Five lessons from the race for the West Midlands.

Defeat is the toughest teacher. But unless Keir Starmer confronts Labour with tough truths in Brighton, defeat is what we face in the election still to come.  

I learned the hard way. In my May race for the West Midlands Mayor, we made progress to be proud of. Our sheer, raw vote tally moved up 14%. A large step, yes. But nowhere near enough to crack the Tories’ cementing of the Right.

What is true for the West Midlands is true for Britain and that’s why five lessons must now be gripped. 

  1. Our strategy can’t simply be ‘rebuild the Red Wall’ – or ‘conquer Southern Discomfort’. It’s both. It’s time for a 45% strategy. 

For understandable reasons, the media is obsessed about whether Keir Starmer is winning back the ‘red wall’. But go back a few years, and the question was very different; it was called Southern Discomfort and described our inability to win in the south. The truth is that we need to win seats in both the north and south. 

LIAM AND KEIR CAMPAIGNING IN WALSALL

In fact, if we look at the seats where we stand the best chance – the constituencies where the Tory majority over Labour is under 6,000 but the Remain vote was over 40% – we see that twenty of these seats are in the Midlands, East of England, London, South East and South West. There’s another eight in Wales. All told, just 16 of these seats are in the North East, North West and Yorkshire.

ConstituencyNameRegionMajority > Labour 
1High PeakEast Midlands590
2GedlingEast Midlands679
3Derby NorthEast Midlands2,540
4LincolnEast Midlands3,514
5Northampton SouthEast Midlands4,697
6BroxtoweEast Midlands5,331
7Wolverhampton South WestWest Midlands1,661
7WatfordEast of England4,433
8Norwich NorthEast of England4,738
9IpswichEast of England5,479
10KensingtonLondon150
11Chipping BarnetLondon1,212
12Chingford and Woodford GreenLondon1,262
13HendonLondon4,230
14Cities of London and WestminsterLondon5,425
15Hastings and RyeSouth East4,043
16Reading WestSouth East4,117
17WycombeSouth East4,214
18StroudSouth West3,840
19Truro and FalmouthSouth West4,561
20Filton and Bradley StokeSouth West5,646
TWENTY OF THE MOST WINNABLE SEATS FOR LABOUR (REMAIN VOTE > 40% AND TORY MAJORITY UNDER 6,000) ARE OUTSIDE THE ‘RED WALL’

This has big implications for the way we prioritise contact with voters. In the West Midlands mayoralty race, we prioritised four groups for contact;

  • Core Labour, who were very likely Labour supporters, as identified by voter ID in 2019, 2017 and 2015 and Labour scores. This was the bedrock of our vote.
  • ‘Core Turnout’ who were very likely Labour supporters but had a patchy voting record. Again their voter ID was from 2019, 2017 and 2015 and Labour scores.
  • Likely Labour-Lib Dem and Labour-Green switchers. Highly likely to have voted for both Labour and one of the other two parties in past elections, and often middle-class, home-owning families, young professionals, students and renters/owners.
  • And, Labour-Tory/Brexit Party switchers, who were highly likely former Labour voters who typically left us for the Tories or Brexit Party in 2019 and more likely to be middle-aged.

In retrospect, our strategy of trying to connect to and turnout these voters was faulty because a lot of our data was pretty old, and predated both the Brexit referendum and 2019 election, and second, we were less focused on actually trying to switch voters away from the Conservatives to Labour. In a sense, we were aiming too low. But ultimately, this task of persuading former Tories to vote Labour is the only way you can really win a General Election. We have to aim at winning 45% of the electorate – not 35%.

This has two big implications.

First, it means adapting our coalition as Britain has changed.

One story makes my point. I wanted to do a manifesto for white van man and woman – the self employed plumbers, sparkies, chippies, plasterers, painters and decorators. I started working life driving white vans. I love them. And out in Northfield one night, I met a self-employed builder who’d lost £20,000 because he didn’t qualify for any of the government help last year. Yet our plan would have helped him. David Hallam and Jake Sumner drafted a brilliant little press release which declared ‘Local tradespeople will see their businesses boom if Liam Byrne wins next week’s West Midlands mayoral election. They will be a core part of his plans to bring back industry to the region’. We pointed to our ambitions to bring back industry, use a big retrofitting programme for 1.2 million homes to drive business to local tradespeople, push public procurement into buying local, and fighting for the rights of Excluded UK. We set the stage to launch it with Anneliese Dodds. Now, I knew it wasn’t going to splash the papers, but I wanted to make a point; that it was time for Labour to start connecting to workers and families, like the self-employed, who need Labour-shaped solutions.

