Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

We need to talk about Labour’s ground campaign

In a series of thoughtful analyses, defeated Labour candidates Nick BentMari Williams and Lucy Rigby all argue that the one aspect of Labour’s campaign that went right was the ground campaign in target seats.

I am afraid I disagree. As Luke Akehurst’s analysis makes clear, we did worse in key seats than in the rest of the country. While Labour was highly effective in concentrating resources into the key battleground seats and our campaigns worked superbly in their own terms, our model of constituency campaigning was flawed. Why was this?

I think we were applying a model devised in the 1950s, when Labour lost elections because Labour supporting manual workers, exhausted after a long shift at the factory or foundry, would instead of voting, rather sit in their easy chairs listening to the wireless unless we knocked them up. While we were trying to drive to election victory in our 1950s Morris Minor, albeit a Morris Minor that had been lovingly restored and upgraded with the latest technology, the Tories cruised past us to victory in their brand new top of the range Jag.

The overwhelming majority of our organisational focus was on getting out the vote. We were looking for Labour voters then seeking to check they had voted. Some persuasion happened, but it was not the main focus of our activity. Most of those we were targeting were going to vote for us anyway. Of the 100 odd people I knocked up on polling day, I think I only found one extra vote, an old man whose wife had died the previous week who had forgotten about the election. Worthwhile but not enough.

Our ground campaign was weaker at reaching out to and persuading undecided and wavering voters. The Tories benefitted from incumbency, but there was more to it than that. Gavin Barwell, the Tory victor in Croydon Central explains what they did differently.

There are three lessons we should learn. The Tory campaign used more sophisticated voter ID questions to identify and target voters who were open to persuasion. We need to improve our strategic analysis and voter ID practice to match this.

Second, conversations are only conversations if we listen and act on what people tell us.  I had many detailed doorstep conversations where the only thing recorded on Contact Creator was voting intention related information. When another canvasser went back to the same house 6 – 12 months later there was no information on the previous conversation, so no opportunity to update voters and track changing views. If we record more information it can also be fed back into the central campaign so that national messaging can be adjusted to reflect the concerns of target voters – the Tories did this brilliantly with the SNP issue.

Last, when a canvasser visits a household, they can collect additional information to help with micro-targeting. What age bracket is the voter in? Do they have small children? Does the state of the house suggest the family are comfortably off or struggling? All of this information can be used to build a more detailed profile of the electorate, which can then help us focus our message on the issues that concern target voters most.

For the last 20 years, we have believed that high contact rates have won us elections. This year we tested that theory to destruction. If we want to win in 2020, we need to use our organisational advantage to better effect.


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Andy Charlwood


  • I was brought to the UK in 1997 for my GOTV experience with Clinton Gore 1996. I can honestly say that I brought nothing more to the effort than was already there. Field operations like the ones you describe, Andy, can only help win a close election – in Ohio there is a rule of thumb that great GOTV gets you an extra 1-3%, tops, so if the election is close (as it always is in Ohio presidential elections), you need those tactics.

    The problem with Labour in 2015 is the same as with the Tories in 1997 – no one believed the Tories on a single thing in 1997. People kept asking me when I came home to the states, “Wow! How did you guys pull of such a landslide?!” My standard answer has always been that staff, or tactics, had nothing to do with 1997. The country was in a mood for change, the Tories had lost every ounce of credibility, and us friendly staffers really had nothing to do with it. Just went along for the ride.

    The lesson from 2015 is that Labour has lost credibility on basically everything that matters to voters. This hurts most in the base, which is why so many marginals stayed Tory despite the souped up Morris Minor. No amount of tactical field operations can make up for that.

  • 2015 will be seen as a defining moment in British Politics, not because of the Conservative’s shock victory, but because of their strategy to win it. A micro-targeting campaign was used for the first time in British Political history to devastating effect in key marginal seats to win the Conservatives their first election in 23 years. If there is one thing that is clear to see from this election it is that the Conservatives Ground Campaign has left Labours in the dark ages.

    This is not a slight at the tremendous volunteers, who have helped to deliver Labour’s most successful ground campaign in history, but it is only in the shade of the election can we see how utterly tactically outmanoeuvred and left behind our strategy has become

    The focus on finding out far more sophisticated information from individual voters on the doorstep, rather than focusing on sheer quantity of doors knocked on, provided the Conservatives a huge advantage of which the Labour Party simply cannot compete with. Supplemented by extensive polling in key marginal seats and fine tuning their messages through a multitude of focus groups, the Conservatives have taken the first big stride into the type of politics that will undoubtedly dominate 21st Century of politics.

    This strategy allowed the Conservative Party to find exactly which audience needed to hear exactly the right message to make them vote Conservative; this was engineered to such a level that individual tailored letters and leaflets could be sent to different members of the same household each with their own targeted message on what the key concerns would help them swing to the Conservatives.

