First published on Progressonline
Arriving in Kingswood on the outskirts of Bristol to be met by Labour’s candidate Jo McCarron, a clutch of local activists, croissants and hot coffee, was the sounding gun of a week-long tour. Our trusty battlebus, sadly not pink, toured 21 of Labour’s 106 target seats. Another team visited the south Wales marginals on Tuesday while we covered north Wales.
The most interesting but not surprising finding is that the polls are bang on. The election is wide open. There is everything to play for. Labour is out-working the Tories, the Tories are out-spending Labour. Nothing new here, but, considering the late stage of the parliament, huge swaths of voters who have traditionally decided elections are still unsure. Door after door, activists would return to the board-runner – the person who holds the clipboard containing the chosen voter information from Labour’s national ContactCreator system – with the code ‘D’. Normally noted to signify that the corresponding person in their most recent conversation is a ‘Don’t know’, this time ‘D’ is for disillusioned.
Many voters are still undecided. But in a new way. They throw their hands up in the air, they are able to argue both sides of the coin but are unable to come to conclusion. There is no love for the Tories – in many cases the complete opposite – but with these voters, Labour undoubtedly has more to do. Typical of countless conversations made by the 321 activists who joined us on the tour, one woman said to me, ‘I trust the Tories on the economy and Labour on the NHS. I just don’t know what to do’. Adding to the pool of undecided voters are those who, I sense, since the new year have drifted from their 2014 flirtation with the United Kingdom Independence party .
Labour’s manifesto – in the trusty hands of Jon Cruddas – and corresponding five pledges must galvanise these voters and set out both a wider vision and key dividing lines. It must have aspiration at its heart, families and homeowners in his focus, and a clear alternative to the Tories.
What is amazing about the doorstep is how behind the party the members are. The very same people – plus some important new recruits – who denied the Tories a majority at the last election are trying to defy history to make this Tory-led government a one-term government.
5,105 conversations later, three clear lessons stand out for me.
First, our candidates are putting everything into this election. Many have been in post for years, almost all longer than their opponent member of parliament ever was. Each are doing so at huge personal cost. I do not say this because this was somehow unknown to them before embarking on their candidature or because they are not the primary beneficiary, but, regardless of these two facts, it is taking its toll. All are experiencing a loss of earnings, many are piling on personal debt and others are financially scrambling to make it to the finish line. Despite any challenges they are fit for the fight and hungry for a Labour victory. They all, outside the metropolitan areas in particular, need our volunteer hours, money – donate now – and shoe leather. Outside groups bring hope, optimism and solidarity – the message that the rest of us care will keep them going and help them win.
Second, we need ContactCreator fit for the new register. Many seats are worried about huge falls in the electoral register and the number of – normally Labour – voters who are no longer to be seen. Certain seats have strategies to deal with this at the heart of their campaigns. Volunteers enthusiastically run to the doors of those not listed to enquire if a voter is inside and needs signing up. In one particularly unpleasant example behind the door was an irate voter who shouted ‘I told you three weeks ago to never knock my #%*$ door again’. Immediate updates to ContactCreator need to highlight houses on the register that are not to be contacted or contain voters who cannot vote in general elections. This could save much-needed time and prevent the short sharp response our colleague experienced last Wednesday.
Finally, Labour must stay focused on campaigning for an outright majority. Any idea of early deal with the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish Nationalist party or the Green party is disconcerting for want-to-be Labour voters. Our detractors will be keen to entertain these ideas, understandably the media will try to outline various scenarios but Labour, and all in our ranks, must reach for the 67 gains needed to take us over the line in our own right. None of these minor parties are our allies. None of them will make a Labour government more liberal, more left, more green; a vote for each of them makes a Labour government less likely.
A little tired, I return from the trip more optimistic and more determined to win this election. Ed Miliband has a volunteer army unrivalled by anything in recent political history. Making history is in our grasp – a final push in the coming day and a compelling offer could see Ed Miliband in Downing Street in time for Progress annual conference.
Richard Angell is director of Progress
The three seat challenge tour visited 24 seats, engaged 321 activists, inspired 717 volunteer hours and made 5,105 contacts. All the information is here.