Featherstone, Lib Dem MP, is opposed to our anti-kerb crawling legislation, and the local Lib Dems questioned our anti-drinking zones and we were not embarrassed to inform voters of this. When presented alongside what progress Labour was making, this had a real impact.
6) Engage the communities. N15 is said to be among the most ethnically diverse postcodes in Europe, and it was essential to engage the different ethnic communities in Seven Sisters. We put out direct mail to Turkish and Afro-Caribbean voters, and took out an advert in the Charedi Jewish press.
7) Keep the commitment of activists small. We consistently asked for just one hour or ninety minutes of people’s time – this really helped increase turnout and people came back again and again.
8) Set targets – know what you need. We set targets of Labour promises over the first weekend in January, and made this public among the activist pool. Making it achievable and challenging motivated the activist base, increased our turnout and we ended up with far more than our target.
9) Don’t forget the comrades. One of the most important things is to keep communicating with members to spread the word. We paired up with Hackney who have also got an important by-election this month. We were on facebook (a trick we stole from the successful campaign to elect Rachel Saunders in Mile End), we kept letting people know about our progress and we kept urging people to come out. We extended admin rights to anyone we knew and this extended the ownership of the campaign, gave it energy and momentum. It gave the sense we were making progress, and it kept us positive.
10) Common endeavour. We had everyone on this campaign working together, united behind Labour values and a Labour spirit. Councillors (and not just from Haringey), MPs, AMs, MEPs, European candidates, organisers and activists from all over London, all focused on winning for Labour. We will need that same spirit, that same sense of unity to deliver a fourth term and to win in Haringey in 2010.
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