Launching our white van manifesto with Anneliese Dodds

But guess what? 

How many Labour members are white van drivers? I nagged for weeks, but no-one could find one. Eventually I rang a friend of mine, who was both a councillor and a plumber in Sandwell and twisted his arm to come to Birmingham. And with Anneliese Dodds, we made a lovely little film in the rain. But here’s the big picture point: in the West Midlands there are 100,000 people who work as contractors or from vans. That’s one in 12 of the West Midlands workforce. How could the party of labour not focus on their needs? Especially, because at the next election, they’ll be more self-employed workers than public service workers.

But, this isn’t the whole story because we also have to fix our non-working class problem. In some of the media debate, there’s an odd argument about whether Labour has a ‘working class’ problem because we trail amongst social class C1 and C2. But this misses the big picture. Amongst all working age adults, Labour has a narrow lead. But amongst the over 65’s we lose the popular vote by over 3 million. A third of the Tory vote is over the age of 65. Given we’re an ageing country, we simply cannot win unless we improve this position.

If we look at the challenge at a constituency level, things are very clear. Thirty five of the seats where the Tory majority over Labour is under 7,000 have a higher than average number of pensioners. Winning back at least a portion of the ‘silver vote’ is mission critical to winning an election and aiming at 45%. The grey wall not the red wall is our bigger challenge.

2. Stop the policy ’til we get the story straight. 

I love policy. I could discuss it all day. I drove my team bananas with our policy-driven story making each week. They were often too polite to tell me they thought it was a waste of time. And to a degree they were right. Because the media is now less interested in policy than at any time I can remember. They just don’t cover it. Today, a good story beats policy every time.  

I’d been trained to do story-led news in the new Labour years. You take the issue of the moment. Analyse it. Crunch the numbers. Figure out the proverbial five point plan and bang it out. We did this upto two-three times a week. Using pharmacies to vaccinate. School computer shortages. Gigafactories. Green manufacturing. Ten page letters to the Chancellor with comprehensive economic recovery plans. Support for veterans. 

We were nothing if not creative. But the media just wouldn’t pick it up. It was soul destroying. TV news was wall-to-wall Covid and the regional papers were written by about four or five people, some of whom were viciously hostile and some of whom were actually based in London. And so we’d be reduced to pushing our short films out on Twitter and Facebook.

Now that looked busy. Activists liked the energy, the tempo, the leadership. But it just didn’t break the local sound barrier. And as we got into the campaign my opponent Andy Street literally stopped doing stuff on telly. And so the BBC wouldn’t cover us because it’d skew their balance. Hustings gave us some chance to air the argument. The BBC at least organised a West Midlands hustings – albeit in a warehouse in Salford – but even our key local paper, Birmingham Live was reduced to wasting most of its precious hustings trading in lobby gossip rather than getting into any specific ideas. It was beyond banal.

Now that said, what Labour lacks today is not ‘stories’ – but a special kind of story; what’s called a strategic narrative. A strategic narrative is a morality tale that says who you are as an organisation. Where you’ve been, where you are, and where you are going. How you believe value is created and what you value in relationships. It explains why you exist and what makes you unique. For some years now, thinkers have argued strategic narrative is the key to soft power.

At the beginning of the new Labour years we actually had a short sharp debate on exactly what our story should be – and rewrote clause IV.

We will not make progress until this is sorted. In a world of spiralling inequality, our Clause IV – the definition of our aims and purpose – doesn’t mention inequality and says precious little about tackling climate change. So our challenge feels like we often cannot see the wood for the trees of Labour’s opposition. We see day by day the small notes of disagreement entailed in ‘constructive opposition’ but we cannot see the big picture because the big picture is just a bit too foggy. The result is our opposition doesn’t cut through as it could because the different attacks don’t reinforce a larger legend. A strategic narrative turns communications upside down. Instead of opposing everything, or chasing the issues of the day, we look strategically for the stories, issues and policies that help us communicate the big picture of what we’re trying to say.

