Getting Ahead of the Curve – 6 Considerations for Campaigners ahead of the next UK General Election

I spend a lot of time thinking about the Labour Party – my wife would suggest at times it’s been way too much time!

But as we’re now around 18 months out from the last possible date for a General Election, and with Labour holding a solid lead in opinion polls, it’s something that I’ve started to think about more and more in my campaigning work.

As I’ve thought about it, I’ve considered some areas that campaigners need to consider in their approach.

1. Too much focus on policy as opposed to politics – it’s very easy for campaigners and changemakers to spend lots of energy focusing on a list of what they’d like to see a future government do on their issue.

Of course, you need to engage in a process to try to influence manifestos, but that needs to be done with a focused look at the politics of the election.

The Labour leadership has a clear sense of what they think they need to do to win the election: the constituencies, voters, and issues that are going to matter. So any thinking about policies needs to be ruthlessly considered through that political lens.

Right now, Labour is focused on demonstrating economic credibility in its approach and appears to have an interest in pursuing a similar ‘small shield’ strategy with a narrow focus on a few issues and pledges running up to the election, like the approach taken by the Australian Labor Party in 2022.

But beyond that, they’re certainly doing more polling than you are about what matters to voters. So ensuring that you spend time understanding what matters to those key voters that Labour needs and how your ask might fit is vital.

I try to keep on top of this on my semi-regular polling threads over on Twitter, but at the very least, I’d recommend a regular review of the monthly issues tracking data from Ipsos and More in Common.

2. Assuming it’ll be easy to influence policy under a Labour government – It’s been 13+ years since we had a Labour government, so there are fewer campaigners around who’ll remember what it was like. It was early in my career, and I think I’d characterize it as ‘easier but certainly not easy’

Now admittedly, on lots of issues, the starting point for influencing will be more favorable, so getting a meeting or finding a sympathetic backbench government MP to push your cause might be easier.

But the economic conditions that the next Government is going to inherit will lead to tough choices. Those campaigners who can offer policy ideas that don’t require significant funding are likely to find a warmer reception.

Any changemaker approaching the next year with a ‘fingers crossed’ strategy – hoping that if Labour wins, they’ll do the right thing on their issue – is, in my view, making a mistake.

Any incoming government is going to find itself in a tight spot economically, with potentially limited bandwidth to do much else.

3. That today’s Labour is the same as it was in 1997, 2015, or 2019 – From the outside, Labour might look like one large happy political family, but like any political party, it’s really a group of different factions, groups, and viewpoints who are working with each other – sometimes together and sometimes against each other.

While the formal policy-making processes of the party are largely the same as they have been at previous elections – with the National Policy Forum process currently ongoing ahead of the conference in the autumn and the formal ‘Clause V’ meeting once the election is called to approve the manifesto.

Beyond that, this is a new edition of the Labour Party with a new leader and new individuals influencing him. So spending time understanding which groups/factions are growing in influence, and which aren’t, matters as it’ll give you key insight.

You can draw some of this from the background of the candidates getting selected (I’d recommend the Tomorrow’s MP Twitter feed), the announcements that are being made from the leader of the opposition office as they’re the ones that are approved and ‘on the grid’ (the media planning process that political parties use), and who is advising key ministers – see here for one example of a briefing from a public affairs agency which provides some of that.

So while some of the individuals might have been involved in previous editions of the Labour Party, and there might be parallels with previous elections that Labour has fought – campaigners need to start with a blank piece of paper when it comes to power mapping.

4. That your reputational shadow will be enough – I’m a huge fan of the writing of David Karpf, and I especially like the concept of the ‘reputational shadow’ that he writes about – the sense that politicians judge your influence based on their past experiences of the constituency of support for your issue that you’ve been able to demonstrate.

As we know, the Labour leadership will be doing a huge amount of polling at the moment, so they know where the public, especially those they hope will vote for them, stand on issues.

Campaigns need to be careful not to assume that previously mobilised support for an issue still exists and is seen as influential.

