Labour need to start winning their by-elections too
By James Belchamber | Fri Dec 17 2021
It is hard to underestimate the scale of the Liberal Democrats North Shropshire win last night. Turning a Conservative majority of almost 23,000 votes into a Lib Dem majority of 6,000 is no easy feat - and it has sent shock waves through the political world.
John Curtice called the win an 8.5 on the political Richter scale - a devastating earthquake. Even the BBC - who have been so very cautious in their news reporting of late - are now asking questions like "Has Boris Johnson lost his winning touch?".
Labour's equivalent by-election, in Old Bexley and Sidcup, is also a Tory stronghold - and one the Lib Dems largely "sat out", with a humiliating drop to only 3% of the vote - behind even the Green Party (though they did campaign). Labour has an extensive activist base in London, with control over 21 councils and 45 MPs to call on (vs 27 Lib Dem councils in England, and 12 - sorry, 13 - MPs total). Despite this, Labour could not muster the electoral force to even reduce the Conservative majority to a plurality, let alone risk an upset - Louie French was returned to the commons with 52% of the vote.
So, the question has to be asked - why aren't Labour winning by-elections?
Labour do not campaign effectively
If you've ever been to a Lib Dem by-election, you know what effective campaigning looks like. The hum of the RISO printing leaflets instantly in response to current events. The small huddle of people hand-writing letters to constituents. The smell of damp stakeboards. The steady tabulation of canvassing results, building out of shuttleworths. The slowly growing surety of what we will be doing on election day. The floods and floods of activists from across the country.
Labour doesn't do this with nearly so much precision (if at all). There is a dearth of campaigning excellence in the party; so much so that it's possible the most effective campaigning plan stumbled upon by them has been to copy the Lib Dems (as a Lib Dem: you're welcome to!).
Instead, Labour talks to itself. You are far more likely to find a rousing speech in the morning in a Labour campaign; you are also more likely to find Labour leaflets screwed up and stuffed into corners of letterboxes. Labour activists often move around in large groups - I remember large sweeps of streets, which look more like a show of force than an attempt to connect.
There's a craft to campaigning; from what I've seen, Labour don't take that seriously.
Labour will not unite
Keir Starmer does not measure up to the Liberal values I hold. He also doesn't try to - he's a Labour leader and a self-identifying Socialist. As such, it's reasonable we wouldn't see eye-to-eye on Black Lives Matter, or on vaccine passports, or on a host of other things.
Similarly, more radical elements of his Socialist brethren are angry with him for.. honestly I'm not really 100% sure. I'm sure they're angry. That said: I don't think he's worse than the Tories. I certainly don't think de-funding Labour under his leadership is an appropriate response.
Much like Corbyn before him, Labour are unable to put aside factional disputes to win elections - and so, they do not win elections.
Labour spend too much time fighting the Left
If Labour can't stop fighting amongst themselves then there's little hope for them to avoid picking fights with other parts of the British left; sure enough, in the final weeks of the North Shropshire campaign Labour couldn't help but roll out advertising that painted them as the challengers on the left - "Lib Dems can't win here" - instead of messaging that would peel away Tory voters. Put more clearly: Labour spend a lot more time squeezing the left than confronting the right.
The question of whether Labour would rather a pluralistic Left dominate politics, or should continue to support Tory hegemony as the price to pay for their stranglehold on left-leaning votes, is one for them. But the reality is that Labour is not an option for many voters in the UK, and in places where those voters cluster (like North Shropshire) a Labour campaign will deliver a Tory victory.
To be clear: none of us "deserve" these voters, and Labour isn't doing anything wrong by running a campaign. But the choices about where they allocate their resources belie their comfort with the two-party status quo - even if it means they keep losing to the Tories.
Labour aren't trying
None of this matters if Labour doesn't try. Reports from local activists in Old Bexley and Sidcup point to there not actually being much of a campaign to start with. Knock-up lists were bare (if they even existed) because no significant canvassing was done. Many of Labour's MPs and Councillors, despite London's excellent (Labour-run!) transport system, didn't even show up in the constituency.
When the Liberal Democrats started campaigning for the by-election in North Shropshire they were seeking to execute on an opportunity, but any reasonable person could have accused the party of hubris. They came third in 2019 and in 2017; the constituency was true-blue; it was remote and hard for activists to get to. Regardless, the Lib Dems sensed an opportunity - and they threw a kitchen sink factory at it, mobilising and organising every resource at their disposal.
Good execution does not guarantee a success in any given campaign. But without it, a loss is all but guaranteed. Everything written here, and on every other page of every other blog and news outlet looking for clicks amongst this win, are irrelevant - if Labour do not try, they cannot win.
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