Now as it happens, we felt in the West Midlands that we did develop exactly this kind of narrative. Our young digital organiser, the brilliant Alex Aitken developed a film that coupled a nostalgia with the region’s past with a vision for the future as a green manufacturing powerhouse. We didn’t eschew nostalgia. We embraced it. But we weren’t trapped in it. We used it a trigger – our ‘once upon a time’ – to tell a story about what could be; what I summarise as ‘build our future with the pride of our past’. We deliberately chose our slogan not as ‘build new industries’ but ‘bring back industry’ because we wanted to connect to the emotional sense of loss that so many of us feel about the decline of manufacturing that once made us the workshop of the world. It was by far and away our most successful film – but we simply didn’t have a national story or message that rhymed or reinforced what we were trying to say in the region.

3. Culture wars can be our friend – if we bring the best of our culture to the fight

We know a key part of the Tory strategy will be to perpetuate a sort of culture war on ‘wokeness’ in an attempt to divide us from traditional voters. It’s tedious but true.

Today, the ranks of the Conservative parliamentary party are packed with ‘Podsnap patriots’. Like Dickens’ eponymous hero of A Mutual Friend, too many of their MP’s are well satisfied with most things, and, above all other things, with themselves. Lots feel other countries are “a mistake” and foreigners “unfortunately born”. As John Le Carre once put it, they’ve never travelled far enough to know the difference between self-interest and national interest. But they will now unveil all manner of brittle initiatives, sound bites not strategy, decked out in union jacks, saluted as the patriotic fruits of our newfound independence and featured in glowing terms on the front page of the Daily Mail. Behind the arras, the upper-class jobbery will proliferate while a tolerance of incompetence is led by a Cabinet of mediocrity. The pinnacle, the beacon, the deep core of the British state will be a Cabinet of the under-whelming. Inspiring stuff.

But the key to avoiding this trap is to be a hell of a lot clearer and prouder about the culture that gave birth to the Labour Party in the first place; the culture of compassion, cooperation and mutual aid that animated the trade unions and coops of the 19th century which in turn gave rise to the Labour Party. The Labour brand has been damaged by recent years. We’ve been hit hard by what’s known as the ‘dealignment’ of voters, the withering of age-old affinities. There are fewer partisans in our corner these days, and that’s hit us hard.

But, our values, the values that gave birth to the Labour Party are alive and well in Britain. We saw them everywhere during the pandemic. In many ways the community spirit got us through the worst of moments before the vaccine arrived. In the Labour Party, our basic instinct is to look after each other. It’s the fountainhead of much of what we believe. And it’s been there right through our history. 

EVERYWHERE YOU GO, YOU CAN FIND LABOUR PEOPLE MUCKING IN TO HELP OTHERS

EP Thompson once noted that it was the words of Isaiah 41:6 that adorned the first banners of trade unions and coops; ‘They helped everyone his neighbour and everyone said to his brother, ‘be of good courage’. A century later, Clement Attlee, after his time in East London at the end of World War One, was writing books called The Social Worker. If you’re a socialist, you believe in society, and you are therefore a worker for society, or as we say more often these days, a community. Labour is the community party. That’s why as a campaign, we put so much emphasis on a culture of social action; it’s not something that can or should be outsourced to ‘community organisers’. It’s something that every Labour leader should lead. It is intrinsic to our culture, our history, our soul. We should talk about it and campaign about it. Not simply because it will win us votes – though it will because the Marcus Rashfords of this country will always out-class the Priti Patels. We should do it because it’s who we are.

4. Radical is good. Plausible is better.

In the aftermath of 2015, Ed Miliband’s strategy was been condemned for being too, well ‘retail’. The ‘Edstone’ of infamy came to be seen as the nadir of a plan to entice voters with a sort of ‘vote Labour and get a microwave’ approach. It’s why we have to have a narrative first, and policy second. We have to start with a vision of what a good life under a Labour government will look and feel like. And then we do the policy. But typically a challenge quickly follows: is it radical enough? Can I be more radical than you? Everyone in the Labour Party thinks we need radical policy. Even Tony Blair. This is understandable because so much needs to change.

But, what we rarely debate is: is it plausible? 

Will voters believe we, the Labour Party, are capable of actioning the stuff we say is needed? As it happens, plenty of radical policies are plausible. Voting for Brexit is pretty radical, but people believed it was possible. But there is literally no point being radical if voters don’t believe a word of it. They won’t let you near the levers of power. Voters are now deeply cynical both about politicians’ ability to tell the truth, and worse, their ability to actually change anything.

