Last Thursday 7th May, Labour lost the General Election. I was the parliamentary candidate in Dartford. It is a classic bellwether seat – having been taken by the party which forms the government at every election since 1964. Sadly, despite us building a committed and passionate team of local volunteers and running a professional and joined up campaign, the Conservative candidate was returned with a bigger majority than in 2010. We could do little on the night to stem the tide against Labour and needed a national 37-30% split in our favour to have succeeded. Memories of the 1992 election came flooding back.
With another leadership election now looming, a worryingly simplistic argument is brewing about the future direction of the party: some have been quick to talk about the need for a focus on aspirational politics, and a return to the political centre ground. Let me be clear – to win an election in Conservative (with a small “c” and currently big “C”) England, you do need to appeal across the political spectrum. But I think to simply talk about aspirational politics, and to frame arguments in terms of left versus right, can risk failing to address the changing political landscape we now face.
Having put my heart and soul into the election campaign in Dartford, since being selected as the candidate eighteen months ago, in an area where I grew up, I think I can offer a more considered view as to where Labour went wrong.
Election strategy: Dartford lies in north Kent, close to London and is an area where Margaret Thatcher successfully appealed to voters in the 1980s and Tony Blair at the end of the 1990s. Many constituents benefited from the opportunity to buy their council houses under Thatcher. Many would be considered to be skilled manual workers or C2s -- small business owners: plumbers, decorators and electricians. Many others are long suffering rail commuters into London on Southeastern. The demographics of Dartford are also changing: with more people moving to the area from London boroughs. With a reliable history as a bellwether seat, and in the south-east of England – where Labour needs to be winning in order to form a majority government, Dartford should have been an important seat for Labour in 2015. But it wasn’t.
To be blunt, the national party completely ignored our campaign in Dartford. We got no help from the party throughout the campaign. No financial help. No organiser, nor any administrational support of any kind – and when the short campaign kicked in, that really mattered. Nor did we receive any visits from front-bench spokespeople. In many ways the General Election seemed miles away from Dartford and virtually passed us by.
In some ways that was actually an advantage: it meant that I was able to localise my campaign on the two local issues which really mattered to people in Dartford and transcended both local and national politics: the appalling state of the town centre and the threat of another Thames crossing being sited at Dartford.
But just how much we were ignored by the national party really struck home when I tried to follow up information that 3,000 people had signed up via email to support Labour in Dartford. Repeated attempts to get hold of that information – which would have helped in updating our voter-id data and potentially building a larger team of volunteers – were rejected by the party. Instead, we were told that only key seats were being provided with that information.
In the months and weeks before polling day, and even on the day of the election itself, several of my team of committed, hard-working volunteers were still receiving emails and text messages asking them to help in one of Labour’s key seats, instead of Dartford.
There was no doubt that during the course of our election campaign in Dartford, the Conservatives were worried. They were suffering from a lack of volunteers, they’d been in charge of a town centre which had fallen into a sad state of decline, and the MP had failed to scrap the crossing tolls – one of his key pledges in 2010. On the doorsteps, time and time again there were so many people who openly admitted to us that while they had voted Tory in 2010, they were unsure about how to vote this time. Our candidates and volunteers in Dartford worked tirelessly in the months leading up to the election, chatting about issues and identify thousands of voting intentions. But with a lack of up-to-date information, we were still having to identify potential Labour voters in the final weeks of the campaign, unable to go back to the people who were undecided. Our calls for more help from the national party in Dartford fell on deaf ears.
Inflexibility: A party needs to have a coherent strategy in fighting an election campaign. But it seems to me that Labour drew up its list of 106 key seats based mainly on the size of electoral deficits. The list seemed to be devised before realising the impact the SNP would have on Labour in Scotland, and before realising the impact UKIP would have on the political landscape in England. The strategy seemed to ignore changing demographics or constituency party organisation. Any political strategy must be flexible – with an ability to react to changes as events happen and to word on the ground. But Labour’s strategy seemed to be inflexible.
Under our present, out-dated and un-proportional electoral system, of course we will have “safe” Conservative seats where it is unlikely that Labour will ever win the seat. Certainly some of those constituency members may well wish to help out in a constituency where they can make a difference. But sending out blanket emails and texts insisting that activists in non-target seats must drop their focus on their own seats, can be counter-productive and cause resentment among newly engaged and passionate volunteers.
In the event, I am really grateful to the financial support which the GMB gave us in Dartford. At least they recognised that Dartford is a seat which Labour should be winning in order to form a government.
Policy: I don’t think you can simply frame the debate about where Labour went wrong on policy in terms of the traditional left-right perspective. Some policies, which could be considered as left-wing, such as taking back failing rail services into public ownership, certainly resonated with the electorate. Look at the madness of the Tories insisting that the well run and profit making north-east coast franchise would be returned to private ownership. And the consistently poor service which Dartford’s commuters have to endure from Southeastern, makes public ownership an attractive proposition.
