Reflecting on Defeat
Five months on and the scars of the crushing general election defeat are slowly beginning to heal for most Labour members. The defeat particularly hit Party members hard in Worcester as they, and the Party nationally, saw the City constituency as a very winnable seat leading up to December of last year. With Worcester residents originally set to go to the polls this Thursday for the City Council elections, before the COVID-19 outbreak halted all elections, Worcestershire Transformed spoke to some of those heavily involved within the Party to gather where Labour went wrong in the General Election and where they think the Party should be focusing in terms of local politics moving forward.
After 13 years of being a Labour seat, Worcester turned blue in 2010. Following two failed attempts to take the seat back in 2015 and 2017, there was general optimism amongst the Party nationally, and amongst local activists, that Labour had a chance at winning back the constituency at the 2019 General Election. However, as the evening of the 12th of December played out after the 10PM Exit Poll, it was clear it was going to be a difficult night for Labour across the country. In Lynn Denham Labour had an extremely hardworking Worcester City Councillor who was happy to reference her extensive work within the NHS to voters on the doorstep. However, she and fellow members found it difficult to over come the national narratives surrounding Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn when campaigning in Worcester:
I think what went wrong in Worcestershire very much mirrored the national picture. The mainstream media attacks on Jeremy Corbyn were unremitting. On the doorstep, negative conversations about his leadership became increasingly common and were an obstacle that was very difficult to overcome. Running up to polling day, the same phrases would be repeated by people, ‘I just don’t like/trust him’ and it was impossible to get them to vote Labour.Lynn Denham – Labour Parliamentary Candidate 2019
This a sentiment supported by local members James Linsey and Paul Walters, two activists that have spent years talking to Worcester residents on the doorstep and on the high street in the lead up to numerous Parish, City, County and General elections. Whilst the media portrayal of Corbyn played its role in the December defeat, for James and Paul the Party’s Brexit policy left it dead in the water:
We were undone by the populist view from the Right advertising a new nirvana with Brexit. The mistrust and confusion which we, as a Party, had significantly contributed to over Brexit, cut through everything. People that complained about the Party Policy on Brexit also were inclined to complain about the leadership.Paul Walters – Worcester CLP Chair
I find it difficult to see how we could have cut through enough to escape the national trend. Clearly Worcester is a seat that relies on national trends based on the fact we’ve only had a Worcester MP when there’s been a Labour Government. After 2017 the party fell victim to a betrayal narrative over Brexit, and communities already feeling alienated by Labour over many years now had a specific issue to beat the party with. By basically denying popular democracy and caving in to the juvenile demands of the ridiculous ‘People’s Vote’ movement, the party slit its own throat. This was the same in Worcestershire.James Linsey – Worcestershire Young Labour Committee Member
Another significant criticism that has been echoed across the country and levelled at the Party nationally is with regards to the releasing of policies during the general election. Whilst Labour policies poll extremely well with voters, including the nationalisations of key industries and higher taxes for the rich, they became lost, not only amongst the Brexit narrative, but through the constant policy announcements coming out of Labour HQ.
The national Labour Party media messaging was very poor during the election campaign. The manifesto had good policies in it but releasing lots of different stuff every day was impossible for candidates, let alone the public, to keep up with. There was no simple summary nor repetition of the key things that a Labour government would deliver. We had nothing to counteract ‘Get Brexit Done’.Lynn Denham
How does Labour win Worcester in the Future?
So amongst the questions and the soul-searching, where does the Worcester Labour Party go from here? In terms of building trust within the community, it is particularly difficult when the national debate is centred on issues such as Brexit and the media continually character assassinates the party leader. A lot of talk amongst Labour members around the country has centred around Community Organising Units which were introduced within the Labour Party in 2018. The aim of the unit is to listen the community’s concerns and issues and try and organise residents, Party members and Trade Unionists to force positive change in the area. However, how effective these Units have been in harnessing Labour supporters has been mixed in the opinion of some.
I was part of a WhatsApp support group of other parliamentary candidates and this was a topic of debate. Some did have experience of Labour Party Community Organisers and thought they were a distraction and not value for money.
Personally, I think the principle of community organising is a good one. It is a way for Labour to demonstrate our values and empower people to make a difference to their lives. However, where it seems to have ‘gone wrong’ in some areas, is that Community Organisers were operating independently. They should be working in support of local elected members. Communities need to build relationships with the person whose name will be on the ballot paper, rather than with a Community Organiser.Lynn Denham
One of the issues with the Worcester Labour Party and organising within the community is the regularity in which it has to fight elections. One third of the City Council is elected each year, followed by a year without an election; the County Council is elected every four years and there have been three general elections in the past five years. This all leaves very little room for a small activist base to organise effectively within the community.