In our focus groups, I wanted to explore this. So I insisted we do a little exercise that asked voters to rank what was a priority – and what actually sounded plausible.

After a general election campaign where we were roundly attacked for promising ‘pie in the sky’, I wanted to get a sense of both what people thought was a high priority and what people thought was plausible. The results were fascinating.

People thought that manufacturing, policing and support for young people were both a high priority and areas where plausible offers could be fashioned. But people were far more sceptical that anything could be done about the ‘environment’ in the round, transport or support for self-employed and SMEs. Fixing the housing crisis fell somewhere in the middle. Old language that harked back to the past like ‘Bobby’ or ‘new deal’ simply met a wall of cynicism. There was no market for partisan attacks or unrealistic claims like ‘100%’ or ‘job guarantees’.

I would agonise a lot about whether our ideas were clear enough. Were our policies too theoretical? Too complex? Were they credible? I’m convinced that the way we frame things – and combine things – has a critical bearing on whether we’re believed. At first, we ran on ‘jobs, jobs, jobs’. But how many believed (a) Labour and (b) a mayor could do much about this? We’d have been more plausible running on manufacturing right from the start, a belief in which many voters see as there in Labour’s marrow. Voters are far more likely to hire the right people (and party) for the right task. Andy Street’s plan was far, far more modest than ours. We looked at it and just said to ourselves; is that it? But to many voters, it was probably more plausible than ours.

The hardest bit is then to make some choices about what we say and what we don’t. In truth, Labour’s appetite for unity is clouding our acuity. Sit in a manifesto planning meeting with Labour activists and you’ll soon find it’s impossible to leave anything out. So we end up with a message that’s so over-laden no-one can understand any of it. That challenge is more pronounced in today’s world of information overload. I tried desperately hard to boil down our pledges to seven. I should have had three. Or one. Mea culpa.

5. We have to fix the broken machine: half our problems aren’t ideological. They’re organisational

IN the wake of my defeat, I was talking to an old friend who asked me straight: was the defeat organisational or ideological? 

I have to say I think it was half and half. We’d built a unity in the party – thanks in no small part to the heroics of Jack Dromey, Gareth Snell and Cerys Way – but the campaign machine we inherited was well and truly broken. If anything Keir needs to be far blunter with the party about just how bad things had become. By the time we got close in on the election, we still had members of Labour Party staff briefing against me and the campaign.

Now, its possible that some of these staff were those who’d been openly telling councillors that they ‘had’ to support Salma Yaqoob during the selection battle. But, 12 months on, it said something that we still hadn’t managed to deploy an election fighting machine that was match-fit. And we were up against a Tory machine, that has money coming out of its ears.

At one point, I checked Andy Street’s donations in the 18 months up to £1.7 million. I couldn’t believe my eyes. They were outspending us five to one.

Traditionally, the way we conquer Tory money is with our doorstep army. We rarely see Tory activists on the doorstep – but lockdown destroyed our ability to compete. We had two hands tied behind our backs. What we could do is ring. But at best we had phone numbers for a tiny proportion for voters. Nor do we match the Tories’ digital prowess.

When push comes to shove, we can muster a first class ad campaign on Facebook. But the Tories have mastered the art of the drip, drip, drip of ‘community news’ – for which read ‘Conservative News’ – often spread unbranded in Facebook community groups with thousands of members. They are better digital warriors than us. By far.

Conclusion 

Politics in Britain has changed a lot in the last ten years. The combined shocks of the financial crisis, the Scottish referendum and the Brexit vote have shaken the kaleidoscope of old politics and given us new patterns. And right now those patterns work well for a nimble Tory party, flexible, pragmatic and ruthless; prepared to change as the times change. Yet now we face a dangerous decade. As a country. And as a party. Who amongst us, has any hope that Boris Johnson might lead us through the maze of choices ahead? A man who governs with word clouds, dead cats bounces and culture wars? A man determined to perpetuate the Supper Club conception of national leadership. This is no moment for a muddler – but a muddler in chief is what we have. Yet, unless Labour moves faster to learn the lessons of defeat this muddler in chief is going to remain prime minister. We need to step up the pace of change. Learn the lessons of our defeats – and our victories – faster. Change faster. Much is riding on our success. 

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