Seven months before an election Labour must inspire, surprise and provoke its supporters. Not patronise them

Labour FacebookLabour Vice-Chair Michael Dugher MP (who’s been charged with “bringing the Obama touch to Labour’s 2015 election campaign”) sent me an automated “Hi Alex” email last week.

“You might not realise it yet, but it’s pretty amazing just how much of an impact you – Alex – can have on the outcome of the next election,” Michael gushes. “You don’t have to just take my word for it though – this Facebook app will show you exactly what I mean:…. The app calculates how many Tory MPs you could get voted out of Parliament using the power of your Facebook network.”

Click here to find out your Tory kick-out count – I bet it’s more than you think,” he invites. Once I download the app, I’m reassured Don’t worry – it doesn’t post anything to your wall, and you can deauthorize it at any time” (as if it is some guilty online secret, like viewing pornography). I’m then told that “If all your friends shared your Facebook posts, they would be seen by up to 50,727 people. That’s more than the 49,741 voters we need to swing to Labour to win our 37 closest Tory battlegrounds.”

So, watch out Conservative MP Stephen Mosley (with a majority of 2,583 over Labour in Chester) – apparently you are number 37 on my hitlist. You had better get people to unfriend me quick if you want to survive next May.

Whoever “calculated” that me and my Facebook friends have the power to unseat 37 Tory MPs is like one of those economists who “calculate” how many umpteen billion pounds in lost productivity an extra Bank Holiday will cost: the methodology is suspect and the information they’ve gleaned is useless anyway.

I don’t want to know “how big my circle of political influence is” on Facebook, just as I’m not interested in knowing the boiling point of shoe polish, whether Capricorns commit suicide more often than Aquarians, or how many petrol stations there are in Bishop’s Stortford: life’s too short for my brain to absorb such pointless information. I’m not interested in trivia outside the pub quiz.

Back in June the Guardian’s  John Harris pointed out just how trite Labour’s communications with members can be, highlighting the “spectacular banality” of an online questionnaire asking members to say whether they think Britain should be “Compassionate”, “Diverse”, “Fair”, “Pioneering” or “Respectful” (no other options were permitted).

Sadly, little has changed since. Another email, this time from Maria Eagle, went out last week asking Labour supporters to sign a petition opposing any repeal of the foxhunting ban, as environment secretary Liz Truss suggested at the Tory conference. As a mischievous experiment, I clicked on the “Sorry – I’m pro fox hunting” tab (that’s not really my view, though I do think the Hunting Act did nothing to help animal welfare and introducing it was one of the silliest decisions the last Labour government made). I got an automatic reply saying “Thanks for letting us know! There’s a broad range of opinions in the Labour family – but one thing we all agree on is we need to get rid of this Tory government.”

Laughably, opposition to fox hunting is seen as a totemic Labour principle – but at the same time support for fox-hunting is perfectly fine, as it’s all part of the “broad range of opinions” the party contains.

As John McTernan (not someone I often agree with) has rightly argued, Labour harking on about the foxhunting ban is a worrying sign that the party “lost the power of hearing” and is “bloodless” (a pretty damning indictment of an email that tries to stir up outrage about a bloodsport). I once met John when he was a senior Number 10 staffer giving  a pep-talk to a Greenwich Council away-day in late 2006, the dying days of Blair’s premiership. I liked him, but his managerial talk of reforming public services was itself bloodless: it encouraged Greenwich Labour to retreat further into paternalism and  insularity (the opposite of what he intended) because it was a technocratic language that most of us could not understand.

John McTernan’s now identified a very different problem: Labour today is over-compensating for the alienating language of the Blair years. The problem is not so much the issues we campaign on, or the policies we unveil, but the patronising and simplistic way they are presented. We’re so anxious to avoid saying anything that might offend, or confuse, that all we’re left with are empty slogans.

I’m glad Labour won the Heywood  and Middleton by-election and that we now have an NHS biochemist, Liz McInnes, in parliament. But couldn’t she have found something better to say than “Keep your mitts off our NHS”  in her victory speech? I wish she had talked in her own words about the health service she had worked for all her adult life, not repeated someone else’s soundbite. Coming from the 91-year-old Harry Smith, “Keep your mitts off my NHS” was passionate and from the heart. But coming from an MP it smacks of hyperbole, insincerity and mock outrage.

