Stephen Bush investigates how Labour succeeded in the 10 gains it made from the Tories last month
If failure is a learning opportunity, Labour did enough on election night to open a free school. But there were some cheering successes amid the overall gloom, and not just against the collapsing Liberal Democrats. Ten seats went from blue to red: Dewsbury, Wolverhampton South-west, Enfield North, Ealing Central and Acton, Ilford North, Hove, Lancaster and Fleetwood, City of Chester, Wirral West, and Brentford and Isleworth. How? And what, if anything, can the party learn from those 10 points of light?
Superficially, there is very little that Labour can learn from its victory in Dewsbury. Labour had held the seat at every election with the exception of 1983, and the party underperformed badly in defeat in 2010. A 1987-style performance across England and Wales duly led to a 1987-style victory in Dewsbury, albeit with a different party in third place. That said, Labour’s triumph in Dewsbury was helped in no small part by the appeal of its candidate Paula Sherriff, which highlights the importance of selecting candidates that voters identify with, rather than those who symbolise everything they dislike about Westminster.
But all too often in Labour circles, a ‘candidate with an ordinary background’ becomes a shorthand for ‘a spad or trade union official with politics that I like’. The problem becomes more acute when you look at the efforts the Tories have made to find women, ethnic minorities and working-class candidates from outside the party. Labour’s institutions may do more to boost the chances of their own Ruth Davidson making it through the electorate, but less to find one in the first place. Among other innovations, the party could cede control of selections in every seat it holds by more than 10,000 votes to an organisation like the Sutton Trust or the Social Mobility Foundation, and should look again at the use of postal primaries.
Reselecting former members of parliament, as happened in a number of seats, does not appear to have given the party much of an edge, although both Rob Marris in Wolverhampton South-west and Joan Ryan in Enfield North succeeded in winning against the tide. As the defeats of locally popular Liberal Democrat incumbents like Vince Cable and David Laws, and as the heavy defeat in Warwickshire North – at the very top of Labour’s target list – handed to Labour’s Mike O’Brien show, a popular local candidate provides thin insulation against a toxic national message. But Labour probably did benefit from having candidates who had been through the mill before, particularly against the backdrop of a fairly vicious campaign against Ed Miliband and the Scottish National party.
Nor did the early selections in key seats, designed to help negate some of the Conservatives’ incumbency bonus, appear to have any real effect, although both Wes Streeting in Ilford North and Peter Kyle in Hove were selected more than a year before polling day. Frankly, if having candidates of the calibre of Lucy Rigby in Lincoln, Will Martindale in Battersea, Amina Lone in Morecambe and Lunesdale, and Mari Williams in Cardiff North, was insufficient to hold off the Conservative tide the experiment is unlikely to be worth repeating. Should the party decide to do so, however, it should do more to look after the wellbeing of its candidates than it did this time. As one staffer in the party’s central HQ reflected to me, ‘Too many of our candidates weren’t looked after, and were left to go mad. Many did.’
By quietly tearing up the micro-targeting approach, successful seats did better than following the narrow approach favoured by the party’s high command
What was more significant than an early selection was a large and growing ethnic minority vote, which helped Labour candidates in Ealing Central and Acton, Ilford North and Wolverhampton South-west. The party’s much-advertised ‘London bonus’ failed to materialise, with the party losing eminently winnable contests in Harrow East and Croydon Central, and being blown away in Battersea, Hendon, and Finchley and Golders Green. That said, the continuing migration of young Londoners out to Brighton may have helped Peter Kyle in Hove. But, rather than doing well in London, Labour did well where those characteristics that the United Kingdom Independence party’s Suzanne Evans identified as London’s problem aspects for her party – ‘educated, cultured and young’ – were strongest. Small wonder, then, that Lancaster and Fleetwood, which had the youngest electorate of any Conservative-held seat in 2010, was a Labour gain in 2015.
City of Chester, a north-west seat with a disproportionately high number of well-educated professionals, benefited from similarly favourable demographics and being one of the party’s so-called ‘uber-seats’ – staffed to the hilt and run with the same intensity as a byelection – allowing the Labour party to edge out the Conservatives, albeit by the narrow margin of 93 votes.
In building out from its new base of the young, the well-educated and the ethnically diverse, Labour politicians should take great care not to appear ungrateful to those voters who did make the switch. The party’s problems with white working-class voters must not be underestimated and certainly contributed to some of its more chastening defeats, including the heavy defeat in Southampton Itchen and the shock loss of Gower, a Labour seat since 1906. But much of the commentary around that problem has verged on describing Labour’s ethnic minority votes as an embarrassment, rather than an asset. The ongoing hangover from the use of similar language to talk about the party’s ‘old core’ should discourage Labour MPs from talking about its new one in an equally counterproductive fashion.
Favourable demographics and a strong ground game, however, are not, in and of themselves, enough to compensate for a disastrous air war and an unappealing national message. Labour’s 35 per cent strategy had many drawbacks – not least of all the fact that it only yielded 31 per cent of the vote. On the ground, searching for Liberal Democrat voters proved fruitless. As multiple organisers and candidates observed, the problem was not the ‘shy Tory’ but the ‘shy Liberal Democrat’. That no one wanted to admit that they had voted for the Liberal Democrats in 2010 meant finding them and getting them to the polling station for Labour in 2015 proved rather more difficult than had been hoped. A common refrain in those seats that succeeded is that, by quietly tearing up the micro-targeting approach and looking to find as many Labour voters as possible, they were able to do better than the narrow approach favoured by the party’s high command.
The lessons of Wirral West are not altogether cheering for Labour. Esther McVey, the defeated Consevative candidate, was in a position troublingly similar to that in which Ian Murray, Scotland’s sole surviving Labour MP, now is. McVey was surrounded on all sides by Labour opponents and was in a seat that is, increasingly, culturally inclined towards Labour. Murray is now surrounded on all sides by the Scottish National Party in a nation that increasingly swings towards the nationalists. A better question for Labour nationally is not what it did right in Wirral West, but what the Tories did wrong.
Common lessons across all 10 seats are frustratingly rare. Being in London – or, at least, a seat that has ‘London-style’ characteristics – helped. When wedded with a cultural dislike of Toryism – being from an ethnic minority background, or on Merseyside – the ground game can be leveraged into above-average results. And a strong candidate, whether a respected local resident, a well-liked former MP, or a local boy done good, is helpful. But the grim reality is that the Conservatives are alive to their problems among ethnic minority voters and in the north-west, and are working hard to fix them. To do better than 10 last time, Labour will need a better air war, not just to replicate the lonely successes of 2015.
Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers and a contributing editor to Progress
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