Some groups, especially the trade union movement, which is a constituent part of the Labour Party (they’re literally part of the family), will always be central to thinking when decisions on policy and approach are being made. But the views and concerns of other sectors and groups will only be there if they are seen to be important to an influential part of the electorate.

5. The election is a foregone conclusion – Sure, the polls currently point to a sizeable win for the Labour Party, and it’s right to plan with that as the most likely outcome.

But, if we look at polls taken at this moment ahead of both the 2010 and 2015 elections, we’ll find leads that didn’t translate into the final result on election day. For example, 18 months out from May 2010, David Cameron’s Conservatives had a +6/8% lead, and the result was a coalition government.

Now, lots has changed since those elections, and the circumstances will be different. But campaigners need to constantly evaluate what’s happening and adapt their plans and approach, including engaging with smaller parties who could become important if the polls narrow and a hung Parliament looks like a potential outcome.

6. Overlooking the Conservative Party – Not only will they be the party of Government until the election which could still be over a year away – and could plausibly win the next General Election – but they will also be one of the major political forces in the UK for years to come.

So while it might be tempting to pause or stop engagement with the Conservative Party, that feels like a mistake, especially if a period after an election defeat leads to some very public discussions about the direction of the party.

Smart mapping of who is likely to be influential in the future leadership of the Conservative Party and ongoing engagement needs to continue.

So you've joined the Labour Party – now what?