It was right to focus on fairness and opportunity as the mainstay of Labour’s message. I was proud to stand on a ticket which proposed proper apprenticeships for all school-leavers, raising the minimum wage and giving low paid workers greater security. After all, during the election campaign, the Conservatives also proposed raising the minimum wage, extending free childcare and pumping £8bn extra into the NHS: so hardly exclusive policies of the left. But where I think Labour went wrong on policy were the mixed messages its manifesto gave to the electorate:
Business: Labour was promising to cut rates for small businesses. I was able to use that as a key message for offering help to struggling local businesses in Dartford’s town centre. Yet, many people with small businesses in Dartford don’t work from an office. They’re on the road in a van, running an internet company or based at home. Corporation tax hits them. But on cutting corporation tax for small businesses, Labour was silent.
Taxation: when Labour announced plans to end non-dom status, the reaction across the media and the country was favourable. It was also right to talk about introducing a lower ten pence rate of tax. However, many voters were unsure as to whether they would lose the proposed increase in tax free allowances – a popular move under the last coalition government. And even if most of us will probably never earn such income, proposing a return to a top rate of tax of 50 pence for anyone earning over £150,000 undoubtedly risked creating the image of a high tax and spending party again.
Economy: like it or not, many voters on the doorsteps in Dartford had bought the coalition’s line that Labour had messed up the economy before 2010. When Labour lost office five years ago, it simply didn’t do enough to acknowledge that spending was high before 2010, to explain why and to challenge the Conservatives: ie that the alternative was to let the banks collapse. Trust in politics does really matter, and it seems to me that without an apology and recognition over their mistakes, voters weren’t ready to forgive Labour yet.
Housing: the growing housing crisis is one of the most important issues facing our country and it was right that Labour made it one of our six pledges. Many people in Dartford can’t afford the price tag on new developments and are facing escalating rent and insecurity in the private rented sector. I was proud that Labour proposed doing something about this – Germany has a much more stable rental market and better standard of housing. But what Labour failed to acknowledge is that an increasing number of people -- and potential Labour voters – have been putting their money into property to supplement a poor pension. I met many in Dartford – older voters with grown up family, postal workers, couples. None would consider themselves rich. But Labour’s emphasis on solely helping Generation Rent, without acknowledging that many potential Labour voters are also potential landlords, alienated some voters.
UKIP: Labour has been ignoring the threat of UKIP to its vote for far too long. It is time to wake up to that threat. UKIP doesn’t just take votes from the Tories. The result in Dartford, and many other similar constituencies proves that. In Dartford, Tory voters, perhaps galvanised into going to the polling stations through fear of a Labour-SNP dominated parliament, came out in their numbers. But the "soft" Labour vote, or former Labour voters, seemingly turned to UKIP. Just and unjust concern over immigration was certainly a factor: time and time again I would be told by former Labour voters – “you lot let them all in”.
But it wasn’t just immigration that attracted former Labour voters in Dartford to UKIP. Many said to me on the doorstep “I used to be Labour but not any more mate – Labour doesn’t represent people like me anymore”. However you wish to define social background, many people still see themselves as working class, and no longer feel that Labour represents them. There’s a perception that the Labour party is now dominated by a middle class London elite and that’s something we need to address, and urgently. To many people who vote UKIP, it’s a chance to stick two fingers up to the ruling elite and say “none of the above”. There’s a crisis of disconnect between the Labour Party, its once core vote, and what the party now represents. Nationally, Labour will now be going through another review and leadership contest. I am convinced that one of the most important things the party should do is talk to as many former Labour voters as possible about why they now see UKIP as the party most closely representing them.
The background of candidates
And that brings me to the final important point. In order to reconnect with lost Labour voters, we urgently need candidates with a greater variety of social backgrounds. There is a justifiable perception that the party has too many career politicians: too many candidates from legal backgrounds, from think-tanks or who’ve solely worked in Westminster. We desperately need care-workers, teachers, and nurses in parliament. But that won’t happen without support for all our candidates. To stand for parliament it has cost me several thousand pounds in unpaid leave and personal costs. How can someone from a low paid background afford to stand for election? They can’t, without proper help from the national party. We should stop putting all our resources into key seats, and instead create a financial fund to support all aspiring candidates.
I will support the candidates for leader and deputy who best address the issues I have outlined above.
Politically, interesting and worrying times are on the horizon for our country: the rise of nationalism north and south of the border, further cuts to public services and a looming EU referendum. But let’s not forget that although Cameron now has a majority, that majority is small. A week is a long time in politics, let alone five years.
Political fortunes change and they will change again in Dartford and many other constituencies like it across the south of England. Of that, I’m sure. And when the time comes, we must be ready to capitalise. But we must first learn from our mistakes in 2015, change our approach and reach out across the political spectrum.
Labour’s 2015 Parliamentary Candidate for Dartford.