    The fight for the 2020 election has already started and it is clear that the Labour Party is already streets behind the Conservative Party. The key to which party wins in 5 years’ time will be decided by the Labour Party’s reaction to this evolution of electoral campaigning.

    So how can the Labour Party react? The first step is the requirement for a fundamental cultural change in our doorstop campaign. It is far too familiar and common to see the Labour Doorstep Campaign begin and end with

    “Hi, I’m calling from your Local Labour Party Can we Count on Your Support at the Next Election?”.

    What has this really told us about this individual? Very Little. And are the responses we receive accurate? Statistical evidence and practice and quantitative evidence from the most recent election prove this not to be the case. In Bassetlaw for example we had a 71% Contact Rate and 28,000 Labour Promises, we only registered 23,965 votes. That means a minimum of 4,035 people inaccurately told us they would vote for us and the real figure will be much higher than this; in the margins of an election that is a huge number of people, and in a tight marginal is a margin which loses an election.

    There needs to be a cultural change in the way the Party, its members and its volunteers see and use data gathered from doorstep and this issue begins and ends with the false premise of the Labour Promise. Which not only creates an innate prompting bias, exacerbated with a simple closed question, it is also far too easy for both parties, the volunteer on the doorstep and the member of the public, for them to simply answer yes; the volunteer happily wanders away to the next house with another Labour Promise in hand and the member of the public closes their door happy not to have to interrupted by a canvasser or for an individual voting an opposition party to politely say I don’t know rather than risk antagonising the person at the door.

    This is where the Conservatives have accelerated away from us as they have realised and learnt there is far more useful data to be gained by spending another couple of minutes on each doorstep. Where every percentage in an election counts we need a more accurate and reliable system to record individuals voting intentions. This not only enables them accurately target their message but also creates resourceful gains as they spend less time and money sending literature to and speaking to the wrong people.

    A basic model of their system would ask the following questions “With 10 being the highest and 1 being the lowest how likely is it you will vote for the Labour Party… the Conservative Party… the Liberal Democrats… UKIP… the Green Party ect…”. With 5 simple questions you suddenly have far more data which can be analysed and then be used to categorise voters to create a far more targeted message for each individual and you help to reduce the effect of the prompting bias as every party is mentioned by name during your conversation.

    The future of politics is micro-targeting. The efficiency and effectiveness of hitting key individual groups of voters with the right message will be the key to winning the next election victory.

    Obviously, there is a huge flaw in this model for the Labour, which comes down to Contact Creator; which is quite simply outdated and would be unable to perform the calculations required efficiently and accurately enough to be adapted for this use and it is time the Labour Party moved to a more organic 21st Century system.

    A system which can be updated live from tablets/smart phones on the doorstep, a system which can be used across web-browsers and a system which can accurately analyse data in real time. A system that on election day in 5 years would allow the Labour Party polling day to be able to centrally run from a single room in every seat and across the country. A system that in real time would allow the Labour Party too quickly and efficient shift resources to where they are needed most and not be caught cold like we were just a few weeks ago.

    Only through using our advantage of our sheer number of volunteers and our proven ability to run a huge ground campaign can we attempt to challenge the financial clout of the Conservative Campaign. In the last election we lost this war, not on the ground but on the tactical decisions from above, but, we can stop that from happening in the future.

    And this will be the difference in 5 years’ time.

  • Tim,

    I absolutely agree that the the main reason we lost was politics not organisation. However, we have to ask ourselves the question of why the Tories did better against us in key seats than they did in the rest of the country, while we did worse. Partly this is down to incumbency, but they still won seats like Morley and Outwood without this factor. It may be explained by demographics (a hypothesis that can and should be tested), but I doubt it. My contention here is that the Tory campaign made more of a difference than ours did. My second contention is that the returns to a great GOTV operation are shrinking. In the light of this we need to rethink our approach to organisation. Of course this will never be anything more than a minor contribution to our future electoral performance compared to overall political strategy, but given the resources we invest in the ground game, we need to make sure we are spending those resources wisely.

  • For GOTV to work, it can’t be targeted to swing voters…it has to be targeted to the reliable base. Spending the resources wisely means targeting only solid core base voters, which is a HUGE problem when the base has abandoned the party, as I contend has happened to Labour. You then run the risk of merely reminding voters why they loathe you (meaning the party). GOTV only works if it gets out your vote, and doesn’t backfire, getting out, or even adding votes to, your opposition. I’ve always contended that over saturation of GOTV voter contact in an environment where the voters aren’t really base voters, or where the base is just not that into you, will backfire, but this is usually dismissed because there’s money in GOTV (at least stateside). See Marx. Capital’s corrosive effect on politics has very long tendrils.

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