In the last few weeks many of those I work and campaign alongside have joined the Labour Party. So for readers who aren’t members of the Labour Party (or interested in party politics), please forgive me as I go ‘off topic’.
For those who have joined. Welcome.
I’m glad to be on the same team as you. I hope these notes will be of use, because I was like you just 7 years ago and have had the most amazing time being involved over the last few years. Like you want to see a Labour Government in 2020 because I believe we achieve more in power in one day than we do in a 100 days in opposition.
1 – Remember we are one party – You won’t agree with everything that everybody says all the time, and not everyone voted for Jeremy Corbyn (I didn’t but that doesn’t meant we can’t be friends!). But 99% of people I’ve met within the Party are members for the right reasons (and many of them are still exhausted from an General Election campaign followed by the Leadership election). Like you they have a passion for social justice and a fairer world. More unites us than divides us. So look for the good in everyone you meet.
2 – Get involved now – Don’t leave it until 2019. The media are looking for a story about how Labour is unelectable and the 2016 elections in London, Scotland and in councils across the country will be the first time they get to write that story. It’s easy to join interest groups within the Labour Party, known as Socialist Societies. They can be great ways to meet people who share your interest, but please get involved in your local Constituency Labour Party (CLP) as well.
Bring your skills, energy and experience as a campaigner and get stuck in. I can’t promise that it’ll always be easy, but CLPs are the basic organising unit for Labour and they need people like you in them. It’ll also help you get to know your community, its only through my involvement in Tooting Labour that I’ve had the pleasure to make friends from across my community.
3 – Knock on some doorsFirstly it’ll make you a better campaigner, but it’s also the most effective way we have as a party of getting out . The person who’s taught me the most in the Labour Party has a phrase that is so true ‘friends do things for friends’ and talking to people all year round is a way of doing this.
Sure we need to change the way we run our canvassing, engage in more of a conversations, find ways of empowering local people to take action so we’re doing it with people rather than for them, but disappearing from our communities won’t help people think that the Labour Party is a ‘friend’.
4 – Find the people who inspire you – Some of the people you’re going to meet in your local party aren’t going to be the people you’ll want to bound down to the pub with, but at meetings and events you’re bound to spot people who interest (and perhaps even inspire) you.
Get to know them, as my guess is that they’re the type of person who’ll want to change things, but perhaps because they’re now a Councillor or a CLP Officer they don’t have the time or energy to do that (I remember bounding into my local party in 2010 full of ideas but if I’m honest by 2015 I’d run out of some of that energy to get things done as the pressures of life and helping keeping my local party going got to me). Get to know them, ask them how you can help to change the culture of your CLP, make plans, share ideas, work together. These people want to pass the baton onto you.
5 – Stand for office – Within the next 12 months each CLP will hold elections for its officers – the volunteers who make things happen. Consider standing for office to bring your skills and ideas to help run your local party. If you want to really change things this can be a great place to do it, and if you are successful get to know others in the same position in other constituencies to share ideas.
6 – Change the ways meetings happen – There are some cliches about parts of Labour Party meetings which are fair, but you can help to change the way meetings are held.
Suggest changes to the venue to make it more welcoming, think about the set up – do you have to sit in rows, change the agenda – we used to have the speaker/policy discussion first followed by the business later – it’s amazing how many people don’t complain about the minutes of the last meeting when they want to get home at 9.30pm! Ensure that you find ways for more people, find speakers who’ll be interesting, helping to facilitate discussions in small groups, etc, etc.
Every time you walk away from a meeting because you found it dull those who are happy with the status quo win! Don’t just complain, go with suggestions to change things.
7 – Help outside of London – Historically local parties in London and a few other large cities have been much bigger than in many other areas of the country, so if you’re interested in helping the party win in 2016, go on a road trip to help the party in those marginal seats in the Midlands, Kent, and beyond we need to win in 2020 to form a government.
8 – Believe we can win everywhere – I grew up in Surrey Heath, its an area unlikely to elect a Labour MP anytime soon, but there is a ward that does have 2 Labour Councillors. If you’re in a safe Conservative seat ask around to understand if there are similar wards we used to be active in, and if there are think about getting involved. In the 1990s, the party ran a brilliant programme called ‘Operation Toehold’ which helped the party to start winning in seats that they eventually took in 1997. We need the same now, to show that Labour can win up and down the country.
9 – Get to know your organiser – As my local MP never tires of reminding our meetings, we’re a volunteer party, we don’t have lots of paid campaigners, and most Councillors and Officer do this alongside the ‘day job’, but many CLPs do employee an organiser. They’re often brilliant young campaigners, who are asked to work miracles week-in, week-out for little pay. Get to know your organiser, offer to share your campaigning advice, encourage them, and ask how you can help.
10 – Always have some loose change in your pocket – You’ll soon find that the Labour Party loves a good raffle. It’s because most local parties don’t have huge reserves, so every opportunity to raise a few pounds will help to fund the next newsletter or the organisers salary.
PS – Get in touch if I can help offer any advice. Together we’ll win again.

Lessons from the Field – my reflections on 5 years organising for the Labour Party