Community Organising is made difficult by the fact that, in Worcester at least, we are on a constant election footing with local elections every year as opposed to the four-year cycle most areas have.
Constituencies like Worcester and Redditch especially would have benefited from concerted community effort and resources. These are seats that have been Labour before and which could have turned red in 2017 with more time and effort from the party in my view. This should be a major focus moving forward especially in light of the 2019 result.James Linsey
Undoubtedly having a Community Organising Unit in Worcester would have helped. Obtaining votes is based on trust and any groundwork you can do to increase this is invaluable. It takes time however, to make progress with community organising, and we didn’t have that.Paul Walters
Whilst leafletting, mail drops and letters to postal voters have important roles to play, door-knocking and phonebanking voters is generally seen within the Party as the most effective way of communicating the Labour message across to the electorate. The issue for Labour is that despite having the largest membership of any political party in Western Europe, it still failed to successfully get the word out about its policies and plan for government. This has led many in the Party to question the effectiveness of using door-knocking to communicate the Labour message to voters, and to build the mass movement it needs to succeed.
Door knocking can achieve many things but it does depend how it is done! Of itself, I don’t think it can build a mass movement.
Just door knocking and asking people how they are going to vote probably isn’t effective. I have also overheard some insensitive and patronising doorstep conversations which can’t be helpful. When people are apathetic and unwilling to talk at all, it is challenging. The Party’s persuasive conversation training was worthwhile and can help activists get to more meaningful conversations.Lynn Denham
Door-knocking without adequate community engagement is very difficult and almost impossible to make a success of. The position I would have preferred to have been in was one where people in the community were familiar with Labour; had interacted with us on some community issues beforehand and trusted us to be effective and committed to their best interests. This was not the case, in spite of us holding fifteen council seats in the city of Worcester and plenty of others in other areas of the county.
Door-knocking definitely has a vital role to play in electoral politics, but it is engagement with communities on a consistent and active basis that will build and sustain a viable power base for the labour movement and a viable voting bloc for the Labour Party.James Linsey
Many questions have been asked of how helpful the West Midlands Regional office were in supporting Worcestershire constituencies – particularly with leaflet, candidate and social media errors in the likes of West Worcestershire. There was also a lack of phone banking options for members from neighbouring constituencies who wanted to assist the campaign in Worcester.
I was disappointed with the almost complete lack of communications from Regional. I know we had an Organiser, but I would have expected some kind of regularity of service, even if it was impractical to expect it to be frequent.Paul Walters
Regional office were helpful up to a point, no doubt more helpful to us in Worcester as we were a marginal constituency, but of course there are always difficulties dealing with the bureaucracy that is natural and I fear unavoidable in the regional offices of a major political party.
I have believed for some time that there is a lot of room for CLPs in Worcestershire to be much more coordinated and familiar with each other, but this is made difficult by the fact that, in Worcester at least, we are on a constant election footing with local elections every year as opposed to the four-year cycle most areas have.James Linsey
Over to you, Keir
With Corbyn now gone as Labour leader it is over to Keir Starmer to begin rebuilding the relationship between voters who lost faith with the Labour Party at the 2019 General Election. Whilst the Labour Party’s Brexit policy of a second referendum consisting of a Brexit Deal v Remain was cited as a serious doorstep issue by Lynn, James and Paul, Labour members have decided to elect the man that created, and pushed for, said policy. What can the new Labour Leader do to win back areas like Worcester?
Understand what the issues are that motivate people to vote the way they do. Brexit was a once in a lifetime issue, but once we had determined our Brexit policy at the 2018 Conference, we should have stuck to it. The Leader needs to understand he is not going to win back votes by talk of revisiting a further referendum. We should be firmly focused on improving the position of struggling working families, the homeless and people suffering from the inequalities of 10 years of Tory austerity.Paul Walters
I think the best moments of the previous leader’s time was when the party talked in passionate terms about what working class communities had lost or been denied from the beginning of the Thatcher years in particular.
We should rediscover this language of sensible nostalgia. The romanticism of ideas and the value of organising communities against corruption and cruelty will need to be harnessed if Labour are to recover.James Linsey
Our lives and the future is being fundamentally changed by the coronavirus pandemic. Labour’s priorities and the crucial role of public services are being appreciated by more people. I hope we have a leader who will be honest, will challenge the vested interests of big business and be able to connect with people and show that a fairer country is possible.Lynn Denham