It’s depressing that Labour finds it so hard to articulate positive new reasons why it deserves to be in power next May that it resorts to reminiscing about reasons it put forward 20 years ago, or recycling other people’s speeches. The foxhunting email reads a bit like an invite to a New Labour reunion party (“did we really wear those shoulder pads and plastic roses?”). The “never mind” auto-reply sent to those who say they support foxhunting shows that the party isn’t really that serious about foxhunting anyway – the email’s really just a stunt to make us good about ourselves, not reach out to others.

It’s a 1990s playlist, and after a while even Oasis and Blur get a bit same-y. And as usual the electorate is much more sophisticated than its politicians, and certainly more sophisticated than politicians assume us to be. As a result the party’s messages do not just bore and annoy us – they also patronise.

****

These emails aren’t cutting edge stuff: they’re the digital equivalent of the junk mail letters from Tom Champagne that my Dad would receive daily in the 1980s, telling him that he was through to the final round of the Readers’ Digest Prize Draw. Such letters normally ended up straight in the bin, as will most of Labour’s emails.

But Michael Dugher’s job, a sympathetic profile in the Independent recently explained, is to “turn Tony Blair’s ‘command and control’ party upside down so that it is based on ‘bottom up’ community campaigns.” In the Blair era, he explains, “the number of Labour officials at HQ outnumbered those in the regions by 2:1. Today’s 350 staff are evenly split between the two”.  It says much about the centralism of the Labour Party that it measures local vibrancy in terms of the numbers of staff employed in its regional offices, not the level of campaigning and engagement on the ground.

And the problem with importing “Team Obama” campaign techniques is that they were designed for a presidential system, not a parliamentary one. Far from being “grassroots up” these digital campaigns are all too often top-down. But no matter how much David Cameron may want the 2015 election to be a presidential contest between him and Ed Miliband, it won’t be: it’s a parliamentary election in which the British people elect MPs in 650 constituencies, not a Prime Minister.

The 2015 election won’t be won by Facebook gimmicks dreamt up in Brewers Green and silly mass emails sent by someone who most Labour members won’t have heard of, let alone met. Instead it should be local candidates, and well-known community endorsers, trying to energise the grassroots and tell local stories that fit in with national themes.

Some of these tactics may not work and some may even backfire, but the 2010 election shows that good local candidates, and hard-working activists, can help Labour defy the national swing and hang on to marginal seats. My own survival, as a Labour councillor in one of London’s most marginal wards (Blackheath Westcombe ward in Greenwich) from 1998 to 2014, was not down to sharing pointless Labour surveys on Facebook. It was down to a small group of activists in the ward, and helpers from across the borough, working with me to raise funds, knock on doors week in, week out, set up and maintain a hyper-local website (which still gets 50 hits a day), and write and deliver direct mails and quarterly newsletters.

Almost always, the messages that the party’s regional and borough machines asked us to push were useless: at the 2014 election voters in Greenwich were asked to vote Labour as way of saying ‘thank you’ for getting Royal Borough status, hosting the Olympic games in 2012, “securing” a Crossrail station, and even winning the Local Government Chronicle’s Council of the Year award in 2013: paternalistic politics at its worst. One Labour leaflet even reminded voters that “three votes for Labour is the only way of ensuring x, y and z are elected as Labour councillors”: a statement of the obvious that said nothing about why Labour’s candidates were more worthy of support than other parties’, or what they would do in office.  Any exciting vision of what a Labour council would do for the next four years – other than continue to freeze council tax and provide more school places – was hard to find.

If we had just relied on wheezes from Labour HQ I would have probably lost my council seat a decade ago: in fact I survived and in 2014 Labour got two councillors elected in Blackheath Westcombe largely in spite of, not because, the way the party machine wanted us to campaign.

If the party was serious about harnessing the power of the Internet and social media – and it should be – it would forget mass emails about fox-hunting or Facebook apps. Instead it would ensure that every constituency had a simple, effective website telling voters what Labour is doing locally . Simon Thomson in Dartford has done just that: his website explains what he’s doing to revive the town centre, improve train services, and stand up for council tenants, without patronising or exaggerating.

