The next leader of the Labour party has a big job on their hands. To get back into power we need to win at least 70 seats, which needs a swing of just under five per cent. That’s a steep challenge, but it also means defying our own history because when we lose one election, we tend to lose the next one even more emphatically. On average when we lose we spend 10 years in the wilderness. People up and down the country cannot afford 10 years of this government. They’re relying on us to face up to our defeat and put right what went wrong.
That means getting our policies right and communicating them convincingly and in a way that resonates with the voters whose trust we lost. It also means getting organised. The omens aren’t good, but it’s not a lost cause – it’s in our hands.
If you look at the seats we lost to the Tories in England in 2005, we didn’t win a single one of them back in May. In fact, not only did we not win any of them back, we didn’t even come close. Every sitting Tory MP who won their seat from Labour in 2005 increased their share of the vote and upped their majority.
The picture is admittedly more mixed in the seats we lost to the smaller parties and in Scotland and Wales, but of the 70 seats we need to win to form a government, 57 of them are Labour-Tory marginals, 59 are in England and nearly all of them are the seats we lost this time round. Whatever your strategy, that’s the battleground.
In Welwyn Hatfield, which Melanie Johnson held for Labour for two terms, the Tories now have a majority of more than 17,000. In Putney, which Tony Coleman won for Labour in 1997 and held in 2001, the Conservatives enjoy a lead of more than 10,000. In Wellingborough, which they won by only 687 in 2005, Peter Bone now sits on a majority of 11,787. In fact, nine of the seats we lost to the Tories in 2005 now have majorities in excess of 10,000. All Labour seats until 2005. Now among the safest Conservative seats in the country. Winning back seats like Putney and Welwyn Hatfield needs a swing bigger than the ones we achieved in 1997 or 1945.
And in six seats, we actually came third. We lost Hemel Hempstead by fewer than 500 votes in 2005. Now we trail the Tories by more than 13,000 and were beaten to second place by the Liberal Democrats. The same happened elsewhere: in Reading East, St Albans, Shrewsbury and Atcham, and Wimbledon we are now a distant third, as well as in Cambridge where the Tories beat us into second place.
These are not isolated cases. When you look at the 2010 data, the picture is frighteningly clear. The national swing against Labour was about five per cent, but the swing against us in the seats we lost in 2005 was nearly 10 per cent.
The only exceptions were Croydon Central, where Tory-turned-independent Andrew Pelling stood and split the Conservative vote; Peterborough, where UKIP exploited concerns about the effects of migration to treble their vote at the expense of the Tories; and Ilford North, where significant demographic changes kept the Tory majority at a still-sizeable five and a half thousand.
But the pattern is clear: we did twice as badly in the seats we lost to the Tories in England in 2005 as we did everywhere else; so badly, in fact, that none of them make it on to our target list.
Does it matter? Some people might say these seats were never really Labour seats; that we can only win them when we win big, and that we don’t need them to get a Labour government. I don’t agree. People said the same about Birmingham Edgbaston, but four victories later, no one seems to have told Gisela Stuart. Labour can’t have no-go areas.
In any case, what must concern us is whether the seats we lost in 2010 go the same way as the ones we lost in 2005 – because, if they do, we will be out of power for a generation. Simply put, if we want a Labour government we have to win back the seats we lost in 2010. You don’t get Labour governments without winning seats like Corby, Chester and Enfield North.
The danger, though, is that these crucial seats now find themselves without anyone to lead the fightback. Like the seats we lost in 2005, local parties up and down the country are coming to terms not only with the loss of their MP, but also their campaigner-in-chief, their best fundraiser, their most recognisable representative to voters – not to mention the staff, office space, equipment and, crucially, organisation that come with it.
And it does make a difference. Just look at Andy Slaughter and Karen Buck, who fought brilliant campaigns to defy the pundits and defeat Tory A-listers. Even in the seats we couldn’t quite hang on to, a good campaigning MP made a world of difference – in Hendon Andrew Dismore came within 106 votes of pulling off a spectacular victory; I held my opponent to a swing of just 0.7 per cent in Enfield North; and tough, smart campaigners like Nick Palmer, Celia Barlow and Julie Morgan all came much closer to winning than many expected.
Lots of the seats we need to win back fought tough campaigns this time round and know how to fight – and win – elections, but we can’t afford to let vibrant, active local parties ossify. That means we need to select our candidates as soon as possible. Rebuilding local parties, getting delivery networks in place and establishing regular, well-attended campaigning sessions all take time. So too does building a relationship with the voters. Getting known in and around a constituency, understanding the issues that matter to the people that live there, and figuring out what sort of campaign to run, can’t be done overnight and can’t be left to a few months before the election. Nor can we allow new Tory MPs to get too comfortable. We can’t let them use their incumbency to the same devastating effect as the 2005 Tory intake.
Getting this right is not something that we can leave local parties to do on their own. They need the support of a national strategy, which is why the Labour party’s new initiative, Project Game Plan, is right to aim at getting organisers on the ground in our key seats as soon as possible. Organising to win is as much a part of the new leader’s job as are exposing the true nature of this coalition and getting our own policies right. We have to be realistic about the resources we have at our disposal and how we use them to maximum effect. But the message is clear: organise to win, or prepare to lose by an even bigger margin than in 2010.
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