Last month I shared a few thoughts about what issue campaigner can learn from party political campaigning.
A few people encouraged me to do the opposite post, but as I started writing I discovered this isn’t really lessons for political parties from campaigning organisations, it’s more my reflections from 5 years as a volunteer campaign organiser within the Labour Party.
Some caveats to start with. My experience is perhaps an isolated one, I’ve been focused on working in support of one party in a few constituencies in SW London, and I can’t say that I’ve managed to address everything I’ve written in the constituency I was involved in, but they’re a few observations, which feel timely as the Labour Party considers its future direction.
I’ve tried to avoid too much of a focus on the idea that too many party members are focused on the minutes of the last meeting, that we send too many emails (which we do!) or we only visit at election time (which we don’t).
Why? Yes, it’s sometimes true we do all those thing but it’s also an unfair parody. Many of those I’ve worked alongside have been committed, dedicated individuals who put in hours of volunteer time determined to make a difference in their community. Instead I’ve chosen to reflect on the following.
1. Don’t forget to evaluate – I’ve been through a number of election campaigns now, they’re all different, but in all of them I’ve spotted things I’d do the same or do differently. It’s surprised me that the political parties don’t have a instinctive or systematic approach to sitting down, evaluating the evidence and learning what’s worked and what hasn’t.
Perhaps its because politics is always moving along, win and you’re into governing. Lose and the last thing you want to do is reflect on what you did wrong, but it’s a practice that needs to be encouraged at all levels of the party. Personally, despite feeling numb from the result of the election in May, I’m glad the Labour Party has committed to do a full review of what worked and didn’t work, and it’s great to see some of the candidates do the same. That needs to become the norm not the exception, and the findings need to be distributed widely.
2. Test, trial and try new – Elections are in many ways won (or lost) using the same formula that parties have been using for years. Yes, there are a few examples of doing differently (Birmingham Edgbaston is the example that was rightly praised in 2010 and Ilford North in 2015) but outside a few campaigns committed to pioneering , and the work of the Labour digital team who I think awesome, new approaches seem to be to too often few are far between and not mainstreamed quickly.
Innovation is hard when the risk of it not working is losing an election, and not all campaigning organisations get this right either. But I’d love to see the party embrace a culture of testing different approaches to see what has the biggest impact, trailing something new, building an evidence base based on experimentation.
It doesn’t mean throwing the old playbook out (there is much to be said for the approach of going door to door and being routed in a community) but the playbook needs to have some (evidence-based) chapters added to it.The experience of Arnie Graf and the suspicion with which his community organising approach was viewed is a lesson in how hard this can be.
3. Share learning – In the overall scheme of things I was a fairly unimportant volunteer. But with a (unhealthy) passion for campaigning that took me to the US to learn how Obama did it in 2012, I was amazed at how little learning and good practice is proactively shared amongst other volunteer campaign organisers. I’m sure there is loads I could learn from others across the UK, but I found more ideas from reading books and blogs about what was happening in the US than I did others in the UK.
The Labour Party would do well to emulate a model similar to that of the Analyst Institute in the US and build a closed community committed to share evidence and best practice for paid staff and key volunteers (like me). But learning shouldn’t be limited from within the Party, since the election its been more interesting reading learning from Conservative activists, like any good campaign the party needs to be open to collecting ideas for a range of sources.
4. Remember the pyramid of engagement – A graph like the one below should go up in every Labour Party office. Sure some really skilled professional people just love to deliver leaflets (I’m one of them now – it’s good exercise) but too often that’s all we ask them to do, just knock on doors or deliver leaflets.
The pyramid of engagement is a tool well know to campaigners, all about how you help you develop a plan to recruit individuals and engage individuals. Some constituencies do this really well, but sadly most don’t meaning talent is wasted or under-utilised.
5. Invest in your people – The Labour Party relies on a small army of organisers in many of its constituencies, most are recent graduates paid too little, and asked to make huge sacrifices of time in the run up to an election. Some are stick around for year, but most drift away after an election or two. That’s valuable institutional knowledge walking, and a huge cost in training new staff.
We don’t have the culture in the UK of a professionalised political campaign staff, but as a result there a few incentives for the most effective organisers to stick around, the training they get seems to be patchy and the support/supervision from more experienced staff limited. Building a clear career pathway that rewards the most effective rather than those who have the most stamina, and effectively scales to provide the right level of support and supervision is needed if we’re to build a cadre of brilliant campaign managers.
6. Build a culture of accountability – At times, asking how another constituency how many contacts it’s made is similar to asking someone else how much they get paid. It’s shared with reluctance and is probably over or under inflated! Work needs to be done to ensure the metrics are more sophisticated than simply the number of contact made, although that’s still an important benchmark of activity, to ensure they’re capturing volunteer engagement and much more.
But those figures need to be shared and scrutinised. To my mind it’s unacceptable that we don’t have a culture where one constituency can benchmark itself against another and those who aren’t performing, including where we have longstanding MPs, are called out by the National Executive Committee or another representative body.
So a few lessons from me.  As I was writing this I re-read parts of Refounding Labour. It’s a document full of practical recommendations. It would be easy for whomever becomes leader in September to bin it, as a holdover from the previous leadership, in my opinion that would be a mistake.
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