Get in gear

The polls are certain to narrow – and Jeremy Corbyn must set the tone by focusing his efforts in Labour target seats, writes Conor Pope

At the last election, many believed that the Liberal Democrats’ collapse in support would not be reflected in the number of seats they returned. Liberal Democrat members of parliament were strong campaigners, local champions and maintained a popularity that translated to a healthy personal vote. Early on election night, Paddy Ashdown reacted to the exit poll which, handing the Liberal Democrats just 12 seats, dismissed those arguments by pledging to eat a hat if the poll proved correct. Another broken promise.

They might have been assiduous at casework and committed to turning up to every school fair, but it did not matter. Those MPs were victims of the national swing. Three-quarters of the Liberal Democrat vote disappeared and their parliamentary presence duly vanished with it. The death of the national swing is often predicted, but never quite comes true.

Now look at the polls this weekend. Twenty five points. Twenty three points behind. Eighteen points behind. Eleven points behind, for light relief.

This is not the kind of thing that can be explained with ‘the polls are wrong’ or, in a Labour held marginal, can be simply overcome with a good ground campaign. A quick glance at the Labour seats most at risk shows how many incredibly capable Labour MPs could be done for, with no fault of their own; simply washed away by the national swing.

That is why the national Labour campaign, spearheaded by the leadership, needs to go up a gear, or five. The idea of disparate, individually popular ‘retail’ policies is not enough, no matter how attractive four extra days off work might be. Re-running a campaign in the style of Ed Miliband’s ‘vote Labour and win a microwave’ might make Jeremy Corbyn’s policies feel real, but it does not make them relevant. It did not work in 2015, and will not now.

The election caught us all on the hop, but Corbyn’s team needs to break out of the mayor and county council election campaign grid and recalibrate for the general.

Richard Angell’s seven pointers for the next seven weeks are a good place to start. Some of it is basic stuff, but very necessary – concentrating winning votes of the Tories, for example. I am all for ‘ripping up the rules’, but you cannot build the new politics without winning the old politics first; simply saying you will not play by other people’s rules will not stop them existing.

The leadership must start thinking about how its ideas tie together and begin drumming that home: on the economy, on national security, on Brexit. When the campaign is going well, or a policy is well-received, there can be no dwelling on partial success – you will never achieve radical aims by being happy with what you have got; consolidate quickly and move on. It is also vital that no airtime is wasted without a clear message to sell – getting sidetracked on Trident is not the sign of a flourishing campaign. At this point, if it is not gaining us votes, it is losing them.

And, despite the current polls, it must aim to look like a flourishing campaign at all times. While being 20-odd points behind will sensibly cause many Labour MPs and activists to embark on defensive campaigns to try and hold back that national swing, it would be a disaster if the media got sniff that the leader’s office was doing the same. Corbyn would be better off continuing the ambition set in place by last year’s leadership contest – such as the kind shown on his visit to Milton Keynes – and solely visiting the kinds of target seats we need to win.

Speaking on the Fire Brigade Union’s engine, Corbyn addressed a rally in Station Square at the heart of the town and said:

‘We are using this leadership contest to demonstrate the new and innovative methods the Labour Party will use to run our general election campaign in order to win back seats like Milton Keynes North and South. Using our mass membership we can organise within communities and communicate with voters in a more effective way than ever before.’

Now is the time to put that energy and innovation into practice. As the grid is drawn up for the next six weeks, Corbyn’s team should cross out all plans to visit Labour-held seats. Instead, he should go to the new towns, the market towns and Britain’s coastal communities. The Momentum carpool is a great initiative, and they could use it to mobilise activists to match Corbyn’s movements across Labour’s 106 target seats from 2015.

Making trips to Labour-held constituencies would feed into a destructive narrative about the party’s aims. The polls are certain to narrow from where they are now, and Corbyn should be out in the country – even holding rallies in Tory seats. That alone will not win votes, but when the polling begins to turn it will set the tone that we are actually seeking victory, and help really start making a dent in that enormous Conservative lead.

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Conor Pope is deputy editor of Progress. He tweets at @Conorpope

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