In most constituencies  the Tories, and even the moribund Liberal Democrats, have sophisticated websites telling you at  the click of a mouse what they’re doing locally and who their local councillors or candidates are, but in too many places the local Labour party’s website is either “under construction” or doesn’t say who the parliamentary candidate is. And too many Labour candidates in marginal seats rely on hackneyed lines about being “on the side of local jobs and local services,”  “standing up for our community” or “working tirelessly to get a fair deal for all.” No-one listens to such waffle: instead voters want to know what their MP will do. And if they do talk politics on social media, they want to share real stories about real people rather than trot out pre-fabricated slogans.

*******

Let’s have another look at the small print at the end of Michael Dugher’s email. “We realise it’s not quite as simple as this. For example, it’s unlikely that all your friends will share all your Facebook posts, or that they all live in Tory seats, or that you will be able to single-handedly convince all your friends to vote Labour (although if you can, we want to hear from you!). The point is, while this is indicative and the science may be a bit different come polling day, you have the potential to influence a lot of people by sharing things on Facebook. By working together, we can make a decisive impact on the next election and help elect a Labour Government on 7 May.”

I’ve read that twice and still can’t detect any irony. It seems that Labour HQ really thinks that it can win the election through people like me telling my Labour-leaning friends to vote Labour (preaching to the converted, in old money). Indeed, electing a Labour government “isn’t as simple as this”. Winning an election is not down to algorithmic science.

If half the time and resources put into such nonsense was spent on websites, leaflets and direct mails in marginal seats, then Labour might be well ahead in the polls, not level pegging. Political parties, like people, can spend too much time on Twitter and Facebook and become sad, anti-social beings who should get out more. The election of 2015 will not be won in cyberspace alone. Of course social media can and should play a part in any modern campaign. But it’s only a means to an end. And, as always, all politics is local.

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5 Responses to Seven months before an election Labour must inspire, surprise and provoke its supporters. Not patronise them

  1. Neil C says:

    Spot on about the need for local parties to have a better online presence. The steady stream of Party emails asking for money and help with campaigning are a reminder of how little I see in my inbox from local councillors about, say, local issues and what they’ve been up to. It’s leaving an open goal for the other parties. I just can’t understand why councillors wouldn’t have a blog-style website in 2014.

  2. john kemmis says:

    Totally agree. These messages are irritating.Personally feel quite frustrated about the national scene…After 4 years they need an economic policy that says how they will get the country moving forward as well as giving reassurance about addressing the deficit. This along with other policies needs to give a positive vision not simply react to the Tory proposition Labour got the country into a mess. Labour also needs to have a clear message on Europe including the things we should negotiate to change as well as why we should remain in. Yes – Ed Milliband needs to get his act together.
    I would expect Labour to speak up for public service as well as the voluntary sector which is being attacked. Its not just the NHS. Attack the way their ministers write policy on back of an envelope and we all pay the price….in case of NHS millions wasted with reorganisation. The plans for changing the constitution would be the same …cobbled together in a rush and used to wrong foot Labour.

    Equally when I have tried to contact shadow ministers or their teams on policy that I have some experise in Ive never even got a reply or acknowledgement. I cant say how much that has pissed me off.
    I get the message they want my money but no interest in actual help in developing policy or addressing some of the worst excesses of the Gov’s policies going through parliament now.

    Nevertheless I remain loyal to the party and will help where I can!

  3. maryorelse says:

    Alex, you are so right – and I could go on and on about it, and over many years. I wonder if any of the people involved will ever read what you have said and if they do will have any understanding of the problem. It isn’t difficult to communicate with members and voters and – well, people – and so little understanding of how to do it. Round the country there must be many, many local councillors who do a great job in keeping in touch and informing residents – and, I will bet, every one of them is put down and patronised as a ‘good community member’ , somehow second or third class to all those important non-communicating ones busy levering themselves into office.

  4. Pingback: Emily Thornberry quitting does little to solve Labour’s southern discomfort. Miliband should have defended her right to tweet | Alex Grant

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